Covadonga: A Conversation With Sean Hartofilis

The light in the night

“If we could see heaven in each other, and specifically God in women, we’d treat each other a lot better.” — Sean Hartofilis

Sean Hartofilis — the brilliant auteur — has once again confirmed his position amongst the most talented and intelligent burgeoning filmmakers in cinema.

After his outstanding Beach Pillows full-length debut in 2014, Hartofilis spent the last four years starting a family, establishing the top-rated Howl app and constructing his most-recent masterpiece in creativity — Covadonga.

Easily amongst the most unique, enjoyable, singular and creative pieces of cinema, Covadonga has dominated the film festival circuit with several high-profile selections and awards, including:

  • Best Actor / Best Cinematography / Best Feature Film / Best Villain (Christian Film Festival)
  • Best Score (Manchester International Film Festival)
  • Best Narrative (Rural Route Film Festival: Museum of the Moving Image)
  • Official Selection(s) (Chicago International Movies & Music Festival / Richard Harris International Film Festival / Anthology Film Archives: NewFilmmaker Series / Madrid International Film Festival)

Set for release on October 31st, 2018, Covadonga was written, directed and produced by Hartofilis — who also stars and scored the film with seven original songs dovetailed as narrative pieces. Filled with equal parts wit, tension, melancholy, fear, revenge and pathos, Covadonga — and Hartofilis as protagonist “Martin Ravin” — is simply a ferocious film.

As a renaissance man juggling multiple responsibilities, hopefully — and probably — it is only a matter of time until Hartofilis is able to fully focus on family and film. Ahead of the Halloween release date, Hartofilis took the time to discuss faith, family, framework and the process behind crafting the haunting Covadonga.

Support the film at the link above and find each of the seven original songs threaded into the conversation below!

1. “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”

ON FAITH AND LOVE

I believe God is love, yes. Creation is love, and we’re called to love each other and all we’ve been given in order to walk in God’s image and foster divinity on this planet. Now, the difficulty is while most cultures and religions have some similar impression of God, the Creator, Mother Earth, etc. as love, our distinctions in perspective on this same force create conflict as we seek to protect or defend it.

So the love, in a sense, creates fear at a loss of love or a threat to it. This creates cycles of violence we’ve seen across cultures throughout history, alluded to in the film, as well as personal cycles of loss, suffering and retaliation we experience in our day-to-day lives.

This is why the truly necessary and missing ingredient to real love and an ultimate earthly harmony, or heaven on Earth, is forgiveness.

We’re still fighting the same battles we’ve been fighting for thousands of years. Through the lives of individuals, we’re harboring the same hate and resentment through our whole lives. And each of these battles creates more victims, more hate, and feeds the fire. Forgiveness is the water required to put it out; it’s the antidote to everything that’s wrong. Forgiveness, and understanding of the perspective, empathy for the position, of another. That’s what I believe and what I set out to explore with this story.


2. “Change Your Ground”

ON CREATIVE PROCESS

It was emotionally challenging, but that’s when you know you’re on the right track. So it’s challenging but not hard, if that makes sense. It feels natural to write what feels true. And, for whatever reason, I find myself exploring similar themes in different ways through my work: the inevitability of loss and how our response to it dictates the world we live in, even in Beach Pillows.

In promoting Covadonga, as I’ve really gotten an opportunity to reflect on it in relation to my other work and things I plan to do, I noticed it’s not only someone responding to darkness, but specifically an artist doing it.

When I consider my perspective on humanity as deeply as I can, I believe that’s what we are as a species — artists.

That dictates our divinity, our exit from Eden and perceived separation from our animal brothers and sisters and the very Earth we inhabit. Our ability to think and communicate symbolically in order to unite and penetrate deeper meaning in the world, to exalt higher purpose. So an artist, necessarily, feels and processes these emotions perhaps a little more strongly, to good or ill ends (potentially very ill and destructive as seen in the current demagoguery of our politics and the hypocrisy, subjugation, and manipulation exacted by various religious figures and institutions).

That seems to be what I’m always doing, if I step back far enough.

But hopefully everything is entertaining and beautiful, and hopefully it’s personal and fearless enough that it transcends myself to the experiences and emotions of others; ultimately reveals something about them and the world of which they were unaware, or perhaps something that’s been buried and required illumination, even just showing and feeling it in a different way.


3. “Heaven Is Real”

IN VISION vs. RESULT

I did do what I’d set out to, which of course, if done properly, affords a lot of discovery along the way. As far as the genre mixing, that’s perhaps less intentionally something done than something intentionally not avoided. Having music, dancing, suspense, horror, comedic and dramatic aspects, all of that felt true to what I was trying to present. So to smooth off any edges to make it fit nicely into a certain box, to me, would have ultimately castrated it and compromised the artistic intention and the experience for the audience.

