Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Interview With G.B. Hajim, Director of STRANGE FRAME

Director G.B. Hajim's STRANGE FRAME (2012) has all the ingredients of an instant science fiction cult classic if you ask me. I was excited to learn about this film and even more excited after I saw it. (Click here to read my post on five reasons you should watch it, too.)

My thirst to learn more about the person (and his team) behind this unique project was great, so when G.B. Hajim indicated he was available for an interview, I jumped at the chance.

As you'll discover, STRANGE FRAME is a true labor of love and a film many years in the making. Many movies have an interesting production history, but few fascinate me as much as the one behind STRANGE FRAME.

Please join me in welcoming director G.B. Hajim aboard The Galaxy Express!

The Galaxy Express: Mr. Hajim, please tell us about yourself! How did you get started in filmmaking?

G.B. Hajim: I went to university to study Astrophysics, but got seduced into the arts. I began in painting, but my early pieces were bought and either put in private homes or even shelved in corporate archives. It was weird to finish a work and poof it vanished from not only my life, but all my friends' who were the actual inspiration of the work.

I experimented in public installations (I built a massive underground sweat lodge) and muralism (I went to Mexicali and worked with orphans painting murals), but film and video actually captured both sides of my brain.

I went to grad school to study directing, but I committed kind of career suicide moving to the rural area of Hawaii. It took me years before I was working in my field. During my first jobs, I spent countless hours doing video work on the active volcano, crossing active flows with the U.S. Geological Survey and burning a few pair of boots along the way.

One of my workdays on the volcano (Running time: 15 seconds):
I learned to speak Hawaiian in those early days on the island and worked with the Hawaiian community to develop over 150 video programs in the Hawaiian language. It was an awesome time working with awesome people. Where else can you work with mandatory hugs before a meeting begins? We produced the first feature film in any language of the Americas – Ka╩╗ililauokekoa. During this time I cut my teeth on this style of cut out animation I used in Strange Frame.

TGE: What was the core inspiration for STRANGE FRAME?

GBH: For me, in the images, to show a future that I believe more closely reflects where we are headed: Our collective freaky future where it is not so much about how we reshape technology and our lives by moving into space, but how we are reshaped by hundreds of years dabbling into our genome and trying to live in the harshest environments.

 In the story, to tell a story that flies in the face of most of our current mythology: fame and fortune doesn't make you happy. Love and friendship in a struggle, on the other hand, does.

TGE: Which came first—the story idea or the concept for the animation?

GBH: Shelley Doty, the co-creator, and I sat down in 1999 to sketch out some ideas for a TV series that MTV eventually wanted to buy (but not have us involved in the production). I did some concept animation for them in 2002. We began the actual conversion to a feature film in 2005 when we started on that script.

TGE: Lesbian main characters. People of Color. Romance. Science fiction. Genetic engineering. Cut-out animation style. STRANGE FRAME is chock full of non-mainstream content. It's a huge risk for a filmmaker and I, for one, commend you for it.

Tongue-in-cheek here: Are there any niche elements you *didn't* recruit for STRANGE FRAME? In other words, why was it important to you to place them front and center in the narrative?

GBH: Hate to turn it serious, but when Hollywood makes a sci-fi film, it still relies heavily on structure and elements from the Western's of the 1940s and 1950s: white dude hero, damsel in distress. 

When I was researching how myopic they continue to be, I found that most sci-fi TV puts a white hetero male hero whose name starts with J (think about it: Star Trek, Babylon 5, Stargate, et.al. – of course Joss doesn't) I do love these shows, but the future should be more inclusive, eh?

On the other hand, Hawaii is the future. Most people here are a mix of cultures and ethnicities. Really, the image of a white hetero male as our future is such a fallacy. Most of the people on the planet are of color. 

As far as lesbians leads, again, a future where heterosexuality is the norm? Another fallacy. When we finally throw off the shackles of the Puritans, most folks will recognize, as pointed out by Tony Curtis in The Celluloid Closet, that “sexuality is more fluid”. I could go on because we did put everything in there – like a space elevator (far more likely than the wasteful, but more dramatic, rocket launching from a planet). 

What Shelley and I wanted to do is to show a future that we feel more closely reflects the direction we are truly heading, not as window dressing for battle and chase scenes like most films of this genre.

As far as cut out style, it allowed us to be more artistic and free with our work. Maya (CG) was used in about 10% of the shots, but it is a highly technical program that uses tons of processing and work time. We spent most of our time just drawing and because it was simply drawing budget never got in the way of our imagination. We could be as weird and crazy as we wanted! Over 8000 hand drawings were animated for the movie. The other aspect was I wanted to create something unique. CG has a certain homogeneity that didn't work for our film.

