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Interview with Chip Hourihan - Producer of "Frozen River"

Interview with Chip Hourihan/Producer (along with Heather Rae) of "Frozen River by Sharon Abella
Chip Hourihan is the producer (along with Heather Rae) of "Frozen River", winner of The Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, 2008 Gotham Independent Film Award (Best Feature), FIPRESCI Prize, and Best Feature Awards at the Hamburg, San Sebastián, Provincetown , and Stockholm Film Festivals. "Frozen River" was released theatrically in 2008 by Sony Pictures Classics and in 2009 by Rezo Films. He has produced films that include "You Belong to Me", "Mind the Gap", "You Tell Me", and "Glissando", which he also wrote (adapted from a story by Robert Boswell), and directed. His next film as a producer is Whaling City, written by Jay Burke, and as a writer/director is angry candy.

1. "Frozen River", along with "Maria Full of Grace", "Clerks",
"Brothers McMullen", "Roger and Me", are all IFP success stories.
Please tell us about your IFP experience being matched up with

screenplay/director with "Frozen River". How did it all come about?

The IFP has been a great supporter of a number of my projects over the past seven years. I am grateful for all of their help, and in particular to the tireless efforts and nurturing spirit of Michelle Byrd and Susan Boehm. Courtney Hunt’s short film “Frozen River,” which I was not involved in producing, was screened by the IFP a number of times, and then Courtney’s feature script for "Frozen River" was selected for their Emerging Narratives program. The following year, Heather Rae, Courtney, and I took our Frozen River feature project through the No Borders program. The IFP has hosted screenings of the completed feature film, and was kind enough to award Melissa Leo the Breakthrough Actor award and Heather, Courtney, and I the Best Feature award at this year’s Gotham Independent Film Awards. My current producing project, "Whaling City", was selected for No Borders this year, and, years ago, my first feature, a directing effort called "Glissando", received a tremendous amount of support from the IFP. When you make a film with a very limited budget, you need supporters and champions in order to help you find your audience. The IFP has been that for us.

2. You have an extensive resume, from writer, director, producer/line producer, of "Mind the Gap", “Glissando,” "You Belong To Me," "Frozen River," and the upcoming "Whaling City." How have you chosen the projects you have worked on. How have they come together?

I was, for many years, a producer of television commercials, network promo packages, and documentaries, and a director of corporate films and music videos. A number of years ago, I was introduced by a friend to the short story “Glissando,” written by Robert Boswell, and immediately the story was a film in my imagination. I needed to get that film out. I wrote an adapted screenplay, and eventually produced and directed an extremely low budget feature of the same name. The film was well received by the critics, and played at a long string of film festivals across the US and Canada. At these festivals, I would meet other filmmakers, and some of them knew about my background as a producer, and asked me to work with them to help develop their upcoming features. That’s how the ball started rolling.

One of the filmmakers who I met was Courtney Hunt. I met her at the FilmColumbia festival in Chatham, New York, over the course of several years. "Glissando" played there one year, and I drove up to present it. The next year, they invited me back to present the film "Mind the Gap", which I had produced. The short film version of "Frozen River"—essentially a few key scenes from the later feature— had also played there, and Courtney and her husband, our executive producer, Don Harwood, lived nearby. Courtney and Don found me in a party at a restaurant called "The Blue Moon". They were familiar with my films, and they basically told me that I would soon be producing the feature film version of "Frozen River". I read Courtney’s script, and immediately signed on. Several years of script revisions, and attempts to get the film off of the ground at various price points and in various locations in the US and Canada, ensued. We eventually ended up with a smaller, more focused script, with fewer characters and locations. These are type of films that I generally prefer.

I tend to produce films in the lower budget arena, and try to work with writer/directors with a strong script, a clear vision, and an iron will. I have a particular affinity for working class stories, such as "Frozen River" and "Whaling City", but have worked on scripts with a fairly wide range of subject matter. Also, having directed a feature myself, and with another in the works, I like to collaborate with directors, and let them know that I will work extremely hard to preserve their vision for the film despite the various pressures of budget and schedule. In some cases, of course, these pressures only make the film stronger, through demanding touch choices before ever shooting.

My current focus as a producer is on "Whaling City", a film about the commercial fishing industry, told through the eyes of the captain of one of the last individually-owned boats in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Like "Frozen River", it deals with a real-world situation, and real-world issues, through dramatic, rather than documentary, means. As a director, my next film will be "Angry Candy", a sex and drugs and modern poetry story set in Somerville, Massachusetts is the late 1980s. I grew up in Massachusetts, and I guess I like to work on stories set there.

3. Tell us about the casting process for "Frozen River". Had you
worked with Melissa Leo before?

I had not worked with Melissa before Frozen River. Both Melissa and Misty Upham had starred in the short film version of "Frozen River", and then, years passed as the feature script was written, revised, and developed. They were kept apprised of the development of the script, which was critical. Over those years that they spent with the various incarnations of the script, I think that they formed a deep and fully nuanced sense of their characters, which comes through in the performances that you see on the screen.

Melissa Leo came on board for the original short in the very same way that I came on board for the feature—Courtney found her at the same restaurant in Chatham after a screening of "21 Grams", and sent her the script. Melissa, Courtney, and I then all met together for the first time, again in the same restaurant, after a screening of "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". Although I did not know her before "Frozen River", over the years that we have spent together on this movie, Melissa has become a very dear friend, as has Misty.

4. How long did it take to shoot "Frozen River?" "Which locations?" Budget?

"Frozen River" was shot in just 24 days— four six-day weeks— on location in Plattsburgh, New York in March of 2007. Lake Champlain doubled for the Saint Lawrence River. The budget was extremely low. Our biggest problem, once the money was raised, was that almost the entire shoot was weather dependent—we needed an actual frozen river, or lake, on which to drive the car, or there was no point in shooting. But the temperatures that winter refused to dip below freezing. We went up to scout the frozen river, and only saw open water. We thought that me might have to wait until the next year. Then a major cold snap hit, and Lake Champlain started to freeze. Courtney and I got in a car back to Plattsburgh, and we had nine days total for preproduction. A blizzard hit on the second day. As a note to aspiring feature filmmakers, I do not encourage this method—please give yourselves more than nine days of prep to set up a feature. If we hadn’t spent years working on the script and knowing it like the back of our hands, it could have never come together that quickly.

5. Are you finding any obstacles with the economic downturn?

The economic downturn is making fundraising extremely difficult for independent features, but, conversely, the steadily advancing developments in means of production are allowing for smaller, more nimble ways of telling beautiful and important stories with a smaller footprint. Many of the independent films in recent years that I most admire take advantage of this smaller footprint to produce outstanding and idiosyncratic work.

6. What was it like to win Best Feature and Breakthrough
Actor/Melissa Leo at "The Gotham Awards"?

Winning these awards were an incredible thrill, and a great honor. That same day, we had also received six nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, so it was a very good day for us all.

Sharon Abella


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