Ron Hanks has seen success, most recently starring in the Zombie flick Disaster LA, and with his award-winning web series called Golden California as Travel Correspondent Herb Hendriks. The comedy follows the wacky correspondent on his misadventures as he attempts to bring the best of California to viewers. While his character may be off-kilter, Hanks the actor most certainly is not!
The comedian has come a long way, and like most actors out there these days, he’s creating his own platform to highlight his talents. He is set to unveil his first short film Dirt Eaters, in which he was given the opportunity to explore a dramatic role. It also serves as his directorial debut.
I spoke to Hanks one-on-one about his film, set to debut at Cannes Film Festival May 13-25, 2015, included as a selection in the Short Film Corner, as well as his first full feature film I’m Ok.
So, what drew Hanks to such a unique topic as dirt eaters? After reading a playwright about a girl who was playing in the mud, he felt like it was something he really wanted to bring to life. “I fell in love with her poetic language. It’s a theater piece, but knew I would feel very comfortable with the theatrical bridge and the style.”
He explained that he commissioned it, contacted the writer, Meegan Breen, and the two began working together. “She came up with the plot, the names, the wardrobe, the environment. Meegan has this really cool imagination that has a raw, gritty, western dirt feeling to it.” Hanks felt it was very artistically dramatic, without having to say a lot. “It was really great to do something with minimal dialogue and what it did say was poetic. I thought was really cool.”
Hanks found the subject of dirt eating fascinating, especially after doing research. Interestingly, there are cultures in the world that really do eat dirt, more to become one with Mother Earth, and also to feed themselves on a spiritual level. According to Hanks, most find out it’s in the family after an aunt or someone mentions it during pregnancy and suggests a spoonful of dirt is good for the baby.
“Personally I don’t condone this. I’d love to do a documentary someday because I fell in love with the theme. [In doing] research, there’s nothing wrong with eating a little bit of dirt or clay, but the fact you would do it intentionally is a very interesting idea.”
Dirt Eaters is a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Cotton (Justin Hall, Touch), who comes from a family that, literally, eats dirt. After his mother dies presumably from lead or heavy metal poisoning due to this lifestyle, his step-father (Hanks) attempts to force this tradition onto his teenage step-son, who has no intentions of doing so. Their relationship is strained at best, and with no real family bond, the boy decides to rebel against his step-father. He explains that in the film, his artistic vision was to treat dirt eating like an addiction. His character “Gator” takes a sip from his flask, however gets no satisfaction so he eats the dirt which does.
Although the character eats dirt, the actor did not! So what was it? Hanks reveals makeup artist Kristy Staky, who did makeup on the hit flick American Hustle, created a mixture of cocoa powder, graham cracker and cookies, which tasted really delicious. There is a moment in the scene where Gator is licking his fingers, which is because the mixture tasted that good! Although the dirt looks real, according to Hanks “nine out of ten takes were really windy, and blew (real) dirt in the patch of mixture. I had to aim right for it the middle of the small bag of fake dirt!”
For such an unusual topic, Hanks drew from his own personal story growing up in Arkansas with “certain views. I’d seen the views in my religion, in a very conservative southern upbringing. My coming-of-age was, ‘hey I like black people, I like gay people’ and that’s how I related to this film.”
Visually the film is beautiful, and Hanks was lucky enough to have a great Director of Photography, Elizabeth Hodgman, who “has this certain eye and great communication factor.” He described an example of their compatibility working on the film. He had an vision of the vast open land, which due to the drought, the trees were green but the grass was brown. He wanted a shot with the open land, one tree and the boy- an iconic image. Hodgman completely understood what Hanks had in mind and got the shot. Hanks adds that a great DOP, “without a doubt, it comes from story-boarding and scouting locations.”
Procuring a location for the film wasn’t easy. Though he initially found a beautiful location, as is the case in most independent films, there was not much money in the budget for it. The location was also problematic because they were asked to stay on a particular path–one on which the public was allowed.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out. However, as luck would have it, after attending his grandmother’s 100th birthday (yes 100!), he met some cousins for the first time who had started a wild boar hunting ranch in California in the 1970s. Upon laying eyes on the property, Hanks fell in love with the sprawling, completely private ranch, in the middle of nowhere. A new location: found!
The film was shot in four days in the harrowing heat, but Hanks and the crew had a blast! Little did he realize how creepy it might be staying in hunting lodge cabins with no electricity. “It was a working wild boar hunting ranch,” he explained, “so you’d see all these dried boar skins on fence posts. It’s scary! You’re walking along then all of a sudden [it] looks like big pigs [are on the fences] but they are skins!”
Another interesting thing he learned in “Ranching 101” is that when a horses die, they are taken out into a field where nature takes its course. I’ve got to say, I always thought horses were buried. Hanks adds, “So many creatures feed naturally on them like wolves, foxes, vultures, boars, it’s good for the ground. It’s fascinating to see these boars hole up where they have their families, with bones of boars, as well as other animals. This is the real outdoors.”
As an animal lover, Hanks was concerned about animal safety and wanted everyone to know they were filming in a wild area. Although there are a lot of skeletons in the film, none were killed by he or his film crew.
