Q & A: Director Steve Hutensky on “Wake Up”

Producer Steve Hutensky

Producer Steve Hutensky

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing series of conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to producer Steve Hutensky about the making of the documentary “Wake Up,” which tells how Jonas Elrod, the film’s co-director, woke up four years ago and found he could suddenly see dead people.

Directed by Elrod and Chloe Crespi and produced by Hutensky, “Wake” revolves around Elrod’s discomforting discovery that he could see angels, demons, auras and ghosts and even access other dimensions. Elrod was 36 at the time and his doctors said there was nothing medically wrong with him. What they couldn’t do, however, was explain exactly what had happened to him. Figuring that out became his goal in making the movie.

“Wake”, premiering March 15 at the South-By-Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, is looking for a domestic distributor, according to Hutensky, who before launching his own production company in 2005 had been a top Miramax Films business and creative executive for nine years.

Q: How did you come to make “Wake Up?”
A: I never dreamed my first project out of the gate would be a low budget doc. I started developing big budget studio feature type of films. But what happened was my friend Chloe Crespi, who’s one of the two directors on the movie, met this guy Jonas. They had an idea for another documentary basically on veterans from Iraq and we started exploring that one and it didn’t work out. I heard about Jonas’ story and what had happened to him and the three of us were like, “Wow, that would make an amazing movie.” My gut instinct said that people would be really interested in Jonas’ story and that we could find a sizeable audience for it. While neither Jonas, Chloe or I were clear on what the film would be, we decided to take the plunge and see what would happen.
Q: What happened to Jonas is pretty amazing!
A: When I’m talking to people (I ask them), “What would you do if one day you woke up and something was floating in the corner of your room?” Because that’s literally what happened to Jonas. He was just going about his business and leading an average life in New York City and one day for no apparent reason he just started seeing and hearing things.
Q:What was it that Jonas was able to see?
A: He might see something floating behind you. Or apparently everyone emits different colors. It’s this idea that we all give off different colors of the rainbow so he can see auras, too. They came to me (and asked), “What do you think?” and I said, “I think that can make a great movie” (because) it encompasses two amazing elements. One was this phenomena world, which I find fascinating I felt that had a lot of commercial appeal. And, then, the spiritual aspect of it I didn’t quite know what that would be. That kind of came across as we started making the movie.

We bought a high definition camera and some sound equipment and just started filming. We didn’t have any idea where it would take us, but it’s a story where one thing connects to the next to the next. We kept on meeting people along the way (like) spiritual teachers or scientists, who kind of put us (in touch with) the next person. It was a real adventure. Jonas ended up in a bunch of pretty amazing situations and we just let the camera roll. The best stuff we got was definitely when everyone forgot filming was going on. Four hundred hours (of footage) later, we finally put our film together.
Q: And in doing that you added a few more key players to the team.
A: We ended up hooking up with Chris Seward, who’s one of Michael Moore’s main editors, who did “Sicko” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”, and Kurt Engfehr, who worked with Chris, who’s a big documentary guy as well, who did “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine”. So we got connected with these guys and they thought it was a great story. Chris came on board to edit and Kurt came on as a consulting producer. It was really helpful to have two guys with such amazing experience in the doc world. I thought they really knew how to tell a story. For me, the interesting thing about this documentary was that it wasn’t just a bunch of talking heads. It was a real guy who had this incredible thing happen to him and there was a story behind it. He has a girl friend who loves him and who’s a bit skeptical about the whole thing and they have to figure out what it’s all about.
Q: What does Jonas actually find out about his unusual situation?
A: I think what he did figure out was how to integrate it into his life. When it first happened to him, it shook up his life a lot — like I think it would (do to) anyone. You think to yourself, what if this happened to you? First of all, you’d want to know what’s going on, but also, like, who do you tell? Do you run out and tell your friends and your family? And, ultimately, what does it all mean? Why you? And what are you supposed to do with it? He learned to integrate it into his life and he figured out how to maybe not shut it off but control it in the sense of like how to keep grounded. We have a scene where he’s lighting sage in his apartment. So he learned to do that and to meditate and things that I think all gave him more control over it. Nobody told him what to say or what to do, but his sense was (that his) job is “to tell my story to other people.” Now where it goes from there with him, I don’t think he knows or anyone knows.
Q: I’d guess that this movie’s going to play a big part in terms of the rest of Jonas’ life story.
A: I think that’s true. It’s amazing how fascinated people are with his story. The thing that really blew me away was how many people we met along the way who’ve had experiences like he’s had. Maybe not like the full blown scene (with seeing and) hearing things all the time, but maybe they walked into an empty room one day and they felt the hair on the back of their neck come up or they thought of a song and it suddenly came on the radio or they thought of somebody and the person called or they dreamt something and it came true or déjà vu, they’re in a place that they know they’ve never been and it feels familiar.
Q: The psychic phenomena that Jonas experienced sound like things that other people have experienced, themselves, although maybe not all at the same time.
A: I think that’s why all those shows on TV like “Media Men” and “The Mentalist” and “Lost” do so well. People believe there’s more out there than meets the eye. To me, it kind of goes back to that age old question, “What happens to you when you die? Are you food for the worms or is there some sort of after-life?” If you believe there’s a heaven, why is it so impossible that someone could connect with beings that are in heaven? (If this movie gets people talking about the after-life) I think we’ve been successful. If four people go to dinner and they debate about what happens to you when you die — Do you think there really are ghosts and angels and, if so, can we communicate with them? — I think that’s all stuff that people are just fascinated about and really can’t get enough of.
Q: Having shot 400 hours worth of footage must have posed some challenges when you were trying to edit the movie and wound up bringing it in with a running time of just 95 minutes.
A: When I was at Miramax we released a couple big documentaries, including “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but we never produced them. It was always acquisitions. So I never realized how much footage was shot on documentaries. In the feature world you have a script, so you go into an edit room and certainly that first cut is pretty much what the script is. You’re debating over what takes (to use) but there’s not a question about what’s the story and how does it all fit together.

I think that the hardest part but also the adventure and thrill of the documentary is that you can make like 10 different movies when you have all that footage. You sit there and you basically write the script in the edit room. You have all these scenes and (have to decide) how do they fit together, how it makes sense, how does it form a good narrative that’s consistent with the reality of what happened on the trip. We were just blessed to have these two great guys, Chris and Kurt, to sort of guide us along the way.

Our first cut was over five hours long. We did test screenings and you figure out what resonates with people, what do people want to know about the story. (Sometimes with) things that you think are the most important things for people to know, people say, “Oh, I don’t really care about that. But I’d like to know about this.” We were in the edit room for over a year. We actually went back (after test screenings) and added some scenes that we had taken out and took out scenes that were in and really sort of restructured the movie to a place where I think it’s the best movie right now that we’re ever going to have.

It was painful to pair it all down. We had a big bulletin board with every scene and we were constantly rearranging the order — taking a scene out and putting another one back in. It was a big puzzle with no real road map. In the end, we had to take out some of our favorite people (who were filmed over the years) in order to make the film work as a whole. The bright side is that we’ve got plenty of great material for our DVD extras.
Q: What are your plans for distributing the film?
A: 42West is our PR company (and) we just made a deal with Andrew Herwitz from The Film Sales Company (in New York). When you ask people who are the best people to sell this type of movie Andrew’s one of the top two guys on everyone’s list. We’re going to South-By-Southwest to premiere there. March 15 is our screening. It’s the (film’s) world festival premiere and they gave us a great time slot opening weekend at 2:00 p.m.