‘Hank and Asha’ is a sweet study about technology and relationships
January 22, 2013
In the film "Hank and Asha," screening in the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival’s Narrative Competition, the two main characters played by Andrew Pastides and Mahira Kakkar, respectively, find themselves in a relationship even though they live on opposite sides of the world.
Hank, a New York filmmaker, ironically has a hard time connecting with people. Likewise, Asha, a woman from India attending film school in Prague, feels isolated in a foreign country.
When Asha sees one of Hank’s documentaries, she is compelled to send him a video message, which starts a romantic journey of discovery.
Director, co-writer and producer James E. Duff, made the film with his wife Julia Morrison, who co-wrote and produced, and said the story idea came to them while they were teaching a film class in Prague.
The two talked with The Park Record during two separate interviews.
"We were in Prague struggling with the new culture and trying to figure out how to fit in," Duff said. "Even though we had Skype and Facebook access with our friends back home, it wasn’t very satisfying.
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"We both have a certain nostalgia for letter writing and used it in the past to connect with someone when we felt isolated and lonely," he said. "And we both liked getting letters in the mailbox."
The two brainstormed about how they could update that feeling for the digital age.
"We talked to a friend how had actually courted his girlfriend, who is now his wife, through video letters when he was traveling, and he asked if we wanted to see them," Duff said.
Duff and Morrison were surprised at how intimate these video letters were, and by intimate, Duff didn’t mean in a sexual way.
"We saw a lot of vulnerability was in these videos," he explained. "We thought it was interesting that he would show his wife around the hotel rooms he stayed in."
With the idea set, Duff and Morrison began to explore the theme of how people create themselves in videos and in general.
"These days, people are communicating a lot through digital media, but the question lingers whether or not those representations are true," Duff said.
"We choose how to express yourself and in a correspondence, there is a dynamic gap regarding what you’re projecting and what the other person is projecting," Morrison said. "So, there is an intersection of all things that cross."
That was a challenge because the filmmakers wanted to play around with the idea that the characters were feeling a strong connection in a mediated way.
"That can at times be nerve-wracking, exciting and scary for the people who are making that connection," Morrison said. "There are a lot of different emotions that play when you’re not in the same room with the other person."
That led to the exploration of how people show different sides of themselves to different people.
"When I take to my wife, it’s not the same as when I talk to my mom or sister and that extends into the video realm as well," Duff said. "Also, when making a video letter or message, there is a lot of thought and intimacy put into what you want to say and what you want to show. It’s different than a Skype session where you’re talking real-time."
The crux of those emotions came from the actors, he said.
"When we taught at this film school in Prague, we taught 75 students from 25 different countries and it was a fascinating experience," Duff said. "The country represented the most was India. So, Asha came from a mixture of several different students including one from Calcutta and one from Mumbai."
Duff and Morrison took cues for Asha from their student’s experiences of being in Prague and how they connected with others or how they felt isolated, Duff explained.
"Hank, on the other hand, is a struggling filmmaker in New York," Duff said. "Just being in New York, for him is isolating, and he is kind of stuck in his life and is desperate to feel a connection with someone."
To get those emotions, Duff and Morrison worked with Pastides and Kakkar daily.
"We would sit down with them and discuss each scene and talk about their objectives," Duff said. "Then we would talk about their own personal experiences in similar situations and then talk about what the characters’ situations would be."
After that, the filmmakers would shoot a few takes in different ways.
"Through that process, we found that the characters and the real people actually came together as one, if that makes any sense," Duff said. "It was a godsend to have them, because they brought so much of themselves to their parts."
The shoot took 22 days.
"We brought Mahira, who lives in New York, our cinematographer, Bianca Butti, to Prague during our school break and shot for 11 days," Duff said. "Then w got on a plane to New York and as soon as stepped off, we shot Andrew’s section in an additional 11 days."
The schedule helped tightened the scenes.
"We had to be more specific in our shoots and that made us focus more on what we were trying to achieve," Duff said. "After a shoot, we would talk to the actors about the next day’s shoot and what we wanted, so they had the night to think about it. It was a wonderful, collaborative experience."
The editing process was another step in making sure the actors connected with the audience.
"We had a lot of material to work with, because we shot each scene in a lot of different ways," Morrison said. "We put the film together at first with everything we shot and it was longer than anyone would want to see. So, figuring out what to use within the material became an interesting process."
Morrison and Duff had to find a way to create chemistry between two people who aren’t in the same frame with each other.
"There are glances or flash scenes from one character to the other and that became the heart of how they connected," Morrison said.
Also, when creating that bond, Morrison said she and Duff didn’t want the style of the film to distract from the story.
"We did play around with shooting the film on cell phones and other techniques to make it rougher around the edges," she said. "But in the end, we didn’t want the audience to get too caught up in the mechanics of the video messages. So, we focused on the story about these two people who take a risk and make a connection through an unusual technical filter."
Duff wants the audience to feel the emotion and find ways to share it with others.
"You know when you’re riding a subway and you make eye contact with someone and then never see that person again? Well, we hope people will come out of the movie and want to take a chance and not just make eye contact, but engage in a conversation, because, who knows, things can magically happen," he said.
"Hank and Asha," one of the films in Slamdance’s world and narrative competition category will have its final screening on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the Treasure Mountain Inn screening room, 255 Main St., at 7:40 p.m. It will be screened with the short, "Fireworks," by Victor Hugo Duran. Tickets are available at http://www.slamdance.com.