Interview: ‘Hours’ Director Eric Heisserer

Eric HeissererChris Whetstone 

Eric Heisserer is making a big switch. He originally was a screenwriter, penning the scripts for the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, the prequel to The Thing and Final Destination 5. He then moved to the directorial side with Hours, a tale of a father trying to keep his premature-born child alive during Hurricane Katrina. (Note: This interview was conducted before Hours star Paul Walker‘s tragic death on Nov. 30.)

What made you decide to go from writing to directing? How did this all get put together?

This movie stuck with me more than anything I’d written in the previous five years. It was an original story of mine, and it came from an emotional place. I could see the scenes in my head as I wrote them. By the time I finished the script, I think I’d come to the realization that I had to direct this, or else I’d never forgive myself.

Of course the hard part was convincing others I could pull it off, as a first-time director. But I was fortunate enough to meet producer Peter Safran, whose faith in me was as strong as his passion for the material.

What was it like being behind the camera? Was it easier to fulfill your vision since you also wrote both the story and the screenplay?

I think there is a distinct advantage for the director who is also the writer, because you have a history with the story, and you know the reasons why a scene, or a line of dialogue, or a wardrobe choice is on the page. I learned very quickly that being a director requires the ability to answer ten thousand questions a day. I knew the answers to more of them because I could recall why a choice was made during writing. Of course, I often overruled my own writing in favor of a newer, smarter choice in the moment. I often told members of the crew, “Don’t worry, I fired the writer.” There is a point at which you have to let go of the way the movie was written and embrace what tools and settings you have to shoot it.

How was directing Paul Walker, who is a pretty well-known name in movies?

Paul was a real blessing. Hollywood forgot to tell him stars have egos. He’s a hard worker, he’s humble, he’s earnest and polite — it’s just infuriating, really, because he’s so damn handsome you kind of want him to be a jerk in real life.

But what I appreciated most from my time with Paul was his patience. This film was on a brutal schedule and required insanely long days where he had to exhaust himself again and again, and he never complained. He was his own harshest critic, too. Often I’d get a subtle but strong performance out of him in one take and yet he’d ask to go again because he felt he could do better. And we would, because now and then he’d blow us away with a different performance.

Did you have any directors that you modeled yourself after in terms of setting up shots?

I pulled from at least twenty directors’ films as references when building the shots to HOURS. But really, when it came time to sit down with Jaron (my DP) and build the movie, shot by shot, we got in a groove where I’d talk about the way I wanted to feel in the moment, the things I wanted to emphasize or ignore or make dramatic, and Jaron would talk about how we could pull it off. He was a lifesaver by telling me, “Don’t focus on the ‘how’ of the shot or the technical details — that’s why I’m here. Just tell me what you want this scene to do.”

What was your biggest learning experience doing this?

Directing is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. I’m still not sure how I survived it. I don’t know how anyone does, really. I saw a photo of James Wan on the set of Fast 7 looking bone tired, and I realized the man has another fifty-plus more shooting days on the schedule. My theory is that it’s one of those jobs that’s both physically and mentally draining, so by the end of the day you feel like you ran a marathon and then had to take a MENSA exam in a cage over a pool of sharks. Your body and your brain are both wrecked, and then some sadistic voice reminds you, “Do it all again tomorrow.”

Were there any setbacks during the filming? What was the biggest challenge?

Oh god. The setbacks. All the time. They’re all a blur to me now. I’d say the biggest monster we had to deal with was the eighteen-day schedule. This was a movie that, in the strictest budget, was a twenty-four day shoot. We lost six shooting days due to a variety of obstacles, and so we had to get creative on the fly. I think the thing that saved my sanity the most was my ignorance of what couldn’t be pulled off. I went into some of those days telling everyone, “This will work, we can make it work, I know it.” And then halfway through the day I was thinking, “Holy crap, now I know why they were telling me this is a three-day scene!”

Do you want to keep directing/screenwriting or returning to screenwriting?

I will always be picky about the projects I direct versus ones I merely write, but I do feel like I’ve learned so much from the first time, I want to continue to hone my craft as a filmmaker and find my next project. But that won’t stop me from working purely as a screenwriter on other features.

When it came to the film crew, did you use contacts from previous films you had written or did Peter Safran have input on who would be helping out, doing casting, etc?

For the key members of the film crew, I leaned on both my producer Peter as well as producer Dan Clifton and my director of photography Jaron Presant. I’m friends with Rian Johnson, who’d directed Looper in New Orleans, and I set out to gather as much of his crew as possible, since I’d heard stellar things about their teamwork and attitude. And I was fortunate enough to get quite a few of them.

What advice could you give to aspiring directors?

 My advice to aspiring directors: Write something. Just as my advice to aspiring writers is: Direct something. Learning firsthand what both of those jobs feels like will help you get so much better at both.