Art and Experience: Bob Hawk, the indie film stalwart behind ‘Clerks,’ offers his sage producing advice in ‘Film Hawk.’
Bob Hawk is a household name in the world of independent film. Beginning in the early ’80s, he made a name for himself primarily as a film consultant & independent producer, helping new talent get projects off the ground and into theaters. Hawk famously discovered Kevin Smith and backed his cult-hit Clerks, as well as Smith’s Chasing Amy, Ed Burns’ The Brothers McMullen,Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk and many, many others. A true pioneer of quality indie cinema—and a foil to Hollywood’s big-budget mishaps—Hawk has a passion for making good films better, often by being brutally honest.
Little wonder that after all these years of backing other people’s projects, Hawk is now the subject of Film Hawk, a feature-length doc about his off-center life and his career as a film whisperer. Directed by JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet, Film Hawk premiered at Sundance 2016 and is screening at DOC NYC this Saturday. If you’re in New York, this is a can’t miss event: both the filmmakers and Bob Hawk will be there—and if the post-screening talk is anything like what NFS heard at Sundance, expect an earful about the state of indie films today, great advice for first-timers, and a standing ovation for Hawk.
“There are a lot of things about indie film that aren’t taught in film school.”
Even without the post-screening discussion, Hawk’s life story holds lessons that we all need to learn. Some standouts are below:
Lesson 1: Use your whole life’s experiences to make your films
Hawk is unsinkable. The rebellious gay son of a minister–who grew up with a stutter which disappeared when he began acting onstage–is remarkably comfortable in his own skin. Even during bouts of clinical depression, he refuses to be vanquished. “I’ve had more good days than bad days,” he grinned. “Lots more good days.”
A self-proclaimed eclectic, Hawk has worked what he calls “several lifetimes’ worth of jobs,” from being a roofer to serving in the military. “Only a fraction of my life could be included in the documentary,” he laughed. “I’ve been working in film for over three decades, but I didn’t start doing that until I was in my forties!”
Hawk spent the first half of his adult life in the theater. “I’d already had a full life as a techie off-Broadway, way back in the ’60s, before I even thought about film. Then I was a stage manager. I learned about dramaturgy, storytelling, I added that to my own life experience…and that’s what I brought to filmmaking. You have something in theater that film doesn’t have: four-to-six weeks of rehearsal where you hone the script. So one thing I try to do as a consultant/producer is to help filmmakers develop their narrative.”
At age 78, Hawk is still at it: developing narratives, consulting on edits and dispensing tough love to filmmakers of all ages. Both disarmingly modest and incredibly frank, he is clearly enjoying this ‘older but wiser’ phase. “I’ve always told truth to power,” he confided. “But some things get better with age.”
Lesson 2: Don’t make a film unless you haveto
At the end of Hawk’s film school lectures, students crowd around, brimming with questions. “Almost invariably, wherever I’ve spoken, they say ‘Oh my gosh, you say things that our teachers never tell us.'”
One of Hawk’s talks is titled “From First Draft through Final Cut and Beyond. A Reality Check”—a title that makes him laugh. “I am a reality check. There are a lot of things about indie film that aren’t taught in film school. Film departments are geared more towards filmmaking, the equipment, the process. They expect you to make films. They don’t get into the realities of whether or not you should make a film, what it takes to send it out into the world, how to get exposure, get picked up. I’ve been immersed in that reality.”
The essentials Hawk teaches come from lessons learned early on. For a moment, he goes full film hipster, recalling the pre-Sundance indie scene. “Independent film didn’t exist,” he remembered. “It was not a genre or even a group. Those films were called underground films, avant garde films, even regional films. Then Robert Redford took over the United States Film Festival which eventually became Sundance and suddenly, it was a ‘thing,’ particularly when two key films, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), pushed Sundance into a whole new dimension. The idea of being an independent filmmaker became cool.”
“The world is cluttered with so many films that have no reason to exist.”
