DC Life Magazine sat down with award-winning filmmaker Hunter Hopewell to discuss his filmmaking dreams, his United Nations Award, and debut feature film Shellfish.
Was it always your dream to work in the entertainment industry?
Yes, always. Growing up, my two favorite shows to watch were Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Beyond entertaining, they were eye-opening. “Wow, you can make people laugh as a career?” That hit me hard when I was five, and I was telling everybody in the jungle gym, “I am going to be on SNL and then I’m going to host Late Night!” Thank God for Tivo because both aired way past my bedtime, still do.
From then on, all efforts went towards developing skills to be on shows like that: lessons in piano, guitar, acting, singing, and filmmaking; then, standup performances, short films, celebrity impressions for school talent shows, video production in high school, and UNLV Film. This ultimately led to becoming a Video Producer for Disney and producing my first feature film, made possible through UNLV, a grant from Johnny Brenden, additional contributions from Indiegogo supporters, a killer cast and crew, and of course, time off from work granted by my boss who actually showed up to our beach set one day. The rest is still being written…
Winning the First-place Award at the United Nations for your anti-bullying short film, ‘Numbskull’, must have been a pinch-me moment. Tell us about that project and the win.
‘Numbskull’ was based on my personal experience of being cyberbullied during my freshman year of high school. The driving message is, “Bullying hurts and kindness heals more than you may realize.” I was studying abroad in Spain when I found out about the win, and they arranged for me to stop in New York on my way back to Las Vegas. I’d never been to NYC before, certainly never dreamed of stepping foot inside the UN. The United Nations is all about promoting peace, and to be recognized there for a student short film with a personal message that I wasn’t sure anyone would ever see, made me feel very at peace, to say the least.
Tell us about your debut feature film ‘Shellfish’. What is the backstory for the film?
Ultimately, the script for Shellfish evolved by talking it through with close friends, coworkers, and family. Keller, the main character and also the maiden name of my grandmother on my mom’s side, values what’s captured on camera above all else. He fears death and wants to preserve these moments. While I was still writing, a coworker asked, “What has he lost to make him fear death?” That was the magic question. That process of probing deeper and deeper helped refine the script, and I couldn’t have done it without input and support from those around me.
The double meaning behind the title “Shellfish” should become more apparent as you get further into the story. Many of the visuals, themes, and allusions revolve around the ocean and its creatures, and Keller must ultimately learn to become less…well, selfish.
You had quite a lot of help and support to make this movie. Who do you want to thank the most?
I could fill a book with the number of people I want to thank. First and foremost, my parents. They have always gone above and beyond to be as supportive as any parents could ever be. Johnny Brenden, whose grant made the film possible, is sincerely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. My mentor, Professor Francisco Menendez, has guided me during my time at UNLV and beyond. One of the producers of the film, Phebe McCorkle, not only kept everyone sane and fed during production but is also responsible for much of the stop motion in the film. Wyatt Henrie, Chai Simone, and Angela Bomarito are also terrific artists who brought the animation to life. I felt so in sync with the film’s Associate Director, Tyler Yarbro, during production. He helped make sure the story stayed true to its heartfelt message. Director of Photography, Joel Martinez, can be greatly credited for why the film looks like more than a micro-budget picture. “This is starting to look like a real movie” was a common reaction throughout our production. I’m biased, of course, but Shellfish would look great on any big screen.
There are nearly 200 names in the credits, and I could easily write a paragraph thanking each person. Our cast and crew would sometimes stay up all night working to get the film done wholeheartedly. We were a lean, mean filmmaking machine, and I was lucky to work with an exceptionally talented group of students and alumni.
Halfway through production, we did an Indiegogo campaign, and 134 people contributed. That’s insane, and I couldn’t be more thankful. My best friend, who also did social media promotion for the film, Jocelyn Buhlman’s parents Karla and Michael became Executive Producers on the movie. The movie could not have been completed without all 134 backers and has been especially enriched by the Buhlmans.
Now, how do we get anybody to see this movie we’re so proud of? That’s where my charismatic mentor and Executive Producer Lisa Tenner has come in. She’s working with us to promote the film, which will hopefully garner consideration from some of the key film festivals to which we’ve submitted. Again, I can’t say thank you enough to the many people who made Shellfish a reality. It’s a dream come true. Keller’s idol in the movie, Alexander Ronolio, gives him a piece of advice in the end that sums it up. “Without people, filmmakers like us are nothing.”
What filmmakers inspire you?
Walt Disney has always been my biggest inspiration. His ‘dream it, do it’ approach to entertainment is beyond inspirational. Whether it’s a theme park or a film, his work never talks down to an audience and is able to be universally enjoyed by all. Additionally, my favorite directors are Robert Zemeckis, Judd Apatow, Martin Scorsese, and Damien Chazelle. Their work never fails to make an audience smile, albeit for very different reasons.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Ultimately, I would like to give back through filmmaking. My goal is to continue to produce and direct movies and create an annual Rock*Comedy*Film Festival with a portion of profits dedicated to funding arts education programs. I would be nowhere without those who have supported me, and the encouragement and arts education I received in high school through college is a big part of what’s kept me moving forward. I dream of being able to pay it forward by contributing back in these ways and more.
How can people find out more about you? (social media)
I’m always updating my website HunterHopewell.com, and you can follow me @HunterHopewell on Instagram and Twitter. Additionally, you can listen to my original music on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you stream music.