Running Towards Fear: Talking to Writer/Producer Kristin Hahn

When Mark Rozeman talked to writer/producer Kristin Hahn, he didn't know they'd share a weird karmic connection...

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Running Towards Fear: Talking to Writer/Producer Kristin Hahn

Producer/writer Kristin Hahn is a bit of a jack-of-all trades. Having grown up with a singular desire to make movies, Hahn attended film school at USC while simultaneously working as an assistant on the final season of Cheers. A subsequent meeting with up-and-coming actress Jennifer Aniston led to her becoming the TV and film star’s producing partner, helping to form the celebrated production shingle, Plan B.

Though primarily recognized for producing such films as The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Departed and Cake, Hahn won early accolades for co-directing (with Shainee Gabel) the 1997 road trip documentary, Anthem. She also spent time dabbling in non-fiction, with such books as In Search of Grace, a memoir about her cross-country exploration of faith across the United States.

Hahn’s newest venture is her production company, Hanhscape Entertainment. One of the first projects under this banner is the romantic dramedy, Tumbledown, starring Rebecca Hall as the widow of a recently departed folk musician and Jason Sudeikis as a writer looking to pen the definitive book on her late husband.

Paste hopped on the phone to talk Tumbledown with Hahn, as well as her personal producer philosophies and strange, twisting karmic connections.

Paste: In the film industry, a producer is a job that has a very flexible group of attributes. If you were to characterize yourself in terms of how you fit into the creative process how would you do so?
Kristin Hahn: I would say I’m kind of like a parent. If my movies are children, I’m a hovering parent. I usually am there [from] the very inception [of the project] to the bitter end. That’s kind of my preferred way of producing. Occasionally, I’ll participate in a project more midway through and just help develop a script or cast it and be on-set for part of the film. But the kind of producing I love is really from inception to completion of release and being a part of every step of the process.

I love working with writers. That’s probably my favorite part of the process. I’m a writer myself and I respect writers so much. I love the development process and giving them, frankly, a safe space to go through the process and the steps of writing and being vulnerable. I think if you give writers a workshop-type environment—where there’s no wrong or bad draft and it’s all part of getting where we need to get—you get the best work out of them for sure.

Paste: If you can, give me a bit of the timeline on Tumbledown. Was that a project where you were there from the inception?
Hahn: I was there from the beginning in that it was already a written script that I had read and then developed with [writer Desi Van Til] and [director/co-writer] Sean [Mewshaw]. Desi had been working on it for a while. She sent it to me and I wasn’t in a position where I felt I could take on a first-time directing project at the time. That is, until I met with her and Sean, her husband. They were in Los Angeles for a trip and I met them for breakfast and fell in love with both of them and left agreeing to produce the movie, knowing it would be a process. We worked on the script together, did a number of drafts and started casting and looking for the financing. As with any first-time director, it’s a catch-22 of “you need a cast to get a financer, you need a financer to get a cast to take it seriously.” Since the script was very strong and Desi’s voice was so strong and her sense of humor was very unique, it captured the attention of Jason Sudeikis. Once Jason came onboard, he really committed to the project in a way that was unique to actors in that his career took off right after he signed on to our movie. His career blew up with We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses 1 and 2. He became extremely busy so we were waiting patiently for an open window of time and he stayed with us through a lot of offers. Then he finally got to do it and he was fun to work with and very collaborative and such a good sport, especially being out in the cold.

Paste: I’ve read about how the film had several starts and stops. Obviously for every movie made there’s probably two or three that get canceled or stalled for one reason or another. What made you decide this was a project you wanted to go all the way with?
Hahn: Honestly, for me, it always comes back to the material. It needs to be a story you feel committed to tell, despite whatever ups and downs may come. It can be a journey. I’ve worked on films that have taken a year from start to finish. To me, that is lightning fast. But most of the great stories that I’m drawn to tell are character stories and they take time. They take special handling. They come together and fall apart and then you have to put them together again. It’s a Humpty Dumpty effort. For me, when I read a script and I feel really moved and taken by the voice of the script and the theme, I commit fully.