Hawk was already cool. He’d left New York theater for San Francisco’s gay art world and fell into film. From 1985-1993, he was the driving force behind the Bay Area’s groundbreaking Film Arts Festival; in 1987, he joined the Sundance Advisory Selection Committee, suggesting films for the festival (a task he still enjoys, in a less official capacity). “I was never a programming czar,” Hawk explained. “We worked by consensus.” Even so, he helped shape indie film by opening doors to diversity, inclusion, advocacy, transparency. And, most important of all, by emphasizing a good narrative arc.
Hawk’s wisdom is honed by years of watching. “The problem is, there are too many people who try to be filmmakers, but don’t have valid content,” he recalled. “They don’t have the craft or the talent, they don’t know how to make a straight narrative, they don’t have anything they are burning to say. They make genre films. And they are painful to watch.”
To this day, Hawk begs his listeners: “Don’t make a film unless you have to. The world is cluttered with so many films that have no reason to exist. What I’m saying is, if you don’t have a story that you have to tell, if you don’t have that passion, don’t waste our time. You don’t have to be serious or have something heavy to say. You just have to care about it.”
Lesson 3: Stay local and be authentic
According to Hawk, a film should be about “something you know. Something that is close to your life, your heart.”
That’s what he saw in Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Set in Smith’s New Jersey hometown, in the convenience store where Smith used to work, it felt real. With Hawk’s help, it went on to win the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance 1994 and the Prix de Jeunesse, plus the International Critics’ Week Prize, at Cannes.
The same was true for another Hawk protégé. While working as a production assistant, Ed Burns took Hawk’s advice and made The Brothers McMullen (1995), shot in his hometown and focused on family relationships. “At the time, it was extremely successful,” Hawk recalled. “Over 10 million dollars, which if you adjust for inflation is a lot for an indie film.”
“But don’t misunderstand me,” Hawk warned. “Your honesty doesn’t have to be geographic. It can be internal. Just remember: a narrative can be modest, it doesn’t have to set the world on fire, but it needs to be authentic. Unfiltered.”
Hawk’s philosophy is reflective of his own life. “I’m very frank about all aspects of my life and what I’ve been through, both on screen and off,” he admitted. “And I advise my clients to do the same. The ‘too cool for school,’ attitude is no good. Films are like people: the relationship works when you open the door, let the feelings of inadequacy, the vulnerability show.”
And be fearless. “This is a great time for content: because of social media, because young people are more exposed to ideas, there’s a growing sophistication. Very little is off limits. Fiction has more of a vérité feel. Documentaries are more narrative. And the topics are important: gun control, hazing, bullying. Date rape, rape in the military, on campus…Ten years ago it would have been hard to talk about that.
But now, you don’t even have to editorialize. You can get your message across just by telling a story. Something that feels real.
Lesson 4: Prepare for rejection
Hawk delivers bad news with both enthusiasm and useful advice. So much so that his clients keep returning for more.
“First-time filmmakers need to prepare for rejection,” he asserted. “Too many of the beginners I meet with may have great potential, but their attitude is wrong. They think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a Sundance film. They’re gonna love it.’ Or, ‘My film is perfect for South By Southwest. They assume they’re gonna get in, and when they don’t, they’re crushed. Immobilized. That’s not good for their future.”
So how do you prepare?
Hawk doesn’t mince words. “You’re better off assuming that you might not get into anything. Then if you do get into something it’s ‘Wow, how great.’ You have to realize that a film festival rejection often has nothing to do with the quality of your film. It’s the sheer number of entries. Festivals have a limited number of slots. The prestigious Telluride Festival, for example, is only four days long, on Labor Day weekend. Most films will not play at Telluride. So don’t be devastated. Join the club.”
“Because of search engines, it’s not only easier for you to find your audience, but easier for your audience to find you.”
It wasn’t always like this. “Thirty years ago Sundance was rather rustic, laid-back. They were scrambling to find enough films to show.” Hawk shook his head; how things have changed! “But then indies caught fire–and now, there are more entries every year. More bad films, yes, but also more good films.”
In some ways, today’s indie world is more gentrified. Established. But it’s also more fluid–especially when it comes to distribution–and Hawk thinks that’s a good thing.
