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Director's Statement
BY ERIC NAZARIAN


My family emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States in 1981. We settled in a working-class neighborhood by the Los Angeles River near the train tracks. My grandfather Hovhannes used to take me for walks along the concrete riverbank embellished with miles of graffiti. Before nightfall, a soft blue haze would cast a spell over the river running parallel to the Interstate 5 Freeway. The sounds of the Santa Fe trains in the distant and the slow tide of the river at dusk were my earliest memories of Los Angeles, a far cry from the dirt roads of Hrazdan, Armenia were I was born.

Since ’81, Los Angeles has gotten more colorful. Like the Tower of Babel, the city is a massive jumble of languages from around the world. Spanish, English, Korean, Mandarin, Farsi, Greek, Armenian, Hindi, Hebrew, Russian, to name a few. From a bird’s eye view, at any given moment there are hundreds of tongues overlapping in the streets and sidewalks, yet as a multiethnic society we don’t communicate.

I wrote The Blue Hour inspired by the Los Angeles River and a desire to make an ensemble film that relied on images to examine the everyday lives and peripheral ties between strangers in Los Angeles. The film is composed of four stories. Each story is about an Angeleno from a different culture, age group, and walk of life. The characters live side-by-side near the river and pass by each other yet remain unaware of their similarities and subtle interactions. Like cars passing on the same freeway, the characters are tuned-in to different radio stations, clueless of the other frequencies around them.

Living in a city as spread out and disconnected like Los Angeles, we are constantly passing by each other on the sidewalks and freeways. Seldom do we speak or make eye contact as we hurry to get to our destinations. Hardly ever do we have the chance to get a “snapshot” glimpse into the internal life of another person we pass on the street.

With The Blue Hour my hope is that these stories about youth, adulthood, middle age and old age offer viewers “open windows” into four lives on the “other side” of Los Angeles and the delicate ties that bind strangers in a community.

Film Festivals


55th San Sebastian International Film Festival
Zabaltegi New Directors
World Premiere




25th Torino International Film Festival

Official Selection



10th AFFMA International Film Festival
WINNER - Best Director
U.S. Premiere



Sedona International Film Festival
Official Selection



The Method Fest
Official Selection



Beverly Hills Hi-Def Film Festival
Official Selection



Golden Apricot International Film Festival
WINNER - Best Film Armenian Panorama
WINNER - Ecumenical Jury Award
WINNER - The Prime Minister's Award
WINNER - The Diaspora Ministry Special Award For Directing




IV Digital Barcelona Film Festival
Official Selection



New Beijing International Movie Week
Official Selection



Brooklyn International Film Festival

Official Selection



Monaco Film Festival

Official Selection



Lisbon Village Film Festival

International Feature Film Competition



Pomegranate Film Festival

Rising Star Award
 

Production Notes

"The Blue Hour" marks the filmmaking debut of writer-director Eric Nazarian. An ensemble piece set in contemporary Los Angeles, the film is a multiethnic mosaic of stories set in a lesser-known part of the city by the Los Angeles River.

Blending the lives of a graffiti muralist with a grieving mother, a Blues musician and a pensioner all living in the same community, The Blue Hour’s ensemble cast stars Alyssa Milano, veteran actors Clarence Williams III and Derrick O’Connor, Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen and recent newcomer Emily Rios. Produced by Lynnette Ramirez and Brian Knappmiller, the film was shot on location in Los Angeles.

GENESIS

After returning from a photo trip to Armenia and the Southern Caucuses, Nazarian wrote the screenplay as a way to get back in touch with Los Angeles. “Unlike cities around the world where rivers are romantic landscapes, in Los Angeles, one of the most abandoned landscapes is the L.A. River. It is made of concrete with a unique ecosystem of ducks, dragonflies, herons, catfish and homeless people living on islands, all running parallel to one of the busiest freeways in Southern California,” said Nazarian.

An open-air canvas for graffiti artists, a recreational area for weekend fishermen, cyclists, and a shelter for the dispossessed, the “Emerald Corridor” of the L.A. River inspired the filmmaker who grew up in a nearby neighborhood. “I used to ride my bike by the Los Angeles River when we first moved to L.A. It was a no man’s land and a point of passage for many different kinds of people.” From a storytelling perspective, the river would serve as a narrative thread peripherally connecting the characters in the story. Nazarian reflects, “As an immigrant and filmmaker, I really believe in the idea that as people we are connected in ways we sometimes don’t realize. The films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Robert Bresson and the New Wave of Latin American cinema really inspired me to go out and make a very personal, handmade film about a group of strangers living by the L.A. River. The characters in The Blue Hour are a mixed bag of very different people that share similarities they have no way of knowing about. The idea was to engage the audience in connecting the dots between the characters and to offer a portrait of this “other” side of Los Angeles that has no relation to the glitz or the gangs associated with the city.” The film’s title refers to the time of day just before twilight when a soft blue haze blankets the neighborhood by the river.

