This time last year, award-winning filmmaker Chad Hartigan was preparing for the premiere of his fourth feature, Little Fish, at the Tribeca Film Festival. He had no way of knowing that pretty soon the entire country was going to go into lockdown, movie theaters would be closed, and the festival would be canceled. While he’s been sitting at home this year thinking about what’s going to come next for his career, Little Fish has been awaiting its release, building up an odd new layer of meaning with the COVID pandemic impacting the way we all see the world.
Based on a short story by Aja Gabel, adapted for the screen by Mattson Tomlin, the film depicts the response to its own global pandemic, one where the afflicted begin to lose their memories, eventually forgetting even the people they love the most. Newlyweds Jude (Jack O’Connell) and Emma (Olivia Cooke) struggle to hold their relationship together when Jude contracts the disease, putting their love to the test in a terrifying new way.
In this interview, Hartigan speaks about what drew him to direct someone else’s script for the first time, along with the ways that the movie keeps in tune with his emphasis on always putting character before anything else. It’s a charming conversation where Hartigan gives insight into what he values in cinema, how his latest movie has unintentionally evolved with the events of the past year, and the direction he hopes to take his career in the future.
Read our interview with Chad Hartigan below:
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Little Fish is a movie about a global pandemic. You had it shot and ready to premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, when about a month before the premiere the festival was canceled due to a real life pandemic. What was it like for you this past year watching the world go into lockdown, knowing that you had this movie about a pandemic ready to release?
Chad Hartigan: It was very strange. I was really proud of the movie when we finished it, and excited for people to see it, but I had always thought of it as a certain thing. Once the pandemic happened it quickly became clear that the movie was going to be perceived as something different now, and I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. I was very nervous about it. I went about four months without seeing the film, but I rewatched it again in late July last year, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it played better for me than it ever had before because of what was happening in the world. It feels like the pandemic had added layers to it, which made me a little less nervous. It started playing some virtual festivals in the fall, and while there were a few people who felt like it was too sad to be watching right now, the large majority of people were finding it to be a cathartic experience. I felt like Mattson’s script, and the way he focused on the day to day struggles of one particular couple and the dynamics of their relationship, kept it from feeling too on the nose.
This is your fourth movie, but it’s the first one that you didn’t write. What was it that drew you to this project, and made you want to direct someone else’s script for the first time?
To be perfectly honest, my last film, Morris From America, opened a lot of doors for me. I thought that movie was going to be way more arthouse, that it was this obtuse movie about a kid in Germany that no one was going to want to see, but because of Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas’ wonderful chemistry it actually played like a crowd pleaser at Sundance. All of a sudden development people started looking at me and thinking “maybe he could direct this kind of thing”, and I didn’t know if that was going to happen again, so I thought I should take advantage of it. I started reading stuff that was out there, and for the most part didn’t find it interesting, but then I read Mattson’s script, and it was so clearly a movie that represented everything that I was looking for. It was still a movie focused on my strengths, the character stuff, yet it was going to offer all of these new challenges of working on something bigger with world building in a new genre. I thought that if I was going to direct something I didn’t write, then I wanted it to be something I would never have written for myself.
Are you interested in trying out other genre territory, like a horror movie or a blockbuster?
(deadpan) Are you saying this is *not* a blockbuster?
Hey, we’ll see on Friday!
(laughing) Definitely, I want to stay open because I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. I’m obviously bringing myself into everything that I do, so there will always be this common denominator, but I enjoy the challenge of each film being totally different from the last. I hope there will be something after this that’s maybe like a horror movie, something that I haven’t done before. I’ve been writing a lot lately. I wrote a soccer thriller that takes place in the world of soccer match fixing, and I also wrote a stoner comedy that I’m about to make. The opportunities that I’m trying to make for myself are in wildly different directions. I’m also still reading new things because I actually really enjoy the process of working only as a director, and having another writer. I was probably spoiled on this one having Mattson because he’s so great, but it was way easier not having to write it.
I saw on your Twitter that you had posted a picture of a whiteboard that was up on the wall when you were shooting your film This Is Martin Bonner. The whiteboard read “the characters are the story”, and you said that was the best advice you’ve ever gotten or ever could give. Could you talk about bringing that character first approach into your films, especially on something like this that’s more genre oriented?
