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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jun. 16, 2010 | 1:27 PM

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Interview with THE NEW YEAR Writer/Director Brett Haley

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Glen (Lance Brannon) and Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn) wait for the pins to drop in The New Year.  Photo courtesy of Brett Haley.

The New Year, which screens in this year’s narrative competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is a film about a detour.  Its main character, Sunny Elliott (a standout performance by Trieste Kelly Dunn) is a former high school valedictorian who’s been forced to leave college in her junior year so she can return home to Florida to take care of her ailing father.  What was supposed to be a temporary situation stretches into months and then years, and Sunny’s now settled into a comfortable routine.

When a former high school rival returns home for Christmas break, however, her eyes are opened to future possibilities and a nagging sense of wasted potential.  Both slyly comedic and genuinely moving, the film invites the audience along on Sunny’s voyage of discovery.

The New Year’s co-writer and director, Brett Haley, recently spoke with FilmRadar about his filmmaking process, his love of bowling, and the “sugar sands” of Pensacola.

FilmRadar:  You’re obviously fond of bowling, if this film is any indication.  What made you decide to place Sunny’s character in that environment?

Brett Haley: Well, you’re right, I have always been a fan of bowling.  Bowling Center, is what they like to call it, they don’t like to call it a bowling alley.  The Bowling Center we shot in was actually the one I grew up hanging out in when I was a kid, you know, from birthday parties, up until my teenage years when I would go there and sort of re-enact the Big Lebowski with my friends, it was a place that was pretty special to me. And yeah, I don’t know, it’s not the best job around, working shoes, I don’t think.  But I wouldn’t mind it.  I really loved hanging out at the bowling alley, and I don’t think a lot of movies have shown what it’s really like, so I just thought it would be a pretty interesting place for my character to work.  For her, for Sunny, she’s looking for something she can ignore, when she gets a job, and that for her, is pretty easy for her to ignore, for whatever reason. She’s just not interested when we meet her.

FR: Right.  It gives her plenty of time to read.

BH: Yeah, exactly.  Here’s your pair of twelves and then it’s back to Pride and Prejudice or the Moviegoer, or what have you.

FR: It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a film with three credited bowling advisors. 

BH:The reason it was that way is that whoever was with us at the time would sort of help Trieste (Kelly Dunn, who plays Sunny), because Trieste did all of her own bowling.

FR: Wow.

BH: Yeah, she did every shot, all the strikes are all Trieste.  Whenever she wasn’t shooting, she was learning.  Basically the owner and two gentlemen who work there who are all very excellent bowlers would help her between takes, or help her beforehand, or as we were shooting sort of give her advice.  Yeah, I think we had more bowling advisors than we do any other credit on the movie, I think.

FR: I liked the Christmas Decorations in the bowling alley.  Excuse me, bowling center.

BH: Thank you.  We shot the film in January so they were really nice to keep all that stuff up for us. 

FR: Even though the characters describe it as a place that people get stuck in, they still seem to have a lot of affection for Pensacola.  You grew up in that area, so how was your experience shooting there?

BH: It was amazing.  By no means am I saying that Pensacola is a bad place to be stuck in.  I think it’s a great place to be stuck in.  I just think for Sunny, it’s just not right for her specifically.  For other characters in the film, I think Pensacola’s a great place to be.  So it’s not really about being stuck in Pensacola per se, it’s about being stuck anywhere.  You can be stuck in New York or Los Angeles, or what have you, so it’s just a personal thing.  Sunny needs a little bit more than maybe what Pensacola has to offer, so it’s a very personal thing for her.

I love Pensacola, I love going home.  Shooting there was like a dream.  The only way I got the film made the way that I did was that everyone in Pensacola basically opened their doors to me, including the Bowling Center people, and all the locations.  People gave us free food, and put us up in their beach houses…you couldn’t have asked for a better place to shoot a movie.  They welcomed us with open arms and it was a really wonderful experience.

FR: There seems to be a movement towards improvisation in a lot of indie films these days, but yours script seemed very tight.  Can you describe your writing process?

