Justin Hunt [Interview]

Photo by Ben Chrisman

Oh hot damn, do we have a wonderful interview for you fine folks today! We have some amazing words from the brilliant filmmaker Justin Hunt! In 2007 he released one of the most compelling documentary films of all time entitled American Meth that really drove home the issues of meth addiction and the terrible consequences of falling into this world.

And beyond American Meth, Justin has only continued to put out some very amazing work, both in the feature film and documentary world. Justin’s list of credits are so delightfully varied, covering several different topics from drug addiction, to pornography, and beyond.

I am so honored that Justin was able to share a few words with us here today. He has had an amazing career that actually did not start in the world of film. He has an amazing story to tell, and we are so excited to share it with you all today! So check it out!

I understand you started your career at a very young age in the world of television broadcasting. So, what led you to the world of documentary filmmaking from your previous field? Was it a seamless transition overall?

After learning just how much I disliked the corporate structure of broadcast journalism, I started my own video production company while still anchoring for an NBC affiliate in New Mexico.  After a year or so of doing those things concurrently, I left TV and focused on my company.  In 2005, I challenged myself to take on a bigger project, a feature length documentary, which eventually became American Meth.  When we screened that film for the first time in 2007, I was hoping to get 100 people or so to come out and watch the film.  Over 2,000 people showed up and that’s when I think I realized that I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for.  That’s really where the fire started burning for the documentary films.  And, in all honesty, it really was a seamless transition because what are documentary films other than just longer news stories.  Plus, with the one-man banding I was doing at NBC, making a film on my own was no different.  I shot them, wrote them, produced, financed, edited, everything.  With Absent and The Speed of Orange, I even narrated them.  It was no different than being a news man, simply on a larger scale and with a lot more eyes on them.

American Meth is without a doubt an absolute modern classic in the world of documentary filmmaking. I am curious to know what it was like to dive into such a truly disturbing world? And what are your thoughts on the impact that your film has had on the country as a whole?

First of all, thank you for that compliment. I’m not a person who reflects a lot on past accomplishments or completed projects, so I’m often surprised when someone says something like that about a film I’ve done.  Calling it a modern classic is a humbling statement, so thank you.  Whether with American Meth, or any of the other films, walking into those worlds as a filmmaker leaves a lasting impression on you, things stick to you, like the smell of smoke on curtains.  Especially spending time in the home of James and Holly in AM, you go into this subconscious reporter mode, where everything is two-dimensional because you’re seeing it all through a viewfinder.  It’s only after the fact, when you’re going through footage and editing, that you see things more realistically and you realize you were just dealing with some crazy shit.  I’ll give you a perfect example:  there is a scene in American Meth where James and Holly are arguing with each other, screaming, the kids are bouncing around the room, it’s chaos.  While they’re yelling at each other, one of the little boys, who was 6 or 7 years old at the time, walks right in between them and pretends to hold gun up to his dad’s head and shoot him. I never noticed that until two or three years after the film came out.  It’s then that you realize what a unstable, ugly situation you were actually in.

As far as the impact it’s had, I’d like to think that it’s helped people.  I can attest to hundreds if not thousands of emails and letters that I’ve received over the past decade from people whose lives have been improved by learning more about that issue through the film.  It’s still extremely popular as far as distribution is concerned, still watched a lot, so I’m hopeful that it’s still serving a positive purpose.

How did Val Kilmer become involved with the project? Were you simply old friends, or did he have some sort of vested interested in the subject matter?

I’ve always loved this question because the answer tends to throw people off.  I simply called and asked and he said yes.  That’s it.  I used some old reporter skills to track down the number to his ranch in New Mexico, called and left a message and the next day they called back and said he’d do it.  In my opinion, I think that there were a few variables that piqued his interest.  I was a fellow New Mexican, I was a young filmmaker that he wanted to help and I think he appreciated that I had the balls to call and ask.  Also, not long before that, he’d done The Salton Sea, where he portrays a meth addict, so I’m sure he’d gained an appreciation for the devastating nature of the drug and wanted to help get the word out.

In 2015 you took the subject of meth addiction to the scripted world with the film Far Too Far. When comparing a narrative film with a documentary, which would you say was the more difficult format in which to express the true terror of the world of meth addiction?

