INTERVIEW: Hunter Hopewell

Hi Hunter, welcome to VENTS! Can you tell us about life before filmmaking, where did you spend your childhood?

I was surrounded by live entertainment, being born in Chicago and growing up in Las Vegas. Show after show, concert after concert, music, drama & comedy were a big part of my childhood. I never needed an alarm clock because I would be woken up by cymbal crashes, courtesy of my drummer dad. Most of my free time went into playing guitar – my dad and I still play together whenever I visit Vegas from LA.

In retrospect for me, filmmaking started out as a vehicle for music. My early shorts all revolved around music, and as I grew up, those two passions grew together, too. Instead of the short films revolving around music explicitly, I would arrange scores that supported the onscreen moments. My parents and my friends would help behind the scenes and on camera, and that’s true now more than ever. As I continue to learn from those around me, I never want to lose that symbiotic relationship between music and filmmaking in my work.

You’ve made over 20 short films so far; can you tell us your favorite five?

My Great Aunt Omi just turned 90, and when I was thirteen, the first film I ever made to win an award called ‘Rising’ starred her. I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and Omi has always been like a grandma to me. She’s delightful. You’d love her.

When I was sixteen, my father and I stayed with my grandma Phyllis for a week in Massachusetts, and I chronicled a week -in-the-life piece about her called “Following Phyllis.” We see her at bingo, her Zumba class, her choir, leading up to her singing “My Way” at her 85th birthday party. An active social life inspiring many. Sadly, she passed away last year, “Following Phyllis” played at her funeral, and Shellfish is dedicated to her memory.

On the heels of being severely cyber-bullied in high school, I made two short films ‘Alone’ and ‘Numbskull.’ ‘Alone’ was made specifically for an anti-bully campaign, and at the time, my emotions from the experience were still raw. I think the feeling of helplessness is palpable in that short. It was intended to show that even though posting a hurtful comment may be quick and easy, its effects on the receiving end can be devastating.

With some more time to reflect, ‘Numbskull,’ which I made the following year, had a similar message that I wanted to take a step further. “Bullying hurts and kindness heals more than you may realize.” Its intent is to speak to three parties, the bully, the person being bullied, and those that witness it. The smallest acts of kindness can go such a long way. We’re all going through something, and it never hurts to be kind.

Some of my short films may deal with serious topics, but I always want my work to have a central uplifting theme. One of my absolute favorite experiences working on a short was a Star Wars fan film called ‘Intern of the Jedi.’ The premise revolves around a guy having an internship interview to help write Star Wars IX, but he knows nothing about Star Wars. His neighbor is an Obi-Wan stand-in and teaches him the ways of the force. I wrote and produced it in under a week with my neighbor Jeff who truly does know EVERYTHING about Star Wars. It ended up making it into the Top 25 of JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

Flash forward a few months, life imitates art, and I’m being interviewed for a similar internship with Disney. The interviewer asks, “What video are you most proud of?” I show ‘Intern of the Jedi,’ and I’d like to think that was the reason I was lucky to get that internship, which turned into a full-time job three years ago now.

More recently you wrapped your first feature film, ‘Shellfish’. What is the backstory and what inspired the idea for the film?

Every two years, UNLV awards the Johnny Brenden Filmmakers Grant to one film student to produce their feature film based on the strength of their feature length script. Writing one page for this interview is daunting for me, so 100 pages to reach feature length seemed insurmountable. Write what you know. I knew about making no budget videos with my friends, and the endless list of things that could go wrong during production. There seemed to be a wealth of comedy and drama to mine there.

Ultimately, the script evolved by talking it through with close friends, coworkers, and family. Keller, the main character and also the maiden name of my grandmother on my mom’s side, values what’s captured on camera above all else. He fears death and wants to preserve these moments. While I was still writing, a coworker asked, “What has he lost to make him fear death?” That was the magic question. That process of probing deeper and deeper helped refine the script, and I couldn’t have done it without input and support from those around me.

The double meaning behind the title “Shellfish” should become more apparent as you get further into the story. Many of the visuals, themes, and allusions revolve around the ocean and its creatures, and Keller must ultimately learn to become less…well, selfish.

Possibly the most important question though, “What will make our micro-budget feature stand out?” Stop motion. The first video I ever made was stop motion, and I had never seen a film incorporate stop motion animation the way we have in Shellfish. The film probably exists – I just haven’t seen it! Robert Zemeckis being my favorite director, I wanted to ‘Roger Rabbit’ it. Early on in the film, Keller feels intense, emotional pressure and a stop motion fire is lit under his chair. Keller takes up stop motion after a traumatic event in his life, nearly every intense emotion in the film is visually depicted through onscreen stop motion, and the puzzle pieces fell into place from there.

A few words about your directorial approach to the ‘Shellfish’?

Originally, I wrote the script without intending to even be in the film. My mentor Professor Francisco Menendez strongly encouraged me to act in the movie, and as a result, I was on camera for a large portion of the production. This inherently meant putting a great deal of trust in a crew I had mostly never worked with before. Lucky for us, the crew was awesome and made directing my first feature a collaborative experience. Directing turned out to be constant problem solving. The nice part is I didn’t have to have all the answers. Our multi-talented cast and crew problem-solved together.

Do you have a specific preference of the genre or types of projects you want to spearhead?

Yes! I’m open to all genres of course, but whatever I make, I want it to be uplifting. I always want an audience to walk away from my films feeling better than when they came in. Generally, I’m attracted to directing comedy, adventure, and animation, all supported by a strong presence of music. To me, music should be intertwined in a film’s DNA to the point of inseparability. That’s why I compose while I edit because what you’re hearing is just as, if not, more important than what you’re seeing. Naturally, Disney is my dream studio to write and direct for.

What’s next for you?

Shellfish is actually the prequel to another movie I wrote, but that movie Coral would require a much biggerbudget. Until I get that budget, I have a horror/comedy short coming out later this year called ‘Pillow Fight.’ Perry Bruno, who plays Kruko in Shellfish, and I are writing the script for our next feature. Like ‘Pillow Fight,’ it too is a horror/comedy with a lot of heart. I’ve released a couple singles during quarantine, and this year, I’ll be releasing my second album, along with the original score for Shellfish. I am also constantly producing content for Disney and D23: The Official Disney Fan Club as a full time Video Producer.

How can people find out more about you?

I’m always updating my website HunterHopewell.com, and you can follow me @HunterHopewell on Instagram and Twitter. Additionally, you can listen to my original music on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you stream music.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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