When I called Zeke Hawkins a few weeks ago to discuss his short, Bob Wins an Award, he was in LA, driving back from a creative meeting about a feature he’s directing. As cool as that sounds (and it is cool, no matter how you slice it) Hawkins didn’t answer from the back seat of his stretch limo. He answered while battling gridlock and asked me to “hold on” for a second as he pulled over. Despite geographic location, occupation, and the cache that comes with saying “I’m on the way back from a creative meeting,” the man I’d called isn’t a celebrity. He’s an explorer, a motivated talent on his way up who’s still fully aware of and perplexed by Hollywood’s uncertainties. Nothing’s easy for Zeke. Not yet, at least. But he keeps pushing because he trusts his passion and knows there’s something alluring about the unknown.
Written, produced, and directed by Hawkins and starring Tom DiMenna and Bob Turton, Bob Wins an Award is a darkly comedic take on the striver mentality prevalent in so many corners of the entertainment business but it’s also an affirmation of the freedom that filmmaking can provide when content creators decide to do what they want, instead of what they think will make them famous. Though Bob Wins an Award bucks many of the web virtues I belabor in this column (it’s more narrative and meandering than short and jokey), the piece is well produced, well written, well acted, and deserves praise for its refusal to be anything other than what it is: a passion project.
Here’s what Zeke had to say about Bob Wins an Award and his Hollywood ride thus far.
Talk to me a little bit about who you are, what you’ve been doing comedically and what you did before this project.
I graduated college in 2003, I worked as a director’s assistant in New York for a while, I worked for Bennet Miller on the film Capote, I then spent the next three years kind of rambling around New York doing a lot of improv, doing some acting, and making some short films and just trying to do whatever, but I was doing a lot of improv comedy. And then I moved out to Los Angeles to go to the American Film Institute and I was there from 2007-2010 and then after that I spent about a year making short films, making music videos, doing whatever I could to get by, and then for the past year I’ve been directing a feature film.
Awesome. Where did you get the idea for this short and what inspired it?
I think it just sort of came from the pathetic despair of being a struggling filmmaker and living in LA. I had this one friend who bought a motorcycle, which struck me as funny, and then literally within three days he was in a motorcycle accident. He wasn’t hurt seriously or anything like that, but it was just one of those little moments of like when I heard that he was in a motorcycle accident three days after buying a motorcycle it did crack me up. I think that those kind of things just struck me as funny and then one day I had the idea. I was doing it with friends and we were shooting it at my house, and I just wanted to make something where you could focus on the performances and getting the tone right as opposed to focusing on production issues. They can be really cool but end up detracting because of all the attention you’re putting on the little things.
Do you think that’s the most important thing for people looking to follow in your footsteps and the footsteps of producers and content creators like you? To really keep it simple, focus on performances, focus on the comedy and the writing rather than focusing on a big Jerry Bruckheimer-style production?
Yeah, if people are financing their own web content, I think it’s dangerous to start spending a lot of money. Because money’s hard to come by and I’ve seen things that are done for no money that are awesome and really help people’s careers and then things that cost a ton and go nowhere and do nothing. I think it’s dangerous to spend money and it’s dangerous to do a really big piece because it can all be for a waste if the content’s not good.
The video is pretty long for web form and we see that, even now as more and more people are watching things on their computers, that 2-5 minute mark is the sweet spot. How do you explain the success of a 6 and a half minute, 7 minute video, and would you recommend people try to target a shorter form generally or do you just say, “Hey, do what you love and if it comes out at 10 minutes and it’s good, then people will watch it?”
Well I just made something that I wanted to make and I wasn’t even worrying about it being web content or not. We shot this on ppt’s because we had access to a free 16 mm camera and had film to use. And we made it longer because that’s just what it was. But, I would say, if someone’s making web content to focus on making things that are under two minutes, to focus on making things that are really fun to watch. And this is not that. This is not wildly successful web content, this is just one short that we had fun making and because it has a dark, fun tone to it. But I think that if people want a strategy for web content, it’s stay under two minutes and make something that’s just really fun to watch and is really fun to watch right off the bat.
How did you get on the front page of Funny or Die?
I emailed one of the art directors over there, I don’t remember how I had originally gotten his email, but I just emailed him the link and said, “If you liked this, that would be great” and he put it up on the front page. I think that they have a couple people over there that are like gatekeepers for the front page. I put it up myself and then just sent him the link.
It’s interesting to hear how people get publicity. We see a lot of great web content out there that has a 1,000 views, 2,000 views on YouTube and it should have 50,000 views. People don’t do that great of a job publicizing their work and sending it around to the right people. Do you find that?
I am certainly not the greatest strategist when it comes to knowing how to promote your web content. Me and my brother have sort of done these other short comic music videos and some of them we think are really good and some of them they’ll get like 4,000 views and then they just kind of disappear, ya know? And I don’t know how people go about getting 5 Million views. I’ve noticed that there’s real value to sending individual emails to individual people. I know I’m on the email list of so many young filmmakers and I get so many emails that are just blasted to everybody and even I find that annoying. I’d much rather get a personal email than get an email blast. So I think that’s one thing that I’ve become aware of, finding email blocks. I am certainly not a great strategist when it comes to getting web views. Even with the Bob Wins an Award video, which we’re talking about, I think it has like 3,000 views. I think that everybody whose making web content, whether they acknowledge it or not, is all in the same boat and everybody’s trying to actually make money and have a career making content. And what I like about Funny or Die is that the content on the front page is going to be presented to you in a way that the professional film community is watching it as opposed to people who are just watching cat videos.
This is the first feature that you’re directing now, am I right?
Yeah, I’ve worked as an assistant on features, but this is the first feature that I’ve directed. And let me say that the feature I’m doing, I’m co-directing it with my brother.
Do you think that your experience in creating shorts has helped you in your career? Is the feature you’re doing something that you submitted for and were chosen to do? Did your body of shorts help you land that gig?
We were hired to do it, because of our work and stuff and what I found with that kind of stuff, with that idea of having all your shorts and having sort of your resume of shorts is that it’s not a 1:1 ratio. It’s not like you make a short film and then someone watches it and then someone calls you the next day and says, “Hey, I wanna hire you to direct a TV episode or whatever it might be”. But then things will happen that you might never expect. So we were hired to direct this feature and then there’s a whole long process of through the casting process you’re constantly advertising yourself to all the managers and agents in Hollywood, trying to get bigger names into your movie, so you’re sending over your body of work, because we haven’t done a feature before, you’re sending over your body of work to managers and agents to get actors excited about your film and some random manager or agent will watch some web video that we did 4 years ago and love it and that’s what will get them excited about our feature but we could’ve never anticipated that that was the way it would work. Everyone wants it to be like you make a great little web video and then a month later you’re getting hired to write a feature film, it just doesn’t work that way. I think the body of work really does become important, but it doesn’t happen necessarily the way you want it to happen.
So, you should watch. Here are three reasons why.
Short films usually don’t appear on the front page of Funny or Die, or any major comedy video outlet for that matter. Hawkins knew that and did what he wanted to do because he felt like it. You know what? It still ended up on the front page.
It’s hard to strike a balance between comedy and drama without making the piece feel contrived. Bob Wins an Award works because it feels so real; it’s rife with the bizarre mix of humor, hope, sadness, and disappointment that we all deal with daily.
In comedy, there’s nothing better than a tragic hero who’s painfully unaware about the first half of his title.