Appreciating all people for who they are is one of the most important messages of social justice in modern society. But in a world where appearances on social media is one of the most culturally important driving forces in creating someone’s status, accepting those who are different as equals isn’t always easily done. In a world where beauty is still the ultimate free pass, society needs heroes for those people who are living on the fringes. The protagonist of the new black comedy television series, ‘Hammerhead,’ isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, especially since his physical appearance doesn’t fit the societal norm of beauty.
Dean Imperial wrote, directed and served as the showrunner for the first season of ‘Hammerhead,’ which screened during the Episodic Pilot Competition at last month’s SXSW. The series follows the life of recent college graduate John Hammond (Sam Gilroy), who was born with Proteus syndrome, the same condition as Joseph Merrick, who’s known as The Elephant Man, although John’s case isn’t nearly as severe. Faced with adversity his whole life, he is now ready to leave home after graduate school, move to New York City and succeed on his own. With the help of his therapist (Richard Cooper, who also serves as an executive producer), John is faced with the challenges that life and ambition bring. Compounded by his appearance, John decides through sheer force of will, determination and strategy to accept who he is, while also navigating his way through cruelty, undermining personalities and his own emotional ups and downs.
Imperial, Gilroy and Cooper generously took the time during SXSW to discuss writing, directing, starring in and producing ‘Hammerhead’ during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmaker and actors discussed that they were drawn to telling an underdog story about a normally marginalized character who actually succeeds, which serves as a universal story that all audiences can understand. The trio also expressed their gratitude for the show playing at the Austin-based festival, as they appreciated seeing the positive affect it had on audiences.
ShockYa (SY): Dean, you wrote and created the new series, ‘Hammerhead.’ What was your inspiration in creating the show, and what was the process of penning the story like overall?
Dean Imperial (DI): Well, this was an idea I carried around for about a year. I had written it down, and had it in the back of my head, but hadn’t quite figured it out yet. The idea came from a desire I had to write a television show that I could see last several seasons.
I was particularly drawn to telling an underdog story about a marginalized character who usually gets pushed off to the shadows. But in this story, he would succeed. He would have the determination to move forward, and make his way. This is a universal story, because we’re all this character.
I then started working with Sam at a theater company, and we started a collaboration that led to us making a short film. I thought he was an extremely talented actor, and we had great chemistry, so I thought, I’d like to write some more for him.
I then met Rich Cooper at an improv group, and we got along great. He was interested in investing, and making something from scratch. So I started to put this all together.
Sam then kiddingly said to me, ‘Why don’t you make a show for me?’ So I thought, I have this idea for ‘Hammerhead,’ so I could maybe put him in this role. The script then kind of wrote itself, and then the idea to cast Rich in this came to me, as well. I love his charisma and raw talent, so I decided to write a role for him that’s based on the dynamics of his personality.
Once I started writing the scripts, I would give drafts to Rich, and as a producer, he would give me back notes. So I would go through them, and work on the stories. We then decided to write the overview of the first season, and then through the whole series, even if we don’t know the exact details of Seasons 2, 3 and 4 yet. But we knew where the show would end. So we worked on all of that before we even filmed the pilot. That’s the whole story of the inception of the script.
SY: Sam, you play John on the show. What was it about the character, as well as the overall story, that convinced you to take on the role?
Sam Gilroy (SG): John is so much more of an optimistic, outgoing and go-getting human than I am, so it was an absolute joy to have that in my body. But I also felt a tremendous amount of pressure to play this experience that I don’t know anything about. But I trusted the writing and training that I have.
It’s one of the best, and most joyful, experiences I’ve ever had…We worked with a wonderful crew who was well above the experience we should have had for an independent pilot. So knowing that everyone was there, in service of the story, which they believed in, was amazing.
SY: Dean, in addition to scribing the series, you also served as its director and showrunner. How did writing the story influence your helming approach on the set? What was your overall process of directing and showrunning the series?
DI: I think like an overall filmmaker; as I’m writing, I’m thinking about directing. I’ve also written for other directors, but I always imagine how it’s going to feel on the set, in terms of the visuals. So for me, writing and directing are two sides of the same coin. I know that’s not the case for everybody, but I couldn’t see any other way of doing it.
Writing something, and then directing it, feels very natural to me. As I write the story, I can see it all the way through to what it will be in the final version of the project-in this case, the pilot-if I also direct it. I’m always open to changing things as we go, however.
I enjoy doing both, but I possibly enjoy directing more than writing, because of how lonely writing can get. I love the process of directing.
Like Sam said, we’re lucky that we had a crew that was working for the joy of the project. We were all working together on the set. I like to get feedback from the actors and everyone.
