Writer-director (and Roswell native) Dennis Hauck’s feature debut, Too Late, opens this Friday at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, screening in an increasingly rare format: 35MM film.
It’s not because Hauck is some sort of aesthetic purist. It’s just what he knows. “I’ve never shot digitally,” says the filmmaker, who will attend the 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday screenings. “I don’t know anything about those cameras, and I don’t want to know.”
In Too Late, a hardened private eye named Sampson (Oscar nominee John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone) ambles through a Los Angeles landscape populated with gold-hearted strippers, chatty drug dealers and casual killers in search of a missing woman. Sound pretty straightforward? Well, consider this: The story is told in five scenes, each an unbroken shot of around 20 minutes, each captured on a 2,000-foot film reel. And they’re told in non-chronological order. (For instance, a character murdered in Scene X might show up dewy and alive in Scene Z.) The movie gives viewers the paradoxical pleasure of initial confusion, followed by mental-emotional satisfaction as bits of information click into place and the bigger picture starts to reveal itself.
Too Late is the sort of verbally hyper, self-referential, pop culture reference-crammed movie that can be divisive; you either get on its wavelength or don’t. The Grey Lady approved. It was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick when it opened last month. His parents and brother still live in the metro area, and Hauck studied at Emory University. “That was where I got on track to want to make movies.”
The film’s non-chronological order reflects the way Hauck wrote it — as a handful of character-driven segments related in ways that, even to him, weren’t completely clear as he was writing them.
“Hopefully, at the end of the five scenes, it will add up to a portrait,” he recalls thinking. He wrote the separate chapters concurrently, rather than in point-A-to-E, linear fashion. “It’s kind of a backward way of going about it,” he admits. “I just write whenever it occurs to me and put it in script form later.”
Or he tries to.
“I remember one exchange that came to me like lightning,” he says. In Atlanta a few years back, he was tooling down Georgia 400 en route to Dragon Con, where a short film of his was screening. Pulling out his iPhone, he began to record the dialogue he heard in his head. “I did the whole scene, and acted out both parts.” But a month later, when he searched the phone to transcribe those lines, the clip had disappeared.
During Too Late’s rollout around the States, a few critics have noticed some similarities — the dialogue, the fractured structure — to Quentin Tarantino’s work.
Hauck says the Pulp Fiction director isn’t his big inspiration. “I think he’s great, but a lot of people focus on that,” he says. “Maybe we just have similar influences.”
In Tarantino’s earlier, modern-era films, his characters spoke dialogue peppered with knowing pop-culture references. So do the people in Too Late. “I hear about the pop culture references a lot,” Hauck says. “But that’s more influenced by things like watching episodes of Seinfeld or reading Don DeLillo.”
Too Late is most obviously inspired by the hardboiled P.I. fiction of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, novels in which how people do things (and talk to each other) is always more interesting than what they do. “I realized after I read them I could never remember the plot,” Hauck says. “That’s not what stays with you.” Likewise, his movie is as much about attitude and tone as it is the story of Sampson’s search for that missing woman. “I’ve seen this movie,” one character says while bleeding to death: “This is the last reel.”
As for casting the rumpled, amiable character actor John Hawkes in the lead role, that happened due to connections made after Hauck cast David Yow in his previous short films, Al’s Beef and Sunday Punch. Yow was a member of Austin-based band The Jesus Lizard. Hawkes himself had been an Austin musician (and sings a ballad during the course of Too Late) and a friend of Yow, who connected the director with the actor.
Shooting the movie took two years, from 2012 to 2014. For each sequence, cast and crew rehearsed for two days, then shot. Hauck estimates that each scene averaged around 10 complete takes. And each day’s shooting contained unique challenges.
In the film’s first scene, the camera zooms from an inner-city park to the balcony of an apartment building that seems to be about a mile away. “We had spent two years looking for the right lens to shoot that,” Hauck says. “I was looking for a lens that just existed in my head.” He wound up using one that’s employed by the Navy for offshore surveillance; he had to jerry rig it to fit his camera.
For the fourth sequence, set at a drive-in in Barstow, there were major physical limitations, namely “the giant, 90-pound rig that the camera guys had to carry up and down rickety stairs.”
As for the fifth scene, set at a luxe hotel, the day before it was due to be shot, the central actress bailed out. Luckily, Hauck says he only lost a day, once he re-cast the role. “Natalie Zea came on, and she was absolutely amazing,” Hauck says. “She stepped in, and had to memorize 15 pages of dialogue.”
But the most challenging of all five scenes? “The one that intimidated me most was Act Two, the mansion,” Hauck says. Whereas the bulk of the other scenes focus on just a couple of characters talking, this one culminates in a poolside shouting match among five characters, forcing the camera to whiplash back and forth to get full coverage.
Even more than the technical challenge, Hauck was very aware that two of his stars were longtime veterans: Jeff Fahey and especially Robert Forster (a Tarantino stable player who also worked for John Huston and David Lynch). He didn’t want to come across as someone who didn’t know his stuff.
Hauck has been traveling the country, presenting Too Late. But this weekend’s visit to his hometown might be his last in-person appearance. He’s tired, and it’s time to get busy on the next thing.
When he was younger, he’d been interested in being a cartoonist, maybe a musician. “Then I went to college at Emory and started taking some Film Studies classes,” he says. And the thought came too him, not too late, maybe just in time: “I think I can do this.”