A man clearly on the purist end of the creative process, Barry Hunt is one of the leading forces behind Oregon’s Sowelu Ensemble, a theater group filled to the brim with artistic vision and talent. His recent achievement: taking on the role of director in the realm of feature film with The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule, a post-apocalyptic, metaphorical affair with a tribal touch. Based on a script written for the stage by Tania Myren decades prior, Anse and Bhule is a more unconventional and story driven approach to independent film, with Sowelu’s team very much behind it and devoted to bringing the vision to life. Barry provides his valuable time in answering a few questions regarding this process and what Sowelu is all about.
When did you get your start in theater and film? What inspired you to go about it?
I had always been attracted to performers and performing. I loved being deeply moved by a singer or a film. I looked to film for a private emotional release even as a child. I have worked as an actor in the theater since I was a teen. Working in film came much later. Already in my late career, a director by then, and through the training ground of our theater company, I was lured into film. We train artists of all ages and there came a period when many of our younger artists, teens mostly, said they planned on being film actors. Ok, so we adapted our training a bit to help with that goal, helped a few young filmmakers get started and eventually found them returning to our summer acting camp after attending some of the best film schools in the country. When asked why, they said film school taught them how to make films but not how to act for the camera or direct actors with depth for the screen. We took on that challenge in our classes and mentored one director, Aaron Katz (Gemini), through his first few features. (Dance Party, USA, Cold Weather, Quiet City) He still works in a similarly collaborative process and even with some of those young artists from that time. He works with Keegan DeWitt to this day. Through that experience, I realized we had inversely learned how to make and distribute films.
The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhuleoriginated from a Sowelu Theater Ensemble project. When and how did Sowelu originate? What is its focus?
Sowelu was founded in 1998. We were a group of like minded artists branching off from another ensemble. Sitting at the table for our first discussion was Lorraine Bahr (Margarette in the film), Michael Fetters (Persephone’s father in the film) and actress Jordy Oakland. We had all worked together several times and found common interest in process over product. We set out to create an ensemble driven company that focused on collaboration as a tool to bring depth to performances through intimate connection among the artists. The belief that artists working together over time, rather than nomadic freelancers, could tell more intimate stories. We train together in the Meisner technique and physical theater born from modern dance. This allows us to have truthful characters that can reach metaphorical notes through some physical abstraction. We produce both theater and film and offer our training ground year round to interested artists. Luke Heyerman is our Meisner instructor and author of several plays we have produced.
What have been the biggest obstacles to any of your productions so far?
Hmmmm. Money is often an obstacle. We operate at a very low budget. We are more interested in the art than raising money. Money is needed however and the greatest obstacle we faced was when our ensemble artists all reached their 30’s at the same time. We were not providing full time living wages. They needed adult lives, families, homes. This was a crisis. Our aesthetic was not achievable without a Sowelu trained artist. This was also the period where we realized we could make films. Though film takes years to complete, for the actor, it can be only a matter of days on set. Anse and Bhule has 42 actors of all ages but only the leads needed to be able to carve out extended time. We found a new avenue to make ensemble work with Sowelu artists.
Anse & Bhule approaches its post-apocalyptic themes in a very different way than some might usually expect from the genre and environment. Was this a deliberate decision? Were there any second thoughts as to whether or not a more thematic approach could be executed so well in practice?
We already knew this story when it was chosen as our first film. It was produced for the stage in our first season in 1998. The story is all Tania Myren. We were probably more attracted to the themes than to the genre. The genre though, is a great container for those themes. The vivid language of the play was also so visually stimulating that it cried out for the screen. Did we have second thoughts? Maybe more like fear. We knew the writing was strong and relished the creative process manifesting it in the real world, but we knew it would be unusual as a film. That is why it is so great that you all have discovered it. Though it won Best Cinematography at SFFF in 2015, it has been rejected by many festivals because it did not fit in, but those that have accepted it said it was because they had never seen anything like it. That is awesome and also scary when you are looking for an audience.
What was it that made you pick a post-apocalyptic theme for this project in particular? What does the the concept mean to you?
Since the play came to us fully formed, we where attracted to it being post-apocalyptic more than chose to make it post-apocalyptic. As far as Tania choosing, she didn’t really, it just was- she has said that she first heard the voice of Bhule saying Carkin’, and then- Anse answered him and she could see them in her head and they were dressed as she wrote in the play and in that landscape and they were clubbers, so- no real moment of decision. She has said “they showed me. I listened and watched.” I like the concept for several reasons. It was such an original take. The end of the world placed the characters in such tight circumstances that they had no way out but to face one another and their differences. And then the design challenge of manifesting a future world.
