Beautiful Thinkers: Julian Higgins, Director
On capturing lightning in a bottle through filmmaking
I first discovered Julian through a mutual friend when he made the film, Winter Light four years ago. The film became a top ten finalist for an Oscar after being recognized at dozens of film festivals. What I find the most interesting about him is his hit ratio. He is deliberate in his choice of projects and takes time and care to pick ones that he can make shine. He has won a number of prizes including the gold medal Student Academy Award, two Student Emmy Awards, the grand prize of Ron Howard’s “Project Imagination” Contest. And he’s one of the most thoughtful people you’ll ever meet.
Why are you a filmmaker?
I think a lot of people have a similar story. The story usually starts with: “Filmmaking combined all my interests into one medium.” But that’s only the beginning. As I’ve gone further and further with this work, I’ve learned that it’s actually my way of exploring the ideas that I care about. It’s my way of thinking through my life, through life in general. That sounds very grandiose but it’s true. At a certain point it’s just too hard to do this work and stay in the game unless you’re really motivated by a primal need to communicate what’s important to you.
Have you found it difficult to make a career out of filmmaking?
When we start as kids, it’s a one-man band kind of model. We’re writing, directing, shooting, editing and acting in the pieces all ourselves. And there’s no real audience and no money involved, so it’s easy. But as you try to build a career and get paid to do this, it involves more people and money and profit motive gets involved in a complex way.
And there’s a lot of resistance to “first-timers” in any industry. There are much easier ways to make a living than trying to make movies. Frankly, if you’re just doing it for the money, then there’s no point. It’s too challenging. But I do want to have a career — I’m not a hobbyist. This is why I’m here on earth. So it’s a constant endurance test.
John Irving, Robert Frost and J. D. Salinger are writers also from New Hampshire. How has where you’re from informed your work?
I find myself very drawn to stories in which a major theme is a character’s relationship to nature. I would describe a lot of my movies as outdoor movies. I love the huge canvas of the natural world. When you put a tiny person in a huge landscape, that is inherently existential. You are visualizing the existential questions in that person’s life.
Winter Light, my most recent short, was set in Montana in the winter. It’s about a person who feels isolated in many ways. The landscape is what he loves, but it’s also part of his isolation — it forces him to deal with whatever happens in the story completely on his own. There’s nowhere to run for help. The landscape is both a comforting and isolating thing. That’s something I definitely experienced as a New Hampshirite.
How do films typically end up getting made?
In Hollywood, people want everything to get figured out on the page before it gets greenlit. I think that’s misguided. The danger is that projects get overdeveloped and overthought. The reality of the way movies are made is that you’re rewriting the movie all the way through the process. You write a script, yes, but you have to figure it out from scratch in pre-production and then figure it out again as you shoot, and then you figure it out again in the edit. Every stage is a whole new rewrite, and hopefully you have a strong enough idea in the original script that you can hold onto the throughline as you move through each stage.
I try to make the most ironclad plan I can in prep, but then when I get to set, I try to follow my educated intuition. The hardest thing to do in the commotion of production is to actually look at what’s happening right in front of you and say: “I’m going to embrace this. I’m going to embrace the fact that it’s really raining today” or “I’m going to move this entire scene into a different room” or “we can do this huge dialogue scene with one look.”
How do you choose your material?
Frankly, I’d much rather direct something someone else wrote. That comes from my interest in theater. I love the challenge of bringing my voice to someone else’s writing. I think that’s why I’m drawn to adaptation — I have an interpretive brain. I like the puzzle aspect of “solving” a scene with actors and a camera. Trying to tell the best possible version of the story on the page.
I’m actually adapting novel into a screenplay at the moment. It really is a translation process. In the first draft, I just took what was on the page and put it in screenplay form. It was horrible. You have to capture the spirit of the material and then translate it into a new medium, a visual storytelling medium. This script is wildly different from the novel now in terms of plot, but I think it’s very true to the feelings and characters and themes that originally attracted me.
You said you use filmmaking to figure out life. How much of your personal story ends up in your films?
