Storytelling, Terrycloth, and Irish Tears: My Interview with Sean Hartofilis, Director of Beach Pillows

By: Harrison Giza

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness” – Frank Capra

Nothing is better than watching a movie, except for watching a great one. Your pupils become attached to the story, each and every scene flashing with the most dire importance. Your heart beats with the characters you are watching, be they Michael Corleone, Rocky Balboa, or, in my opinion, Beach Pillows’ Morgan Midwood.
Morgan Midwood was created inside the mind of Sean Hartofilis, former Princeton lacrosse player turned mustached-auteur. Hartofilis wrote, directed, and makes a BRILLIANT cameo in Pillows, a film that takes childhood friends, cheating blondes, and terrycloth to Lawrence of Arabia extremes. The cast, which includes Annette O’Toole (Smallville), Richard Schiff (The West Wing), and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), is tightly wrapped around Geoffrey Arend’s Morgan, a down-on-his-life writer that works at his father’s furniture store.

Arend is criminally underrated as an actor, and to see him opposite Kartheiser is a cinematic banana split. Their on-screen friendship seems so real that you forget their quirks, in-jokes, and bloody bruises are all just for your entertainment. I love this movie, not because it is the anti-thesis of dull, but because it isn’t like any other film I’ve seen in the past few years. It doesn’t try to rip you off with predictability or bloat you with CGI, bland performances, and a predictable story. All Beach Pillows wants is for you to let your goose loose and see where it flies.
Luckily, I got to talk with Sean, asking him about everything from lacrosse to watching old movies with his dad. He is extremely kind, but also patient enough to let me rattle his brain for days on end.

HG: Why make “Beach Pillows?” What possessed you to tell this story?
SH: All of my favorite artists, whether writers or filmmakers or musicians, their first story is kind of an introduction to the world.  It’s about where and whom they’re from, whether it’s Mean Streets, I Vitelloni, The 400 Blows; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, This Side of Paradise, A Fan’s Notes; Is This It or War Elephant.  So this is my very specific, personal version of that.  And I think collectively these stories are about stepping out on your own, or figuring out how to do that.  They’re about individuality and freedom, but also a genesis from a particular setting and set of people and experiences.
HG: Right off the bat I have to say that Vincent Kartheiser is wonderful in this. The energy you got out of him is extraordinary. How’d you decide on him to play Nick? What were he and Geoffrey Arend like to direct?
SH: I loved his work in Mad Men and immediately thought he’d be perfect for this, specifically because of the Kentucky Derby and Christmas episodes where he danced and smiled.  Then, to my surprise, Geoffrey knew him personally, so that all worked out nicely.  They were fun to direct, each very different, as most actors and people are different.  We had two weeks of rehearsal prior, just me and them and Pete Ianne who plays Ed.  So we worked through the script and I expressed whatever I could to help them understand the characters and scenes.  And I generally just tried to treat them with kindness and respond to what they needed from me.  Vinnie, specifically, may have been a bit more method in his approach.  I think he was in character throughout the production.  He might still be in character.
HG: Do you have a favorite line from the film?
SH: Hmm.  I think Richard’s riff on Einstein might be one of my favorites, and that’s one of the few lines I didn’t write.  He just asked if he could do it, and I said, “Yes please.”  That was a beautiful addition.  All of these little things that I never envisioned, for me they’re indispensable.
HG: Your dad loved old movies. What were some of your favorites to watch together?
SH: Thanks for asking that.  I remember watching Lost Horizon, which is perhaps a lesser known Frank Capra film that I think the studio took from him and re-cut.  It’s about Shangri-La, or paradise on earth.  We also watched a lot of Our Gang (Little Rascals) and Laurel & Hardy.  The other one that’s coming to mind right now is Boys Town with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracey.  But he still watches old movies pretty religiously and I can always pop in and learn something new.  It’s odd, because he was born in 1949, but he prefers movies from the 30s.
HG: Describe your perfect breakfast.
SH: Irish breakfast.
HG: When did you start playing lacrosse?
SH: 6th grade.  So I was maybe 11 or 12?
HG: Who are some of your favorite directors?
SH: Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Sidney Lumet, Ingmar Bergman, Hitchcock…  I’d also like to include John G. Avildsen, who I think is criminally underrated.  I love and learn from a long list of them, but I probably connect to those guys most closely.  That said, you have to see everything you can, and many of my favorite films exist outside of these catalogues.  A lot of my favorites, I couldn’t necessarily even tell you another movie from that director.  And that’s sad.  But this business requires money and people.  It’s not painting.  It’s not writing novels.  So I’m very focused on a career and therefore look to those who were able to sustain and keep expressing themselves.  I also think the work can be more effective and deeper if the audience has an ongoing relationship with the artist.  So we’re not just seeing characters growing.  We’re seeing an evolving understanding of and engagement with the world.  Every individual should have that, and I think it’s a valuable relationship between artist and audience.  Otherwise, you’re always kind of chipping away at the top soil.  I want to get to the treasure.
HG: How do you know when you have the right take? Do you get a certain feeling of it’s quality?
SH: Yeah, that’s a tough one to quantify.  I’d say it feels like you’ve communicated the intention of the scene, like you stopped judging it from a technical point of view and just witnessed a moment, or several.  It’s kind of a feel thing.  If you’re happy, you move on.  And you’ll usually let the actors do another one if they want.
HG: Please tell us you’re making another film.
SH: They couldn’t stop me if they tried, Harrison.  But I hope they’re not trying.
HG: What would be your advice to future filmmakers out there? Does playing lacrosse help?
SH: (laughs) My advice is to create your own material.  Write.  Then make films and make mistakes.  And you should be editing your own movies.  That’ll teach you more about shooting and blocking and efficiency.  Just love it and never stop learning.  All the tools and lessons are available.  The medium is only 100 years old, so there’s no reason you can’t be the best that ever did it.  Lacrosse, or any sport, I suppose can be helpful from a teamwork point of view.  You’re collaborating towards a common goal.  And you also learn how to handle defeat, which is a common experience in any creative field.  And you handle it by dusting yourself off, taking the lesson, and coming back stronger.
HG: With such a growing variety of media in the world, what do you think will be next for cinema?
SH: I think it remains about stories.  It occasionally veers away from that and always comes back.  Because storytelling is as old as language.  We long for it.  It defines us as humans.
HG: Tell me the movies you have cried at. Be honest, man.
SH: Philomena.  I’m talking about an explosion of tears, and then a soaking wet face for the rest of the movie.  I’m Irish, so it’s kind of all or nothing.
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