While writing and developing The Blue Hour, Eric worked with longtime collaborator Lynnette Ramirez and USC classmate Brian Knappmiller. Securing financing for a feature film by a first time writer/director was a challenge, especially an ensemble film all to be shot on location in Los Angeles. “From the onset the script received such positive responses that I knew in spite of Eric being a first timer we’d be able to raise the funds needed” said Ramirez.

In raising the financing for the film Ramirez and Knappmiller took a homegrown approach. The film was largely financed by longtime friends and collaborators. The goal was to uphold Nazarian’s vision and, in a truly independent fashion, make a first feature for an extremely low budget with financiers that would agree on Nazarian having final cut.
“It’s an intimate story with a unique narrative structure that Brian and I understood was very personal to Eric. We believed in the script so it was important we made deals that would protect Eric’s vision,” said Ramirez. “It was great to be in a situation where you are really able to go the distance to assure your director’s vision was upheld. From the script through the layback, our primary concern was making sure that Eric’s story made it to the screen,” adds Knappmiller.

The film would not have been possible without the support of the communities in Boyle Heights and Atwater Village. The filmmakers canvassed the neighborhoods, knocking on the doors of largely immigrant communities and asking for permission to shoot in and around their homes. Recalls Knappmiller, “It was a great experience to really get to know the families living in Boyle Heights and Atwater and to be on the receiving end of so much support for our project. The fact that we were not there to play up the tired stereotypes of East LA opened more doors for us than we ever imagined.” Both communities offered an outpouring of support for the film because it explored the lives of the everyday working-class people in Los Angeles that go largely unrecognized by the mainstream media. Their support and generosity offering up their homes and businesses was one of the key elements that made filming on location possible and preserved the authenticity of the film.

The visual palette of the film and the locations played an integral role while Nazarian was writing the script. Nazarian remembers, “There is a faded beauty and a harshness that coexists in certain parts of Los Angeles that I wanted to capture without artificially manipulating the images. From Happy’s spray paint graffiti textures to Humphrey’s faded yellows and thrift store colors, each character in the story had a unique palette. The locations in the script are set in lived-in, second-hand areas of Los Angeles you normally don’t see in films.”

On their search to find the right locations that would correspond with Nazarian’s vision of “thrift store Los Angeles,” the filmmakers went about scouting the 4-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River. The locations proved to be a very valuable element to the film’s visual and emotional core. But securing them was not always easy. Recalls Knappmiller, “There were key locations that dropped out on us last minute. We were on set at the LA River while we were still scouting for some interiors that we were scheduled to shoot five days later.”

Initially, the filmmaker was hoping to shoot on film in widescreen to capture the breadth of the river. Due to film and laboratory costs, after much research and Hi-Definition camera tests, HD became the filmmaker’s preferred choice for economic and artistic reasons. It allowed Nazarian greater freedom in working with the actors and composing the images in the widescreen 2.35 aspect ratio.

Nazarian recalls, “The actors need their emotional space especially in the smaller locations. With HD you can be a little bit more inconspicuous and not draw attention to the filmmaking apparatus. The L.A. River is a wide horizontal landscape that photographs really well in the 2.35 aspect ratio. Since Blue Hour is an ensemble piece, I wanted the film to have a fresco quality. Coming from a photographic background, designing the visual palette of the film and composing the actors within the frame is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking. The images needed to capture both the emotional distance of the characters as well as the intimate moments in the story. HD helped me achieve that without having to shoot anamorphic. I’m not a big believer in shooting tons more just because you are working with HD although it does help a great deal in case you need to let the camera linger on an actor’s face.”

From the outset, Nazarian did not want to use filtration, choosing a more ambient, naturalistic approach toward the visual style of the film. “I didn’t want to make postcard perfect images of L.A. or to dirty up the frame and make it look urban and ugly. This is the Los Angeles of thrift store clothes, old buildings, dim tungsten bulbs, and a certain working-class melancholia that hovers in the air. I wanted to photograph a different side of this urban city that had certain neo-realist qualities without being gritty or grainy. “

During the writing phase, the filmmaker worked with long-time storyboard artist and collaborator Albert Agazaryan. “At USC, the common wisdom for our first films was to have everything pre-planned and drawn out to avoid pitfalls during production. Albert sketched the key sequences in the film shot by shot and really helped design the color scheme. When you are working with a very tight schedule, you have to be extra prepared because you only get one chance to shoot a scene.”

