Breckenridge Film Festival presents “Guys Reading Poems,” a neo-noir film that explores a dark tale through poetic elements
The book of poetry sat on Hunter Lee Hughes’ shelf for several years, since he’d collected it from his grandmother’s house after she passed away. When the filmmaker finally opened it, he found a surprise within — passages circled and underlined, notes on the page in his grandmother’s handwriting.
“It was a bit mysterious because there wasn’t a lot of new information there, but she had interacted with them on the page, and so it was this mysterious thing where some of these poems became almost like clues to who my grandmother was as a woman, and I began to be interested in the idea that poetry could be clues to the psychology of a person who reads them,” Hughes said. “And I think that’s an idea that’s within the film. I just started thinking about how I could combine poetry and cinema, and that’s how it got started.”
The film is Hughes’ creation “Guys Reading Poems,” a black-and-white independent movie that is showing at the Breckenridge Film Festival Friday at 3 p.m. It features the story of a troubled, artistic family living in Los Angeles, the young son of which is put in danger. The tale is bolstered by poetry, both classic and modern, spoken aloud.
POETRY IN BLACK AND WHITE — INK, PAGE AND FILM
“I think they go together much better than you might think,” Hughes said of the fusion of cinema and poetry.
While the two artistic mediums may not seem like obvious companions, the connection between the two slowly started to make sense to Hughes as he began to put “Guys Reading Poems” together.
“I think cinema has always had an influence from poetry, because there’s so many visual moments that can be likened to a phrase in a poem … I think it can go together well if you have some creativity with how you combine them,” he said. “I think film can be like (poetry), too, because there’s something voyeuristic about it. You’re going into these people’s lives, hopefully — if the filmmaker’s good — in a pretty deep way.”
Hughes’ film features many classic poets, including William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale. The latter two, particularly, were new to Hughes when he started the project.
“I wasn’t aware of some of the female poets that were from previous eras,” he said. “One of my grandmother’s favorites was Edna St. Vincent Millay and I’ve definitely read her work a lot now, and I just think she’s a fascinating figure and a really incredible poet. We use two pieces from her in the film — ‘Lament’ and ‘Tavern’ — and I wasn’t aware of just how impactful her work has been.”
From Teasdale, Hughes utilizes “A Boy” and “Let it be Forgotten,” in his film.
“Just seeing people watching the film and the reaction they have to some of her work, it’s really moving, so I’m happy that I learned more about those two in particular,” he said, “especially thinking my grandmother, being a woman of that era, those were people that she really responded to.”
While part of the decision to rely mainly on classic and Biblical poems was pragmatic — they’re public domain, magic words for an indie film on a budget — Hughes said the older poems added to the black-and-white aesthetic of the film.
Hughes really wanted to procure that 1950s-era aesthetic, he said, an idea strengthened by the film “Dead Poets Society,” in which Robin Williams plays a professor at a boys boarding school who teaches his young students to love poetry.
Shooting in black and white also has its pragmatic sides.
“I feel like having color is another huge element to manage, and especially with a story that requires the audience to really suspend their disbelief,” Hughes said. “When it’s in color, people just pay attention to every single detail and it’s that much harder to get people transported to another world. But when the film is black and white, you’re immediately transporting the audience to another world.”
CHARACTERS OF INFINITE SPACE
All the characters of “Guys Reading Poems” are referred to by titles — The Director, The Artist, The Boy. The family at the film’s center is breaking apart. The Father is drifting away from The Mother, an artist who, as she spirals mentally out of control, takes out her frustration on The Boy by locking him in a box as part of an “art installation.”
Patricia Velasquez, known for her roles in movies such as “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns,” as well as various television appearances, plays The Mother.
“It was brave of her to take the role,” Hughes said. “It’s a very dark role and she does it really, really well. I’m just so happy that she said yes and was in the film, and did such an amazing job.”
Velasquez said she prefers to take roles in which she connects with the script, its ideas and goals. She recalled that Hughes, whom she has worked with in the past, wrote to her about “Guys Reading Poems.”
“I got this beautiful letter from him, his interpretation of this film and wanting me to be a part of it,” Velasquez said. “And after I read the letter I was like, ‘Absolutely, I want to be a part of it.’”
Velasquez said she enjoys reading poetry, especially with her daughter, and even more so after being involved in the film. Her favorite writers range from Shel Silverstein to Pablo Neruda and Marco Aurelio Chavezmaya to the Sufi poets.
Taking on the role of a troubled woman who commits a despicable action was a challenge, but Velasquez was ready.
“One of the things they teach is to never judge your characters,” she said. “If they come from a prime need of survival, then you will connect with them. … Everyone inside of themselves has those things, the guilt, the whatever-it-is that will connect you to a character. We all have them.”
Rex Lee, who plays The Investor, didn’t need to reach quite so deep to justify his own character’s actions. Lee, who is known for his role in the television show “Entourage” and, most recently, “Young & Hungry,” describes his character as “the money guy” who hangs around the film’s artists.
“Any time you’re called upon to play a role, obviously if the role is similar to you then great, that’s easy,” he said. “But I think when the role isn’t similar to you, you really do your best to figure out what’s going on in your life that’s like the character’s life. You find the parallels and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it isn’t.”
Robert Frost and e. e. cummings are among Lee’s favorite poets.
FEARLESS AND SHY
Films, both small and large, are not easy to make, and Hughes ran into his fair share of opposition.
“I think certainly some people think it’s too esoteric, before the film was made and even now,” he said. “That’s part of the nature of the beast of making any film. … Whenever you make a film, you have to accept that it’s not for everyone, so I think the way you can judge whether you’re just navel gazing or whether you do have something that’s going to speak to some people is to pay attention to the reaction of people you feel some sort of connection to.”
And Hughes found positive reactions, from places both expected and unexpected.
“In the early stages, I discovered there were a lot more people who had a relationship to poetry than I ever expected,” he said, such as his boxing teacher, a tough guy from Brooklyn. “There were so many stories like that … so that gave me hope despite the fact that some people, you pitch it to them and their eyes glaze over, and they say the code words, ‘I’m not sure this is commercial, I’m not sure this is accessible.’ I deal with that a lot.”
Velasquez said she understands Hughes’ struggle.
“He’s very, very brave to do a film like this,” she said. “I’m so proud of him for it, because you’ve got to take risks, and he really took a risk.
Hughes said he loves the idea of his film being shown at festivals like Breckenridge.
“I think film festivals are really important now even more than ever before, because although there’s so much accessibility to films — in terms of people have Netflix, people can go buy something on Amazon Prime — but also the downside to all that accessibility is that we forget that there’s something really special about sharing a film with an audience, that seeing something for the first time,” he said. “I feel like film festivals are such a great way to experience film and be reminded that it’s not just the film itself but the experience of watching it with other human beings for the first time that’s so special. Then you go out for coffee afterwards and talk about it, and in some mysterious way (it) makes the community a little bit better, because it was a shared experience of that thing.”
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