BH: I wrote the script with my sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kennedy, who’s actually a lawyer.  She’d started writing, and I’d read some of her stuff and when I came up with the initial idea for the script I called her because I thought it would be good to have a female perspective on the film since I had never done a movie with a female main character.  Basically we would plot out up to a certain point, and then she would write ten pages, send me the ten pages, I would edit and then write another ten and I would send them back to her.  We kind of went back and forth like that and we would talk about where we wanted to go.  We didn’t know where we were going the whole time, but we kind of knew the basics for us of what we were trying to do. Somewhere close to the middle of writing, I came up with the idea for the ending so we kind of knew that’s where we were gonna go, and then we just kept writing ten pages back and forth.  It was just one of those things where, in this case, Elizabeth and I really had a flow, we understood, and we agreed on what was good and what was bad.  The film is basically 98 percent what’s on the page.

I’m a huge fan of improvisation, but I think it’s a lot better if you can just write a great script.  I’m not saying I did it, I’m just saying if you can write a great script, you should shoot that script, because it’s just a better way of working, as opposed to trying to find magic.  Although I do love improvisation, I think it’s great.  I have done some improvised projects before, but they can be extremely frustrating as well.

FR: It depends a lot on the cast.  Trieste Kelly Dunn delivers a beautiful central performance in the film, and she also appears in your short A Night Out.  What is that makes your collaboration so successful?

BH: You know, I’m not sure.  I think it’s trust, more than anything.  She trusts me, and I trust Trieste.  She trusts me to do my job and my sensibility, and I trust her to do her job.  She has great instincts as an actor. She’s implanted and gifted with instinct.  I don’t really have to say much.  As long as we’ve agreed on what the scene is about before we start shooting, she can get there.  She’s sort of hands off in that way. When asked to perform, and there are some emotional scenes in the film, when asked to step up to the plate, she’ll hit a home run.  It’s rare to find actors like that who are really prepared and can just step into something and be emotionally ready and not think about it.

Trieste I hope would say that I try really hard in making an environment for actors in which they feel safe to do that kind of work.  To me it’s imperative over any part of filmmaking. Creating a set that’s calm and collected for the actor to feel comfortable in is paramount to anything else in my opinion.

FR: I think that’s especially true in this particular film where she has to cover such a wide range.

BH: Right.  From comedy to very emotional dramatic scenes.  Hopefully, that’s a natural arc in the script, so she can sort of track it.  The way that we shot…we didn’t have any crew or lights or equipment really, we just had a few cameras, and that was really it.  So we just hopefully created a no stress kind of place for these people to work.  I think Trieste and the rest of the cast really stepped up and gave really beautiful natural performances and I’m really proud of everybody in the film.

FR: It’s hard to make a moving film about…not moving.  Was it hard to get the pacing of this film right?

BH:Yeah, I think it was. It’s definitely a concern.  I think a lot of people start watching it and ask, where is this going? It’s kind of moving along at its own pace, and its not really specifically plot driven, it’s sort of character driven and it’s something that I purposefully did.  I didn’t want to make a plotty film. I wanted it to feel natural.  There was a lot of comedy that was in the script that’s not actually in the final film, because it didn’t really work.  That was a big part of the editing process, sort of trimming it and finding the right flow.  Because really the movie’s about Sunny’s emotional trajectory, following her realization as she goes.  And it’s very personal.  It is tough to plot a movie on someone’s emotions, but I feel like we did the best we could.  I edited the film and would just show it constantly to people I trusted until we got it to a place where we thought it was good.

FR: One of the things I liked best about the film was how specific the characters are, from Neal’s tae kwan do all the way to Sunny’s dad’s affection for reality television.  Were all of those things in the script, or did some of those details come from the actors?