A lot of that on this one came from Mattson doing the work, which I think is the reason he got the rights to the short story in the first place. There were multiple people interested in the story, but while everyone else was presenting Aja with ideas set in, like, the world of a memory bank in the future, Mattson came in with this story about two people where we only see the part of the pandemic that impacts them, because it’s always focused on them first and foremost. The idea that you would have Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke in your movie and neglect them for like a car crash or something seemed crazy to me, so I was really thrilled to have the chance to work with great actors.
It was also a challenge for me because this movie had fewer scenes than my previous work, but more sequences, so it was about putting together a performance over a number of different shots, where sometimes we were in this room and sometimes we were in this other room, and we have to work to make it feel like a long continuous piece of acting. That was a fun new challenge, and I imagine that will continue to happen as the budgets get bigger, and the movies get more genre oriented. It’s fun to work on a scene like the one where they’re testing Jack’s memory, and we have to figure out how we’re going to visually conceive flashing back and forth to their wedding, but at the same time all that really matters is whether or not Jack and Olivia are delivering the goods in this heartbreaking scene of her trying desperately to get him to remember.
Now, that whiteboard was later amended to instead say “the characters FART the story.” Could you talk about how that idea applied to this movie?
(laughing) The culprit of turning that from “the characters are the story” to “the characters fart the story”, I’m almost certain, was our cinematographer Sean McElwee, who I’ve worked with on every production. It’s indicative of the relationship that we have, and the atmosphere we bring to set. The focus is there and we both know what we’re there to do, but we also can have some fun with it. Movies aren’t meant to be brain surgery, movie sets are supposed to be fun. I like to joke around on sets, so Sean and I try to lead with an example of setting a fun environment. It’s as important to me that the people that work on the movie consider it one of their best working experiences as it is for the movie turning out well. I consider both of those equal goals.
This movie can be very heavy and emotional, but there’s also levity in it at times. Jack and Olivia have such fantastic chemistry, like in the scene on the boat where Jack playfully references the “if you jump, I jump” scene from Titanic. I was wondering if any of those moments were improvised, or was everything coming right from the script? At times it feels like the two of them don’t even know you’re filming.
I actually can’t remember if that reference was in the script, but it very well could have been improvised in the moment. Quite often we would start off taking a few seconds while we were rolling to let them get into lovey dovey mode, just feel out the scene to come up with those tender moments together. We were very lucky that their chemistry was so good because these movies live or die by the chemistry of the two leads, and we didn’t have the luxury of doing screen tests and figuring that out beforehand. We just had two actors that are great, and then you hope for the best, and in this case I think that they had such strong mutual respect for each other as actors, and from day one it was a real testimony to them. I didn’t want this to be the case, but we had to shoot everything in their apartment first so all of the stuff like them being in bed together, and having the argument about the procedure, all of the heaviest, deepest stuff in their relationship was shot in the first five days, and they were just instantly amazing.
Over the summer while in quarantine you made a huge 25-minute supercut of your 1,000 favorite movies, ranging from Nosferatu and Make Way for Tomorrow to Moonlight and Parasite. If there was only one movie that you could remember for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
(takes a few seconds) I’m trying to choose between two movies that both came out in 1998. One is Can’t Hardly Wait, which is by far my favorite movie to rewatch. I was a senior in high school at the time, and it hit the perfect note at the perfect time for me. It’s the most quotable movie, Sean and I are quoting it on set all of the time. It’s a movie that’s constantly living in my head rent free. So that’s an easy answer. Then I’m also going to throw in Meet Joe Black. It’s a controversial choice, but I saw it when I was 16 years old and falling in love for the first time. I was trying to figure out what love meant to me, and that movie is all about verbalizing love, and someone trying to learn what love is, and so again it just hit me at the right moment and made a lot of sense to me. It felt like it was speaking a lot of truth, and I feel that I owe a lot of the person I am today to Meet Joe Black, for better or worse.
I was surprised when I saw that one show up on your list of the 1,000 best movies ever. Bit of a hot take.
That would be in a video of my top 50 movies of all time!
It speaks to how personal movies can be, and how certain ones really stick with you when you see them at a particular time in your life.
Yeah, that’s the thing that I worry the most about with the lack of theaters this last year. So much of how I feel about a certain movie can be tied back to the experience of watching it, who I watched it with, if we had a fun time before and after seeing it, and like did it all tie together somehow. If everything is just me sitting on my couch and watching on my laptop then it deprives you of latching onto an otherwise maybe forgettable movie for other reasons, and really holding it dear.
Little Fish releases in theaters and on VOD on February 5th, 2021