TGE: Is it true you rejected a lucrative financing offer in order to use the film's production as an opportunity to help your local community of East Hawaii? How did your decision impact the film's production?

GBH: Yes. I had a producer in the early days who was doing the production of films in China and Eastern Europe. She had government support and could get me 50% of my budget if I moved the production overseas. And this is where my frakking bleeding heart gets in the way of the possible easy path: This island really needs all the opportunities it can get and so I steadfastly kept most of the work here. The effect was that we had to work with a very small budget, but the impact was scores of inspired youth and a lot of pride here on the island. Our debut at the local theater was huge. It took us over an hour to get the line of people into the screening.

TGE: What was the most gratifying aspect of making this film?

GBH: Getting cards at the holidays from my animators thanking me for helping make all their dreams come true. You have to understand that where I live economic depression is hidden by the beauty of the island. Most people live far below the poverty level. One animation intern's mother came up to me and said “when I was her age I could draw as well as her, but there were no opportunities here, so when I graduated I joined the military, then came back got married, had kids, and never drew again. Thank you.”

Seeing my former interns go on to college, but one striking moment was right after the DragonCon screening. The Q&A jus began and a young woman was the first to stand up, in tears she said: “I am a lesbian. You don't know how much it means to me that you made this movie. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

TGE: As a fan of many niche stories and being aware of the visibility challenges they face, I imagine finding distribution for STRANGE FRAME might not have been cut-and-dry. But I could be wrong. What was the path to distribution like for this film?

GBH: Joel and Ethan Coen's former producers rep Jeff Dowd aka The Dude (made famous by the film The Big Lebowski) had come on board. He was convinced that I could be the next big thing and Strange Frame could be a break out film.

We spent months on recuts and tried raising money for a new opening (showing Parker leaving her comfortable life and Naia being arrested for leading a revolt in the silicate mines). We did add some of the new stuff, but we couldn't get a distributor on board to help with financing the other changes.

The money I set aside to launch our festival run had been burned through with the recuts (FYI- PIXAR typically redoes 50% of their movies after test screenings. We wanted to do about 15%). We were running out of money and I felt like the whole project was going to implode and take me with it (During the end of production I ended up in the hospital from bradycardia).

We even got push back from some of the biggest LGBT festivals. They told us lesbians won't come out for sci-fi or animation. (Really? Really?)

Strange Frame was tapped to debut in London and I was invited to speak at the British Film Institute, but I was really broke and just about resigned myself to missing the opening and festival run. Luckily, Jeffrey Winter of the Film Collective had heard about my movie and convinced Wolfe Releasing to distribute it. They paid for my trip to London and helped with our festival run…but of course, given their library of films, they framed it as a romance including directing the cover art for the DVD. They have done a great job getting the DVD and VOD everywhere, but everyone tells me it is so much more than a lesbian romance and would get a wider audience if we just called it a “universal romance” or a "trip of a movie." We have been approached since then for a theatrical deal, but I don't know how it will work given the rights that are no longer available. So, yeah. Tough.

TGE: Describe a few of your favorite science fiction books/films.

GBH: Anything by John Varley especially Steel Beach. I mean a sci-fi detective that switches gender halfway through the book, so cool. Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Cowboy Bebop is my favorite animated series though Peter Chung is my favorite animator. Fifth Element is my sci-fi guilty pleasure and I'm sure people that have seen Strange Frame will know that Blade Runner has to be my favorite film. Joss Whedon and Jane Espenson are my favorite TV writers and feel blessed to have had Strange Frame on panels with Jane at Bent Con.

TGE: Where can interested viewers access STRANGE FRAME?

GBH: Almost everywhere! The DVD is available on Amazon. That gets the most money back to us so we can work on new projects, but it is on iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Xbox, Target Online, and many others. Internationally, you can find it on Distrify (just google strange frame and distrify). One of my fans (thanks Sarah!) lobbied Amazon UK to carry it and you can get it there.

TGE: What's next for G.B. Hajim?

GBH: I have a slate of films in development, some stars attached, but no money yet. I work on my farm, teach at the local college, homeschool my youngest kid, and if that's not enough, (because making a film makes all this seem way too easy), I'm putting together a big fan convention on our island: www.hawaiicon.com

I mean HawaiiCon is at a hotel on the beach, Jane Espenson and her creative partner Brad Bell of Husbands fame is coming and a whole slew of great stars from a dozen shows. How can anyone pass that up?


Mr. Hajim, many thanks for sharing your stories about STRANGE FRAME, and especially for your art!

Joyfully yours,