My favorite art in any format encompasses the emotional spectrum of our lives on this planet — all of the best music, literature, painting, film, etc. has this. And, however unique we all are and personal each of our experiences are, that spectrum is consistent for human beings, emotionally and certainly in terms of our cycle of life on the planet.

We are all related from the beginning of time and made of the same stuff. I wanted to allow myself to feel and convey all of it, and for the audience to experience and feel it. So the limitations of the budget, cast, etc. — that was purposeful in order to be as creative as possible in telling an original story and making it compelling.

When you rely on less, you do more. You give more of yourself.

I wanted to do everything I could within a rigid framework to create as much feeling as possible within myself and the audience. To do that, I essentially ran directly towards everything I’d previously feared, or feared how people might respond.

Playing the lead, performing the music, having long, silent stretches, when I’d previously relied on dialogue to carry the day, putting my faith and Irish heritage in the forefront, my fear and confusion about death and historical violence… and going straight at all of this proved extremely rewarding. When we do anything of the like, whether it’s speaking on a stage or asking a girl to dance, you realize: “The fear was in me; I was projecting it onto the world and it was holding me back.

So, in effect, love won out, and that’s how you get art; how you get creation.

4. “Going Down the River”

ON FUN MAKING PROJECT

I completely loved it. It felt right. And the fun thing was that because we lived where we shot, the cast and crew could all spend every evening together, even weekends. We’d buy groceries and our sound mixer Patrick Burgess would cook, we’d watch movies and listen to records and reflect on the day’s work, discuss what was ahead.

It was exactly what you hope for or how you hear about your heroes cultivating their production environments. And the essential ingredient to that is great, kind people who care about what you’re doing.

So, for me, when I have all these people that trust me and are helping me create something that means so much to me, and they care about it too, nothing makes me feel better outside of my family and children.


5. “The Beginning of the End”

ON LEADING ROLE

I don’t think the movie could possibly work if I failed in that regard. When I was conceiving the film, and writing the songs into the script, it became pretty clear early on that I was painting myself into a corner where I was the only one that could do it. And that kind of echoed the spirit of the whole endeavor.

Go for it. Put yourself out front and go down swinging.

It also has practical advantages because given our tight schedule, I didn’t have to constantly direct and coax a collaborator to all of these extreme lengths, be it the emotional stuff, the physical stuff, the music. That takes a lot of preparation and commitment, and I’m not sure I could have found someone who would have gone that far in these specific circumstances. It certainly would have taken more time and required more money. And, frankly, I wasn’t looking. I come real cheap.


6. “Hair”

ON ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

It can be hard to pin down when certain creative elements or inspirations took shape and found their way into a story. I learned to play the guitar from my college roommate Julian Gould, who’s a great guitarist and was a music major. Since then, over the past eighteen years or whatever, I’ve been playing songs at home at night.

Through the years, I started writing songs. And eventually I gained the confidence to play them in front of my family. But I’ve never been a musical performer, shy of my wedding or something like that. I found myself writing these very personal — often dark — songs not knowing what they were for.

And then when I started writing the script, almost without thinking, I started writing the songs directly into the script.

I wrote new songs. I incorporated some Irish traditionals to kind of bookend the piece. And I realized, “Oh, that’s what these songs were for.” And not arbitrarily — they were all applied very specifically. I may have even built the narrative around them thematically. And, of course, they were very helpful to communicate the emotional perspective, because Martin is a solitary character and dealing with a lot, so they provide some insight — if not into the text, into the subtext.

I also just love live music of any variety. I love watching people play music and sing, in person, on TV, concert movies, singing shows, karaoke, whatever.

Through music we can snap into the innate rhythm of the universe, and harmonize with it, and that feels very holy and purposeful to me.

7. “The Night Visiting Song”

ON FATHERHOOD

It’s our purpose on this planet. The song “Heaven Is Real” — an anchor in the film and something I wrote that was very personal and gave me the confidence these songs were worthy of sharing — speaks to the empirical proof of eternity that children offer.

My children Francis Finn and Roan are me and my wife. I am my parents and grandparents and on and on.

Two people uniting in love to create another — one and one equaling three — that’s so miraculous to me, and I’ll never get over it.

Especially the magic and divinity of women. They create people. They foster heaven. It’s pure creation and completely astounding. We take it for granted, and I think it’s the death of us. If we could see heaven in each other, and specifically God in women, we’d treat each other a lot better.


Written By: Matteo Urella / October 2018

Photography: