This time last year, Chad Hartigan hit Karlovy Vary midway through an extensive festival tour for his soph feature “This is Martin Bonner.” Beginning at Sundance 2013 and only wrapping up at Poland’s Off Plus Camera last May, the warm, intimate character drama covered a lot of turf, but it was Karlovy Vary that made a particularly strong impression on the Los Angeles-based writer-director – so much so that he’s back this year as a juror, one of three in the fest’s Forum of Independents competish.
“Lot of international festivals have enthusiastic audiences, but this one in particular: Every screening is packed to the gills with such a young crowd, which was so rewarding for us,” says Hartigan. “I emailed Karel [Och, the fest director], and told him if he needed a juror or just someone to drive the cars around, I was happy to do it.”
Hartigan is a film believer in the advantages of the fest circuit; it was while traveling with “Martin Bonner” last year that he forged a number of relationships crucial to the development of his upcoming third feature, “Morris From America,” which he plans to begin shooting in Germany this September.
Much of the financing for the film is already in place, with contributions from Berlin’s Medienboard and German broadcaster Sudwestrundfunk (SWR); immediately after Karlovy Vary, Hartigan is bound for Berlin to finalize casting and locations.
It is the first international co-production for the helmer, who was born and raised in Cyprus, and based the script on his own experiences as a U.S. outsider in Europe. Centered on an overweight African-American child living in small-town Germany and falling in love with a local girl, it’s a project he describes as “part coming-of-age tale, part fish-out-of-water tale, but hopefully not reliant on the tropes of either genre.”
Hartigan’s stock has risen in the U.S. since “This is Martin Bonner” won the John Cassavetes Award at this year’s Independent Spirit ceremony. The prize is reserved for productions budgeted below $500,000; it’s indicative of his last film’s success that “Morris in America” is looking at a price tag well in excess of that limit.
Still, Hartigan knows his favored brand of low-key humanist filmmaking will never be an easy sell. “The Spirit Award certainly made a difference in the States, in terms of being able to meet with people about the next film or other up-in-the-air projects,” he says. “But while it opens doors, it also gets me into more meetings where people can tell me no.”
The festival circuit, he says, has no such downside. “At Off Plus Camera two months ago, a 17-year-old volunteer came up to me and said the film was basically about his life,” Hartigan remembers. “You make a movie hoping just anyone will want to see it, but you can’t expect that some kid in Poland will identify so strongly with your work. That’s the best part.”