Nashville Film Festival: “HOMELESS” Interview with Clay Riley Hassler

Nashville Film Festival: “HOMELESS” Interview with Clay Riley Hassler 

We recently had the pleasure of talking with director and fellow East Nashvillian Clay Riley Hassler about his latest film “HOMELESS.” Hassler and his wife, Tif, beat the indie filmmaking odds with this successful drama. The crew shot the film in 25 days with a $12,000 budget and, most impressively, chose to film with non-professional actors inside of a real homeless shelter in North Carolina. The narrative tells the true story of a teenage boy living in a shelter with the everyday struggles of homelessness, but “HOMELESS” also reflects a tangible identity to the familiar faces we pass everyday. Read our Q&A below for Hassler’s inspirations, community message, and Craigslist casting adventures. 
Film Synopsis:
Filmed in a real homeless shelter with real homeless people, “HOMELESS” tells the story of a teenage boy lost in the bleak routine of life in a shelter. He feels alone and anonymous in a seemingly connected world. But when his circumstances change for the better, he finds himself adapting to a new home, new friends and looking forward to a future that he hopes will last.
Nashville Film Festival Screenings
Wednesday April 22, 5:15pm
Thursday April 23, 3:30pm
For up to date news and information, find “HOMELESS” on Facebook
“HOMELESS” Trailer:
You faced a lot of restrictions filming “HOMELESS,” but it didn’t prevent you from making a beautiful and reflective piece. Do you think being limited to a small budget and shooting in a real shelter helped push you creatively?
Filmmaking is all about problem-solving. Having a limited budget and shooting on location really pushed “HOMELESS” into a new realm. We really wanted to remain authentic and true to the character of the city and to the character of our friend. We’d basically show up on set, block the actors within and among the ongoings of the shelter and public spaces like the bus station, library, and shopping mall, to name a few. Whoever was there that day and whatever conditions each location was in, it just became a part of the narrative, and we ran with it. It brought a very frank sense of realism to our film. I think when you take control of the idea of having no control, that’s when your creative bounds become limitless. You just let yourself go and roll with it.
The story was based off a dear friend of yours. Why did you decide to adapt his incredible life story into a film, rather than a book? Was he a part of the film process? How did you find an actor to play him?
Our friend asked us to help him write his memoir, and we felt very honored, but after considering that avenue of expression for some time, we approached him about the possibility of making it a film instead. He was thrilled. We wanted to put a face to homelessness, so adding the visual element of translating his story into a screenplay seemed like the best possible medium. Plus, Tif [Clay’s wife] and I are filmmakers. It’s how we think and see the world, and we thought we could best adapt his story as a work of cinema.
We hosted open casting calls for a few weeks with ads launched through the local newspapers and Craigslist. I know. Scary. But we wanted local people with local color. When Michael McDowell [who portrays the film’s protagonist, Gosh] first walked in, I wrote him off immediately because I thought he was way too young for the role, but when he picked up the script and read for the first time, he blew us away. He had no prior acting experience and no ambitions to be an actor. His older sister dragged him to the audition because his mom thought he could be an “extra” in the movie. He walked in wearing a cut-off “Slipknot” tee and looking like he did not give a crap. But he read and it was beautiful. We put him through a series of rigorous callbacks, and he performed with sincerity and sensitivity every time. 
How do you think the message of this film can affect our awareness of homelessness in Nashville? 
We wanted to put a face to the homeless and force audiences to see those who we often ignore or look past. There are a lot of homeless people in this city, but they are real people; people with real lives. Homelessness with a capital H is a difficult and complicated problem. Chronic homelessness perpetuates the issue and leaves a lot of people feeling lost and hopeless. But if you can just find that one person, be their friend, care for them in a way that is appropriate and meaningful — even if it means visiting with them once a week in a coffee shop or helping them navigate the wrap around services provided by our communities — you can make a big difference. Serving in a soup kitchen or volunteering in a shelter is great, but push yourself further to get to know these people, or that one person. They’re our brothers and sisters out there, and you may find they help you along this journey we call life much more than you could ever help them.
How do you think it is important for a community to approach situations like homelessness, both in mindset and actions? 
Get involved in some way. Volunteer once a month. Donate clothes you don’t wear or clothes you do wear to local charities. Most importantly, make a friend. You don’t have to feel bad about not giving money to a person on the sidewalk. There’s a lot of people in need who never ask for anything, and even if they are, they’re still that desperate to ask — and isn’t that a sad situation? We need to approach this from a humanitarian point of view and once we all realize the homeless are people just like us — many of them are educated, intelligent, don’t suffer from addiction, they’re warm, loving — all our prejudices and all the stereotypes suddenly get flipped upside down and out of that comes compassion and love. Our words and thoughts and prayers must be actionable. We have to take action.
Did working with non-professional actors help make the scenes more realistic? Will you try this technique again for future films? 
Yes, I think so. Every person we cast connected with the script in a real way, and they brought heart and passion and sincerity to the project. It doesn’t matter how much training you have or what technique you use, if it comes from a real place than it’s going to translate on screen. I will definitely do this again. In fact, we’re developing a project to be shot here right in the heart of our beautiful neighborhood, and I would love to use real East Nashvillians!
How was this experience filming “HOMELESS” different from your experience making other films?
Making “HOMELESS” really helped to shape my voice. This is how I want to make films. I came from a film school that was very traditional and followed the Hollywood model. We had 10-ton grip trucks at our disposal, the best cameras, and crews of 20 or more. I loved having the freedom to roam around, take risks, and film guerrilla style. It’s so different than what I’m used to, but I think I’m almost to the point of admitting that I’m a documentary filmmaker trapped somewhere deep down inside. I just love real stories and real people, and those stories can change our world.

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