When Chad Hartigan started writing “Morris From America,” he had just come back from Germany, thinking it would be an interesting place to set a movie. Yet for the story of a 13-year-old (Markees Christmas) finding his rhythm for both his passion for rap and his life in general, after his father (Craig Robinson) moves them both to the sleepy suburb of Heidelberg following the death of the family’s matriarch, finding a language that was universal became something ingrained into the very fabric of the film, not the least of which was because he would be importing a fair amount of the cast and crew from the States. Though his words earned him a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award when the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it was Hartigan’s facility for crafting imagery that cut to the quick that was singled out by New York Times film critic Mahnola Dargis when filing her dispatch from the festival, noting that the writer/director “produces moments of tenderness and wistful charm, as in a scene in which Morris and the casually unkind older girl he likes share a bench in front of an elaborate stone fountain that suddenly erupts, creating a cascade that’s at once slyly sexual and a representation of Morris’s flooding emotion.”
“If I had complete control of everything, it might’ve erupted even more,” said Hartigan, grinning eight months later. “As it does, when you flip the switch, [the fountain] goes in a wave, but not all at once, but that’s all we could work with.”
It was more than enough. After directing two low-key charmers with the Los Angeles-set “Luke and Brie On a First Date,” in which a pair begin to connect with each other the less they feel burdened by any romantic expectations they have, and “This is Martin Bonner,” where a burgeoning friendship blooms in Reno between a recent parolee and a senior who decamped from his life on the East Coast to help prisoners with their return to the civilian world, there’s an exuberance to Hartigan’s “Morris from America” that feels as if he found another gear, just as if his protagonist discovered his boombox had a notch above 10. The film was inspired by the awkwardness of his own pubescent years, once seducing his bed pillows in place of the real girls he had crushes on and trying to emulate the West Coast beats of Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg and Warren G. while a million miles away in Cyprus as the son of Christian missionaries. However, in reinterpreting it to great comic effect, with Hartigan confidently showing how Morris’ bravado may be hiding his insecurity, the filmmaker’s own boldness at conveying the big emotions of being a teen with a fluid shooting style and a depth in each of the relationships he builds between Morris and his father, his tutor (“Wetlands” star Carla Juri), and the elusive Katrin (Lina Keller) who catches his eye at school, that make it so unmitigatedly joyful.
Following a festival run where it was common to see audiences leap to their feet, Hartigan spoke about laying the foundation for “Morris from America,” from when he used to be eager to entertain in front of the camera to hatching plans to go behind it, as well as using the experience of making movies to travel and how he scheduled the shoot to give his star Christmas, a discovery from YouTube, a chance to grow into the role.
It seems like you’ve made a point of working in different places with different collaborators. Why is that important to you?
Well, I’ll always try to keep my cinematographer and my composer, Sean [McElwee] and Keegan [DeWitt] – they’ve worked with me on all three movies and they’re very important to me, but I love the idea of never making more than one movie in the same city, using filmmaking as my ticket to exploring the world. It’s not necessarily about the people, but the experience. The thing I’m writing now takes place in Norway and I’ve never even been there, but I’m writing it there so I can go there. That would dictate that it would probably be all new people and I like meeting new people as well, but it’s a great opportunity you have with film to have new experiences.
Was this a story in search of a location or vice versa?
One of the very first things I knew was that I wanted to make a movie in Europe, and then I started thinking about these stories from my own adolescence that I thought would always make good scenes in movies, so I thought, okay, coming-of-age movie in Europe.
It’s been interesting to see the progression since “Luke and Brie on a First Date” where, at least superficially, you’ve moved further away from characters that resemble yourself, but they’ve been just as personal films.
Yeah, “Luke and Brie” is literally something that happened to me, then “Martin Bonner” and “Morris From America” are different in that they started from something in my own life and then turned into other things, and there was a very conscious decision in between to try doing that more. That felt like the right way to approach stories – start with something that you knew was true and authentic and challenge yourself as a writer and filmmaker to find what’s universal about the experiences. All the movies are very personal for sure, but I like this new path of having characters that couldn’t be more different than me, but they’re the ones channeling my experiences.
You’ve said your approach to the camerawork actually grows out of the perspective of the character. Was it obvious to you how you’d film this?
Yeah, I thought about two movies a lot – one was “Moonrise Kingdom,” which I didn’t like [because] I felt Wes Anderson’s style, which is very precise and rigid, didn’t match those feelings of first love as I remembered them – that feeling of unpredictability in that anything could happen. I also thought about “Heavenly Creatures,” where Peter Jackson films it like it’s “The Lord of the Rings,” but it’s just these two girls coming of age. I loved the camera moves in that movie – it feels like it’s representing the emotional heights of what they’re going through, like the camera could do anything at any moment and like a kid, something catches your attention over here or over there – so it was always part of the conception that there would be a lot of steadicam and a lot of [other] techniques to give the feeling that anything could happen and it would be light on its feet.