Anse & Bhule is certainly very thematic, but also very moody, and displays this not only in its musical score, but in its use of color throughout the film. It could almost be described as a “cinematic mood ring” of sorts. Have you ever utilized color so effectively before? How much of a creative decision was it to make so many shifts in mood and feel throughout the story?
My decisions are always rooted in the circumstances of the characters in the script. I want it to ring true. I will say our DP, Michael Pritchard, was instrumental in pushing for color decisions and also did our color correction. Art director Kyle Aldrich was also a key player in helping me discover the color pallet. One major aspect of this story is that the seer, Bhule, has visions. They are at varying times memory, prophecy and looking into the land of the dead. We are also in an altered atmosphere post-apocalypse. The major mood shifts are in Tania’s writing but we used color to help manifest the change in atmosphere and to organize the visions. We wanted you to have strong feelings but also know right away when you where in a vision or current reality, especially since they bleed together. Jon Clay’s score was also key in making that clear. We worked though those choices quite a bit in post.
The film’s cast did an amazing job with their performances, and they appeared to care very much about both their respective roles and the larger project itself as a whole. The effort and feeling of accomplishment was very apparent throughout. This is vastly different from many projects in which the audience can tell one or more performers is “self-aware” in the process and not taking it so seriously. What do you look for in your actors, and how do you manage to find and keep a cast so devoted to the creative process?
Thank you for appreciating the actors. Even though, for our company, the actors process is a core value, choosing and retaining actors is no small task. We look for talented actors who crave a deeper process. Who want to be around others deeply committed to realizing the project more than attaining a next credit or looking for the next job. So, the actors need to love working in our process. We have a signature company warm up, develop characters through lengthy physical workshops and train in the Meisner method. Our process is purposeful in creating an unselfconscious and fully connected actor. Our actors do work elsewhere but return for the unique approach that takes them deep into the character.
Was there one particular moment in your life that you knew film/stage production was something you wanted to pursue? If so, what was it?
When I was 16 I had my first small role in a school play. As I stood in the wings looking on to the stage and the performers, I fell in love with the perspective. With the lights overhead, it was so beautiful. I said to myself, even if I never had a role larger than this, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I did go on to study theater, got to play larger roles, and have stayed fascinated by the process throughout my life.
I understand that the Sowelu Theater Ensemble is a nonprofit organization. How different is this status in creating projects from the for profit production companies? Does this allow for more or less creative freedom?
Thanks for asking. The not-for-profit status is often misunderstood. A not-for-profit is considered a public benefit. An organization that provides a benefit to its community considered valuable by its community. A local arts or education organization, a charity, a church, a service organization. Thus it is exempt from federal taxes and the community donors qualify for a tax deduction. This also means the organization cannot make a profit. That does not mean it is poor. It can have funds, pay people wages, even own property. But what might be considered a “profit” must be re-allocated to the mission of the company. Meaning more projects or more educational offerings. In that, we do not own Sowelu, we manage it for the benefit of the community. I recommend getting good lawyers to help decide what is best for you. We had great lawyers who assisted us (Pro Bono) in developing the organization, teaching us about the laws and again helping us understand bringing film into a not-for-profit organization.
As far as artistic freedom being a bi-product, yes. Our stake holders are donors not investors. They are not looking for a dollar return on an investment. They understand any funds we generate from the project will go back into our mission. The work is the end goal. This allows us to take risk. Hopefully risk that produces good work for the community. Being quite small also provides us even greater ability to take risk on worthy but maybe more unusual projects. Even larger not-for-profit theaters feel some need to play it safe to keep butts in the seats and cover operating costs.
What can we expect from you and Sowelu in the future?
I will be directing Tania Myren’s newest stage play in the fall and am associate producer this summer on Daniel Hill’s (Bhule) feature directorial debut of a screenplay he wrote called Beth and Jeremy. Executive Producer Pierre Kiecolt-Wahl. Michael Pritchard will be his DP. We have a screenplay in development by Luke Heyerman that I hope to direct. My second feature is completed and won Best Drama and Best Actor at the OIFF 2016. The Lower Rooms by Eliza Anderson is the story of a Tibetan refugee and a teenage girl. A unique drama in a very different style than Anse and Bhule. I co-directed with Nathan Wilson and co-produced with The Narrative, owned and operated by Nathan Wilson and Tyler Warren (DP.) I can share the trailer here.