During pre-production, Nazarian interviewed several cinematographers before settling on Sam Levy. “It was important to me to work hands-on with the cinematographer in composing the images and not just shooting to capture performance. Sam understood the palette I was going for.” Tim Grimes, the production designer, worked with Nazarian during pre-production to achieve the right tone for the lived-in sets. “This was not an easy film to design. Tim combed through probably every thrift store in L.A. to find the right props and décor on our limited budget.”

CASTING

The challenge of casting was finding the right actors that could carry emotions through their presence.

“Everything about the characters in the four stories is based on people who have difficulty communicating with each other or are simply living in their own bubbles, which is essentially what Los Angeles is – a massive metropolis of people coexisting side by side yet seldom communicating. I wanted to find a rich blend of multiethnic actors that could carry the performances to a more cinematic level. The texture of the characters needed to be indicative of this “other” side of Los Angeles without make-up,” says Nazarian.

Several actresses auditioned for the role of Happy, the teenage graffiti muralist. In Emily Rios, Nazarian found a kindred spirit who knew the world of graffiti. “The character of Happy is a lone wolf with a spray can who communicates with the images she draws. Almost instantly when I saw Emily and her Los Angeles-bred passion for street art, I felt a very strong connection to her.”

For the role of Avo, the Armenian camera repairman, he found the right fit in Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen. “When casting director Valerie McCaffrey suggested Yorick, I jumped at the chance to work with him as I was a fan of his work in The New World. He reminded me of Russian-Armenians I’ve seen in photos from the Soviet Union. His presence could not have been more different than Alyssa’s which was perfect in setting the emotional and physical distance between them as husband and wife.”

One of the biggest challenges was finding the right actress to play the role of Allegra, the grieving mother in A Warm Place. During casting and auditions, several actresses responded to the part but were hesitant to tackle the subject of a child’s death. “Alyssa Milano really understood the fragile nature of the character and gave it a hundred and ten percent. She looks, feels and evokes emotions that words could not do justice to. Her performance came from a very honest and raw place,” said Nazarian.

For the character of Ridley the Blues guitarist, veteran actor Clarence Williams III learned to play guitar and on the first day of production came to set in costume. “Clarence is a veteran of the old school. He is fully concentrated and completely immersed in his work. Even between takes, he wouldn’t break character and stayed fully invested in the emotional world of Ridley,” Nazarian adds.

For the character of Humphrey, the aging pensioner, another veteran of the English stage and film came on board, working with Nazarian to authenticate the character. “Humphrey’s character is a study of old age in a big metropolis. My grandfather and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries inspired the character of Humphrey. The cane that he uses in the film is my grandfather’s cane that has traveled through Iran and the USSR, all the way to Los Angeles. His character is built of daily habits of shopping, visiting the cemetery, having a drink and strolling around the streets biding time and reflecting on his life. Derrick really understood the simplicity and contentment in Humphrey’s life and did an amazing job.”

PRODUCTION

With casting and most of the budget in place, the filmmakers started planning for production that started in October of 2006. When it came to the staggering logistics, Knappmiller had this to say, “When we broke the script down we had a combined 36 locations, 235 scenes and a 22 day schedule to fit it all in. Why we didn’t turn and run for the hills, I don’t know. We wound up shooting an average of 11 scenes a day.”

“My biggest concern was never to rush the actors who all delivered wonderful performances and really soldiered through the trenches of ultra low budget independent filmmaking. In the end it all worked out,” said Nazarian.

The L.A. River was photogenic and ripe for finding the right visual grammar to explore the theme of strangers in a community. However, it was not without its own challenges. “Logistically the rugged terrain of the river and the noise of the major interstate 5 freeway brought production challenges. Thankfully the mobility of the HD camera made it possible to shoot as quickly as needed to stay on schedule,” adds Ramirez.

Nazarian had been working on the Payasa mural concept since 2003. “The Payasa is a symbol very indigenous to Los Angeles Latin street culture. It is the image of a beautiful lady painted in a clown face crying real tears,” recalls Nazarian. “It is very much an “L.A.” image that evokes the coexistence of laughter and tears from the hard life of the streets. Like the river, the Payasa mural served as a visual thread that would connect the unrelated characters, and as a thematic symbol that related to Happy’s emotional life at home.”

In order to stay on schedule two different versions of the mural were done. Jun Cha, a 17-year old local artist from Santa Monica, California, first did an outline of the Payasa mural. While the scenes were shot of the outline, Jun worked further down the river on a full color version. Cha was also on hand to give Rios instructions for the mural scenes.

Graffiti in the River and along on the freeways in Los Angeles is an ongoing city problem. “Initially the Payasa was to be painted over after shooting wrapped. However the residents of Atwater Village asked for it to be left up. It still remains one year later. What is most surprising is that it hasn’t been defaced by graffiti but left completely in tact by the local taggers,” said Ramirez.

