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Interview: Director Billy Kent talks ‘HairBrained’

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Not getting into your dream college can be disheartening, but the place for which you settle can have its rewards. That’s what 13-year-old Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff) learns in “HairBrained,” which releases to limited theaters on Feb. 28.

Eli has big brains and big hair. He succeeded in high school, but failed to get into Harvard – his dream college. So, he settles for Whitman, a liberal arts college. Eli hates it, but he then meets a 41-year-old undergraduate freshman named Leo (Brendan Fraser). Eli also sees that he has a chance to be on the Whitman Warring Hares and can help the team succeed at the Collegiate Mastermind. Maybe this college isn’t as bad as he originally thought.

Recently, the Chico Movie Examiner conducted an over-the-phone interview with the film’s director, Billy Kent. Kent discusses why he placed Eli in a fictitious college over a real one; where the inspiration for the story came; the people who have helped him get to where he is now; and more.

Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I was looking on the Facebook page earlier today, and someone asked if Whitman College was a fake college in this movie. Is that true?

Billy Kent: It was a fictitious college – sort of a hybrid of East Coast liberal arts colleges. That is true – our Whitman, at least.

David Wangberg: What was it that made you want to place Eli in a fictitious college, as opposed to a real college?

Billy Kent: I really wanted to have the liberty to, sort of, be able to not put the baggage of that specific of a realistic college onto his journey and have him be an underdog in the true sense. It would be like the debate that they really are from nowhere. This is a tiny school with no reputation, and they go up against the behemoths of academia in the movie. We thought that would be better to keep [the college] in fiction.

David Wangberg: When Eli first enters college, this is not the one he wants to attend – he wants to go Harvard. And when he gets to Whitman, he gets bullied and tossed around until everyone discovers he’s a brainiac, and then they start to like him, and he feels comfortable around them. When you first started directing, what was the moment where you felt comfortable around other directors and moviemakers?

Billy Kent: I’ll let you know when that happens. No, I’m just kidding. [laughs]

Directing is sort of a solitary business, because you don’t ever really work with other directors. The only thing I can say is [that] I’ve directed 300+ television commercials and a dozen short films and, now, two feature films – you get to the point where you get comfortable on the set, so you can be very present when you’re with the actors, so you can give them the most attention and then get the best performances, but also get the best material; sculpt the scenes you want to in the way that you think would work best when you’re shooting. That’s something different than when you’re sitting in the editing room, and you realize you should change things and you should make the story the most dynamic it can be. I think that it’s just the process of doing, you know?

David Wangberg: Was this inspired by your time in college, or was this based on someone you knew growing up?

Billy Kent: I did know somebody like this growing up, so that was part of it. There was somebody I knew who was very young, and we were in elementary school together, and he was already taking college classes in New York. I was just always fascinated by him. So partly that, and partly by that sort of feeling when you step out into the world into college, you step into this world, which is kind of where – all of a sudden – you are on your own. You don’t have your family around you [and] you’re on your own journey. I think the thing that excited me and attracted me most to this story was the idea of finding your own desire to have a connection [and] a family. And that family was the team, and Leo, and his girlfriend, and other people at the school that become the most important thing for him ultimately in the movie. That’s what drove me and attracted me to the story.

David Wangberg: I used to work at both a movie theater and a bar, and whenever people tried to show me their college ID for admission, I had to turn them away, because neither place accepted that form of ID in order to get into an R-rated movie or a bar. And I would get the excuse, “Oh, you have to be 18 to go to Chico State,” or “Oh, I’m a junior in college – that means I’m 21.” When you were making this movie, did you have people come up and try to tell you that your main character had to be older than 13 in order to be in college?

Billy Kent: We had done some research, and we had never come across that before. Is that a fact? We had seen that there were 12 year olds in college, and there were younger kids in college. I was surprised at how many kids, at a very young age, ended up going to college.

David Wangberg: Well, I had a friend who was 16 when he started going to college. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You have to be 18 in order to go to Chico State,” or, “You have to be 21 in order to be a junior in college” – that kind of excuse. That’s why I was wondering if you had come across anyone who had told you he had to be older than 13 in order to be in college.

