When filmmaker Chad Hartigan watched his father Gerry move from Virginia Beach to Leesburg, Virginia for a new job five years ago, he wondered how someone in their 50s could settle into a new city and start all over again. He was concerned.
“I knew the most important thing in his life was his family,” Hartigan, 30, told me during an interview to promote his new independent film “This is Martin Bonner.” “That’s what he lived for day in and day out, so the idea of him being separated from that made me worry and wonder how he was going to cope.”
In “Martin Bonner,” Hartigan tells the story of fifty-something-year-old Martin (Paul Eenhoorn), who picks up and moves to Reno, Nevada where he begins working for a nonprofit organization that helps prisoners transition back into society. It’s here where Martin develops and unlikely friendship with Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette), an ex-con who isn’t quite sure what his next step should be when he is released from incarceration after 12 years.
During our interview, Hartigan and I talked about what he wanted audiences to learn from a character like Martin Bonner and how he didn’t allow his own non-religious beliefs to affect the faith-based soul of the film.
“This is Martin Bonner” was released on DVD Aug. 20.
How similar is the work Martin Bonner does in this film to the work your father was doing when he moved to Leesburg?
He worked for a similar company. My dad did more administrative stuff, but I wanted Martin to have a more hands on job in the movie.
So, how much of what happens to Martin are things your father experienced himself and how much is fictionalized?
It’s all fictionalized. All of it is made up, including the Travis character.
Did you know what your father was doing with his free time in Leesburg?
He does go to auctions. That element I borrowed. Otherwise, I’m not sure. He likes to watch documentaries and keep to himself.
Why did you set the film in Reno, Nevada?
I’m really familiar with Reno because that’s where my mom is from. It was a way to incorporate elements of my mom into the story. I have family there. Logistically, I knew [setting the film in Reno] could help us out. I borrowed a van from my aunt for the shoot. Being familiar with the city, I knew it was interesting and a fitting backdrop thematically for the story.
When you wrote the script, did you want the audience to feel like Martin was just trying to find things to do to keep busy or did you want them to feel like he was genuinely enjoying his life?
Well, I felt that most films that look at characters that age – especially Hollywood films – they’re mainly about how mundane and terrible their lives are. They’ve lost the joy to live they had when they were young. The movie chronicles their rediscovery of fruits of youth and life. But I felt that was a very condescending way to approach the subject matter. I feel like a lot of people, when they are that age, have lived long enough to know what they enjoy doing. To me – as a young person – it might seem depressing to imagine going to an auction and resell things on eBay or sitting at home eating a sandwich alone, but it’s not depressing to people who do it. They do it because they enjoy it. That’s what I was trying to get across in the film.
There’s a comfort there for them.
Yeah, I mean there is always going to be a sort of melancholy in watching someone eating alone. Everyone would prefer to have companionship. But it’s not depressing in the moment. It’s totally ordinary. It’s not something I wanted to portray as depressing.
It’s funny you mention that because seeing an elderly person eating alone at a restaurant genuinely makes me sad.
Me too. But I don’t think it’s inherently sad.
How important was the religious aspect to the film? Did you feel spirituality needed to play a big role to understand where these characters were in their lives?
Well, it kind of came about because early on I decide to incorporate the program my dad worked for. I was faced with the choice of completely ignoring the fact that these programs are typically faith based, or embracing it. So, I decided to go for it and include all those elements. Again, I was motivated by what other movies typically do and what I didn’t want to do, which is have a condescending approach to a religious character. Most Hollywood films will go out of their way to show [religious characters] as hypocritical or crazy. Either that or the entire movie will preach to you. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show respect for what certain people believe in. I’m not very religious myself, but I feel like it’s a wonderfully rich topic for a film. I wanted to try and use it in a nonjudgmental way.
I’m not religious either, so I understand where you are coming from. So, do you have a doctrine or faith you follow at all?
No, but I do have a respect for the way I was brought up [as a Christian] and for what my parents believe.
Do you consider yourself agnostic?
Yeah, I’m probably closer to agnostic than atheist.
What specifically did you want people to see in the friendship between Martin and Travis?
What interested me was the idea of Martin losing his faith, but having spent his entire life working in the church. So, in the film he is not able to escape it. He is called back to do one thing, which he now doesn’t necessarily believe in anymore. I liked that idea. So, I think you can struggle with the reasoning behind Christianity and Christian behavior, but most people are really living a Christ-like lifestyle and by the teachings of Christ. I really don’t think you can argue with that. It just means treating others with kindness. I felt like I should show that you can’t argue with good people doing good things. That’s what I wanted to get out of that relationship. It doesn’t have to be under the umbrella of religion, but if people are helping other people then that’s a great thing.
A scene in the film that really resonated with me is where Travis is talking about how he feels like a phony in his faith. I used to work for a faith-based nonprofit myself, which was interesting since I consider myself agnostic, too. What always got me was every time I wrote an email to a donor or board member, I would always sign it “God Bless.” That always felt very phony to me, but I did it because it was my job. But I never felt like my job dictated who I was. Do you ever feel that people assume something about you that’s not true just because you are a filmmaker?
That’s interesting. I like the idea of you working there and feeling similar [to Travis] in that way. Well, I don’t know if this answers your question, but because I live in Los Angeles, I do feel like every time I meet someone and they ask what I do and I say, “I’m a filmmaker,” I do feel like they probably assume one thing I don’t want to be associated with. In Los Angeles, everyone is trying to make movies and trying to make money making movies. I don’t feel like the quality of what’s being made is very high, not just in Los Angeles, but everywhere. I wish I could just tell everyone what I’m trying to do [as a filmmaker]. I’m not trying to make money. I’m trying to make good films that are optimistic and positive. But you really can’t get into all that. I just have to say, “I’m a filmmaker.” They probably think I make “National Lampoon” movies.
That’s why you always need a copy of “This is Martin Bonner” in your back pocket to give them when they ask.
Yeah, but people would probably think I was a lot cooler if I made “National Lampoon” movies instead of boring art house films.