Film Courage: What prompted you go be a political science major at Princeton?
Sean Hartofilis: I played lacrosse in college, which required a substantial time commitment, and only certain majors fit within our schedule. A film major wasn’t an option then, although I took all the film classes that were offered; I wrote, directed, and edited a lot of movies; and I loved that experience very much. Most of my friends majored in history or politics. I probably knew less about politics and wanted to learn. But it wasn’t exactly political science; it was just called “Politics” but was probably closer to political theory. I studied various political philosophers and how their views on human nature influenced their policies or principles. I also studied Classical Greece, African American History, Children’s Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, Religion, International Relations, Math and Physics…it was very much a comprehensive liberal arts education. That major also allowed me to do my senior thesis on Native American culture, which I’d say was formative.
Film Courage: When you moved home back to Long Island in 2003, what prompted you to write the script for beach pillows? Were there elements of your own life or others whom you were close with that prompted it?
Sean Hartofilis: I used the emotion of that period after college when you don’t quite know what comes next, what you want or how to get it. Well, the one thing I did know is I wanted to make movies, so I wrote a movie about that time and feeling. And in addition to being inspired by my family, friends, and experiences, I looked to bildungsromans and kunstlerromans from my favorite artists: I Vitelloni, The 400 Blows, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Mean Streets, Scarecrow, The Last Detail, Stranger than Paradise, Withnail & I, Bottle Rocket, Somers Town, This Side of Paradise, The Sun Also Rises, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, East of Eden, A Fan’s Notes, even things like Hamlet, The New Testament, or The Strokes first album Is This It. I also wrote half of the script on my parents’ dining room table, so I’m sure that was motivating.
Film Courage: What is the film about?
Sean Hartofilis: It’s about two best friends going in different directions over the course of a Long Island summer, growing up and perhaps apart, but hopefully becoming whole people. There’s love, family, crime, sex, music, violence, and comedy in there too.
Film Courage: How did your family react to you coming home to write a script?
Sean Hartofilis: They supported me. My family has always provided support, concern, and love for me in whatever I do; I’ve always felt it, and it’s made me who I am.
Film Courage: So many of us have dreams of temporary stays somewhere to write that Great American Novel or life-altering script, but discipline, procrastination and self-sabotage usually stop many of us. Did you have dreams like that in the back of your mind? How did you monitor your time and become your own taskmaster ?
Sean Hartofilis: It was less thought-out or scheduled for me at that point because I was so new to it. For me it was about getting out a story that was burning inside of me, that I was living with and thinking about constantly. And doing it made me feel good. Being creative and productive was the only thing that made me less anxious about those feelings.
I think I’d developed a discipline for finishing things prior to that point. Any other facet of life–school, sports, relationships, or any other creative endeavor–you need to commit if you want it to work, or if you want to represent the very best of yourself. Finishing, like starting, has always been essential. I didn’t see any reason to treat this differently.
I hear that a lot, the perceived difficulty of starting something or finishing it, and I certainly empathize with the creative process, but I don’t really understand those particular hurdles. It’s entirely up to you whether you want to start something or finish it. There are other things you can’t control. But the work, especially the written work, does not fall under that category.
Film Courage: What prompted you to move to LA? What was your take once you arrived here?
Sean Hartofilis: I’d always planned to move out there after college in order to work in film, learn about the business, and meet people. My friend Brian Caslin and I lived in Santa Monica the summer before our senior year of college and sold shoes at the Adidas Store on the Santa Monica Promenade. My friend Dennis and I drove back out in 2003 and lived with his brother, who’s a cameraman. We slept on bunkbeds in his little back office.
Film Courage: What were your exact steps for setting up pitch meetings once you finished writing the second half of Beach Pillows?
Sean Hartofilis: I didn’t set up meetings. I just sent the script to people I’d met who might want to make a movie or be able to help.
Film Courage: What did you observe working in LA as a production assistant and assisting other Hollywood professionals?
Sean Hartofilis: All sorts of different things, mostly unrelated to storytelling but things that might have reinforced values of how I want to treat people.
Film Courage: How do people in entertainment conduct themselves in business LA versus New York?
Sean Hartofilis: I’m not sure I’ve noticed a difference between entertainment professionals in New York vs. LA. I’ve met kind people and unkind people, and the kind people have always seemed much happier.