I may have the credit of writer-creator-director, but Rich is the executive producer, so there wasn’t a creative decision that wasn’t filtered through him. He and I were a partnership through this, but luckily, we were on the same page throughout the production.
I was also very lucky to be able to work with an extremely talented cinematographer and editor, Noah Hutton, who I had worked with before. So a lot of credit goes to him, because he’s one heck of a collaborator.
SY: Richard, like Dean just mentioned, in addition to starring in the series, you also served as one of its executive producer. What was the process of balancing your acting and producing duties?
Richard Cooper (RC): Well, I had to break the duties up, of course. I knew Dean’s talent level, so there was a tremendous amount of great things that were going for the project. We already had a trust, and we shared a very similar creative vibe. He took a lot of my personality, and threw it into this character. I thought his conception of the character was brilliant.
I love both acting and producing, especially on this project. Dean and I talked a lot about my character’s background, so this therapist I play has a backstory. I think Dean’s ability to make us feel that Sam’s character had gone through his whole life seeing these coddling therapists, as you may call them, before he sees my character, who was tougher, was great. It was a lot of fun to work together to not only create my character, but the relationship between him and Sam’s character.
SY: Once all of the actors were cast, did you have any rehearsal time together, in order to build the characters’ relationships?
DI: We built in a rehearsal schedule, because at this level of production, you have limited resources and time. So I feel like you should rehearse the actors to a certain point, but you shouldn’t have to make things exhaustively precise. But you get the staging and blocking down in advance, which frees you up somewhat on the set.
I prepare like crazy, and have a strong sense of where I want the camera to be before we get to the set. I would take a camcorder and tape the scenes during our rehearsals, before we got to the set, and imagine how they would be cut. I had also visited our locations in advance, before we began production. That way, I could have a sense of how the perimeters would work, and what camera angles I liked, so I knew how I wanted to film the actors. You get all of those extra details when you have the luxury of rehearsing, which I thought was invaluable.
We had Sam rehearse with the other actors before we began filming, but the rest of the cast wouldn’t see him in his make-up until the day of the actual shoot. That way, their reactions to him were real.
SG: Anytime I’ve been privileged enough to work on a TV show, or even a film, it’s always a luxury to have that rehearsal time. Not only is it important for the director to feel comfortable, but it also gives us, as actors, more time with our scene partner. The more comfortable we are overall with the people we’re acting with, the more comfortable we’ll feel exploring with one another. When we were on the set, and had some time between takes, we sometimes further worked on the scenes, and tried things out we didn’t do in rehearsal, and really get the natural experience.
As to wearing the make-up all day, I always try to approach my craft from supreme ignorance. I try not to be chauvinist in my real life, so I also try not to approach my characters in a chauvinist way, either.
Most of the assumptions that I had about walking around New York City all day in the make-up were fundamentally wrong. It was a privilege to have that experience, and be able to continuously use it on set. This whole experience was profoundly life-changing. I grew up in New York, so the way that I now move around the city, and interact with strangers, has fundamentally changed from making this show.
SY: Speaking of shooting the show in New York City, what was the experience like for you to be able to film on location?:
DI: It was a privilege to shoot in New York City. But, off course, it brought with it logistical difficulties. We had an incredible team, however, which was headed by our producer, Andy Zolot. He’s so experienced, smart and organized, and put a team together of such great people, including our co-producer, Robin J. Davis, and unit production manager, Richard Mancuso. This incredible team made it easy for us to shoot.
But when you’re filming in New York City, there’s no amount of preparation that can be wasted to set up what you want. You’re working against the energy of the city, but that can actually help push you at times. We didn’t have a lot of resources or time, but I feel like that gave us the extra edge to make the show realistic, grounded and believable. The logistics of shooting in the city are difficult, but our producing team was so experienced that they made it easy for us filmmakers. But there’s nothing like shooting in New York City, and it’s a real privilege.
SY: ‘Hammerhead’ (screened) in the Episodic Pilot Competition at this year’s SXSW. What has the experience of bringing the series to the festival been like?
SG: I’ve never been the front of a project like this before. So it’s an absolute joy to take it, which everyone who’s been involved has so passionately committed themselves to, to SXSW. This show represents this fundamental undertaking of all of these people. So it (was) great to be able to watch it on a giant movie screen at the Alamo Drafthouse with an audience that was responding to, and celebrating, it.
After our first screening, a woman approached me after the Q&A, misty-eyed. She didn’t say, but it became clear at the top of the conversation that she had either a family member or a friend with a disability, and profoundly thanked me for telling this story, because it’s not one you normally see on screen…So to be a part of something that can actually touch people like that, and we can actually see the effect of, was truly amazing. This has been one of the best experiences that I’ve had as an actor and filmmaker.