“I wanted to punch him!” recalls Hamilton, 32, whose debut feature film, American Fable is anything but small; a gothic-style suspense story presenting a desperate rural America rarely depicted on screen.
“I have a huge palette which I intend to use, and I want to be another female director who demonstrate that’s not the case,” says this protege of visionary film-maker Terrence Malick. Read on…
Background and Destiny
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, one could argue that American Fable was the film Hamilton was destined to make, letting her imagination run wild as she toiled in corn fields, conjuring up scenes reminiscent of M Night Shyamalan’s Signs, at the same time observing firsthand the shadow cast by Big Agriculture as families lost their farms and livelihoods.
“I worked as a field-hand for two years when I was a teenager which inspired a lot of the dream-like scenes in my film. I would get up really early and be in the fields before sunrise, detasseling corn. I would imagine things being there that weren’t. It was pretty scary, out there alone in the dark,” she says.
The daughter of a stay-at-home mom and businessman father, she and her dad shared a love of film. David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Stanley Kubrick among their favourites.
She never considered a career as a film director, she says, simply because there weren’t many examples. Of course, she’s since caught up with Jane Campion and Katherine Bigelow.
“I’m so drawn to Katherine’s style because she does big things. She does war movies, she has six cameras going on at once. She paints on a huge palette.”
While studying philosophy at Notre Dame, Hamilton’s focus switched to politics after Bush won the 2004 election, later attending Yale Law school in order to “do something positive in the world and bring about change”.
With Trump in the White House she feels a sense of deja vu, so its no wonder that American Fable spotlights an overlooked, angry electorate, tapping into a foreboding Zeitgeist within a lush but sinister cinematic landscape.
Finding Her Path to Filmmaking
Half way through law school, she began thinking how she could equally make an impact on the world through art instead of politics, prompting her to find Terrence Malick’s address in the phone book, and write asking for a job, telling him she would work for free. “I saw how much he had influenced my life through his work, The Thin Red Line especially. I wanted to do the same.”
The gamble paid off, and two weeks later she found herself on the Austin set of Malick’s Tree of Life with Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.
“I was so naïve. I honestly didn’t realize how difficult it is to reach people. I don’t think I was even that surprised when Terry called me back and invited me to work with him,” recalls Hamilton, who promptly dropped out of Yale, although Malick insisted she complete her law degree afterwards.
“Tree of Life was independent film-making at the highest level and so wonderful to be around people who are both passionate and practical, like Terry even brought in scientists talking about the Big Bang while he was creating scenes to resemble the beginning of the world.
“It was a very weird and life-changing experience. Terry and I are both fascinated by death and how our knowledge of inevitable death shapes our lives,” says Hamilton whose best friend died in a car accident when she was 15 years old. “I’m Catholic and Sarah’s death really shook me. I stopped believing in God and going to church which is a big deal in a small town.”
A Sense of Wonder and a Sense of Self
The most important lessons she learnt from Malick was to be present in every moment and to retain a sense of wonder. “He also taught me to know what I like and to have confidence in my vision because if you can translate it onto the screen, then the whole world sees what you’re seeing and that’s really special.”
After graduating Yale, she was hired by a law firm in San Francisco before becoming one of eight women selected for the prestigious 2014 AFI Directing Workshop For Women. “It was like film school on steroids. Its an intensive programme where we had to get a lot done really quickly and also shoot a short film.”
A Family Affair
After writing and directing two short films, she used her legal savvy to pull together a $1 million budget to finance American Fable’s production, shooting on location in Wisconsin where her father worked as a gaffer, her mom cooked for the crew and her sister designed the film’s poster.
Despite limited resources, casting was crucial, selecting Canadian newcomer Peyton Kennedy as her protagonist from 300 teenage actresses and persuading The West Wing’s Richard Schiff to play a key role.
Premiering at last year’s SXSW festival to solid critical and audience acclaim, Hamilton was thrilled when IFC acquired the film, prompting her quit law for good.
“Jonathan Shapiro, one of the showrunners on Goliath, told me to ‘burn the ships’, and I think he’s right. Its impossible to do both very well.”
As a director-for-hire, she recently completed an untitled pilot for Anonymous Content. “It has another strong female protagonist. She’s a VR mogul of the future,” while also writing her next feature film, based on her own debut short film, Death Artists, Inc. “It’s a supernatural love story set in Berlin. It’s a little like Casablanca meets Children of Men in the future.”
Citing Blake Lively, Michelle Williams, Robin Wright and Vera Farmiga among her favourite actress, she laughs, “I think you can tell I’m drawn to strong smart women.”
Reflecting Current Complexities
When she was shooting American Fable in summer 2015, Trump had yet to emerge as a presidential candidate although she was aware of a rumble of discontentment, the same silent majority that put Reagan and Nixon in the White House.
“I don’t think Trump’s a good president, or that he even should be a president, but I do think my movie is very truthful about a certain place in the world at a certain time. Its even more relevant now in a world where Trump is president, depicting the struggles of a lesser-known part of the U.S.
“I hope audiences will understand better that there’s two sides to America and also enjoy a wild ride. There’s definitely no good guys or bad guys which is a hard thing to pull off.
“Hopefully Terry will see it and want to get coffee.”