First, I have to say that the process of making Far Too Far was a dream come true for me, to a degree.  Despite the success with the documentaries, my love has always been with narratives and I have been striving my entire career to get into that marketplace.  Writing, directing, or both, would be the dream job for me.  I want to be a part of that history of film.  I’m extremely proud of the story I told with Far Too Far, I simply didn’t have the finances or the seasoned talent to tell it properly.  I challenged myself to make it and I did, but I’d love to eventually see it made right.  Having said that, I would definitely say the more difficult format to express the nature of meth addiction is the documentary.  Sure, we could go into a meth house and show people shooting up and capture all that salacious bullshit, but I think that’s irresponsible filmmaking that exploits people.  I’m not into that at all.  Case in point, look at what we did with Addicted to Porn: Chasing the Cardboard Butterfly.  There’s not a single provocative image in that film because what good does that do?  It just hurts those dealing with the issue.  In the narrative arena, you have creative control over what is said and shown.  You can tell the story in a more effective manner setting up situations and conversations in a controlled environment. Also, in a doc, you can’t control everything that people say and do, nor can you show everything that you see and hear.  If so, most documentaries would be five or six hours long.  Most people don’t know this (because most people don’t know about Far Too Far), but Far Too Far is actually a purging of what was left over in my mind from the making of American Meth.  I took some of the horrible things I was exposed to while making the documentary and turned it into a narrative script.  For example, the primary story line about the mother and daughter is a true story.  What the woman does to her ear at the party…true story.  That’s why I believe the narrative landscape actually gives you more space to create the truth of a story.

In your illustrious career thus far, you have covered a lot of different situations and events. I am curious to know how you decide what you want to showcase next? How do you choose what you want to show the world?

That’s a great question and the answer isn’t a very clear one, for you or for me.  Situations in life seem to present themselves to me and then the light comes one.  American Meth was the result of a Christian men’s retreat I was on.  Absent was spawned from a couple of different books that I’d read and the fact that I was a single father raising two kids on my own.  The Speed of Orange was brought about by my mother being diagnosed with cancer.  Addicted to Porn: Chasing the Cardboard Butterfly started with a conversation with an old friend I went to high school with.  The seeds get planted and start germinating in my brain, then I start really thinking through what kind of impact they might have, and, finally, I have to consider what it would take to make them and if they’d be marketable.  I’d love to be able to say I’m independently wealthy and I’m just making these films to take on issues that others don’t have the courage to, but I do have to consider the business side of things, as well.  As far as what’s next, I’m really not sure.  ATP took me over four years to make and was extremely taxing on me financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually.   In essence, it knocked the wind out of my documentary-making sails.  But, you never know what might come along and garner my attention.  I think I’m good at making documentaries, but I also know that, to me, each one needs to be better than the last.  If an idea comes along that I feel can do that, I might make another doc.  Otherwise, I’ll just keep doing what I do to make a living and keep looking for opportunities to write and/or direct narratives.

In your work as a documentarian and storyteller, you have covered some very dark subject matter whilst profiling real people who are living in these sad and sometimes dangerous worlds. So with that, do you ever manage to keep in touch with any of the folks you profile? Have you noticed any sort of individual impact after somebody has been featured in one of your films?

There have been a handful of people who I’ve stayed in contact with, but not a ton.  It’s just like anything else, there are some people you connect with and some you don’t.  I’ve stayed fairly close with James Hetfield, Johnny Tapia’s family, some of the folks from American Meth, a few people from ATP.  I have definitely seen some positive impact from the films on those I’ve featured, but I’ve also seen it have a negative outcome for others.  People in the public forum can be quite brutal in their comments about documentaries and the interviewees therein.  That’s why I always try to be very upfront with someone I’m going to interview about the magnitude of exposure they’re going to be getting.

Photo by Ben Chrisman

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

The future looks pretty bright for us at the moment.  I basically decided to reinvent myself and my company about six months ago.  After 16 years of being Time & Tide Productions, we changed the name of the company to White Whale Pictures, Inc., got a new logo, a new office and started focusing on new kinds of work.  Although my main focus is writing/directing feature narratives, we have just signed with an agency for an episodic television show I created, I’m working on a feature script I’ve been commissioned to write (and hopefully direct), and we’re keeping things fresh by working on a myriad of different creative projects in the corporate/commercial marketplace.  Naturally, I’d love for folks to continue watching my films when and where they can and I’m sure this interview will help.  We’re really trying to grow a bigger presence on social media with the new company, so I’d like to personally invite people reading this to come follow us on Instagram at @whitewhalepictures.  Other than that, just keep an eye out for whatever we throw out there next!

What was the last thing that made you smile?

My wife and four year old have been in South Africa for the past seven weeks, so my 17 year old son and I have been bachelors for the past two months.  I’d have to say the last thing that made me smile is watching all of the little indicators that he’s becoming a man, and a good one at that.  And, naturally, the young buck has to test the alpha male, so the wrestling matches, arm punches and giving each other shit has been a ton of fun.  There’s nothing like the feeling of being a dad, which is a very noble role, and realizing you’ve done a good job.

Check out the trailer for American Meth right here:

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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