Paste: This being a romance, it lives and dies based on the chemistry of its leads. You had Jason involved but how difficult was it finding his counterpart in Rebecca Hall?
Hahn: We had an actress onboard for a while but, once Jason’s window opened up, her schedule didn’t match so we had to recast that role. The first idea I had, I think, was Rebecca. We brought it up to Jason and he flipped. He loved that idea so much. What I thought was interesting with Jason and Rebecca working together is that Jason comes from this improv comedy background and Rebecca comes from a completely different background.
Paste: British stage, right?
Hahn: Yeah, so both of them brought something very different to the equation that raised the bar for each other. Rebecca got to be funny and play off of Jason, who’s so funny and an improv master. Jason got to get his drama chops going with Rebecca and they really held their own with each other. It was great to watch. We had fun shooting the film. We were laughing between takes and hanging out. But when the dramatic scenes happen, it was amazing to see Jason do his thing. I have to say, none of them gave us any bad takes, which is rare. It was a blessing because normally, in an independent film, you only have time for two takes. So, thank God we didn’t have to work things into the ground and say, “OK guys, we have ten minutes to get this scene.” Sometimes it would click immediately and they would nail it.

Paste: I wanted to go back a bit. When did you first decide you wanted to go into film? Were movies an interest of yours growing up?
Hahn: Yes! Growing up, watching movies with my mom was what we did. The time we spent together was really getting into movies. I remember being a teenager and just being so clear at 15 that I was going to move to Los Angeles and be in the storytelling business. I didn’t know how you did it or what the jobs were even called but I knew I wanted to make stories and affect people and be a part of this catharsis that I experienced watching films as a kid. So I moved here when I was 18. I didn’t know a soul and I ended up getting very lucky. I applied to film school and I had exactly one name of someone in the industry who I called. It got me one interview and that led to a job that kept things alive. So, while I went to film school and was watching these amazing films, I was working on the last season of Cheers. It doesn’t get any better than that. Just sitting and watching people at the top of their game doing the most incredible show. It still is the greatest classic comedy. It was a gift to have those two experiences simultaneously. From there, I got into documentary filmmaking and had a chapter of my life where I wrote non-fiction books.

Paste: What was your job on Cheers?
Hahn: I was an assistant to one of the writers. So my job was mostly just sitting there and learning. It was one of the best jobs on the planet and he was not demanding at all. I was like, “Seriously, what can I do?” Honestly, I felt like I had won the lottery in that I got to be a fly on the wall watching brilliant work.

Paste: If you had to point to a type of film you’re drawn to or a type of film you feel like is lacking in the current film market, what would you want to point to?
Hahn: I’m sure I’m part of the chorus that’s out there, but female-driven stories about interesting, complex women is always something we’re in need of. It’s something I focus on a lot in terms of what I develop. I think heroines for young women is something we’re really, really missing. Character-driven love stories that make you laugh and cry. They’re hard to categorize in simplistic terms. To me, that’s what a film like Tumbledown is. It’s a film that doesn’t get made enough in a marketplace where films are forced to identify themselves as one thing. The films I love the most are the films that are hard to define tonally. They’re more interesting and they make you think. They’re harder to categorize in a very good way. Try categorizing a Hal Ashby film today. For me, Tumbledown is an example of a film that takes special handling to get made and to get out there. I’m experiencing audiences seeing Tumbledown and loving it. For a lot of people, this is the kind of film they don’t see enough. Also, female-driven stories that aren’t blatant R-rated comedies. Otherwise, it’s a dearth of those kinds of female character films.
Paste: So you see those kinds of films as being difficult to produce in this marketplace?
Hahn: Obviously, independent films are being made with female leads and interesting female characters, but the more commercial version where a film makes an impact culturally—those are hard.

Paste: You mention doing a documentary earlier in your career. Is that ever something you’d want to return to?
Hahn: I do write as well. I write screenplays and I love writing and producing. Directing might be something I do down the line. In terms of documentaries: Yes! I would have been a documentary filmmaker for my career if I could make a living doing it. I love documentary films. It’s one of the most exciting forms of storytelling.

