The road from idea to screen is rarely a straightforward one but for Irresistible Films director Jesse Quinones and his feature debut Calloused Hands, inspired by his tempestuous childhood experiences, it was to be a journey which took over a decade to come to fruition and would span multiple forms of media. We invited Quinones to take us through the transformations Calloused Hands took along the way to its theatrical release later this week.
Calloused Hands began life 14 years ago and wasn’t initially a film. Could you catch us up on the journey the story has taken since you first conceived it?
I think every writer/director out there is searching for that one script. It’s a bit like Moby Dick, Captain Ahab hunting the elusive killer whale. Every writer is on a hunt. Either for the words that will make up this script, or for the writer that can producer this script, for a co-writer, for that perfect storm that will ultimately produce something that is moving, that is funny, that is touching. Calloused Hands started off as a book back in 2000. At that time I was a 20-year-old kid from Miami re-inventing himself in the big smoke of London. I could be whoever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and write whatever I wanted. I thought Calloused Hands was a work of utter genius. Ah, to be 20 again. The book attracted the interest from an agent, who went and blew some more smoke up my you-know-what, and led me to believe I’d be the next the big would be a smash hit. She submitted it to all the major publishers in London. After months of waiting we received our first rejection letter. Then our second. Then our third. I think we ended up getting eight or nine in total. All polite, well meaning, sincere, but nonetheless, all ‘nos’.
I loved that story, I knew there was something in it, but I just had to accept for whatever reason that was not the time for Calloused Hands. So I worked in journalism, I wrote plays, I made documentaries. I tried my hands at whatever caught my interest. But always in the back of my mind, I’d think about Calloused Hands. The story was always there, tugging at me, reminding me that it was there, lurking, waiting to be told. Ten years later, now a 30 year old, it was doing more than tugging. It was squeezing me, gripping me, it was in my thoughts almost every minute of every day, it needed to be told, and soon. I re-read the book I had written. The writing felt young, clumsy, naive It would take too much work to re-write it. And I didn’t even know if I wanted to be writing books anymore. So I thought about how else it could work. And a film felt like the perfect thing. I wrote the first draft of the script in about two weeks, final pages scribbled in the dark on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed in Berlin while I was attending the Berlinale Talent Campus.
Months later, through a mutual acquaintance, I got it into the hands of Andre Royo. He had lots of questions, thoughts, but he liked the part, and decided to sign on. It gave the project a massive boost. He is an actor’s actor, perhaps the most favourite character (Bubbles) on what many regard as America’s favourite TV show (The Wire). As a first time director it was a massive boost of confidence to myself, and to the project. We began to cast around our star, adding the versatile and lovely Daisy Haggard, the seasoned Hans Howes, the insanely talented Luca Oriel, and the very gifted Sean McConaghy, as well as some wonderful actors out of Miami. So we had our cast, we had our crew, we were ready to go. We shot Calloused Hands in 18 days. The shoot was gruelling, and required a great deal of stamina. The crew were amazing, and worked tirelessly under the relentless Miami sun. The highlight would have to be the first scene shot on the first day. We were all standing around as the crew were setting up the first shot. And I saw all the trucks, the crew milling about, the cast in make-up, and it just hit me: “I’m making my first feature film.” I will never forget that moment.
How does the original story you penned back in 2000 differ from the film you’ve now made with over a decade of experience under your belt?
The book covered my life from about the age of 8 to 18. The film covers one summer when I was about 13 years old. So that would be the big difference. LIfe experience definitely affected how I wanted to tell this story. Becoming a father, falling in love, having my heart broken, just living, all those things help you grow as a human being, and affect you as a storyteller I believe. Combined with that I believe I really grew as a writer, as a storyteller. I wanted this story to come out 13 years ago. But the truth is I wasn’t ready to tell it then.
When writing the story my main objective was to be true to the essence of the way things happened as opposed to being historically correct.
Calloused Hands is based on your own story, how did you approach writing a narrative and characters that would work cinematically as opposed to simply being correct to the facts of your history?
When writing the story my main objective was to be true to the essence of the way things happened as opposed to being historically correct. To cram so much of my life into a 97 minute film would have been impossible, so I did have to move things around and conflate characters in order to make that work. For instance, the boy ‘Josh’ in the film is actually based on my brother and me. But I felt for the purpose of the film it would be more effective to have it be one boy, and explore his relationship with his stepfather. It’s hard to put a number on it, but I’d say the film is about 70% historically accurate.