Billy Kent: No, nobody had ever said anything like that. And from what we had researched, it seemed almost common that different schools, and maybe there are places that have regulations, but I hadn’t heard of that before.

David Wangberg: Eli comes to this college, takes charge of the team that hasn’t been doing that well, and shows that there is hope for them. As a director, who was that person for you that came through, let you know there is hope to make a feature film, and helped you get to where you are now?

Billy Kent: Good question. I think that was actually my producer, Sarah [Bird]. Personally, that might have been people early on in my career. There was this wonderful man named Tom Pomposello, who worked at MTV when I first started. He was one of the original, creative people at MTV. And I had done no work at all, before I had bothered to graduate film school, and he had said, “You can do this.” He saw my creative ability, and he gave me work, and that gave me an opportunity. But going forward, when I realized I wanted to make movies, we really looked at what the possibilities were, and we realized we wanted to make independent films – or at least start off making independent films. You meet people around you who champion you, and Sarah was definitely one of them, and so was Adam [Wierzbianski], our writing partner. So those people were part of my internal support system, who always said it was possible. When you have those people around you, you can go a lot further than you can, sometimes, just on your own.

David Wangberg: Do you plan on sticking with independent film, or do you think you might go on and make something bigger in the future?

Billy Kent: No, I would love to make something bigger. I mean, that’s kind of ultimately the goal. I have no problem with working within the studio system, or making a studio film, or making a bigger independent film. Those all really excite me, and I look forward to those kinds of collaborations.

David Wangberg: Eli’s narration almost serves as his thoughts – like what’s going through his head as this whole thing is playing out. If you could listen to the thoughts of another one of these characters, as this whole thing is playing out, who would you choose?

Billy Kent: Maybe Shauna, the girlfriend, because she’s sort of her own version – everybody’s sort of a little bit of an outsider in this movie within the scope of their own journey. It would definitely be interesting to hear Shauna’s internal monologue and Leo’s internal monologue – just because it would be nice to hear where he is and what he thinks he’s doing versus what is really happening.

David Wangberg: When you were in college, did you ever meet someone who was around the same age [Leo] was and an undergraduate freshman?

Billy Kent: Actually, I did know a couple of people who were more in their mid to late 30s. When you’re 17 or 18 in college, that can look quite different. [laughs]

It definitely seemed some of them were there for a much more focused reason. I mean, obviously, Leo’s kind of hiding out at college, and most of the people who go to college when they’re a little older are sort of driven to advance their education or change their life or career. But because he’s hanging out at a liberal arts college, you get the sense that he’s sort of hiding from the world. There were definitely people in my life who were well into their 30s and going back to college.

David Wangberg: There’s a great moment in the film where Eli is narrating, and he says, “I need the oldest undergraduate like I need a hole in my head.” And then he tells the audience, “I don’t need a hole in my head, in case you were wondering.” I want you to take that sentence and complete it from your directorial perspective. “I need a blank like I need a hole in my head.” What is that blank?

Billy Kent: [laughs] Wow! That’s tricky. You know, that’s a tough one to answer, because I don’t know what I don’t need. I don’t know; I might have to get back to you.

David Wangberg: [laughs] That’s perfectly fine. I wanted to ask you something you might not have been asked before.

Billy Kent: You definitely did, and I’m sure what will happen is, I’ll be having a drink tonight, and I’ll go, “Ah! That’s definitely not what I need.” [laughs]

David Wangberg: Are you working on a project at the moment?

Billy Kent: Absolutely. Adam, Sarah, and I are working on a script called “Blind Bat,” which is a heist film, which we’re happy to be almost done with, hopefully. And we’re looking forward to trying to figure that one out next, and that might be a slightly bigger project, so we’re excited about that. Possibly some TV work that we’re interested in getting out there and talking to people about, so, yeah, we’ve got some things that are cooking.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Billy Kent for taking the time to talk about “HairBrained.”

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