BREWSTER – Hollywood’s vision of Cape Cod is a bright blue carefree July day at the beach. Isaak James’ new cinematic vision shows the under-the-radar gray of February, and a lost generation of young adults returning home to live as boomerang kids with their parents.
“I wanted this movie to be as close to real life as possible,” said James, 35, the director and producer of “By Way Of Home,” an emotionally moving independent film playing this week at the Woods Hole Film Festival.
Made for $1,000 and filmed entirely on Cape Cod over 20 days this past February, the movie stars, essentially, James, his family, a good friend, and a cat.
The story centers on a young adult woman, “over-educated and underemployed,” played by James sister, Eva. The woman returns home to Cape Cod to live with her parents and work at their restaurant. The parents are played by his parents.
One weekend, a friend of the young woman visits because, it turns out, she has no other home to visit. Set during the recent economic downturn, the movie offers varying perspectives on the ideas of freedom, family, and home. James plays the brother, and a friend who has been in other of his movies, Whitney Parshall, plays the visiting friend.
The movie is an understated drama that takes place in a bleak February landscape. “I tried to stay away from any exposition,” said James. Instead, he relied on characters and situations to tell a back story of a 20-year friendship that led to the weekend in the movie.
The movie portrays broken dreams in the tedium of kitchen work, filmed at James’ parents restaurant, Peddler’s Bistro in Brewster. It also touches on some Cape Cod iconography, including a moment of bonding between two key characters as they sing the once omnipresent radio jingle of the now-closed Thompson’s Clam Bar.
A key dramatic moment takes place as the characters take a road trip from the barren winter landscape in the middle of the peninsula to the coast; in fact to Provincetown. As the lighting changes, so does the illumination of the characters.
A Family Movie
Isaak James, his professional name, is the co-founder of Last Ditch Pictures, headquartered in New York City.
He was known at Dennis-Yarmouth High School as Jean-Yves Hasson. The other co-founder of Last Ditch Pictures is his sister, Eva James, who was once known as Yvette Hasson. They star in the movie, along with Whitney Parshall, who plays a leading role as the friend who visits.
The other actors in the movie were absolute novices, their parents – Alain and Beth Hasson. “I asked him, why don’t you find another actor,” recalled James father, Alain Hasson. “He said, ‘We really don’t have any money.’… You don’t say no to your son. So I said yes.”
Beth Hasson also said yes. “They needed a mom and I was here and the part was right. It was a natural for me” she admitted after first insisting that she wanted no part of being in a movie. Again, how do you say no to you son?
“My mom, every morning, would call me the camera monster,” said James. Working with his family was “awesome,” he said, although getting his father to act early in the morning was difficult, he said.
So Mom and Dad played ‘Mom” and “Dad”. The restaurant owners played restaurant owners. Their daughter played their daughter. And February on Cape Cod looks an awful lot like February on Cape Cod. Isaak James had found the perfect character actors for his movie.
Creating An Independent Film Maker
By the time Isaak James reached kindergarten, he had lived in Massachusetts, Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma, New York, Texas and Wisconsin. His father was in hotel management before opening his own restaurant.
In kindergarten, James moved to Maine for six years until his family settled on Cape Cod when he entered 7th grade.
“I dabbled in a lot of things when I was young,” he said. “I always loved to draw. I was known I school for my art. I could take a dollar bill and replicate it,” he said. “I knew I liked to create things.”
Then, the year he moved to the Cape there was a really good Christmas for the Hasson household. “We must have had a good year,” he said, recalling that he and his sister received a musical keyboard, a guitar, a karaoke machine, and a camcorder.
“I loved the camera,” recalled James. “That night I started shooting what was going on. After that, the next big thing was to make a movie.” He tried to do a version of Indiana Jones in the woods but he discovered he had, “No actors, no experience, and no ability.”
Then, he and his sister made a 20-minute version of “The Fugitive,” in which he learned rudimentary editing skills by working with two VCRs. He even created a special effect where a body is thrown from a window. The beginning shot and the end shot was a person, and the middle shot of the body flying was actually a pillow wearing clothes. Although the effect worked, James said, “It was far from seamless.”
As a child, James wanted to be a veterinarian but he kept dabbling in what he called “the extracurricular things I do.” In eighth grade, he took classes at a local cable access channel. In high school, his English teacher convinced him to try out for the school play, Camelot, and he won the role of Mordred. “I loved the fact that I was performing and I had an audience of people that would listen,” he said. More importantly, he loved the family feeling that a theater production can create.
His real family was also nurturing his creativity. His father had sung standards by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the like to James as a child. When James got older, singing came natural and at one point in his early teens, he began entertaining at the family restaurant.
It was Cape Cod in the summer, a time when the unexpected can actually happen. “I was singing a Dean Martin tune, ‘You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You’ when my Mom noticed Tony Lo Bianco, the actor from the French Connection, in the restaurant.” The actor asked who was that singer and she said it was her son.
When Lo Bianco met James, “ He was like, ‘”You’re good. I’m going to get you a manager’ “ recalled James Soon, at 15 years old, he was on his way to New York, playing venues for 500 people and even “one time for (then New York Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani.”
Dreams of being a veterinarian faded. Instead, he went to New York University as a student in musical theater. There was only one problem. “I’ve got two left feet,” he said. “I’m one of the worst dancers you’ll ever see.” So after two years in NYU’s musical theater program, he transferred into a film and television major and “my life changed. Instantly, it felt like home.”
Although he admits there “was a lot of stuff I didn’t know,” he had one clear goal. “I wanted to be an independent film maker.”
He admired the freedom that independent films enjoyed. He wrote a script but it went nowhere. “I was not the bulldog that I am today. I just sort of gave up.”
This clear goal of creating independent films never faded. However, James has shown an ability to be derailed from time to time by tangential opportunities. He worked for a year on Wall Street, worked as a dee-jay and as a singer, and even landed a part eating a burger in a Burger King commercial.
“I must have ate 20 or 30 burgers,” he said. “I’d sit there all day taking a bite of these beautiful burgers. And then I’d finish the whole thing and the director came over and said, ‘You know, you’ve got 300 of these to go.’ But I was hungry.”
That burger eating was lucrative enough that, “I paid off a good portion of my student loans,” he said.
Along the way, he and his sister opened Last Ditch Pictures, a full service production studio in New York, and they began making independent films. “By Way of Home” is his fourth movie.
“By Way of Home” can be seen at the Woods Hole Film Festival at the following times: Monday, July 29 at 9 PM at Redfield Auditorium. For tickets, go to http://www.woodsholefilmfestival.org/
— Brian Tarcy