People are often faced with distressing and life-altering challenges in both their careers and personal relationships, and the way they come to a find a plausible and enriching solution is often a reliable insight into their true mindset and personality. Not only does this relate to the main struggling character in the new independent drama, ‘Beach Pillows,’ but also the career of the film’s writer and director, Sean Hartofilis. The Long Island, New York native, a Princeton graduate who played professional lacrosse and later worked as an assistant and made short films in Hollywood, truly put in the necessary efforts to realize his dream of making a feature film. ‘Beach Pillows,’ which was released by Gravitas Ventures on video-on-demand and iTunes this past January and is the helmer’s first feature film, reflects on many young adults’ determination to overcome whatever obstacles come their way, and fully realize their dreams.
‘Beach Pillows’ follows once-promising writer Morgan Midwood (Geoffrey Arend), who works at his father’s furniture store to save enough money to buy an engagement ring for his high school sweetheart. However, when he discovers she’s been deceiving him, he gets arrested, evicted and fired in short order. Morgan seems content to move home with his parents and embrace a life of anonymity and failed promise.
At the same time, Morgan’s carefree, underachieving best friend, Nick (Vincent Kartheiser), who has either caused or worsened many of Morgan’s problems, finally decides to take some stock in his own life. He decides to champion a revolutionary piece of furnishing for sale in Morgan’s father’s store. Over the course of a summer full of love, laughs, heartbreak and self-discovery, the two friends try to embrace what life throws at them.
Hartofilis generously took the time recently to talk about ‘Beach Pillows’ over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he came up with the idea for the film after he and a friend came up with the idea for the beach pillow while working at a camp during a summer in college, and how he was also inspired by his relationships with his friends and families; how he prefers both writing and directing scripts he brings to the screen, because he knows how to communicate the emotions and perspectives of the characters in the story; and how he prefers shooting in real locations, as it makes the story feel authentic and realistic.
Question (Q): You wrote the script for ‘Beach Pillows.’ Where did you come up with the inspiration for the film’s story? How much did you base the story on your own experiences?
Sean Hartofilis (SH): Well, I would say it was two-fold. One, a friend and I really had the conversation that appears in the movie about the beach pillow. We were hanging out on the beach a lot, and working at a kids’ day care/sports camp. We went to the beach every day after work and talked about our lives and what we wanted to do. This was over a summer when we were still in college.
We had an idea for the beach pillow. It’s always tough to get comfortable at the beach, and we didn’t think this product existed. We were just over the moon, thinking we changed the world. But then I realized I didn’t know much about delivering this product.
I made films in college, and when I graduated, I wanted this to be my first script. I was inspired by coming-of-age stories by artists, who talk about where they’re from, and how they became the artist we now know. So it was important for my first story to be about where I’m from.
I think the heartbreak at the forefront of the story, in which this guy is beaten down by this relationship, is something that I think everybody experiences. I just tried to recreate that on the screen.
It’s certainly inspired by my relationships with my family, as well as coming out of college, and not necessarily seeing opportunities flourish. It’s also about my relationships with my friends. So it’s certainly personal, but I also wanted to make it a real odyssey.
Q: Besides penning the screenplay, you also directed the movie. Was it always your intention to helm the comedy as you were writing the script? How did scribing the story influence the way you directed the movie?
SH: I always want to direct the stuff I have written, and the stuff I have directed I have also written. But I wasn’t sure if the opportunity would be there. Initially, the script was optioned by a company in New York, and then was optioned by a company in L.A. I was in my early 20s, and was just hoping to get it made. It was the first film I had written out in L.A.
I wanted to direct it, but I didn’t want that to be an impediment to the movie getting made. But I eventually realized that it wasn’t going to be the movie I had written unless I directed it. A lot of people wanted to change it, and make it about him finding a girl who would fix him, and that was the opposite of what I was trying to communicate.
