Two strangers searching for connection across the ocean find each other and themselves over a series of video messages in HANK AND ASHA, possibly the first ever found footage love story. Co-writer, Editor and Producer Julia Morrison describes the idea behind film as “if you found a bundle of love letter in your grandma’s attic and you could press play.” Asha, an Indian woman studying film in Prague, discovers Hank’s film at a local film festival and, since he was not in attendance for a Q&A, reaches out to him through a video message. Hank, languishing in New York City as a PA on a shitty reality show, finds her digital correspondence inspiring and the two strike up an unconventional relationship across the internet. The actors are both standouts and the film is a delight, once of the most simple and yet truthful expressions of romance I’ve seen in years. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that the idea for the film is as much a shooting concept as it is a story. The two characters never meet on screen, and have no dialogue, only trading messages, digital essays of their lives, one at a time, revealing what they want, as they want. I had the opportunity to speak with Morrison and Co-Writer, Director and Producer James E. Duff about their very unique film just before the DVD release .
“Julia and I were teaching at a film school in Prague and we were really feeling isolated,” relates Duff, “and we thought about times when people used to write letters, you know how you would take your time, get your thoughts out on paper.” A friend of theirs told them how he courted his now wife by sending her short films. Just like in a letter, in a video message you can create who you are as well as who you want to be, and video messages include, according to Duff “the anticipation of getting the letter back and you project your fantasy of who that person is.” They decided to create a story around this concept, without ever seeing anything else than what was contained in the video messages. According to Morrison, “that very subjective framing was part of the idea from the very beginning.” Their friend let them watch his video courtship; Duff says “we felt like we were inside this relationship from the development of it through the proposal.” As his friend talked to the camera, it felt like he was talking directly like to the viewer.
HONK AND ASHA is deceptively uncomplicated. These two creative people meet, virtually, and find something they both need. Asha experiences the freedom that would not be possible in her family, who have already arranged a marriage for her, a fact she neglects to tell Hank. Hank is stuck in the opposite of freedom, an artistic paralysis. According to Duff, “he’s stuck, stuck in a van, in a relationship where he’s still stuck kinda in the past, and just very inert. She [Asha] brings out his old playful artistic self.” One of the most interesting aspects of their exchange is the way their imaginative impulses feed off each other. In their first ‘letters,’ Asha goes all out in her filming, taking the camera all around Prague, showing Hank the theatre where his film played, and enjoying what the town has to offer. “She is trying to impress him,” admits Duff, “he’s a filmmaker, and she’s experimenting but also it follows her pattern in being oversees – this jubilant thing where you discover who you are and the world becomes open and Hank responds, which is very encouraging.” Her exuberance unlocks Hank and his videos become more interesting and creative, and less just about him and his crappy job, as he tries to match her. “The progression is him being unlocked, as a person again,” says Duff, “and in the end, if you notice, the very last [message]he’s in the van and the van’s actually moving forward.” Asha’s journey is more difficult. After the initial joy of someone actually understanding her, she realizes she’s accidentally stumbled into something that she’s not ready for. Her video messages simplify and become more confessional. The turning point is when Hank sends her a ticket to come to Paris, and hopes to meet her. At this point, she must admit that she’s not available. According to Duff, “things start to turn a little bit when life starts to intrude. She becomes more careful and guarded in what she shows, a retreat back into reality.”
Asha’s ‘misleading’ of Hank was a topic of much discussion as the film played the festival circuit, and in my own household, where I admitted to wife how angry the character had made me. Morrison tells me my response was not alone: “we’ve definitely heard that response from both men and women about that character with her actions and secrecy. One particularly memorable one came early on from a friend of mine who we showed a rough cut to. The reason she was frustrated with that character was because she reminded her of herself at that age. She gets caught up in this ‘fit’ that feels good. He’s pursuing her pretty hard and she’s sorta trying the whole thing on for size. Until it sort of gets away from her and then she starts to realize the impact and that she hasn’t been forthcoming with this other information. We all sorta make those mistakes.” The distance between them, and their method of discussion doesn’t help, according to Duff. “You don’t want to break the magic, the magic of the correspondence,” he says, “and it’s not in a way that real to her, but then it does hit home.” For me, it’s a moment in the middle of the film where you realize this is going to be more complicated than I thought at the outset.
As the film moves toward it’s ending, it’s nice to find nothing inevitable. This is not a typical romance where you are sure the characters are going to get together [and I’m not going to spoil it]. But in the end, the film is not really about their ‘long term relationship’ anyway, it’s about, according to Duff, “two people coming together and changing their lives.” Whether they get together in the end is less important than the journey to get there. In fact, Duff acknowledges, “we weren’t sure how it was going to end when we first started. We kinda wanted the truth of the story to tell that to us.”
