Most people know gay filmmaker Wes Hurley for his campy melodrama web series Capitol Hill, but at this year’s SXSW Conference and Festivals, the young director dropped his comic schtick to direct Little Potato, an autobiographical short documentary that retells the story of how he and his mail-order bride mother emigrated from Russia to America. Hurley’s film, which was co-directed by cinematographer Nathan Miller, won the 2017 SXSW Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Short.
The film is much more avant-garde than Capitol Hill. It uses digital projections, personal interviews with Hurley and his mom and clips of vintage films. We caught up with Hurley after SXSW to talk to him about his life story, his artsy documentary and what he’ll move onto next.
Why was it important for you to tell you and your mom’s story?
The story of how my mom and I came to America is a thing that has been coming up in conversations since the day I came to the U.S.. It’s a common question people ask. At some point few years ago, I decided to put the story in a film form. My mom and I have a very troubled relationship with Russia. My mom pretty much has PTSD from living there. It felt like telling our story is almost a way to exorcise it.
A while back I wrote a script that we’re trying to make into a narrative feature film. Meanwhile, making a short doc seemed like a great way to practice telling that story, to learn what’s essential in it and also to help get the feature made. Our film deals with corruption in Russia, immigration, domestic violence, women’s issues, LGBT issues, so it’s as timely as ever. People are always kind of surprised how much we packed into 13 minutes.
Another thing that I think makes our story important right now is that it has a very hopeful ending. I think now more than ever we need stories that inspire people to fight, to survive, to follow their dreams and to thrive despite of everything that’s going on in the world. Most importantly, I wanted to put things in perspective and show that the American Dream is alive and well for many immigrants like myself and my mom, despite of all the bullshit you hear about it being “dead.”
Your film uses a lot of animated collages, televised images, and film projections. Why did you decide to use these in styling your story?
The practical reason is that we are telling a story for which there is no footage. I grew up without a phone, let alone a video camera. I have no footage of our life in Russia, but we still wanted the film to be visually compelling. So my amazing co-director and director of photography, Nate Miller, and I wanted to come up with creative ways to make our interview footage more dynamic. Nate and I were particularly interested in only doing practical effects. In our interview footage, Nate used two different layers of back projections happening simultaneously which created evocative, cinema-inspired backgrounds for my mom and I. This was also a reference to the fact that movies changed our lives and inspired us to come to the U.S..
I was also fortunate to get a true genius onboard, Clyde Petersen, a Seattle animator whose animated feature “Torrey Pines” was, in my opinion, last year’s best film. Clyde contributed those fun animations you see in “Little Potato.” Another local artist, Damian Puggelli, created a vintage TV from scratch for our American movie scenes. I wanted a vintage Soviet brand TV which, as you can imagine, is impossible to find. Damian literally built a fake TV from cardboard and candy wrappers and you can’t even tell it’s not a real thing.
I also want to give a shoutout to Robyn Miller, the creator and composer of the pioneering video-game Myst, who created the original score for “Little Potato.” I wanted a score that was untraditional and had a retro synch feel to it. I’m so proud of what Robyn created for the film. It’s very unique and doesn’t try to force emotions on the audience. It also reminds me of my childhood because of its ’80s feel.
How do you feel about winning the Short Film Grand Jury Awards for Best Documentary Short at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals? Do you think the award will effect your career in any way?
That was a huge shock. I love all the shorts in our program at SXSW — it was a superb program — and I did not expect to win at all. It has been a life-changing experience in many ways. In the past with all of my previous projects, I felt like I had to push and push and push before getting any kind of traction. So winning awards at our first two festivals is a wonderful way to start the film’s journey into the world.
One of the many great things about getting into SXSW is that other festivals started to invite the film. So we have a long busy festival run this year. I only wish I could afford to go to all of them. I’m now more hopeful than ever that the narrative feature-length version of our story will happen very soon.
What’s next for you, film-wise? Any upcoming projects or releases for us to look forward to?
Showing “Little Potato” at festivals around the world, getting financing to make the feature film version. As far as other projects, I really miss working with all of my friends on “Capitol Hill” TV series. “Capitol Hill” is my favorite child. If we can get some money for Season 3, I’d love to get back to that world.
Other than that, I have 2 other shorts coming out this year. One is a surreal VR version my story called “Potato Dreams.” It tells the same story of my mom and I living in the U.S.S.R., but instead of interview footage, it uses nightmare-like imagery we created with a couple dozen actors and cool sets and special effects. Being a 360-degree film, it is an immersive experience.
The other short is “Rusalka” — a sexy gay retelling of The Little Mermaid set in the world of Tom of Finland and physique pictorials. It stars burlesque icons Luminous Pariah, Chris Harder and Paris Original. I’m not allowed to say where we’re premiering those yet, but it’s happening this summer.