Paste: You’re currently writing the adaptation of Star Girl. Is there any status update to that?
Hahn: Yeah, we’re literally putting the pieces of it together now in terms of financing and casting. The script is written and we’re getting our team together. I love that story and that book so much. I hope we’ll get it off the ground.
Paste: Because you love it so much is that something that was harder to approach and adapt, since there’s this expectation you put on yourself?
Hahn: There is always fear involved in writing, I find. So yeah, when you’re dealing with a classic story it’s intimidating, but I have that gut connection to it strongly. I felt like I had to try. And what I’ve been doing with my career is running towards the fear instead of running the other way. Running towards the unknown and something you haven’t done before, that’s part of the business we’re in. You got to at least give it a try. I spoke to [author] Jerry Spinelli and told him my vision for the movie and what he thought of me doing it. He had some other things I’d written and gave his blessing. So I said I’d send him the script and not make the movie unless we got his stamp of approval. One of the best days of my life was getting his email after he read the script and said he couldn’t have imagined a better telling of the story on film.
Paste: That’s awesome.
Hahn: Yeah, it was one of those “frame it on the wall” emails! Obviously we want to do that book justice because it’s such a beloved book and has such a pedigree of readers from different situations, so the bar is high!

Paste: If you had to point to a project that you thought was the most difficult or came with the biggest learning curve, what would it be?
Hahn: I’ve talked about this before but, to me, being a producer means being attuned to the alchemy of the right time, the right people, the right way to tell the story or the best way to tell the story to the best of your ability and perception. The story that I’ve taken a lot of patience in terms of really knowing when the right time, right director, is this film that has a lot of amazing female characters in it. It’s based on a true story and it’s about one of the first all-female bands in America. It’s a project I worked on for a few years. It’s one of those films you don’t want to force. I’m not into forcing films to be made on my time. It doesn’t work like that. It’s about moving something forward every day and being attuned to the bigger picture and allowing it to unfold in its own good time. They each have their own timing in an interesting way.

That one is called The Goree Girls. Jennifer [Aniston] and I have given a lot of love to it and now we’re getting to the point where we’re able to cast it and set a production start date. But we don’t want to just make the film, we want to make the best film we can. I think that’s the case for all stories, but this one in particular is a period piece and, tonally, you need to right approach and the right casting.
Paste: Wait, that’s the group that did the prison circuit in the South?
Hahn: Yes.
Paste: I believe my grandfather was a doctor to one of the lead singers before she died.
Hahn: Are you kidding me?
Paste: I believe it was for Mozelle [McDaniel].
Hahn: That’s amazing! I don’t know if you ever read the story that the Texas Monthly put out. You would freak out because Mozelle is how [the writer] found the story. It’s so obscure because of the nature of the story. The women became famous in prison and were pardoned for their crimes and, as they got out, they would reinvent themselves. They did not talk about being in a band, they were not famous. They adjusted to regular life and never spoke of the past. Partly that was to let the Goree Girls that were still in prison, to not take leverage away from them—as well as just the shame of being in prison. But this was buried and Skip [Hollandsworth] went through Texas looking for some of the last remaining Goree Girls. The one he found was Mozelle in a rest home. She pretended to have Alzheimer’s and not know what he was talking about. Finally, he thought, “I must have the wrong person.” As he was leaving, someone at the retirement home said, “Don’t give up so easily.” He knew there was something to it. So he wore her down and she finally told him the whole thing. That’s how he wrote the story and that’s why we have it.
Paste: That’s so weird.
Hahn: You and I have a karmic connection!

Paste: Is there any other projects coming down the pipeline you’d like to mention?
Hahn: We just shot this very poignant film called The Yellow Birds that Jen and I are executive producing/godmothering and that I think will be a very powerful film. We’ll see that sometime this year.
Paste: Can I ask what it’s about?
Hahn: It’s based on a book by Kevin Powers and it’s somewhat of a memoir of his experiences in Iraq as a soldier. It’s really about the loss of innocence of young soldiers on the ground as well as family members back home. It’s about the price of war but told in a very accessible, poignant way in terms of the voice of the book that was translated into the script.

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