“This is a great time to be an indie filmmaker.” When it comes to rejection, Hawk is sanguine. “The good news,” he continued, “is the embarrassment of riches. It has inspired some festivals—after they lock in their own programming—to share their ‘short list’ with other festivals, saying ‘These are films we really liked but were not able to show.’ I think that’s a great gesture–and for the filmmaker, it may mean that a rejection from one place leads to acceptance elsewhere.”
But that’s far from a given. “Not every film is a festival film–but many do very well in alternate ancillary modes. It used to be that you’d have to get into festivals to get noticed, distributed. And even then, access was limited: there was either theatrical or straight to broadcast or DVD. Now, however, there are more ways for your film to reach its audience. Anybody who has reception can watch indie film. VOD, streaming. Netflix, who will pay upfront. The internet. Because of search engines, it’s not only easier for you to find your audience, but easier for your audience to find you.”
Lesson 5: Take pride in all your work—even bussing tables
More tough talk from Hawk: “Some people are very unrealistic. They puff themselves up, they take inordinate pride in being an ‘artist.’ Then, when things don’t work out and they have to take other jobs, they start pouting, get cynical, do only the absolute minimum.” He leveled his gaze. “That’s a fast track to failure.”
He advises choosing a different option: “If you’re truly passionate about film and have a story to tell, then you have to be willing to take other jobs–and do those jobs well.”
Hawk cited his own example. “When I was an Off-Broadway techie,” he said, “I made $36 a week for eight shows. So I did other work during the day. Proofreading. Bussing tables. I’m a very good dishwasher. Yes, It was shit pay–but I took pride in my work, no matter what the job was, because it made the rest possible.”
“I took pride in my work, no matter what the job was, because it made the rest possible.”
For Hawk, this is gospel. “The most important thing you can do is take pride! Whether your passion is film or any other profession, use whatever skill set you have to the best of your ability. Whatever the job, it’s a craft. Don’t look down on it. Be thankful and proud that you have something you can do.”
As usual, his advice was uplifting–but it came with a warning. “And if you finally get your film made, just remember: an independent film may only show in a couple of cities, play for a week. Now they can have some life in ancillary, but fame and glory–well…” Hawk trailed off before adding, “Be generous with yourself, allow yourself to find fulfillment in unexpected ways. Because that will be your best reward.”
Lesson 6: Treat collaboration as a privilege
The most important part of Hawk’s life are the people in it, especially those whom he gets to work with.
“If you don’t let people in, if you don’t hold them close, you’re hurting yourself.” Hawk learned early on that the true riches in life are the friendships you form and the memories you share with the people you love.
“It takes some people many, many years of effort to learn that isolation and unhappiness are your own creation.” The thought made him wince. “That you can become so incredibly lonely, so self-absorbed, that you are actually frozen. That the unhappiness is built into your being.”
Hawk knows whereof he speaks. He has battled his own clinical depression, and won. “That’s why the arts are such a gift. If you’re in the arts, you have to open up just to express yourself. You have to care about what you do, if you want it to work. And,” he added, “more often than not, you’re surrounded by people.”
“That’s the downside to show-business: there’s no continuity in your life.”
Film is by nature a collaborative medium–and indie films are even more so. “The indie film family is such an intense experience. You’re thrown together, you go through a lot. You truly need each other.” Hawk paused. “And then you part.”
His silence speaks volumes. “With each film, you create these intense families, and then you wrap. You move on to the next project. You get scattered to the four corners of the earth. That’s the downside to show-business: there’s no continuity in your life. It’s hard to be so close to people and then cut it short.”
Another pause. Then a smile. “But even so, I still treasure it. I have so many families. Yes, I still miss them–but how could I regret the experience? I love what I do.”
Lesson 7: Re-define success
Hawk is adamant about this.
“If you’re in this for money, forget it. I have always said and will always say, ‘If you’re in independent film to make a killing, you’re nuts. Success in indie film is breaking even. Or, even better, it’s making something that helps you find other work.”
One of Hawk’s favorite questions is, “How do you measure success?”