As for the actually experience, of course filming in the wild can be tricky. But what if you really want animals in your shot? Let’s just say they aren’t very cooperative. “I was so excited to go up there, saw so much wildlife on scouting trips, but animals aren’t going to work on your shooting schedule.” Hanks was at a loss because usually when he’d stop rolling, that’s when a wild boar or deer would run by.
Many of you out there are probably thinking, why not just take video with your phone or camcorder right? Hanks sets the record straight that it’s because filming equipment doesn’t make it that easy. Cameras are big, the Cinematographer has to use harness gear and set the shot to capture something worthy enough to be in the film. Though getting wild animals is a chore, Hanks wasn’t giving up. He describes on the last day of filming he decided to give it one more try! “We were driving down the path and saw two horses in the field. We didn’t know who’s horses they were, but got the cameras out.” He adds in one of the scenes in the film, a horse looks up. That’s because Hanks made a sound and surprisingly they came over to them. There is a close up of the horse’s eye and that’s how they were able to get it.
Another major obstacle during filming was the drought that continues to plague most of California. Hanks explained that at the end of the short Cotton runs away, goes to a stream and washes himself off, as if to say F-U to old step-dad Gator and his dirt eating ways.
On the day of the shoot, the pond on the ranch had completely dried up, bone dry! To solve the problem, his cousin dug a hole in the dirt, promising the next morning there would be water. Sure enough there was, but unfortunately it didn’t exactly come without a few critters of the flying variety hanging around! Pretty much every deadly stinging bug on the prairie decided to partake of the new found watering hole, including yellow jacket bees and wasps among other insects. While the director’s heart sank at the sight, a friend of his cousin’s lent a helping hand who had plenty of stream to spare so the shoot could finish. Fast forward to the most ironic moment of the story…Hanks was shocked to learn that this beautiful, tranquil, Garden of Eden setting they miraculously were able to use, is literally on the San Andreas Fault, the big one! “To me, I get excited about artistic stuff but there’s something symbolic about it too. A huge fault that can totally kill us where we stand!” Crazy huh?
The actor had nothing but good things to say about his costar, Justin Hall, whom he first met years ago during his very first film after moving to Los Angeles. If you think you’ve seen him before, you have! He was the prodigy math genius in the television show Touch, with Keifer Sutherland a couple of years ago. Though that series ended, it hasn’t slowed down this bright young actor’s future and Hanks was thrilled to work with him again on this project, which he immediately had in mind upon procuring the screenplay.
I have heard several times how difficult directing can be, even a short film, because of all the moving parts of a production. Was it tough to switch hats from director to actor, especially in a debut film like this?
Hanks said it’s definitely not easy and anyone that tells you it is, is lying. “It’s two different skill sets. Actors typically don’t like to direct themselves because a director is the quarterback of the team. He/she has to know what everyone is doing and the actor has to be laser-beam focus. It’s two different worlds.”He explained one example of this in the film is the scene he has with Hall, where he smashes two bird eggs (which are actually potatoes) together, mixes it with the dirt, eats it and then stares out into the wilderness. When the scene was done, he felt he needed to redo it again, however after playing it back, realized it looked great. “You need that external eye to watch, because when an actor is in the zone so-to-speak, they aren’t self-aware. You’re in the moment. That’s something great about film that you can do versus theatre where you have to know where you are, aware of all that’s going on. It’s cool.”
This week Hanks jets off to the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where he’s never been. “I’m thrilled! I’ve done a little bit of research trying to figure out what to expect. My job is to get people to see my short film, which makes its debut in the Short Film Corner. I’m so proud of the product and the fact I get to debut it there.” If you know anything about this festival (which I’m learning myself), they only pick eight from submissions worldwide as their “Official Pick”. Though Hanks’ film is not considered an official pick, the committee only pick 1900 of those submitted to be screened. He’s very honored to have the opportunity to screen his directorial debut there.
Speaking of directing, what exactly prompted him to want to direct films in the first place? Hanks has seen success as a comedian in the hit webseries Golden California, even in the flick Disaster LA, where his role was definitely considered to be comic relief. “I did not see in the scripts I was getting and auditioning for a role like this one in Dirt Eater. People don’t look at me and think I could pull off the dramatic role of a 30-year-old alcoholic.” He knew the only way he’d get that type of role was to produce the projects himself. “I think all actors should feel empowered enough, maybe don’t want to direct themselves, but should talk their friend that’s a director and say let’s put something together. The industry needs us to brand ourselves, but that’s not who we are as artists, that’s not who we are inside. We have to express ourselves as artists. That’s exactly what led me to this film and I’m OK as well.”
Not only has Hanks tested the waters directing his first short film, but believe it or not, he also recently directed, produced and stars in a feature film called I’m OK. Unlike Dirt Eaters, which is only 15 minutes in length, I’m OK is a 1 hour 45 minute film written by up and coming writer, Joshua Schaer, who also has a book that will be published by the end of the year.
