WORDS BY ANI ACOPIAN '16, STAFF WRITER
IMAGES BY ELIJAH STEVENS '15, PHOTO EDITOR
I met senior thesis filmmaker Reid Hildebrand at R & B for lunch. He politely refrained from scarfing down his panini in an attempt to answer my questions in the utmost detail.
Ani Acopian: What’s your background in film?
Reid Hildebrand: It was the summer after 8th grade, I was 14. My mom was trying to figure out something that I could do that would be my hobby. She found this summer camp in Charlottesville, where I’m from, that was teaching film to high school kids. It’s a non-profit called Light House. I got to really explore the filmmaking process.
I did animation in high school because none of my high school friends were into movies and I could do it by myself. I could lock myself in my room for a while and draw a bunch of pictures and put them underneath a camera. It’s a very solitary process.
At what moment did you realize you wanted to seriously pursue film?
I made these movies that summer and I didn’t really think much about them. In February I got a call from Light House saying they submitted my film to Los Angeles Film Festival and it was accepted. I had been working with my friends and showing stuff to my parents and teachers, and of course they’re going to be like “yeah this is so cool,” but this was a national committee, finding merit in my work, that didn’t even know me.
I ended up submitting my animated films to LAFF and developing a relationship with the programmer of the High School filmmakers. I had films screening there 3 or 4 years in a row and by the time I was a senior, it was like “oh there’s another Reid Hildebrand film.” My dad mentioned reaching out to her when I graduate –we’re connected on LinkedIn and shit so I guess it’s pretty serious.
Why did you pick Wes?
One of my mentors from Lighthouse, Sasha Solodukhina ‘11, went to Wesleyan. She was a film major, and since I was in 9th grade, told me I needed to go to Wesleyan. It was always on my radar. When I visited Wesleyan, there was just something about it that other schools didn’t have. Whether it was the community, the campus itself, or the film program, which is surprisingly good for a tiny school, it just seemed like everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t. Because I had done so much production in High School I felt like I could take a break from production and just focus on theory because I knew nothing about that.
Have you been making videos while at Wes outside of your classes? How do you balance that with schoolwork?
I had found a way to produce things throughout. There was a brief period of time freshman year where I was a freelance videographer for the Argus and various on-campus groups. It was mostly fun to do and a good way to meet people and get my name out there. But junior and senior year I decided to shift my focus to bigger projects. My thesis is obviously one of them, but also when I was in Japan I made this documentary about this artisanal bow maker, which was a really neat experience. Instead of trying to keep my knife sharp with recap report videos, my interest changed into more long-form expressions.
Do you do other stuff on campus?
Not as much, honestly. I’ve always been a proponent of having fewer friends and doing fewer things. Quality over quantity.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned at Wes?
The most important thing about Wesleyan to me is that it allowed me to really come into myself. When I got here I was really shy and a lot less sure about things. Now, I definitely have a clearer picture of who I am and what I want to do than I did when I get here.
What are your thoughts on the Film Department?
I wish there was more of a focus on production. It is a little silly that you take either digital or sight and sound for one semester and then they deem you fit to handle a multi-thousand dollar budget and a big crew. It’s very daunting. Although I felt vaguely ready, I cant imagine how I would have felt if I was somebody who had never made a film before, which is a very real thing in the department.
If there’s one thing that I really appreciate about the film department, it’s how they taught me how to read a film with a discerning eye. And how they taught me to identify and vocalize my feelings about certain films. To be able to identify why you’re feeling that way you feel through formal elements and stylistic elements and to be able to understand and intellectualize what it is that makes a film functional and evocative. Before I got to Wesleyan I understood it in a really vague sense. The classes here, especially those taught by Lisa Dombrowski, gave me a better understanding.
So tell me about your thesis. What is it about?
It’s about a boy who has a falling out with his father and steals his rifle and takes his girlfriend and goes out into the woods to hunt a coyote. It was inspired by a story that was told to me by an old friend several summers ago about something that had happened to his uncle when they were young. The story went through many iterations. I think the final draft of my script that I ended up shooting on was called 6.6.4, which meant that it was the 6th major iteration, and the 6th edit of that and the 4th tweaking.
