Here at 7x7, we like to break some news every now and again. Which is why we seized the chance to talk to filmmaker Adam Hootnick while he was in town to host this week’s private screening of his acclaimed documentary Unsettled. We wanted to get a behind-the-scenes on the former MTV producer’s film: an incisive cinematic look at Israel’s 2005 withdrawl from the Gaza strip via six compelling young people who lived it. We thought, “Hey, our readers might want to hear his take on NYC and SF and they’ll want to get the scoop on whether they’ll have another chance to see his documentary screen on the big screen” (that is, if you haven’t already snatched it up on DVD at unsettledmovie.com). But we also had a hunch the onetime SF resident was here on other business. (And by hunch, we mean he told us he was here to put plans in motion for a new venture with the SF Arts Fund called Storyboard.) Read on to get the backstory on Hootnick’s film and a sneak peek at his mixing-business-with-greatness new venture.
You worked in the documentary department at MTV. Did you go straight from there to working on Unsettled?
I worked as a producer in the News & Docs department at MTV, [working on] stories involving people in the MTV demographic facing life moments of particular significance. It was slightly less entertainment-focused and a little more in the direction of “What’s it like to be an eighteen-year-old kid trying to figure out who to vote for in your first primary?”, “What’s it like to be a sixteen-year-old kid helping to clean up a fishing village in India after the tsunami?”, “What’s it like to be a gay kid in Texas after the Supreme Court has overturned a sodomy law that says for the first time it’s no longer illegal for you to have sex with your partner?”—things like that.
So did you consider working within the MTV framework for Unsettled?
I would have loved to have MTV Films say, “We really want to do a movie about this particular time and place,” but that’s a big ship to turn. I sort of made the leap to do this film independently. As much as I love MTV—and I do— I didn’t want anyone telling me, “Well, okay here’s how you have to do it.”
Have you seen the film, Reality Bites?
I have seen Reality Bites.
You know when Winona Ryder’s character makes her documentary and then the “MTV-types” hack it up to make it appealing to their audience? Was that part of the reason you wanted to go it alone?
I think you’re always concerned. Um, particularly with a subject matter like this where it’s such a hot button politically. The reason I really wanted to tell this story was particularly, precisely, because it’s inconclusive. And because it’s a story that doesn’t lend itself to being tied up in any little package. And that’s not what the American movie-going audience always wants and it’s certainly not what always sells the best and so I was absolutely concerned about all the cooks who might want to jump into the kitchen. And again, I think that is the case for a lot of indie filmmakers.
So how did you pick your six subjects? And were you thinking, “It has to be six. It can’t be seven because then it’ll be like The Real World?”
You know, I never wanted six. Six is a lot of people. The advantage The Real World has is they have a whole season worth of time to introduce you to people and I have an hour and a half. Six happened because I came across six amazing people who, each of whom, I think, brought a different perspective and shed light from a different angle on what it was like to be a young person in that situation, in that moment. I set out hoping to look at a situation that was almost impossible for everyone facing it, and look at a society trying to reconcile religion and democracy. I think in this situation you look at a country or a group of people or whatever and you assume everyone has the same perspective. And that’s never true. And so I really wanted to find a group of people who helped show what those tensions look like, but at the same time, find a group of people who were normal and regular and were not ideologues and were not spokespeople trying to prove anything, but regular people living their life the way they’d always lived it, but for whom, some really life-changing stuff was going to happen. So, it, it would’ve been great if that were three or four people, but it ended up being six.
Was there anyone that you followed that you ended up cutting out of the film?
There was one more soldier. And I just I didn’t feel I had the same kind of material with him [as the others]. And again, six people is a lot for a film and so if I could avoid going to seven then, then that was be great. Plus, then, nobody would think it was The Real World.
Good point. When I read the set up of the reviews for your film I couldn’t help but hear that intro voiceover, like, “Six people … picked to live in Israel ... forced to withdraw from the Gaza Strip… find out what happens when people stop being nice, and start getting real…”
Yeah, believe me it’s not coincidental that the marketing and positioning of the film feels that way. I think it’s a real challenge to get an audience that’s not connected to that part of the world, or to these issues at all, to understand that this is a really compelling story that isn’t just about the Mideast conflict, at all. It’s about young people and what it means to lose your home. And how societies figure out how we all coexist when we have religions that sometimes cause different things.
Were you concerned for you own safety at any point?
I knew I was putting myself in a situation where there are more sources of potential risk than day-to-day walking around San Francisco, but I was comfortable with the level of risk I was taking on relative to how important this story was. You’re not going to see me running off to go hang out in the Green Zone in Baghdad or outside the Green Zone in Baghdad because I’m looking for the next sort of adrenaline kick. A lot of people ask why the film doesn’t have the Palestinian experience in it as well. I really wanted to tell the story about the dynamics within a group where everyone’s supposed to be on the same side so I didn’t want to do another movie about, you know; black against white, Arab against Jew— it’s been done.
You’ve screened in New York and in Los Angeles, and the DVD is available on your website. You’re in town for a private screening of the film, but any chance of any more opportunities for the public to see the film on the big screen in San Francisco?
[This week’s screening] is to sort of launch Storyboard—which is all about storytelling—with an example of my storytelling and the pinnacle of what I’ve been able to do so far in terms of taking a story or concept and making it relevant to an audience. But hopefully we’ll have some people in the audience who are in the community and will be able to help facilitate some further screenings within the community. I would love to do that. The Bay Area’s a huge and important group of lovers of independent film so I’m dying to make that happen more.
What can you tell us about this Storyboard?
I can tell you it’s called Storyboard.
That’s a good start. We know it’s a collaboration with SF Arts Fund. What else?
One of the things that I learned a lot about in the festival circuit and in the course of trying to get this film out into the world is how many other great people there are out there, not that I’m necessarily great, but there are lots of people who are.
Supposing you were great.
I might be semi-great. But there are lots of people who have great ideas out there and not necessarily great ways for them to find an audience and to get their message out in the world and get paid for what they’re doing. At the same time, there’s an explosion of outlets for content and there are a ton of brands looking for ways to engage people, not just through commercials and not just through brand messaging, but through affiliating themselves with some of the great creative stuff that’s happening. So, Storyboard is an opportunity to bridge both worlds. It’s going to be a solution to help bringing those two groups of people together. And where exactly it’s going to live and what it’s going to look are all the things we’re sort of still tweaking.
And is it going to be based in San Francisco?
Yeah. I love New York, but I think in San Francisco there’s a real dedication to innovation and trying out new ideas. And working with indie filmmakers is not the type of business you usually hear a lot of venture or private equity groups getting involved in and I think there’s something about this city and there’s a reason there’s a big indie film community here. There’s a real focus on getting into businesses that are good businesses financially but also bring something to people in a cultural and creative sense, that I really believe is a priority here in a way you don’t see everywhere.
Yeah, we’re inclined to agree with you there.