It’s election season, and the only person busier than San Francisco Bay Area radio personality-turned-filmmaker Hooman Khalili may be Mitt Romney. Khalili does not have to endure the tedium of handshaking his way through Iowa and New Hampshire; he is in the final stretch of an Oscar drive that’s placed his first-time feature Olive in enviable spots all over the blogomediasphere and airwaves, including the Los Angeles Times and rush hour NPR. The hook is not the beautiful child actor playing the lead role, or the venerable Gena Rowlands in a key supporting part in Khalili’s family-friendly feature film. It’s the cell phone used to make it. If the images in the trailer are to be believed, the Nokia N8 smartphone could be the next big little thing. Khalili has now graduated from phone to bullhorn as he races to get the word out about his film by a January 13 Academy ballot deadline. There may not be an Oscar category for phone-made films, but Khalili was homing in on the Original Song when we spoke with him. Keyframe talked with Khalili Tuesday about his hopes for the film.
Keyframe: How busy are you?
Hooman Khalili: Doing an Oscar campaign without a studio or a publicist is a lot of work.
Keyframe: Am I talking to you on the same phone you used as a camera? (Does anyone talk on smartphones?)
Khalili: The phone that we shot on wasn’t really designed to be spoken on in the United States; it was more of a phone for Europe and Japan. Nokia couldn’t find a carrier here. You could have bought it from Amazon, gone to AT&T and gotten it to work in the U.S., but you had to jump through a lot of hoops. We were using it only as a camera.
Keyframe: Why did you choose to go this route in filmmaking?
Khalili: At the time (I conceived the idea in December of 2009), there was only one cell phone in the world that could shoot in true high definition. We were playing with the Palm Pre. We blew up the images that I shot from that phone and it degraded so much. It became clear early on that needed a phone that shot in true HD. The new iPhone shoots in true HD; but I have yet to see [how it translates to the big screen]. It’s a massive difference to blow up an image you shoot on your phone to a theater.
When you look at the pace of technology, one thing that so many analysts say is that your cell phone is going to be able to do everything: pay your bills, show you movies, even shoot a film. If that’s the case and if that’s the truth then there’s something to be said about being the first one to do it, to being groundbreaking. To be innovative and go out of your way and inconvenience yourself, think outside the box, build a 35mm lens and attach onto a phone it’s not designed for…. There’s something to be said about being ahead of the curve, being forward thinking. We wanted to be the first ones in the world to do it.
Keyframe: The images look beautiful from what I saw on the Internet.
Khalili: It is, trust me.
Keyframe: Your Oscar campaign: What does that involve?
Khalili: We’re talking an indie film. The way it works in Hollywood is you release a film like this into a film festival. A buyer takes over the film, takes over the screenings, sets up the press interviews. Then the movie is positioned to be ready for the SAG awards, Spirit awards, and … then the crown jewel, the Academy Awards. Each feeds off of the other. You never see a film go straight from the movie theater to the Academy Awards. It’s not done that way in Hollywood, and Hollywood frowns on that. What you have here is a movie that’s going straight from the movie theaters to the Academy Awards. I had to do a one-week qualifying run in an approved movie theater in Los Angeles. You have to fill out a bunch of paperwork, fulfill a bunch of criteria. But [film a film like this], to even the playing field, you have to do something else. I don’t have the deep pockets of Harvey Weinstein. What I did was send out 6,500 screeners to all the Academy members. Now the goal is to get as much press as you can before the 13th of January. Ballots went out on the 27th of December, and they need to be returned by Friday. You can’t solicit the Academy members; you have to hope that Gena Rowlands’ name on the outside screener will make them want to watch.
I don’t have any insiders in Hollywood telling me anything. I wake up every morning anxious and worried, because it would be such a big deal to get a nomination, because that would guarantee instant distribution.
Keyframe: Can we talk about your radio career? How does that relate to your film work?
Khalili: I work the Sarah & Vinnie Morning Show on Alice, 97.3 FM. I’ve been at Alice for 12 years, since I was 24. I do the movie reviews, screen calls….On the radio everything is so fast and so quick. There’s no time to overthink or plan or strategize. You’re on the air. It’s live to live. In some ways that’s a good thing in the movie industry. I was so anxious to get this out because I’m a radio guy. The idea of sitting on a film for a year, to me, is ridiculous. Since I’ve done this film, there are 40 cell phone movies in production. If I had waited, someone else would have gotten the gold medal. That’s bothersome to me. Nobody remembers second place.
Keyframe: What was the inspiration for the film? How did you obtain Gena Rowlands’ services?
Khalili: The inspiration came from The Triplets of Belleville. There’s no talking. It’s all sound design and motion and sound effects. Everything is still conveyed perfectly. They don’t say anything and I understand everything. As I was conceiving the story, co-director, co-writer, Pat Gilles helped me smooth out the rough edges of the story. I always wanted to make a family friendly film; I thought it would be great if the character was a little girl. I’m an immigrant to this country; I thought why don’t we have an immigrant who’s having a hard time acclimating.
The way Gena Rowlands [came into the picture]: Robin Lippin, my amazing casting director, came on board and said, Look, from the time I’ve read this story, I thought of one actress: Gena Rowlands. [Rowlands] met with me for an hour and a half. I poured my heart out, and said Take a risk on two first-time directors, new technology, a charming heart-warming story. She said yes.
Keyframe: What was the biggest challenge? Your biggest work-around?
Khalili: There were a lot of challenges; there was nothing easy about this. In terms of the cell phone: I found a cell phone hacker who went into the autozoom function and turned it off, because it degraded the resolution, so it was not shooting in true HD. I took off the autofocus, because it kept thinking it knew what we wanted to focus on and it didn’t. Digital iris: we dealt with that in color correction; we probably did more of that than the average film. The camera was definitely tricky. We had a short shooting schedule, five weeks, in El Cerrito, Kensington, a little bit in Mill Valley Novato and Golden Gate Park. We also shot in the presidential suite in the Fairmont Hotel, where all the actors were staying.
Keyframe: Funding a film like this: Who were the believers?
Khalili: It was difficult to find funding; we went to 13 investors who said no. I took it to [former Facebook privacy officer and Fandor board member] Chris Kelly and he said yes. So many people want to be in the world of film; here the price tag was incredibly reasonable. Bill O’Keefe, Chris, they said, we love movies, we love the technology. Before Chris signed on there was no Gena Rowlands.
Keyframe: What’s next for the film?
Khalili: So many people ask: What’s Plan B. There is no Plan B. If you were to say to me, this cell phone doesn’t work, use another? No, I didn’t have a backup for that. You pour 100 percent into an idea and a direction, you just kind of hope and pray that it will work out. So much of this film has been a miracle. Why not one more miracle?