What are the main themes in your film?
The big stupid cliché one is coming of age. The transition from boyhood to adulthood, and with that, a lot of ideas of self versus what your parents are. How does one follow in their parents’ footsteps while also making a path for oneself?
When you’re young, there’s that whole idea that your parents are invincible and everything they do is right and they know everything, and then as you get older you realize that’s not necessarily true. You are not your dad and you are not your mom. Intellectually, I understand that, but sometimes it is just so hard to separate because my parents and I have been so close and we get along really well. Those are feelings that I’ve been wrestling with and that’s really what I want to come through in my film.
Whether or not it really reads or really resonates with people, I know that I got it out there and that was important to me. Since I’ve finished filming, I felt sort of a release, which is weird because I didn’t expect it to feel that way. It felt like it was something that was really clawing and trying to get out and since I’ve done shooting I’ve started thinking about other things that I’m interested in.
How was the shooting process?
It was good and it was stressful. We were working primarily with natural light so we had a very set deadline at the end of each day—when the sun set. We had to get into a rhythm and naturally on the first day, as is tradition, the first scene was not very tight at all and we burned through more film than we were expecting, but then it really picked up and I think the second weekend we were pretty on our game.
What was your shooting style like?
It was mostly handheld, which is a choice that I still support and still stand behind because I don’t think you see it in 16mm theses that often. I wanted a sense of realism in it. I wanted to align the viewer with my protagonist and to show the pressure and uncertainty building up inside of him. I felt that getting really close and intimate would be a good way to do that. I also took some cues from the Romanian new wave.
Who were some key players on your crew?
Albert Tholen was my DP, He’s great and he and I were able to have really open communication, which was really important because I can't really see the footage- I’m seeing sort of a subjective interpretation of what a subjective shot is going to look like. Albert just has a really intellectualized way of thinking about and a very clear way of communicating it.
Do you feel prepared to enter the real world, specifically the Film industry?
Yes. Well, the film industry I have no fucking clue. But do I think I could handle this again and do I think I could do it better next time? Absolutely. The first time you try to write a 90 page screenplay or make a 12 minute film, it seems like this insurmountable task, but after you’ve done it once, the mountain gets smaller everytime. And when the mountain gets smaller, you can think about doing different things. You don’t have to worry about just being able to scale the mountain because you know you can, so you can turn your focus to different things. So ultimately I think this process has been so important to me in proving that I can do it. Proving that I can handle something this big and really think through something this big and hopefully make a product that is cohesive and works together.
I’m so excited to do it again. I have new things I’m interested in exploring- new feelings I really want to translate. I absolutely think this is the beginning. If I can I would love to continue shooting 16 mm. I loved the way it made me think about film and I love the way it looks
What are your plans for after graduation?
Moving to Austin, Texas. No plans beyond that so far - maybe find some sort of job and try to save up some cash to make another short. I’m gonna be moving there with some friends from Wesleyan. It seems like there might be a small crew that’s going down there trying to trail blaze a new Wesleyan film alumni maybe, because Austin is really blowing up right now. It seems like in 10 years it’s absolutely going to explode so now seems like a great time to hop on the wave.
Are you a little scared of jumping in to this industry?
Perseverance is the big part I think – people are going to drop out of this industry. But I believe that if you really stick with it and keep working eventually you will rise to the top. Maybe when I’m like 50 and homeless, I will regret ever saying that, but I think that’s true and I hope it’s true.
It’s easy as a 21 year old to just sit here and wax poetic “yeah I wanna be an artist forever, I’m totally ok with living paycheck to paycheck and having no money and living in a shitty apartment.” It's very easy to romanticize that as long as you’re following the art, but it’s different when you’re actually doing it. So it’s hard for me to say how am I actually going to feel. But I do know how this process has made me feel. I know that in the creation of my thesis I have felt this cathartic release.