This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On Feb. 5, The Daily chatted with Tufts alum, former Daily arts editor and indie filmmaker Alex Hanno (LA’14), who made his feature film debut with his latest work, “Elephants” (2018).
The sentimental drama centers around a former couple, consisting of professional Kate Caldwell (Allison Blaize) and wild, pleasure-focused Lee Riley (Luca Malacrino) who are reunited after Lee’s release from prison. The two quickly fall back into their old ways, to the dismay of Kate’s rigid, control-freak sister Sandra (Lauren Kelly). At first, the two are on top of the world with their love rekindled and stronger than ever. Eventually, it becomes clear that Sandra’s worries aren’t without validity — underneath the duo’s loving exterior is an inherent sense of toxicity. The film hinges on one fundamental question — can the two truly ever love each other without tearing each other apart, or is their relationship doomed to fail?
Hanno described the genesis of the story as coming from a primarily pragmatic approach.
“Part of it was that we were making an indie movie and we had to look at what we had,” Hanno said. “We were going to make a largely contained movie — I think about 70% of it takes place in one house — with a very limited cast. Those were the bare bones, the elements that we have. What could we make out of that?”
Once Hanno and Malacrino, who served as a co-producer of the film, established the constraints of production, the creative process was able to begin. Hanno cites the relatability of toxic love as the seed of this story.
“[When writing], we really looked at the kinds of movies that I love,” he said. “The vast majority of them — ‘500 Days of Summer’ (2009), ‘Before Sunset’ (2004), ‘Blue Valentine’ (2010) — all these movies deal with very intimate, complex relationships. And I haven’t gone to war, I haven’t experienced traumatic death, I haven’t experienced a lot of things that perhaps other people have, but the things that I’ve experienced are still very real. So it was really looking at ‘what have I experienced, can I create something that’s authentic, and on top of that, how can I create something that’s gonna relate with people, and people can emphasize with?’ Because the reality is, I think, 95% of people can empathize with characters that are in a relationship that is full of very intense love but a certain level of toxicity.”
The cast, which was chosen for the feature before the script itself was written, also contributed heavily to the development of the characters during the film’s pre-production phase.
“I interviewed all three of the actors and said ‘tell me about your experiences with love,’ and we tried to pull from their different experiences and really inject that into the story,” Hanno said, explaining that this process added “another layer of authenticity to their characters.”
One of the film’s pivotal motifs, as suggested by the title, is elephants. One of Lee’s methods of wooing Kate is leaving fun facts about elephants pinned to her fridge, which he employs multiple times throughout the film. The animal also makes an appearance in an artwork that hangs above Kate’s bed. Initially, the animal had no significance in the film, and the film was known as “Untitled Romance Feature” for the majority of preproduction. Upon examination of the film’s central themes in an attempt to find a title, Hanno found that elephants were a natural fit.
“We were thinking ‘what is this movie really about?’, and part of it was the thing that people really aren’t talking about,” he said. “Three-fourths of the movie is about two characters whose biggest challenge is that they’re not actually saying what they want to say — They’re just trying to woo each other again. They’re afraid to talk about the things that are actually a problem in their relationship. So, a lot of the movie is about the metaphorical ‘elephant in the room.’ So we thought, ‘What if we did all elephant fun facts [on the fridge], and there were a lot of things that felt like they worked in that sense … Then we started inserting the elephant everywhere else.’”
During this process, Hanno also found another idiom that fits with the movie’s thematic elements — “elephants never forget.”
“Of course, one of the biggest things for us is that this film is also about memory and the idea of two characters remembering things very differently,” Hanno said. “For example, Lee looks at things and remembers exactly what happened and he doesn’t shy away from the bad parts of what happened. He, in a sense, embraces them, whereas Kate remembers things and really blocks that part out. So that piece came together, and it all made sense. This is all about elephants, metaphorically, and it just fit. It just felt right.”
With the momentum of “Elephants” (which has garnered an impressive 80% on Rotten Tomatoes), Malacrino and Hanno — who formed their own production company, The Chameleon Effect — are charging ahead with two more features slated for production in the coming years.
The duo, according to Hanno, is planning on producing a politically-charged thriller. While the topic veers far from the romance-drama of “Elephants,” Hanno described it as a film working on the same level as “Elephants,” with production also taking place in Los Angeles with a small cast and single location. At its core, it maintains the same “character-based story” as “Elephants”.
“It deals with a lot of things that we are afraid of as a country right now and tackles that head-on and examines why we’re afraid of it, and whether or not we should be afraid of it. So it’s political, through and through,” remarked Hanno.
However, The Chameleon Effect‘s third feature will be a dramatic shift from their first two films, in both production and content.
“It’s been in gestation for a while. It’s called ‘A Sanctuary for Water Voles.’ Luca is Welsh, and after ‘Elephants’ he said that he really wanted to make a movie on home soil,” Hanno said. He described the script, which has already been finished and is in the process of getting produced, as a way of capturing what it means to be Welsh.
Finally, Hanno, being a Tufts alum, didn’t shy away from controversy and answered a question that everyone on this campus is dying to know: Dewick or Carmichael?
“Carmichael,” Hanno proclaimed. You heard it here first, folks.
“Elephants” is available to stream on Amazon Prime and is free with a Prime membership.