Chad Hartigan on the personal layers and professional rewards of 'This is Martin Bonner,'
While not as directly autobiographical as his debut, “This is Martin Bonner” is nonetheless a highly personal work for Hartigan, inspired as it is by the experiences of his Irish-born father Gerry. Like Martin, Gerry had to relocate and rebuild his life as a divorced man in his mid-fifties; a former Christian missionary, he also found work in a similar non-profit program.
“I started to think about what he was going to do all day; how he was going to spend this time, if he was going to try and make new friends,” Hartigan explains. “And then I started to think about how I couldn't think of any films about people of that age trying to make new friends. So that seemed exciting. Anytime I think of an idea that I can't immediately assign to a bunch of other films, I think maybe I should work on that idea. So I did.”
Hartigan himself can relate to that feeling of placelessness: his parents were both missionaries, meaning he spent the bulk of his childhood in Cyprus, before moving to the States at the age of 12. “I wrote the character and I wanted him to be foreign. I feel like it subconsciously immediately lends itself to an observer's point of view, which I feel was right for that character.” Does he feel foreign himself? “Everyone assumes I'm an American, but I still feel like Europe is home. The first year in America was the roughest year of my life. I mean, it didn't help that the seventh grade is already the worst year of anyone's life.”
Hartigan's upbringing factored into the film in other ways, though. “I deliberately set out to capture the religious environment that I was brought up in with a sort of respect. By high school, I already knew that I wasn't that religious, but I respect my parents and the way they raised me. When I started writing the film, it was just about Martin acclimating to a new life. But the more I heard about the program my dad worked in, and the more I wanted to incorporate a character in it, I realized I'd have to either ignore or embrace the fact that it's a faith-based program. So I embraced it, and accepted the challenge of trying to include those elements in a way that was different from most movies.”
Hartigan has heard others describe “This is Martin Bonner” as a Christian film; he doesn't agree with that categorization, but doesn't object to it either. “I didn't set out to make a Christian movie, but anybody can claim it for what they want it to be now that it's done,” he says. “Faith is a really rich topic for a film and it should be explored more. But it's so loaded a theme that nobody really wants to. So when it's done with some level of nuance, people respond to that.”
Hartigan can't imagine making a film without the degree of personal reflection present in his first two features. “I don't know how I would sit down and write a fantasy movie,” he admits. “It has to start with some kind of situation that I know well. And then I try and mask it with as many elements that are different to myself as I can. I'm trying to move away from that a little bit more. The next movie I hope might have some more fantastical elements, but it has to start autobiographical. There's nothing off-limits from my life. Actually the next movie has probably one of my most embarrassing moments in my life.”
The next film of which he speaks will be set in Germany – “hopefully,” he qualifies – and focuses on a 12-year-old falling in love for the first time, so it's easy to imagine where that moment of embarrassment might stem from. Hartigan describes it as another character-driven drama, though he's looking to branch out stylistically: “I want it to feel kind of light and floaty, with lots of Steadicam,” he says.