You shot Calloused Hands on a mix of the Red One and Red Scarlet. How did you and cinematographer Fabio Dominguez come to settle on the Reds?
There was a lot of back and forth about what we should shoot on. One of the big factors was cost. We were very low budget, and we wanted to find the most cost effective way to shoot this without compromising the look. We would have loved to shoot it on the Alexa but we just couldn’t afford it at the time. We were very close to shooting on two Canon 5Ds but then very last minute landed a great deal for a Red Scarlet. I own my own Red but Fabio and I both felt it would be too cumbersome to shoot the entire film on it. Every single shot in the film is hand held, so to lug around the Red One for an entire shoot would have killed Fabio’s back. So we ended up shooting most of it on the Scarlet, and then some of the exteriors on the Red.
Knowing there wouldn’t be an opportunity for reshoots, how did you best utilise your pre-production time to ensure the maximum amount of time efficiency on set?
Because we were shooting in a different city, and were super low budget, we knew we’d have to get this in the can in the time we had out there. So there was definitely a lot of pressure on us. To add to this we had very little time to rehearse. Andre and Luca arrived two days before the shoot, giving us about a day to rehearse. And Daisy was struggling with Visa issues, so she wasn’t able to come until one week into the shoot. But I made sure we all had the chance to communicate a great deal so that we all were really clear about the story we were trying to tell. I heard this quote somewhere, ‘good direction is in the casting’ and I think it’s very true. The amazing actors we had were a big reason we were able to pull this off. We had great actors that were all in their own unique way able to step in and bring a fluidity and beauty to the screen.
You don’t have to have a million angles in a scene to make it feel compelling.
18 days to shoot a 97 page script meant you had to take a pretty regimented approach on set. Were there rules put in place to ensure the production stayed on track?
There were definitely some rules implemented. A big inspiration for me was The Kid with a Bike by the Dardenne brothers. I loved the story, and I loved the way they told it. Fabio and I watched that film a week before the shoot, and analyzed it shot by shot, and what we found was that every scene in that film has more or less one set up, usually a medium shot. It really let the performances breathe, and gave the film this really fluid feel. It almost felt as if we were watching a play. So we took from that, that you don’t have to have a million angles in a scene to make it feel compelling. So we came up with three rules for the shoot:
- Each scene in the film, we would only allow ourselves four set ups maximum. We had to find a creative and artistic way to shoot each scene in just those four set ups.
- We would only allow four takes per set ups. And if the actor didn’t get it so be it.
- The whole film would be shot hand-held.
Shooting this way was very intense, but I believe it created energy on set, everyone was really vibing on the fact that we were shooting so much every day. And I think that spilled into the performances. I won’t lie, we definitely deviated from those rules a few times. There were a couple scenes where a new set up would come to me, or to Fabio, and we just couldn’t do without it. And there were a couple scenes where we just needed that extra take. But for the most part, those were the rules we worked within. And I have to give a special shout out to my first AD Brian Bentham, he was a drill sergeant on set, and he was a big reason we pulled this off in just 18 days.
Abuse stories have a difficult line to traverse of not having the audience lose sympathy with the victims for staying with the abuser. Was that a hard balance to find?
Finding that balance was definitely a challenge. What we tried to do is find those pockets of humour in the story, those moments where the audience could have a bit of relief. And to really strike that chord where we understood we were looking at a co-dependent relationship, but that there was still some love there, so we understood why the mother stayed. Casting Daisy I believe really helped with that. Prior to Calloused Hands she was mainly a comedic actress, and I felt having an actor that had that softer, comical side could really bring something soft and sweet to the story.
What’s coming up next for you and Woolfcub Productions?
I’m working on a British set fight movie about a Cagefighter who has to fight his demons both in and outside of the cage. That is being produced by Paula Crickard, who also produced Calloused Hands. I’m also working on a romantic comedy called Carlito y Jane, which is about a British playwright that goes to Cuba and ends up marrying a young Cuban playboy. That has the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta attached. And then I’m attached to direct a project called The Nanny, which was written by Braulio Montovani, he also wrote City of God. Also working on some short form stuff, I just shot a music video for a great singer named Kathrin deBoer, which I’m real excited about. And recently I was signed to the agency Irresistible Films, who represent me for commercials and documentaries. So at the moment just trying to stay busy and creative!
Calloused Hands has its theatrical release on November 14th at the Laemmie Theatre in Pasadena, followed by screenings in New York & Miami.