Nazarian’s father Haik was a key advisor to the filmmaker. During the early 1970s Haik was a young film student in the Soviet Union who was not allowed to complete his studies due to mandatory service in the Red Army in Ivanovo, Siberia.

In addition to Haik’s passion for cinema and 1960s pop culture, he had another passion that the Soviets looked down upon – Rock n’ Roll. He named his first son after his favorite Rock n’ Roll singer, Eric Burdon from the British Invasion band, The Animals. After immigrating to the United States, Haik met Burdon at a concert in California and a family friendship was born.

At one point in the story Humphrey goes to a working-class bar to listen to a live Blues band. One of the biggest highlights for the filmmaker was casting Eric Burdon in the role of the bar singer. “Eric Burdon’s music was an escape for my father’s ‘Soviet hippy’ generation in the USSR. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “They Can’t Take Away Our Music” were their anthems and battle cries against the oppressive years during Brezhnev’s era. My dad has carried Eric Burdon’s music from Siberia to Los Angeles. He [Burdon] has been a household name since as long as I can remember. It was a dream come true when my namesake agreed to have a guest appearance singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the great spiritual. I shot the entire scene in one fluid take to preserve the rhythm of the slow blues and the connection between Burdon and my dad who has a cameo in the scene.”

POST-PRODUCTION


The Blue Hour was edited by Helen Hand and Emily Koonse. Both worked separately with Nazarian in developing the visual flow of the film. “It was a great experience working with two editors who really cared about the story and the characters. They both responded to this idea that we are telling stories largely with images.”

Sound designer Jeremy Peirson, a close high school friend of Knappmiller, came on board during pre-production and worked on developing a distinct soundscape with Nazarian. “Sound was an extremely critical factor in the film. In pre-production we discussed the need for the sound design in the film to have an atmospheric as well as a narrative role. We didn’t want the sound to just insure that everything was in-sync but to enhance the world of the story.
The idea was to create this Radio L.A. montage of voices coming in and going out like radio frequencies of all these tongues overlapping over the opening montage of the river and the traffic on the freeway. Jeremy created sound motifs that would link the characters sonically and did the entire final mix in three days.”

For the film’s musical score, Nazarian had been interviewing composers for several months. A week before completing the final cut of the film, Ramirez received a random email from Aldo Shllaku, a composer inquiring about the film. Nazarian met with Shllaku and found a kindred spirit. Shllaku started working on the soundtrack. “The music needed to be minimalist, mostly strings including violin, the Armenian kanon, and a string quartet. Aldo composed themes for each character and delivered what I had wanted all along.”

For preexisting music to be used in the film, Nazarian had been looking for the right blend of Hip Hop that would fit into the character of Happy. “The Hip Hop needed to be indigenous to Los Angeles with a street rhythm that would flow with the images of Happy spray painting the Payasa and sitting at home zoning out with her Walkman.”

A local artist from Boyle Heights introduced Nazarian to Hip Hop DJ Freddy “Dub1” Amador and a musical relationship was born. “At the time Freddy was living at a sober living apartment complex in Skid Row off of 5th and San Pedro in Downtown Los Angeles. “Composing the Hip Hop tracks for Happy’s scenes was an unforgettable experience. We worked out of Freddy’s apartment on a laptop, watching the scenes and composing the beats. He did a wonderful job and really captured the L.A. Latin thump I was going for,” said Nazarian.

For the remainder of the scenes, Emily Rios who portrayed Happy put Nazarian in touch with Omar Romero, a young Hip Hop producer who also contributed a different blend of Hip Hop to the soundtrack.

From the earliest drafts of the screenplay, the film was to end over Mazzy Starr’s song, Blue Light. “I graduated from high school the year Blue Light came out. It is a very personal song and one that I was hoping and praying we could get permission to use. Liza Richardson, a veteran music supervisor and our local DJ with KCRW in Los Angeles, generously helped us in securing the festival rights for the song.”

On the experience of making his first feature, Nazarian had this to say: “My father was not allowed to make films in the Soviet Union so he wallpapered our house with magazine cut-outs of his favorite actors and directors. He helped me realize that movies can evoke emotions in moviegoers around the world that don’t require words or subtitles to be understood. Making The Blue Hour was a labor of love on every level. The film is a very personal snapshot of the neighborhood where I grew up and would not have been possible without the dedication and help of many people. I hope to make movies in different countries and examine the slender cinematic threads that bind us as human beings. In a sense we are all strangers on the streets and sidewalks passing each other by throughout the course of our lives. I hope that The Blue Hour will mean something different for every viewer and possibly inspire the realization that as a multinational society we have more in common than we are able to realize.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Copyright © 2007, The Blue Hour.  All Rights Reserved.