The production design is also quite effective in describing a past and a present for Morris and his father at their apartment without overdoing it. How did that come about? Particularly the decorative cans strung up on the wall.
It was the production designer [Babett Klimmeck]’s idea for the cans and when she brought it up, I really liked it because I used to travel a lot when I was a kid and I would collect all the different Coke cans from all the different airplanes I was on with different languages for the Coke [to display] in my room. But for their apartment, we really wanted to get across that they were transitioning. They’re two guys who are new to the country, so it would always seem like their place was half-furnished, half-put-together. There’s like one or two things on the wall, but it doesn’t quite feel like a home yet. And with [Morris’] bedroom, that’s his one space where he can really show what he’s into – I wanted to have a lot of hip-hop posters – and what his past is like.
You actually posted on Twitter a letter you wrote to a girl when you were a teen, not unlike the letter Morris writes to Katrin, and you’ve said Morris’ rapping in the film comes from your own rhymes at that age. Do you actually keep this stuff around for inspiration?
No, for some reason, those [rap] lyrics stayed with me my whole life and I don’t have that notebook any more. But the letters came about because I told the girl from my own life, who’s basically the Katrin of my story, that I was writing a movie about that stuff when we were 13, 14 and she’s like, “Oh, I still have a lot of the letters you wrote me. Do you want me to see them?” She mailed me them and I couldn’t believe it. It was actually very helpful because one of the things I hate in movies about kids is that they just feel like mini-adults. They’re always wise-cracking and smart, so in my first draft, I was focused on making sure Morris felt like a real kid. I thought I had done a good job, but then I got these letters, and I didn’t recognize myself. Suddenly, I could understand why screenwriters do that because really in your mind, you think you’re one way, but when I saw the evidence of what I was really like, it was pretty drastic. I went and changed some stuff and made Morris more annoying in some ways – just like a kid.
You wrote a great piece for the Talkhouse about how you used to imitate Jim Carrey, which suggested like Morris, you were inclined towards performance. What was it that got you interested in going behind the camera?
I did a lot of theater in high school and I loved it. I wanted to be an actor, but I was only interested in acting for film. I wasn’t interested in stage, so when it came time to go to college, I went to film school thinking it might be a backdoor way into film acting – that way I’d avoid dumb acting exercises like where you’d pretend to be a tree or whatever my impression of theater school was going to be. But at film school, I fell in love with making movies and being the storyteller. After the experience of doing it and being surrounded by other talented people trying to tell stories, I haven’t looked back, although if friends ask me to act in things, I’ll do it.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Yeah, there was one day where we pretty much shot everything at the party where [Katrin] takes ecstasy and they dance and that was a very, very long day because there were five scenes in total we shot – two scenes that also took place at that party we filmed and got cut – and that venue was multiple stories, so we shot on the first floor, then the second floor, then the third floor and it was hot with lots of extras. We went a few hours over that day, but in general, the set was very relaxed and very civilized hours because working with kids, you can’t work more than 12 hours, so it was a pretty smooth shoot.
Is it true Craig Robinson only came in during the later part of shooting? His character’s relationship with Morris is such a big part of the movie, I wondered if that changed the vibe of the production.
Yeah, and it was deliberate. We scheduled the movie in a way to try and maximize the performance from Markees, which was a total wild card since he’d never been in a movie before, so the very first day of shooting, there was no dialogue. It was just a bunch of shots of him walking or doing something so that he could get comfortable with the camera. Then we started shooting his scenes with Katrin where he could be the most nervous in character, just in case he was nervous shooting it. Then as he got more comfortable, we started shooting the scenes he would be really loose in, and bringing Craig in towards the end, when he was hitting his stride really helped the movie. If you watch, you feel the way that Morris acts differently towards his dad than he does towards Katrin or even towards the tutor. There’s different elements to each, given how comfortable he was getting with the camera.
Making this wildly crowdpleasing film, what’s it been like to see it with audiences?
It’s also been fun to see what ihumor is universal – and what is very specific. I went to Korea where a lot of the stuff between Craig and Markees doesn’t get as big a laugh because the slang is so specific, but they were really into the story between Markees and Lena, whereas here [in America], most of the press and the reaction is built around the relationship between Craig and Markees. And in New York, there’s one line where Morris says, “Fuck the West Village” and that was the hugest laugh at and then at other places, it doesn’t get a laugh at all. It’s really cool because I traveled a lot with “Martin Bonner” as well, which was very gratifying and [after the screening] I would have a lot of interactions with people where they say nice things, but with this one, they don’t even have to do that. If I pop my head in, you can just hear them laughing and tell it’s going well. I understand why people make comedies now.