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Josh Hutcherson Says First Time Directing is ‘Daunting’ and ‘Satisfying’

Variety logo Variety 2/18/2017 Dani Levy
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In his new short film “Ape,” “Hunger Games” star Josh Hutcherson directed actors for the first time, including himself. His protagonist, Travis, is a young schizophrenic.

The short is part of “The Big Script,” an incubator series launched by Hutcherson’s company Turkeyfoot Productions, next-gen digital studio Indigenous Media and Condé Nast Entertainment, which took five scripts about adolescent or young adult protagonists and mentored the writers through the process of directing their own short film.

“We’re trying to find new voices. It’s that simple,” Indigenous Media co-CEO Jon Avnet says. “Wouldn’t this be an interesting way to get a script turned into a feature film?” For Hutcherson, whom Avnet calls “very talented,” the risk paid off. “Ape” is now being turned into its own feature. You can watch all the films on Condé Nast Entertainment’s digital video collection “The Scene.”

What excited you about the project? 

I’d read it seven years ago and loved and tried to make it, but it fell apart. I was just going to act in it. Thankfully, I called up the writer (Jon Johnstone) and no one had the rights, so I told him what we were going to be doing and he thought it sounded great. We collaborated immediately and quickly because we were up against the clock.

But you were happy to have it, right? You say you loved it. 

Oh, yeah. I’ve always dug cerebral, kind of bending-reality type movies, like “Machinist” and “Donnie Darko,” and this spoke to that as well as to issues with mental illness and sometimes a lack of empathy between families and how devastating it can be.

Why now get into directing? Why not in the future or in the past?

I’ve had a few opportunities over the years to direct and I’ve written a couple shorts that I was going to direct, but there was something about just being too overly ambitious and too young. It’s such a responsibility to direct a movie. It’s real leadership and with age, you gain some seniority and feel a little more grounded and confident in yourself. It was waiting until it felt right and this came across as a crossing point between those two factors: me always wanting to direct and now finally confident enough to do it, and this project sort of came in to my life. It was a great opportunity because I’d only wanted to do a short first. I didn’t want to dive into a feature full on. The mentorship that I got from Jon and Rodrigo (Garcia, co-CEO of Indigenous) and their team was really something that gave me confidence. They had my back.

What did Jon and Rodrigo do that helped you the most? 

They really always had me asking questions. They would pose a question and say, “ask yourself, does this part of the short need to be in there,” which was the most important question for us. There are a lot of things going on in a feature and translating that to a short is challenging, so they really kept me focused in on what was important and what I really wanted to tell. What was great about their style of mentoring — they would say, “we’re going to give you ideas, suggestions, ask you questions, but we want you to make your movie. So this is really an expression, but we want to help you realize that the best way possible.”

What have you learned as an actor that helped you when directing?

Since I was a kid, I’ve been surrounded by directing, filmmaking and every element that needs to come together on set to make a movie. When I was a ten years old and they told me I had to go home because I couldn’t work any more hours for the day, I would beg to stay on the set. If they didn’t know where I was, they always came looking for me in the camera trailer because I was with the camera guys learning about lenses and film and aperture, always soaking things up. I had endless, boundless curiosity, so I applied everything that I’ve learned over the years on set as director. It’s the culmination of all those experiences.

What was your favorite part of directing? 

Honestly, as an actor on set, I always love collaborating and problem solving with the crew. Finally, I was in a position where I could really direct how I wanted things to go and didn’t feel like I was out of place and speaking out of turn. I felt really comfortable and working with the team to make this project become a reality. Film is such a director’s medium. When I’m acting in something, I want to make the movie the director is trying to make. As much as I possibly can, I’ll give myself over the director, so to flip that position and be the one who is getting to create the overall story, tone, edits, music and everything, it was very satisfying. Now I’m full-on addicted to it.

What was it like directing yourself? 

It was challenging for sure. That was the thing I was the most nervous about going in, just because I love acting and directing so much and I respect both of them immensely, so to have to take on both simultaneously was daunting. I did a lot of prep for this and thankfully, because of the script that I had tried to make years ago, I really felt connected with the characters and had done some work on him already. I felt confident with that element of it. Other than that, a lot of prep with my DP to how we were going to shoot it. We watched a lot of movies together for inspiration, shotlisting heavily and he even came over to my house and we taped out the size of the rooms and put furniture in there to feel the space so we know how to move the cameras around. My team was also really professional and moved quickly which allowed me time to watch the playback and make sure I wasn’t screwing everything up as an actor.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to make movies for and about their own demographic?

It’s really important to feel represented. I’ve obviously read quite a few scripts in my life, and there’s a certain way that many writers, who are not my age and didn’t grow up in my environment, try to write a character that I connect with. It happens — there’s some great writers who do do that and those are the ones you fight to make. But most of the time, it doesn’t feel authentic. I think there’s a certain authenticity when you have young filmmakers and millennials coming up and trying to tell stories that they care about and connect with. It makes it more accessible for those audiences that we want to give good content to.

What are your plans for directing and creating your own stuff going forward?

I’ve written a couple of short films and I think after doing this one, it’s kind of given me a bit more of the confidence to dive into those. Also, we’re definitely going to try to push forward and make “Ape” a feature. This is a genre I really like, these very cerebral, psychological thriller-esque type things, but I’m also obsessed with the TV show “Girls,” so I would love take a swing at something a little more contained and personal like that as well. Plus, I have a TV show I’ve been developing with Indigenous for a while.

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