John Harkrider knows more about big-time money than most novice directors. As a young attorney for the powerhouse Wall Street firm Skadden, he helped put together multi-billion-dollar merger-and-acquisitions deals, and became intimately familiar with corporate ruthlessness. After several years of 100-hour workweeks and fat paychecks, Harkrider hit a wall and quit the firm.
The events surrounding that experience formed the basis for “Mitchellville,” his eerie, visually entrancing first film. Pic follows a troubled young lawyer (played by Harkrider) whose life changes when he decides to finally redeem his deceased mother’s gift of a flute lesson with an aging African-American jazz musician.
Harkrider — who trained as an actor in college and had been writing screenplays in his spare time — began production on “Mitchellville” in 2002, during a five-week break from the boutique firm he co-founded after leaving Skadden. Having no formal filmmaking experience, he eschewed traditional financing channels and decided to put up the film’s entire 35mm budget himself.
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“I didn’t want to go to people and ask them to invest in me,” Harkrider says. “I didn’t want the responsibility, and I didn’t want to lose any control. When you bake your first cake, you don’t want anyone in the kitchen with you.”
Harkrider learned as he went along, making script changes and re-shooting scenes over the course of two years, all the while keeping the film secret from his law partners.
An early cut of “Mitchellville” premiered at Cinevegas last year, where it took home the Special Jury Prize. The final version will screen in Sundance’s American Spectrum program.
“Whatever John had to do he handled well and without fancy,” says actor-musician Herb Lovelle, who plays the flute teacher. “He commanded total respect on the set — otherwise he couldn’t have gotten what he got. He also had the confidence to change the story.”
While Harkrider maintains his high-stakes day job, he hopes to make the transition into filmmaking full-time. “Given my current position, I have the luxury of waiting for the perfect opportunity,” he says. “Put another way, I am hungry, but not starving.”