Film Courage: Why did you move back to New York? Why leave LA?
Sean Hartofilis: My family is here. My then girlfriend and now wife is here. We only have so much time on this planet, and I want to be close to my family, because I love them more than anything. They inspire me. Also, Los Angeles is beautiful and fun and I have a lot of great friends there, but people work in predominantly one business. It’s helpful for me to be around different people doing different things.
Film Courage: How did you get Beach Pillows on to iTunes?
Sean Hartofilis: My digital distributor Gravitas Ventures brought it to them. I guess they run movies at their discretion based on quality, and I’m glad and grateful to them and all of these other platforms for having us.
Film Courage: What are you doing (step by step) to promote the film?
Sean Hartofilis: That’d be a long answer, especially because I’m learning all of this as I go, but I’m sharing supplements on social media that I hope engage people (twitter.com/beachpillows, facebook.com/beachpillows, youtube.com/wallsfarmpictures, instagram: @shartofilis); connecting with folks who’ve shown an interest in our cast or similar films, my tastes, or just things that interest me in general; and I’m reaching out to various individuals and press outlets in order to discuss the film or coordinate screenings to create awareness.
Film Courage: You played lacrosse in college – how is the game a metaphor for adult life?
Sean Hartofilis: This is probably going to sound trite, but it’s just about working hard with a likeminded group towards a common goal. It’s not very different than a film crew, theater company, or any other team. Preparation and dedication foster success. How much of yourself are you willing to give for this team or this story?
In lacrosse, specifically, because of the way the rules are written, you usually can get the ball back if you miss the goal. So you’re basically not penalized for shooting. I look at life the same way: you can’t score if you don’t shoot. Make yourself strong and dexterous and accurate, put yourself in the best position possible, and shoot to score. If you miss, find the lesson and shoot again.
Finally, you can’t always win. Any sport is good to help you understand that, to deal with defeat and get better from it. Entertainment, probably more than any field, is a “no” business. You have to face disappointment and move on with more strength and purpose. And that can be especially difficult because most artists are very sensitive people. But you can use that sensitivity, that emotion, as an asset, because that’s your stock in trade. Make it fuel you. Don’t let it drown you.
Film Courage: Looking back do you regret or embrace your major? What advice did college advisors tell you about the working world that was totally true and utterly false?
Sean Hartofilis: I embrace it. Like I said, it was my decision. Aside from all that I learned specifically, I’ll say that regrets, unless they somehow inspire you (which they usually don’t and will probably do the opposite), are basically pointless. James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” and I agree based on all of my experiences and mistakes. My major, as an example, wasn’t a mistake. However, I can’t think of anything I’d take back because then I wouldn’t have learned something and would be weaker as a result. Why would anyone want to go back through that portal of discovery, as it were, to a place of ignorance? Unless you’ve hurt other people, you’re fine. If you only hurt yourself, you can learn and grow.
I don’t recall any college advisors, as a role. Plenty of people give advice, and you should always listen and learn what you can while remembering that what you believe is most important. I’ll just say that a college degree, even from an Ivy League school, does not equal success or even employment. College, if you use it right, can strengthen your mind, experience-base, relationships, and socialization skills so you’re more equipped for the real world. But it can also coddle you and promote alcoholism and other destructive impulses. And it’s irrationally expensive. Just know that after you graduate, or even if you don’t, it’s all on you. That’s the truth, and that’s what this movie is about. What do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it?
Film Courage: Who is in Beach Pillows and how did you cast them?
Sean Hartofilis: The film stars Geoffrey Arend, Vincent Kartheiser, Annette O’Toole, and Richard Schiff. I got the script to Geoffrey through my friend and producer Jesse Hoy. Geoffrey read it on his phone and signed on. He got the script to Vincent, who works on Mad Men with Geoffrey’s wife Christina, and he signed on. When I raised the money and crewed up, I hired my casting director Kevin Kuffa, who helped me make offers to Annette and Richard. And I auditioned and hired the rest of the cast with Kevin. I’ll say that I was incredibly impressed by the talent of New York actors across the board. There’s a wealth of wonderful, gifted performers who want to be in movies, and we had great options and difficult decisions for every role.