Hanks noted that his film is about a boy (Justin Hall): an outcast in his high school, where no one likes him, and he doesn’t fit in. He decides to prepare for Doomsday, thinking that when the Apocalypse comes, he’ll survive–unlike his cruel classmates.
The story picks up 11 months after the Apocalypse and he in fact did survive. What he didn’t realize or plan for was that his family would be gone too and it would be a very lonely existence with no one to talk to or listen to. As he begins to run out of food and water, he remembers always hearing about his Uncle Izzy, who was in the military and would send him books on survival. Thinking it’s possible his Uncle survived, the boy sets out to find him on the other side of the state of Oklahoma. As the boy makes the trip on his bicycle, he meets a girl and three unscrupulous men up to no good. Hank describes it as “…a coming-of-age. He has to leave his home for destination unknown, which the journey represents. He has an adventure along the way.”
Hanks plays survivalist Uncle ‘Izzy’ Isaiah. There was a lot of talk during the script process because he didn’t want the uncle to be called Isaiah, so they settled on the nickname Izzy. Glee’s Dot Marie Jones stars as the boy’s mother, who is seen via Christmas videos the boy watches until his cell phone battery dies. He’s resourceful enough to find a solar panel during scavenger runs to homes left empty and first thing he does is charge his cell phone. It’s been a year since he’s seen or heard his mother’s voice, so is a very moving moment in the film.
I’m OK is actually filmed in Oklahoma and is also where Hall is from so was very comfortable in the environment, which Hanks reveals it was so important to the film. “You can’t fake these things. If you pull a kid that was born and raised in Los Angeles, then try to put them in the woods, they won’t feel at ease in that environment like someone from there is.”
Hanks filmed in Oklahoma, lugging their equipment all over the state, which is a lot different than being in a studio or on a set in LA. It’s different in a good way, as they met a lot of really cool people, made a lot of new friends. The film was shot on beautiful private property, using High Resolution film, which was one of the best experiences. In doing so, this type of film allowed the Cinematographer to capture a full landscape, even in close quarters, which was the case while shooting in a small barn. Though the barn wasn’t deep enough to capture the entire barn, using the 6K film they were able to make it happen. Hanks says the results are really incredible.
With one film being screened at Cannes Film Festival and the other almost done, the plan is to meet with distributors, producers, etc. in hopes of securing interest. Hanks feels that with any luck, a limited release of I’m OK will be done in his hometown Arkansas, Oklahoma, Los Angeles and New York in the near future.
If heading to the Cannes Film Festival with your directorial debuts in short and feature length films isn’t enough, the star and director has also just closed the book on the final season of his award-winning webseries, Golden California. There will be a premiere party in LA on May 30, as they get ready to release the final eight episodes on June 8 and it’s bittersweet for Hanks.
“Feels good going out with some nice humor. It’s always a pleasure to play that character and I think it’s a great show. I love doing it. I’m going to miss Herb Hendricks. Herb will always be a character I can pull out of my hat moving forward. I think this show had a natural arc and evolution to it.” He teased that if they do anything else with Herb Hendricks and his crazy travel correspondence show, it will be a little bit different. While the character will remain the same, the premise of the show, as well as the construction of it will be different. Who knows? Maybe there won’t be an end to Herb after all!
For those who haven’t seen the series, it’s a must see! I first laid eyes on it during the Hollyweb Festival a couple of years ago during a screening and I couldn’t stop laughing! Hanks is hilarious and believe it or not, he ad libs everything! Hanks mentions an episode coming up called “Choo Choo Train”, where Herb interviews a conductor on a train. I can only imagine what will ensue!
Finally, Hanks also recently finished filming his first soap opera role, in Michael Caruso’s highly anticipated soap series, Winterthorne, set to premiere August 27. While he’s hush-hush about exactly what his role is, he had nothing but great things about his experience working with the Emmy-nominated writer/producer Caruso, as well as his costars. “Working with Sonia (Blangiardo, Director) and Martha was a great experience. Working Michael is so amazing as his friend and was a very special situation. I felt at ease and very relaxed about what I had to do. I feel like I’ve known everyone forever thanks to the environment he created.”
The famous cast includes Kirsten Storms (General Hospital), Kathleen Gati (General Hospital), Linda Gray (Dallas), Gordon Thomson (Dynasty), Martha Madison (Days of Our Lives), Martha Byrne (As The World Turns). Hanks is thrilled with the production and is anxious to see it released.
Winterthorne is set to take things in a new direction, as family members of a candy dynasty face off like never before! Hanks hopes it gets all the publicity it deserves, an Emmy nomination, and he would love to see it picked up by an entity like Netflix. It all remains to be seen beginning August 27, 2015!
Whether he’s acting, directing, writing or producing, Ron Hanks has one goal in mind- for others to see and become immersed in the worlds he creates. Believe it or not, the man is currently planning to produce a cool superhero origin story that he’s been working on for the past year, which will definitely be his next film. I have no doubt that it, along with Dirt Eaters, I’m Ok, Golden California and Winterthorne, will catapult this talented actor to wherever he plans to go to next![amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00BAH7XRK][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1615931686]