Making a film like this involves its own series of advantages and disadvantages. On the advantage side, every shot is only set up and lit once, and a vast majority of them are indoor and static. On the disadvantage side, the actors are never in the same place together. “As we were casting them, we never did a screen test for chemistry,” says Morrison, “we weren’t casting them in a way you would typically cast leads in a romantic film.” In fact, in this case, the camera test was even more important than the reading. For Morrison, “if they had chemistry with us, with the camera, then we could believe they would have chemistry together.” The actors became collaborators in the script as well, which was more of an outline. “We had written all of the scenes, the letters, in paragraph form, with some sprinkling of dialogue in there,” says Morrison, “it was pretty loose, but we knew the beats for each scene.” There was not much rehearsal, filming each letter ten or so times, a little different in each take. “We wanted to keep it a little awkward,” says Duff, “with Mahira [Kakkar, who plays Asha] we would talk about the intent of the letter and the emotion she was attempting to generate and then she’d use her own imagination.” After shooting for eleven days in Prague, Duff and Morrison flew to New York City, to film ten days with Hank [Andrew Pastides]. With Asha’s letters all ‘in the can,’ they were able to give him at least a sense of what he was responding to. Duff says “we showed him several of her clips but not too many because we didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner, like if he directly responded to her in dialogue then we had to put the message in a certain place.” On the final day of shooting in NYC, they brought Mahira to set “because everybody wanted to see them meet in person. It was very awkward because they didn’t know each other, they had never met and they didn’t know if they should hug or kiss or whatever.”
One thing the actors didn’t have to worry about was actually touching the camera. This was accomplished by a complicated ‘dance’ between the actors and cinematographer so it appeared the characters were operating the camera themselves. Says Duff: “we didn’t want the actors to have to think about that and performing.” However, each ‘letter’ feels completely possible to be of their own making. As Duff continues, “both of these people are budding filmmakers so they’d be careful in their composition.” Part of the research for the film involved Duff and Morrison, who are themselves a couple, making their own video messages for each other, to experiment and find that dynamic. “They were so bad,” says Duff, “And we were so self conscious, how embarrassing.”
Another aspect the couple researched was Asha’s predicament. “We wanted to get it right,” says Duff, “and basically across the board the Indian community’s embraced it, in terms of how it was handled, we’ve played a number of Indian festivals, and they have been like ‘this is how it happens.’” The question of whether or not Asha can go to meet Hank in Paris, explains Duff, “even if her family doesn’t find out, it still sort of changes her life forever.” Morrison says the film playing at Indian or South Asian film festivals is fascinating, and that it “sort of narrows the lens through which you are seeing the film.” This week, HANK AND ASHA played the London Indian Film Festival, the largest South Asian Film Festival outside of Asia, and interestingly, the screening is being sponsored by an Asian online dating site. The film is a very interesting prospect for a date, part old fashion ideals and methodology slamming into modern views and technology. Certainly the interplay of the sexes is a fundamental element to what makes the film so fascinating. For Morrison, “the fact that we are a couple played into it, but we definitely talked about, in a relationship like that, what are the type of things that draw a man or a woman into that sort of courting, that make you keep going with it.” Together they came up with the admittedly oversimplification: “women want to feel understood and men want to feel strong.”
But this film hardly plays out like some sort of Mamet debate on power dynamics. “The emotional starting place for the movie was, in a sense, celebrating those kind of relationships that we’ve had in the past, through that heighten correspondence that can really get you through a tough time,” says Morrison, “they become a part of who you are. Everybody can relate to that feeling. Somebody who was very important to you for a time.” Whether or not Hank and Asha find a way to be together is less important than how they affect each other in the now. According to Duff, “thanks to this encounter he will move forward in his life.”
As the film has travelled across the country and the world (it premiered at Slamdance in January of 2013), the couple has heard many stories from audiences about their own brief encounters that changed their life. One elderly woman told them after a screening that when she was Asha’s age, she never would have gone to Paris, but now, in her seventies, she certainly would. Duff says the festival circuit became their theatrical release and that filmmakers should “go to as many festivals as possible because if you’re not there its like the tree falling in the forest. It’s important to be there because the audience feels connected to you and they take your film more seriously. We were very fortunate to have a year plus run on the circuit and get the film out there.” A couple of months ago Duff and Morrison were on NPR Weekend Edition out of DC and they were surprised to field calls from all across the country, a steady stream of people who had seen the film at a local film festival and wanted to talk about it and engage with the creators.
There are many films that sort of lose some of their spark on VOD, on a television, but I have to say this is one of the few that seems to be made to be experienced in an intimate space. It’s a great film to watch with a loved one, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
HANK AND ASHA becomes available today, July 15th on DVD, and can also be seen on HULU plus.