Film Courage: What is your advice to filmmakers who want to invite a certain actor to read a script? How pushy or ‘determined’ should one be? How do you contact the right person to get it to them?
Sean Hartofilis: Write a part that will let an actor be great. After that, any port in a storm, really. Be tactful and kind, as you should be in all aspects of life, but there’s no use being too proud or bashful. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no. Not the end of the world. And you’ll likely feel less nervous moving forward as a result of that first no. Just hustle. Persistence is essential everywhere, but especially in this business. Every great artist ever, no matter how talented, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Martin Scorsese, heard no much more than yes, and the ratio isn’t even close. You lose count of the nos. All that matters are the yeses. Like they say in Cosmos, darkness doesn’t exist. It’s just an absence of light.
Film Courage: Did you do a script read?
Sean Hartofilis: We did a table read in LA about a year and a half before we shot. Geoffrey was there, but Vincent had a Mad Men conflict, and Marc Maron, Seth Morris, and some other kind performers came and helped out. It was fun to hear the script read from start to finish in front of an audience. You might get a few ideas about pace and clarity. But film is a visual medium, so I’d only put as much stock in that as is helpful to you. Don’t use it, or anything, as an opportunity to lose confidence. A lot of people don’t understand what the film will be until they see it. What’s essential is that you can always see it and communicate what’s required to help your collaborators achieve it. Two weeks rehearsing with Geoffrey and Vincent prior to production was also very helpful.
Film Courage: How did you secure the locations for the film?
Sean Hartofilis: We had a locations manager, of course, but most of these places were existing locations around which I grew up or that inspired the story. Two of my best friends’ family homes on Long Island are Morgan’s and Nick’s houses in the film. That big Downtown apartment in the first scene belonged to my friends Daniel and Ana. Karla’s interior is my wife’s and my apartment. My friend Fio was a lifegaurd at Tobay Beach where we shot, and he coordinated the assistance of the lifeguards. There was a lot of stuff like that, and I think it just makes everything more real, personal, and powerful.
Film Courage: How did you get involved with reality tv?
Sean Hartofilis: I’ve submitted my resume for thousands of jobs over the years in order to eat and pay my bills.
Film Courage: What did working on reality television teach you about producing content and story?
Sean Hartofilis: I don’t know if it taught me much about story, but it prepared me for location work and long production hours, clearing locations and coordinating cast on the fly. It was also an opportunity to meet kind and interesting people, and maybe commiserate about our other interests.
Film Courage: How did you raise money for Beach Pillows?
Sean Hartofilis: I raised money from private investors–family, friends, alumni, teammates, bankers, doctors, producers, realtors, lawyers. It was more or less exactly what I understood as the Coen brothers’ model for their first feature Blood Simple.
Film Courage: What is next for you creatively?
Sean Hartofilis: Directing a feature I’ve written set in upstate New York along the Hudson.
Film Courage: How important are making contacts in college who may eventually become business contacts?
Sean Hartofilis: What was important for me, more than anything, were my friends and teammates. I remain closest to them, and I couldn’t have financed the movie without them. So it was less about the business and more about good people who supported and encouraged me. I also met my wife Liza in school, and I couldn’t do or enjoy any of this stuff without her. She’s currently in med school, which is its own mountain, and we lean on each other.
Film Courage: Did anyone call you crazy for wanting to make a movie?
Sean Hartofilis: Out loud? I’m not sure. But for a while it felt like that’s what a lot of people were thinking. Now they seem to feel differently. But you’re always going to have doubters, and doubt will always live inside you. You have to decide what to listen to, or who wins.
Film Courage: What advice can you provide freelance creative types on keeping sane and disciplined between finding the next job?
Sean Hartofilis: Just that: stay disciplined. Start and finish. Always be taking shots. Do something every day that advances your story or your ability to tell it. The missing piece doesn’t just show up. The missing piece is you.
Film Courage: In Beach Pillows you have two friends where one is more of a thinker and one is more of a doer. Have you been either of these types. What have you observed in the habits of fellow doers and thinkers?
Sean Hartofilis: I try to be both, because a thinker needs to do and a doer needs to think. Without that, not much good happens. But that’s the struggle. And that’s the story.
Sean Hartofilis is a producer and director, known for Covadonga (2017), Beach Pillows (2014) and The Cho Show (2008).