Ernie tells himself that if he hasn’t achieved anything meaningful by the age of 70, he plans to kill himself. But when his suicide attempt goes awry, ripping a hole in the ceiling, he begins to form an unexpected friendship with a young boy in the apartment above who reminds him of his younger self. Told entirely without dialogue, and using cardboard to reflect the blandness of his surroundings, ERNIE is an odd yet heartwarming tale of mutual connection from Director Hadley Hillel. Making its online premiere here today, we talked to Hillel about the challenges of constructing his cardboard world, finding the right music to add narrative depth and the decision to use voiceover.
The first thing that will strike audiences watching ERNIE is that everything is made out of cardboard. Why did you want to use this material for your film?
I initially wanted the whole movie to be in claymation. I had just seen the Australian film Mary&Max for the first time and I loved how the claymation medium was used to stylise and enrich the characters. However, after a tragically short period of trial and error, I realised I didn’t have nearly enough patience or talent as a sculptor to pull it off. In the end I concluded that working with live actors was the only way. That brought up a lot of logistical challenges, the biggest of which was that the story required us to cut a hole in the floor of an apartment building. I started researching condemned buildings and other locations that would physically allow us to cut a hole in the floor, but each option brought up a host of new problems and safety issues.
It was important to find a way to visually emphasise how isolated Ernie feels.
It soon became clear that our only option was to build the set from scratch. The film’s total budget was $4000 so I knew we couldn’t build it traditionally. “Cheap” basically had to mean free, so we had to get creative and find a way to make lemonade out of half a lemon. I debated a few materials and cardboard quickly emerged as the frontrunner. I always try to build unique worlds around my characters to help audiences see things through their eyes, so I knew it was important to find a way to visually emphasise how isolated Ernie feels. I realised that the juxtaposition between live action actors and a flat backdrop would be the perfect opportunity to communicate how disconnected he feels and how dull and homogenous the world around him has become.
How did you source the cardboard and how did you create those levels; were they built on top of each other?
They actually were built on top of each other. Ernie’s apartment is supposed to be on the third floor of a five story apartment building, so we had to build the entire set on an elevated platform to sell the illusion. Fortunately, my dad is quite a crafty handyman so he figured out how to safely build a little platform on top that made it look like there was another apartment above Ernie’s. I really don’t think we could have pulled it off without his help. The whole thing was an insane undertaking and I will never simultaneously production design and direct something like that again because it was a lot. Everything had to be built by hand and from scratch. And in addition to building all these intricate props out of cardboard, we also had to make sure they were period accurate, since the film takes part in two different time periods; depression-era 1930s and the 1990s.
We also ended up covering some of the bigger items in paper, which is kind of cheating, but it would have been nearly impossible to make realistic furniture otherwise. Other items, such as the bed and tape recorder, had to have structural integrity so they would look right on camera. We reinforced some with wood and some (like the tape recorder buttons) had to be layered with thicker cardboard so they wouldn’t break when the actors pushed on them. And then there were times where we had to put things inside a prop so the weight looked right. For example, I know we had to add weight to the alarm clock so that it wouldn’t just look like a paper shell when Ernie handled it.
Getting the cardboard itself was also a huge challenge. It took going to a lot of different stores. It’s surprisingly difficult to get cardboard from the big stores. I had to go to independent appliance stores and we filled our cars with boxes. At the end of it we had to climb in industrial dumpsters with the crew and grab as many boxes as we could until we got caught and kicked off the premises. We hit a new industrial dumpster every weekend and we got lucky with some cool stuff.
We had to climb in industrial dumpsters with the crew and grab as many boxes as we could.
The characters themselves, from the aesthetic and the accent of the narrator, suggest that Ernie’s family have emigrated from Eastern European or Russia. Why did you want your characters to come from this part of the world?
I think it’s supposed to be a little bit ambiguous. But you’ve caught on: there’s definitely an Eastern European, Russian-feeling. It was mostly a narrative method for further isolating Ernie from the world around him, as it added a language barrier component and made it more difficult for him to develop a social circle. I wanted to isolate Ernie in every realm, so he wouldn’t have anywhere else to turn when his father died.
It was also partially inspired by my dad’s story: his family were first-generation Iraqi immigrants and they struggled a lot with the language barrier and making friends as a result, which was definitely isolating at times. In terms of the narrator, I think the biggest reason I chose Russian is that it’s an easily recognizable accent and something that people have a lot of distinct associations with. It’s a story about loneliness, so I wanted him to be from a place that people don’t know a lot about or understand very well. I think for a lot of Americans, that’s Russia.
Talking about a language barrier, the film is dialogue-free. What’s the challenge of telling a story without dialogue?
I think the biggest challenge was trying to communicate the backstory and helping the audience sympathise with the characters without using words. In the end, that’s why we added the narrator. There was a big debate about whether or not to have one. Everything had to be communicated non-verbally in the performances, so it took a lot of preparation and rehearsal with the actors beforehand to nail down all the subtleties of the emotional beats. Fortunately, everyone did a phenomenal job. I didn’t realise at the time but it made the story feel a lot more universal, which allowed it to do well at a lot of international festivals.
To me it’s a story about how people can find connection in suffering. Ernie wants to kill himself before he turns 70 but he finds something of himself in the young boy; and vice versa. Would you say that’s a correct characterisation?
I definitely think it is. Thematically, it explores the idea of familial expectation and the immense pain of parental rejection at a young age. But ultimately the film is about these two lonely people who come together by chance and end up saving each other. Ernie sees a lot of himself in the young boy and ultimately ends up stepping in as his father figure. And the Boy reminds Ernie why life is worth living and helps to give him a purpose again. Both of them are able to fill this void that the other one has. In a lot of ways, that ending is symbolic of Ernie finally being able to give his younger self what he never had growing up — the feeling of being appreciated and loved by a father figure.
The suicide attempt is scored by Mon Dieu by Edith Piaf. Why did you pick this song?
I wanted him to pick a song from his childhood for those final moments since that’s the last time he can remember being happy. I don’t know if you caught onto this, but it’s actually playing on the radio at the family dinner scene earlier in the film.
As soon as I heard Edith Piaf’s voice come on, I knew it communicated the emotion I was going for.
I got that on the rewatch!
I knew I didn’t want the song to be in English. I wanted it to be more about the feeling of the song and not just what the lyrics are saying. I listened to a bunch of songs in a variety of different languages and none of them were quite right. But as soon as I heard Edith Piaf’s voice come on, I knew it communicated the emotion I was going for; it had just the right amount of sadness, nostalgia and timelessness. In the final days leading up to the shoot, I found myself questioning whether or not it would work, but as soon as I saw our lead Gary Gorland step up and do that sequence with playback, I couldn’t imagine any other song taking its place!
What are you working on next?
After finishing up my studies at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, I was lucky enough to sign with Dave Brown at Echo Lake entertainment and began developing my first feature. It’s a psychological fantasy thriller currently called Mirror that’s based on a 2017 short I made. Set in 1987 LA, the film follows the story of an ex-child actress struggling to make a comeback who picks up a free mirror on the side of the road and accidentally cracks it, allowing her reflection to escape and trap her in the mirror. She then has to find a way to break out of the inverted world and take back her life before it’s too late. So no cardboard in this one!
I also have a limited series set in a Jetsons future, i.e. the future as it was imagined in the 1950s. It’s about a boy who starts to suspect his mother might be a robot. So yeah, a couple of things on the table!