Director J.R. Hughto with Jessica Golden (Kate) shot by Sonja Kinski. Courtesy Independent Movie Supply Co.
The Slamdance Film Festival is well-known for showcasing flicks from first-time directors, but the festival is launching a new program this year called Beyond, which features films from directors with one film already under their belt. One of those directors is 34-year-old J.R. Hughto, whose sophomore film Diamond on Vinyl debuts at this year’s festival. The film revolves around the unusual life of a man named Henry (Brian McGuire). Henry’s fiancé, Beth (Nina Millin), leaves him after she discovers he has been secretly recording their conversations and sex life. As Henry tries to save his relationship with Beth, he meets a young, attractive woman named Charlie (Sonja Kinski), who becomes very interested in his bizarre recording obsession, and struggles to find her own identity as well. SLUG recently talked to Hughto over the phone about his film, as well as his thoughts on Slamdance and whether he prefers directing short or feature-length films.
SLUG: For first-time directors, Slamdance has become “the” festival to get your film screened at. Having already directed one film (The Thin Time, 2006), what are you looking to take away from this year’s festival?
J.R. Hughto: That’s one of the great things about Slamdance, is that you know going in as a filmmaker that they’re a home for filmmakers that haven’t had a breakthrough yet, or haven’t had an opportunity to really find an audience. That’s really made a big difference in terms of having a place that understands that, while I might know a few things about a few things, I really don’t know a lot of other stuff, and that’s where [Slamdance] comes in and is incredibly helpful and generous: By giving me lessons on how to do it, as well as a forum to try to start to find an audience.
SLUG: Another staple of Slamdance is the fact that films need to be under a $1 million budget. What was your experience like trying to come up with funding for Diamond On Vinyl?
Hughto: When I was thinking about raising money, a friend of my wife’s, who is a lawyer, was also raising money to go to Haiti and work pro bono for a lot of the victims of the earthquake there. Looking at that, and looking at what I was trying to do, I kind of felt like, even if it’s only $10 that someone donates to my film, I’d rather have that person donate that to my friend who’s trying to do amazing work. Since I didn’t feel like it was appropriate at that moment to ask other people for money with so many things going on, I just worked a lot of jobs, three or four at a time. At the time, I hadn’t really made a film yet that I felt like I had earned my way in terms of expecting other people to foot the bill.
SLUG: You’ve also produced several short films, and now that Diamond on Vinyl is complete, what experience did you enjoy more?
Hughto: I’m much more interested in feature films. I present every film as a problem to be solved, because there are things that I’m interested in and want to work out. And generally, with my shorts, they’re much more about working out something technical that I want to do. I find that by the time I’m done making the [shorts], I’ve kind of lost my excitement for them, because I’ve figured [the problem] out already. But with a longer film, there are just so many more variables, and it keeps me energized for the whole process.
SLUG: Where did the idea for the film come from originally?
Hughto: About four years ago, my wife was teaching summer classes on filmmaking to some young high school students, and one of her favorite students came in and was really upset. It turned out that [the student’s] father had found these risqué photos that she put up on MySpace, and her folks were really upset. But she couldn’t quite understand it, because of her youth, but also because all of her friends were doing it, too. So I started thinking, that before the Internet, we used to have this idea that if you did things like that, nude photos or whatever, you must come from a bad family or have issues or something. But now, it seems to be more about socialization, where everybody’s taking photos of each other, themselves, and putting it up online, and it’s quickly become a social norm. But what I was more interested in is figuring out why people do it and what’s to gain from something like that.
SLUG: Besides the script, I was also really impressed by the great acting in the film. What was the process trying to find actors who could take on a challenging role?
Hughto: When you write a script that has people talking to each other in rooms, you need a good cast. I knew immediately that my highest priority was to get a casting director, and I was introduced through some friends to Lisa Roth, who is really amazing. Our first meeting, I just told her that I don’t need names of famous people, but what I really need is people who are really committed and interested in some improvisation. When you’re kind of an unknown, like myself, having a casting director really gives agents and actors confidence that you’re serious and that you really do care upfront. Lisa just intuitively knew what I was looking for and that I really needed actors that could bring a good deal of warmth and empathy and [whom people could] relate to, because when you read the script, as you might imagine, it’s both weird and cold. Henry feels like an asshole cause he’s making bad decisions and he’s not incredibly likeable. But when I was writing it, I wanted to like all the characters and I wanted the audience to start to like them, even though they’re doing bad things.
Diamond on Vinyl premieres at the Slamdance Film Festival at Treasure Mountain Inn on Friday, Jan. 18 at 1:30 p.m., and there is a second screening on Monday, Jan. 21 at 9:30 p.m. For more information on the film, including the trailer, check out the film’s website at diamondonvinyl.net.