Courageously pursuing your dreams, even if you don’t always achieve your goals on the first attempt, is one of the most important things that helps build character and determination. Not only does the protagonist, 13-year-old prodigy Eli Pettifog, of the new independent comedy, ‘HairBrained,’ daringly set out to stand up for himself after being neglected by his mother, rejected from his first choice college and ridiculed by his peers, but up-and-coming writer-director-producer, Billy Kent, is also proving his determination with the film. The filmmaker’s new movie, which is now playing in select theaters and on VOD, proves his abilities as a fearless storyteller who’s willing to showcase important lessons and themes in his projects.
‘HairBrianed’ follows Eli (Alex Wolff) as he enrolls in Whittman College after graduating high school early. He always dreamed of attending his first choice school, Harvard, but when he’s rejected by the prestigious university, he’s sent to Whittman by his neglectful mother, Sheila (Parker Posey). The dismissal from both the Ivy League school and his mother leaves Eli feeling apprehensive of the people around him.
But Eli’s views on life start to change when he becomes friends with 41-year-old fellow freshman, Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), who begins to pay attention to the young genius as he takes a break from his life. The young student also begins to build his confidence as he develops a friendship with a local 15-year-old girl, Shauna (Julia Garner). As Eli slowly starts to believe in himself with the help of his new friends during his important year of maturing, his self-assurance is crushed when he’s humiliated by students from Harvard during the Collegiate Mastermind quiz-show competition. But with his encyclopedic knowledge of just about every subject, Eli becomes the standout team member of the Whittman Warring Hares. As a result, he begins traveling around the country to participate in other competitions. By excelling in the quiz show, he discovers how important his skills really are in helping him succeed.
Kent generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘HairBrained’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director-producer discussed how he collaboratively works with Bird and Wierzbianski to create the storyline and characters of the films they write together; how he decided to produce for the first time with the comedy, because if feels that if filmmakers want to achieve the creative process they desire, they have to put in the work needed to obtain it; and how it meant a lot to him that the movie opened, and won awards at, last year’s Brooklyn Film Festival, as he and many of the crew members live the New York City borough, and the festival greatly recognized their work.
Question (Q): You co-wrote the script for ‘HairBrained’ with Sarah Bird and Adam Wierzbianski. How did you all come together to pen the screenplay, and what was your overall collaboration like?
Billy Kent (BK): Sarah, Adam and I have been writing together for about 10 years. We previously worked on ‘The Oh in Ohio’ together, and had another script that was optioned together.
The way that we work as a collaborative team is that we talk about the kind of movie we want to make, what we’re looking for in a character and how we want to proceed. I was involved from the very beginning with Sarah and Adam. We worked on coming up with the storyline and the idea together, and then we started workshopping the project until the script was complete.
Q: Besides working on the script, you also directed the movie. As you were working on the screenplay, was it always your intention to helm the comedy? In general, do you prefer directing scripts that you did write?
BK: I always intended on directing this movie. Sarah, Adam and I always work on projects that I could direct, or that we would work on as a company together. In the future, we might take different formats with different people directing. But for this project and our previous film, ‘The Oh in Ohio,’ the goal was for me to direct.
I would also be interested in directing scripts that were written by other people. Over the years, I’ve spoken to different producers and writers about other projects. I am working on other things with other people.
Of course, I’m also continuing to work on things with Adam and Sarah. We have different kinds of collaborations we’re working on, but I’m always interested in different kinds of projects. As a director, I’m interested in interpreting written work. It’s my goal to take on those challenges, and also filter different kinds of points of views. It depends on the project and idea, and where it comes from.
Q: Speaking of Sarah, you’re partners with her in your company, Love Lane Pictures, and you worked together on ‘The Oh in Ohio.’ What’s your working relationship with her like overall?
BK: It’s great; Sarah’s a fantastic producer. She’s not only the creative producer on this film, but also one of the writers. So we have a very close, collaborative relationship. She’s a very creative person, as she comes from a sculpting background, and is an active, working sculptor.
We come from totally different creative disciplines, so it’s nice that we bring different kinds of viewpoints to projects. She brings a totally thematic overview of visual ideas, while I get behind the camera and work with actors. I also understand scene structure and moving storylines along. So we bring different elements to it.
Sarah has directed stuff on her own that I have produced for her. We trade off, and I’m sure she’ll direct another movie at some point, and hopefully I’ll produce that. It’s a fluid relationship.
Q: Speaking of producing, ‘HairBrained’ is the first movie you served as a producer on. Why did you decide to also produce the movie, besides working on the script and directing it?
BK: Nowadays, I think you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and make the phone calls and put yourself out on the line, in order to get the creative process you want done. Sarah’s really put out her efforts to raise the money and shepherd the film from the storytelling point, all the way through. I also utilized my connections and my producing skills to bring the film to the point where we could get it made.
We approached producing in different ways. But there are a lot of things a director naturally does when they’re making a film, which blurs the lines between directing and producing.
Since this was a project that was made from the ground up, it just seemed natural to be involved as a producer from early on. Since Sarah and I were producers, we made end of the line provisions, including that we could edit longer. Also, if we wanted to cast somebody in particular, such as Parker Posey, we would pick up the phone and call her directly and ask her. Those are the things that producers do to get what they need to done.
