Horns and Halos [official site] is the story of three men: George W. Bush, presidential candidate (and later, remarkably, President of the United States); Jim Hatfield, author of Fortunate Son, a controversial biography of GWB; and Sander Hicks, publisher of the book when St. Martin's Press pulled the initial edition of Fortunate Son from bookstore shelves. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley's film has been a hit at festivals across the country and was named Best Documentary Feature at the 2002 New York Underground Film Festival.
Marlow: How did you first decide to work together? Did the creative partnership start first?
Hawley: I guess that the other partnership started first [Suki and Michael have a 2˝ year-old daughter, Fiona]. I was working on low-budget, independent films during the summer after college. Michael came on the set and helped out. We thought, "This is hard work but it really seems like something we could do. We should make a movie." Basically, we just sat down and wrote a script about his experience touring with bands. That's basically how it all started.
Marlow: In essence, all three of your features are infused with music. How much of your experiences performing with Sleepyhead and Laptop influenced your film work?
Galinsky: It has everything to do with it. Suki and I had a band together called Drop Ceiling. The way we started to make movies was documenting the music world. It's really as much about music as underground culture.
Marlow: How did the Grifters and members of Rodan, Ruby Falls and so forth, become involved in Half-Cocked [Hawley and Galinsky's first feature]?
Galinsky: We were friends with all of those people from playing shows with them. I think that I went to the first Grifters show in Brooklyn and took some pictures of them. Being a photographer was an integral part of it, too. [Galinsky has published a book of his photographs, entitled Scraps, and his work graces many album covers.] I was very interested in documenting the music scene. I was very inspired by things like Suburbia, the Penelope Spheeris movie.
Marlow: Is that also the way that Radiation came about, with Will Oldham and so forth?
Galinsky: Will was supposed to be in Half-Cocked but he didn't show up. Catherine [Irwin] from Freakwater was in town so she came over and played that role. With Radiation, I came back from a tour in Spain and the tour manager there said, "Why don't we do a film tour here? These films [like Half-Cocked] never play here and I can set it up." I came back and told Suki and she just burst into tears. She said, "I never want to show that movie again." We had toured all over with it. I decided that we'd make it a project. We would have the tour and use the locations that we were in as places to shoot a new movie starring the tour manager.
Hawley: [laughs] Oh, yeah. Brilliant!
Galinsky: Let me tell you, it sounds good on paper. It was kind of a nightmare shoot but it ended up being a movie that we're really proud of. That movie played at Sundance in 1999. Unfortunately, since it didn't really have any stars or anything "super exciting" about it, it was very difficult to get it distributed.
Marlow: What was your experience in Park City? Was the film well-received?
Galinsky: Yes, but at the same time, we were fighting against this thing where there was nothing completely marketable about the film.
Marlow: Were you familiar with White Collar Crime [Sander Hick's band] before the Horns and Halos project started?
Galinsky: Not so much White Collar Crime - we'd heard of them - but Soft Skull Press. I'd met Sander maybe once or twice for five seconds and didn't really know him. Insound [the music website that Galinsky was working for at the time] was selling books for Sander and he let us know that he was going to be republishing the discredited biography of George Bush. We had read about the book being pulled, so we immediately thought, "This is a great thing. Let's follow this and see what happens." We called him first and said that we wanted to make the film. He said, "Great! Come over Saturday. I'm doing the sweep-and-mop," and he hung up the phone. Literally. I had to call him back and say, "Where's here? What is the sweep-and-mop?" So we show up and he's sweeping and mopping the hallway, telling the story of his life, and we knew that, even if nothing happened with the book, we had something like Speed [Levitch] because we had an interesting character.
Marlow: How early in the process did you settle on Horns and Halos as the title? Jim Hatfield says the phrase during the BookExpo America. This idea of a "warts and all" biography is a characteristic of the film as well.
Galinsky: At the end of the process. I can't remember what we were going to call it originally...
Hawley: "Middle Class Anarchist."
Galinsky: That was the working title.
Hawley: Sander hated it. He said, "You can't call it that!"
Galinsky: It became clear that this was what the movie was really about. The "horns" and "halos" not only of Bush but of the book, of Sander and Hatfield. Our culture right now is so invested in being completely one-sided and the truth is always so much more complicated.
Marlow: You've got a number of fascinating characters in the film. In addition to Hatfield and Hicks, you've got Jim Fitzgerald as Soft Skull's un-paid consultant. With Jim, you're able to cover a few aspects of the publishing business that Sander rarely touches upon.
Galinsky: And [Sander's] not too realistic but this also mirrors the way that we make movies. You're not really thinking about the consequences. The truth is, if you stop to think about the consequences too much, you never do anything.
Marlow: The details of Jim Hatfield's past are not really sketched out until the third mention in the film, when he's interviewed for the radio program Democracy Now. Still, he leaves out some crucial details. The specifics of the solicitation involved paying a hit man $5,000 to kill a co-worker. He had done time, even before the solicitation of capital murder charge, in Arkansas for burglary. Your approach in this documentary is to leave yourselves out of the story and, outside of a few title cards, let the characters speak for themselves. Did this present some unexpected challenges for you in the editing room, particularly when you're dealing with individuals that aren't entirely truthful?
Hawley: It was definitely a struggle. How much, how little, how to get the information across. If we got too early into his past, too detailed, it just turned people off and they couldn't continue with the film. It was also a problem of our technique to allow the story to come out from the characters themselves. Hatfield was such a con-man; he wasn't talking about his past too much. There weren't a lot of opportunities for this information to come out. But it was something that we discussed at length - how to properly put his past into perspective. I think, without getting into too much detail, it's still very clear that he is not a clean guy.
Galinsky: It was a hard thing. For instance, we had a screening which was quite a bit more brutal on both of the characters. The response was, "That's great, but I could only watch about 45 minutes of this because these guys are such losers." It's not like you want to make something that's just going to please everybody. We'd do a lot of screenings for people as we're working through it, just to see how people are responding. We didn't want people walking away from the movie saying, "A bunch of idiots, a bad book, who cares?" We wanted the movie to draw out the complexities of the story. Did we go a little bit too soft on Hatfield? Probably. I think it's pretty clear that the book is a clip-job, largely. He was reviled for the fact that it is a clip-job but, as a clip-job, what you're talking about is something that's based on fact-checked research - somebody else's fact-checked research, but fact-checked research nonetheless. It's not like the book is full of lies. It's something that the journalists didn't point out much. It's harder to check those facts because it's not footnoted very well but, in general, no one was disputing the fact that basically everything in there was generally known information about Bush. I don't know if you've ever read the book but it's not a horrible indictment of the man. If you hated him before you read it, you'd probably like him a little better afterwards.