BH: They’re all scripted.  I grew up in Tae Kwan Do, so that’s something very personal to me as well.  I used to be one of those kids that’s in the movie doing the demo at the theatre.  Elizabeth really threw in a lot of flair for Sunny’s dad, how he was a professor, or was a writer who isn’t writing much anymore, or does sort of watch Flavor of Love or what have you.  For all the characters, we tried to make it so they’re living full lives.  I really don’t like movies, especially romantic comedies, or romantic dramas, which I guess you could compare the New Year to, where characters only exist to move the plot forward.  They sort of pop in, do their little job, and move the plot along.  I think that’s really kind of lazy filmmaking. 

The idea we were going for with the characters is that they’re whole people, that are living their own lives separate of Sunny.  So when they come in, they’re weaving their way in and out of Sunny’s life more naturally. So it’s not just that they’re there to serve her, they’re doing their own things, so it feels a little bit more natural, the interaction.  I think by focusing and giving your supporting characters as much time and energy as your main character, you get that balance.  And that people respect that and go, ‘oh this is like real life, these aren’t just stock, black and white characters, these are real, emotional, flawed people.’  That was the goal.

FR: The images of Sunny and her Dad talking on the beach were very moving, especially in light of the recent events in the gulf.  Have you been in touch with any of the people you worked with in Pensacola since the BP disaster?

BH: I have.  Nobody is more upset about it than gulf coast people.  I grew up my whole   life on the Gulf Coast.  I grew up in Key West and Penasacola, Florida.  It could be one of those situations where my movie and some other films that have gotten the opportunity to capture Pensacola beach could have sort of rear glimpses into what it once was.  I hope that’s not the case.  To me, it’s the most tragic thing to ever happen in the United States.  Maybe not the most tragic, but it’s the thing that hits me the most personally.  It is really sad, though, with those beautiful shots of the beach, you can see the sugar white sand and all that.  I hope it stays like that, I hope they can figure it out.

FR: Was there ever a concern that Trieste might have to compete against herself since she has two films in this festival (The New Year and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, which will screen out of competiton in the festival’s Summer Showcase section)

BH: No there wasn’t.  We shot The New Year before Aaron and those guys shot Cold Weather.  Aaron’s a pretty established guy now in the indie world, and he has a real following and his films are great.  I haven’t seen Cold Weather yet, but I’ve loved his other films.  I didn’t even really think about it.  His film has done amazingly well this year.  It’s been more sort of fun than anything.  People can see Trieste and go, “Oh, so you’re also in Cold Weather.  We’re all from the same college (North Carolina School of the Arts), me and Aaron Katz and there’s another filmmaker named Martha Stephens, and another friend of mine named Zach Clark, he made a film called Vacation, these films are all…we’re all doing it on our own with no support…we’re going out, run and gun style, and we’re making films, so I think it’s great that we get to share a little bit with each other, every once in a while, because we all came from the same place and the same sort of mentality of “just go out and make a film.” And I think that people that pull off making a film, much less a good film, on their own, with no support, deserve their place in the spotlight.  It’s really fun that Cold Weather‘s gonna be at LA, and that Trieste will get to sort of experience both movies again, and see how people react.  From what I understand they’re also very different movies, so that’s exciting.

FR: The film is screening in the narrative competition at this year’s LA Film Festival.  After the festival screenings, do you have a distributor in place?

BH: We don’t.  We’re seeking some kind of distribution at the festival, and after the festival.  The festival game is a tough one, and we’ve had our fair share of rejection along the way.  We’re so happy to be at the LA Film Festival.  It’s such a great filmmaker friendly festival, and if this is the end of the run, we’ve honestly exceeded our expectations for the film.  We’re happy to be where we are.

FR: Best of luck with the film, and thanks for talking to FilmRadar.

BH: Absolutely.

The New Year will screen at the LA Film Festival On Friday June 18th at 10:15 pm at the Regal 21 Cinemas at LA Live.  Brett Haley, and cast members Trieste Kelly Dunn, Linda McBride, Ryan Hunter, and Kevin Wheatley are expected to attend.  For additional festival screenings and tickets, visit

The New Year Trailer from The New Year on Vimeo.