During the 2016 Breck Film Festival this past September, the BFF staff had the privilege of working closely with filmmaker Greg Hamilton. Greg was active in formulating his own promotional collaboration with one of our sponsors, the Breckenridge Distillery, to promote his film "Power of the River" alongside the release of the Distillery's exclusive American single malt Whiskey known as the Dark Arts. Not only did Greg's enthusiasm, dedication and charisma excite the BFF staff, he undoubtedly left an impression on the countless festival attendees, fellow filmmakers and Breckenridge locals he encountered.
Greg illustrates the drive, desire and passion of the independent filmmaker that we here at the BFF strive to highlight and share with the greater community. As there are so many talented individuals in the film industry with intriguing stories of triumph, trials and tribulations, we have decided to start showcasing these filmmakers in a monthly series dubbed "Filmmaker of the Month." Please join us in getting to know our first filmmaker, Greg Hamilton.
Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
It goes back to stop-action Lego films in middle school: late nights with lots of Mountain Dew to augment our juvenile creative energy. In college I started to bridge my passion for film with the cultural anthropology I was studying. I was drawn to anthro because of what my advisor, the late great Marianne Stoller, told me about its sister field: "Sociologists look for a problem under every rock; anthropologists look for a pattern in the rocks." I find myself interested in what humanity is doing well and film is a wonderful medium for sharing inspiration and solutions widely.
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
Surprise me and make it worth my time. My fiancée Kim and I watch hundreds of films each year and put almost every one to our "ray of light" test. I've got more tolerance for dark films—even tend to prefer them to the saccharine—than she does, but both of us insist that there always be some positive takeaway. If a film takes us to the dark side there better be a reason—and not just "wasn't that cool?" or "have you ever seen anything this crazy?"
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
My two favorite narrative films are Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita and Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. It occurs to me that they both star strong female leads: I am drawn to underrepresented voices, underdogs, surprising heroes (my power animal is the rat). They also are very carefully and intentionally crafted, balancing action and suspense with humor. My two favorite documentaries are Banksy's Exit through the Gift Shop and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. The first has a clever, subversive, wonderful take on art, film, and storytelling. The second just beautifully captures its subject and leaves viewers with very tantalizing conversation fodder.
What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going? And what drives you to continue making films?
Making movies is pretty tantalizing, cool, and, frankly, fun. So it's not hard to dive in. Making a living and paying some bills along the way is much harder. I'm driven by a love for the power of stories to connect people and offer motivation to do good in our lifetimes. I watch a lot of films that divide or ossify people and they feel like a waste of the medium.
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
I think you have to drop the ego of thinking you can make the perfect film, for all time, about your subject. I read once of someone who chose their field—I think it was writing—because he or she would never be good enough at it. That's how filmmaking is to me: I hope to always see room for improvement, things to learn, ways to experiment.
How many films have you completed? What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?
Power of the River, which played Breck in 2016, is my first feature-length film and my first real project as producer. The Movement, which played Breck in 2012, was my writing/directing debut. But I've been in the business for 21 years, not counting college internships and middle school late-night Lego films. I think the next project is always the most exciting because there's an element of mystery about whether it will become real and how it might unfold. This is great unless it precludes you from finishing the previous project!
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Nature is my greatest muse. The things that happen when humans get out into her are usually great story fodder.
What is your favorite aspect of film production?
Story development. The research is necessary: it provides the building blocks, the road map. The production and post are satisfying because you're creating something. But intellectually, emotionally challenging the story, the characters, the arc of the plot? Those are where the craft and the creativity converge, where art and meaning dance a tango.
Why did you choose to submit to the Breckenridge Film Festival? What do you look for in a festival where you hope to show your film?
After 10 years working at Warren Miller Films, I got to know a lot of ski towns and Breck is one of the rare few—like my new home in Steamboat—where there's a real year-round community. The natural beauty, especially during the festival's new timing amid peak leaf-peeping season, is stunning. A happy bonus was that a nice diverse array of other filmmakers were similarly lured and many of us really connected. That's what I seek most at festivals: the ability to rub elbows with kindred colleagues. After laboring in my lonely creative cave for so long, it can feel like I'm the only freak who thinks and behaves like this.
You are a collaborator. Did you make any connections at the Breckenridge Film Festival that have led to collaborations with other filmmakers?
I made what will probably be some life-long friends among the filmmakers there. I like the idea of collaborating at some point, and I have offered some opportunities to some of the friends I made, so we'll see if working together is in the cards in the years ahead.
Can you describe the business behind independent filmmaking and how you are trying to get your film seen?
That's an awfully big question. In a nutshell, it's a constantly shifting business at the mercy of fickle viewers, but there's no substitute for hard work. The first step is to make a great film. To do that, I don't think you have to follow trends or suck up to anyone else: go inward to find something that is timeless and real, something other people will be pleasantly surprised that you shared so honestly (because they can relate to it). Then save some energy for the hard work that follows completion of your masterpiece: that's when you'll need patience, persistence, and new wells of creativity. The truly independent filmmaker doesn't expect someone else to do the work, and that includes staying with it through the challenges of building audiences around your film ... and maybe making a little money along the way.
What are the hurdles you have had to overcome in order to recoup the costs of producing the film? (If you feel comfortable discussing exact financials, you are welcome to do so.)
I'm estimating I need to recoup about a quarter million dollars to be whole from my investment in Power of the River. From my research and talks with colleagues I think that's right about in the middle of serious feature-length indie documentary budgets. Sure there are some good films done for tens of thousands—but most of us need at least six figures if we're actually going to pay fair rates to our creative professionals and produce something with high technical standards. And there are docs that spend over $1 million, although I question if any of those are reasonable business ventures. I'm projecting that I may be able to recoup my $250K after perhaps 1-2 years of intense DIY distribution and audience building.
What are the next project or projects you are beginning work on?
I have two feature documentary prospects in development. One is about the sandhill cranes of Colorado—the world's oldest bird species which now faces threats it hasn't seen in 10 million years (but my local community has a novel approach to protecting them for future generations). The other is about Alaska's Tongass National Forest, home to the highest density of brown and black bears on earth. I'm also nurturing a screenplay about Opal Whiteley, my home state of Oregon's most famous—and infamous—nature writer. And for several years now my book version of The Movement (my 2011 film about people with disabilities discovering freedom through skiing) has remained at the "nearly finished first draft" stage.
If there is one or more thing you think would make the film industry better, what would it be?
I wish there was more (or more visible) early-stage funding for great film projects. It feels like a Catch 22: funders want proof that you can deliver, but a truly creative work of art should be unconstrained and surprising. For those of us who've achieved some real-world measures of success: critical acclaim, commercial traction, sheer number of eyeballs our films have reached, it would be awesome if more philanthropist-patrons took a chance on our next project. Sundance actually just launched a cool initiative along these lines with its Discovery Impact Fellowship. Boulder filmmaker Jeff Orlowski is the inaugural fellow. We could use a lot more opportunities like that, worldwide, to truly foster an evolution of great film art.