So writing the script did inspire the way I directed it, just because I knew what I wanted. I knew the emotions and the perspectives of the characters I needed to communicate. In telling the story visually, it was about making the audience feel the way the characters feel, or how I felt when I wrote it. I storyboarded the whole thing and drew everything out, as well as filled in the colors. So I think having the opportunity to do that helped make the movie as good as it is. I’m not sure it would have come off the same way, or the way I had intended, if I didn’t direct it.
Q: ‘Beach Pillows’ features a diverse cast, including Geoffrey Arend, Vincent Kartheiser, Annette O’Toole and Richard Schiff. What was the casting process like for the main characters?
SH: Well, I saw Geoffrey in ‘Super Troopers’ when I was in college, and I felt like he stole the show in it. It was a memorable performance, so I’ve followed his career since.
At a certain point a few years ago, when I thought, everyone has responded well to this material, so I’m going to package and produce it myself, I connected with my friend Jesse Hoy, who I met in L.A. He became a producer on the film as well. His wife is Christina Hendricks’ stylist, so he became friends with Geoffrey (who’s married to Hendricks) over the course of that professional relationship.
I said, “I love this guy, but he hasn’t had an opportunity to play a lead like this. I see he has the ability to really nail it.” So we got Geoffrey the script, and he read it almost immediately on his phone. He attached himself, and then I said to him, “Well, there’s this guy, Vincent Kartheiser, on your wife’s show, and I just love his work. This is a different role for him that people wouldn’t expect from him. But it’s something I think he can excel at.” Geoffrey said, “Well, I’ll try-I do know him.” It took a little longer for Vincent to read it. But when he read it and loved it.
Once I go those two guys, I thought, now I can approach investors to raise the money I need to make this. I was able to get a casting director, and bring on Richard Schiff and Annette O’Toole, and fill out the rest.
I got really lucky. I couldn’t ask for better people with higher caliber talent in the four leads, with Geoffrey, Vincent, Richard and Annette. I think they did wonderfully in communicating what I was trying to get across.
Q: Besides writing and directing ‘Beach Pillows,’ you also served as one of the producers on the film. How did producing and directing the comedy influence each other?
SH: Well, I decided to produce it because I wanted to make the movie, and it hadn’t been made. I worked in film and television over the past decade, so I know what goes into making it happen. So I could attach the actors and raise the money, and I raised the money much like the Coen Brothers did for ‘Blood Simple,’ their first film, through friends, family, bankers, college buddies, doctors, lawyers, etc.
Another thing I do as a producer is make this movie relatively inexpensively and make it look great. A lot of real locations inspired the movie. I used my friends’ homes and apartments, to ground it in the authenticity of the story. I also cast one of my best friends as the third friend, Ed. I thought this guy could really help Geoffrey and Vincent be grounded in the reality of the environment and reality of the story. I based the character of Ed on him as I wrote the script.
So producing helped me make the film. I realized that as much as people liked the movie, no one was going to work as hard to make it happen as I was. So I just assumed all the control as I could. I would do anything that was prohibited and wasn’t getting done that I needed to get done. I also didn’t really have money to pay people; everyone was really working for equity and scale, so I took a lot of it on myself. It was what was required. The risk was high, but people seem to be enjoying the movie.
Q: Also speaking of shooting in real locations, the film was produced and set on Long Island, where you grew up. What was that experience like of making the comedy in your hometown?
SH: It was exciting, because for me, it made the movie authentic. I would try anything I could do to make the movie real, in order to affect people. Whether it was the actors wearing my clothing, or shooting in the backyards or pools or apartments of real places, gave us control. For one thing, we didn’t have to pay crazy rental or real estate fees to work in the space. So I had more time and control, and less of an expense, by using these real places. It also made the story more authentic.
Q: The film is now playing on iTunes, Amazon and VOD. Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand, and why do you think the platform is important for independent films like ‘Beach Pillows?’
SH: It’s been a good experience. For a movie like ours, it would probably cost as much, or more, to put it in theaters and market it than it did to actually make the film. I don’t have the money to do that.
But releasing it On Demand gives us the opportunity to put it in front of anyone with a TV or computer. So the trick for me is to create awareness, and let people know it exists.