For most filmmakers, one measurement of success is financial comfort, but that’s a big reach. “There are still people who dream that they’ll make the next Blair Witch Project or Napoleon Dynamite. Or Little Miss Sunshine.” Hawk shook his head. “But I know too many independent filmmakers who have won Emmys, even Academy Awards here and there, and how do they keep going? Keep a roof over their head? They do industrials, commissioned work. They do commercials. There are so few indie films that make any real money.”
“For me, success includes people you don’t even know coming up to say ‘Thank you.'”
Some see Hawk’s comments as negative, but they’ve missed the point. He wants people to grasp a much bigger idea: the real reason why he became a Co-Producer on Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, why he shared a tiny room with a PA in Red Bank, New Jersey, why the DP slept out on a balcony and Ben Affleck on a sofabed in the living room.
“How do you measure success?” He asked the question again, hoping to drive his point home. “It’s the satisfaction of accomplishment, of making something you’re proud of. Of making something that moves others, that makes them laugh and cry. Or ask searching questions. For me, success includes people you don’t even know coming up to say ‘Thank you.'”
In Hawk’s life, that happens a lot. It happened when he produced Trick (1999), a gay RomCom “with some depth.” The filmmakers received letters from all over the world, all expressing some form of gratitude. One letter stood out: the writer was a young gay man who’d been contemplating suicide, until he saw Trick. The film’s ending had given him hope.
Hawk nodded, clearly gratified. “That’s how I define success.”
Lesson 8: Stay humble, and keep it fresh
At first, when JJ Garvine and Tia Parquet told Hawk that they wanted to make a documentary film about him, he was embarrassed. “The last thing I wanted was a puff piece about ‘Bob Hawk, indie-film guru,'” he insisted. (Better not tell him about this article). But the truth is, Film Hawk has brought him full circle. Over five decades have passed since he began his career in the theater and now, because of this unexpected biopic, he’s back in center stage…and he loves it.
“I like the fact that these two young writer/directors were inspired to make a film about me, because I consulted on a film that they made over ten years ago. It means that I must have done my work well.”
“And I like the fact that the film inspires different reactions. We thought it might wind up ghettoized by LGBT film fests–but a lot of straight people like it too. Even my 12 year old great-niece saw it and loved it, got a lot out of it. That meant a lot to me.”
Clearly, it’s not about fame and glory. The emotional connections are what matter most. “It’s wonderful when someone you don’t know comes up to you, begins talking about what the film meant to them. The family relations, the preacher’s kid aspect, the brother-on-brother dynamic. The gay angle. Clinical depression. People actually thank me for talking about it.” Hawk laughed. “Not to mention all the indie film stuff.”
“Tell stories that you need to hear. Stories that explore your fears and save you from them.”
The film stuff actually matters a lot. Well-known film critic Amy Taubin has stated that Film Hawkshould be required viewing in every film school. And the appreciation doesn’t stop there.
In fact, within the past two years, Hawk has won four awards: The Orlando Film Festival’s Cinematic Icon Award; the Cinequest Film Festival’s Maverick Spirit Award; the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and Outfest Los Angeles’ Emerging Talent Award.
Why emerging talent? Because the unsinkable Hawk, after decades of supporting the artistic visions of others, finally directed his first short film at age 76: the powerfully understated Home From the Gym.
“It was mind-blowing to receive an ‘Emerging Talent award,” he admitted, “because kids in their twenties usually get that. And then to receive a “Lifetime Achievement” award right after? That’s hilarious.”
Hawk enjoys the recognition–but he is also quick to remind us that despite the Lifetime Achievement and despite his age, his life “certainly isn’t over. So far, it’s been a wonderful ride. I’ve had my wild days. And I have friends for life. But I still have lots more to offer: I could have 48 hours a day and still not be able to do all I’d like to do.”
His last piece of advice? “Tell stories that you need to hear. Stories that explore your fears and save you from them. Stories that move you, that shift your state of mind.” Hawk likes to laugh—but suddenly, he was serious. “If it weren’t for the arts, this planet would be an insane asylum.”
Now that’s a reality check.