Q: ‘HairBrained’ was shot independently. How did that influence the way you directed the movie, and what was the overall experience of shooting the movie independently?
BK: The experience was amazing. One of the things that I found to be exciting about shooting this film was that we had a very small, creative group of people working on it, including Sarah and Adam, who was on set as the writer.
Working as producers, we decided things like the location, and didn’t have to ask anyone else if that was right or not. On a daily basis, every decision we made influenced the film. When you’re working on a film that doesn’t have a huge budget, you gain this creative control.
But at the same time, it creates a very exciting experience. Everything you’re doing hopefully ends up on the screen. At times, you’re working much longer hours to make that happen.
Q: What was that process like overall for the main actors? How did you come to cast Alex Wolff, who portrayed the lead character, Eli Pettifog?
BK: We had a great, fantastic casting team, including David Caparelliotis and Mele Nagler. We probably looked at about 500 kids before we came to Alex. Sarah and I had seen Alex when he was a lot younger, while we were actually still writing the script. We thought he was a wonderful, terrific kid, but too young for the movie.
But by the time the script was really ready, we was just almost 13. We saw about three or four times. Every time we saw him, we said, “Don’t cut your hair.” (laughs) By the time we were ready to pull the trigger, he had become a really terrific actor. We saw a lot of talented actors, but he fit the role.
Q: You mentioned Parker Posey earlier, who you previously worked with on ‘The Oh in Ohio.’ What was it like reuniting with her on ‘HairBrained?’
BK: It was awesome; she’s great, terrific and wonderful. I think she’s super talented. In my experience, she’s so easy to work with. She always brings her best work to the screen, and is so professional. I feel like I can simply whisper the direction where I want her to take the character in her ear, and she understands how to take it to that destination.
She brings so much subtlety and charm to any role. Even when she’s playing a careless mother, like in ‘HairBrained,’ she really shines on screen. She’s fun to shoot with, and she’s collaborative. I love working with her.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal periods with the actors before you began shooting?
BK: Well, the nature of the movie, and how Alex and Brendan Fraser’s characters come together, I didn’t want them to spend a lot of time together and become familiar with each other before we began shooting. Part of the story is about them learning to come together.
We shot the movie somewhat, but not completely, in order, because it would have been impossible to do it that way. But that allowed them to get to know each other, and get closer, as they do in the movie.
Alex and I rehearsed quite a bit together before the film started shooting, just to get a sense of his own character. So we worked together, on and off, for a few weeks.
Q: The movie is currently playing in select theaters, as well as on VOD. Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand? Do you feel the platform is important for independent movies like ‘HairBrained?’
BK: I think it’s an awesome platform, because I know what it’s like to have a family, and not be able to get out to the theater all the time. Most people have television screens that are between 30 and 50 inches, and can also watch films on the go on their computers. So people can still become absorbed in the cinematic viewing experience on VOD, just as well as they can in a theater.
It’s nice to have a film in the theater, but it’s also great to watch a film on TV. The lines have become so blurred these days, I don’t have a problem with the platform, from a directing standpoint. You don’t change how you’re directing, just because someone’s going to watch the film on VOD, just as they would on any other format. Overall, I think it’s a cool format.
Q: Last May, the film opened the Brooklyn Film Festival, where Alex won the Best Actor Award. What does it mean to you that the comedy premiered at the festival, since you live in Brooklyn, as well as Alex winning the award?
BK: Adam actually won the Best Screenplay Award there, as well. It meant a lot, because we wanted the film to open in our hometown; we love Brooklyn, and Adam, Sarah and I live there. A lot of the actors also live in Brooklyn, and I think it’s a fantastically great place to live now. I’m a fan of cheering it on in any way.
The Brooklyn Film Festival has been good to me over many years, including when I had short films there years ago. ‘The Oh in Ohio’ played at the Brooklyn Museum, and last year ‘HairBrained’ opened the festival. It allowed everyone who worked on the movie to be there when it opened, and that was a great experience.
It’s fantastic when people win awards for their work, because it recognizes how hard they worked. Adam and Alex really put their heart and soul into the project, so it was great to have their work recognized.
Q: Speaking of the fact that you worked on short films earlier in your career, what was the transition process like, going from directing them to helming features? How does working on shorts compare and contrast to features?
BK: Well, I love making short films. Whatever the chosen length of a film is, whether it’s five minutes, three minutes, 40 seconds or a feature, there are a lot of similarities. In the process of doing shorter formats, you learn that like in a movie, there are a lot of shorter montage moments with themes and formats that you have to sculpt and shape. You have to understand what the important moments are to tell the story most effectively.
I have also directed well over 300 television commercials. In a commercial, you may only have 14 or 15 shots, and in a short film, you might have 15 or 20. So there are a lot of similarities. It obviously depends on the moment and the theme and montage. You learn how to tell the most important parts of the story, and focus the direction of the viewer to the right emotion, tone or idea.
Q: Besides ‘HairBrained,’ do you have any upcoming projects, whether writing, directing and/or producing, lined up that you can discuss?
BK: We have a script that we’re working on right now, tentatively called ‘Blind Debt,’ and it’s a heist movie. There are also a couple other projects we’re working on at the same time, including something Sarah might direct, or that we might do together. We’re working on a bunch of different ideas at the moment, inclusing some TV projects, as well.