I personally love watching movies On Demand, on Amazon and iTunes. I do enjoy going to the theaters. I haven’t licensed theatrical or eventual DVD rights for the film yet, so I’m still eager to pursue those opportunities.
But this was the best model for us at this moment. I didn’t want to sit on the movie, and wait for the best possible release strategy. This gives us the opportunity for anyone in the world who wants to watch the movie to see it. So that’s my ultimate goal, regardless of the size of the screen. I just want audiences to know it’s here. In order for this movie to succeed, people need to love it, and I’m happy that’s the way they’ve been responding thus far.
Q: ‘Beach Pillows’ won Amsterdam Film Festival’s Van Gogh World Cinema Screenwriting Award, and also played at the Lighthouse International Film Festival. What was your experience like at the festivals, and how have viewers responded to the movie?
SH: The festival experience was interesting, and a learning process for me. We didn’t have a sales agent or any studio backing us, so we were blindly submitting to all of these festivals.
My favorite was the Lighthouse International Film Festival, which is close to where I love on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. All my friends and family and the crew were able to come. I think we had the biggest audience at the festival, and it came off great. Watching the movie is an emotional experience, because I relive it all.
I was also honored and moved to receive the world famous screenwriting award from Amsterdam. People are responding well to the movie, and that makes me feel great. That encourages me, and makes me feel like I’m on the right track.
Q: ‘Beach Pillows’ marks your feature film writing, directing and producing debuts. What was the experience of being a first-time filmmaker like? Are there any lessons you learned while making this movie that you will bring to your future projects?
SH: Yes, I learned so much in the 10 years from when I finished the script, to when I was able to make it. In the process of writing, directing and producing, I learned so much about the business. I think so many times in this business, you feel like, I wrote something, so no I have to find someone to direct it. Or, I want to direct something, but I have to find someone to produce it and raise the money.
I created the material, so control the content. So I learned the power was ultimately in my hands, and it was just a matter of how hard I was willing to work to make it come to fruition. I learned a lot, and certainly made mistakes along the way. But those are learning experiences, and I ultimately learned that it doesn’t have to be about anyone else.
In this business, you’re going to hear more noes than you hear yeses. Not a lot of people get to do this for a living. So you have to believe in what you’re doing, and the way it’s coming across. You have to know you’re doing it for a reason, and the reason is for people to see it. That’s why I’m doing this, because I have many more stories I’d like to tell. I feel like that’s my contribution, so I have to do everything in my power to bring these things to the public.
I would urge people not to think about all the roadblocks; just think about what’s required to get it done. Don’t consider things that are in your way; consider it an opportunity to take a shot, regardless of how it turns out. It will make it stronger for your next shot.
Q: Speaking of wanting to tell more stories, do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether writing, directing or both, that you can discuss?
SH: The next movie I want to work on is called ‘The Night,’ and it’s set in Upstate New York. That’s the most I can say right now, but it is written. I also do have some actors in mind. I’m excited, and I hope I have the chance to tell more stories.
Q: You spent several years working in Los Angeles. Are there any lessons you learned there that you would bring to your future projects, or to promoting ‘Beach Pillows?’
SH: I learned that you’re not penalized for taking chances. In a sport like lacrosse, you don’t get penalized for missing a goal; you get the ball back. My point of view is to learn as much as you can and prepare yourself, and then take as many good shots as you can. You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there. The reason you’re making this work is for people to see it. So you have to allow yourself that disappointment and heartbreak. You have to take chances, because no one else is going to push your work for you. You know and care about it more than anyone.
The business is very competitive, and is full of a lot of disappointments. I would urge people to not let that change who you are, or make them cynical. I live my life with the idea that if you treat people with respect and kindness, you’ll ultimately be happier and more successful.
You shouldn’t burn bridges, because you never know where opportunities could be. So you just have to be as kind, respectful, passionate and driven as you can be. It’s a small business, so you never know who’s going to hear something you say to one person. As with anything in life, treat your collaborators and colleagues with kindness, because you’re asking people to put their time and equity into your story. So you couldn’t do it without these people. You should treat them like gold, because they’re making your dream come true.