This is why writing is so hard. The material I’m drawn to is so personal that it becomes a therapeutic process. Through the work, I’m actually growing to understand myself better. But don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I’m just writing stories from my own life. My AFI thesis film, Thief, was inspired by real events which took place in Iraq in 1959 and 2003. I’ve never been to Iraq and had no first-hand knowledge of the history, so obviously it involved a lot of research and consultation with people from the region. But when it actually comes down to writing the script, where do you write from? The raw material of your personal life. Thief ended up being about my personal feelings about growing up as an only child, my relationship with my parents, my parents relationship with their parents, etcetera. But the context of the story was Iraq in 1959. That’s how it works. You use your unique emotional landscape to fill the script with humanity and specificity and make the story and characters feel real.
What is the director’s role?
The director marshals people and resources in service of the story. We’re trying to capture delicate human emotion and experience under pressure. It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s very easy to get into a pragmatic mindset when you have a lot of money on the line and people working hard and the clock is ticking away. It’s hard to keep the eye on the ball of quality when everyone’s just trying to finish on time. But that’s the job. Anyone can shoot a whole bunch of crap in a twelve hour day. The challenge is to capture something moving and compelling, that feels human and true, that tells the story effectively, while also satisfying the schedule and budget and all the other practical considerations. I find that challenge absolutely exhilarating.
How you do approach collaboration throughout the production process?
What I’m after at every stage is the best possible ideas for the story. I don’t care who they come from. If I thought I had all the answers, I’d be an animator. I’d do claymation at home. But I don’t work well alone. I need to have a conversation with someone. The purpose of collaboration is to come up with the ideas together that nobody could have come up with on their own. I want to have a healthy, spirited debate about what’s best for the movie — then I can have confidence in the choices we’re making as a team.
Does the audience have a role to play, too?
The most important role! Movies are images and sound in collaboration with the audience. A good story offers the tips of icebergs, and the audience fills in what’s underneath. I think when you watch a movie and feel unsatisfied, it’s because you were spoon-fed by it. When you’re talking about a film on the way home and it sticks with you long after, it’s because you were invited to participate in the storytelling. Those are the movies that truly have the capacity to change people.
Who influences your craft?
I am indebted to my parents for showing me lots of films from around the world when I was young. My mom teaches French literature and film, my dad teaches East Asian history. So I saw a lot of French New Wave and samurai movies! Akira Kurosawa’s work had a huge influence on me. I saw Ran and Throne of Blood and Kagemusha before I could tell time. His stories are so poetic and epic and they’re told on such a huge canvas, but at the core they’re intimate character studies. Same with David Lean and Peter Weir. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more inspired by movies from the margins. A couple of my favorite movies from last year were Call Me by Your Name and A Ghost Story. Also Get Out — no question it should have won Best Picture.
How long does it take to make a short film?
It varies widely, but usually about a full year putting it together and another year and a half on the festival circuit trying to get it seen. There are exceptions — one of my shorts, Here and Now, took about six weeks to make from start to finish. We had found out about a contest that Ron Howard was organizing called Project Imagination. The deadline was close, and it was a great opportunity to make something very quickly, for very little money, and with a tiny cast and crew of friends. Part of me prefers working like that. Here and Now is still one of my favorite things I’ve done, probably because it came from such a personal place and was such a collaborative process.
There doesn’t seem to be a middle class anymore in film. How do you see the world of blockbuster movies and independent films reconciling?
That reconciliation is happening on television. Netflix, HBO, AMC, Hulu, Showtime, etc — these networks are pushing the frontiers of storytelling and they have the budgets to back it up. The kinds of risks that used to get taken in the feature world are now getting taken on television. I still love feature film as a format, of course, but working in television is very exciting as a director.
What is the future for features?
The studios seem to have given up entirely on adults. With Wonder Woman and Black Panther, and with the #TimesUp, #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements, I hope the pendulum is swinging back in the direction where studio movies will engage grownups in real conversations and real ideas. I hope the conversations taking place in the industry right now will have a significant impact on the stories that get financed and the filmmakers that are supported. It’ll be interesting to see who will put their money where their mouth is. Everybody says it’s the right thing to do, but will that translate into action? And putting different types of voices in front of and behind the camera? Filmmaking is always going to be hard, but I’m hoping movies that would historically be considered “too challenging” might now be seen as more viable in the marketplace.
Check out more of Julian’s work or follow him on Instagram / Twitter @filmjulian