The Double Life of Hugh
Way back in pre-pandemic times I made a short commercial for my class with Billy Kent at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. I had originally conceived of something like a Geico advert, one that involved a father and son mime duo played by Colin Allen and Nate Ruth. The most original iteration involved a Raging Bull type of spoof. In the many months it took to boil the idea down into something workable as a commercial, a whole world emerged around this father and son mime. It still feels like I hardly tapped the idea for story sap. The commercial shoot went well, and the dynamic between the actors spawned even more ideas––a world of mimes. Increasingly riotous back stories emerged for the characters. Ideas such as Mimes of The Caribbean and Seven Outlaw Mimes also swirled up from the ether.
When the opportunity came to revisit the characters, I said yes right away. I didn't actually expect I would go back to these characters so soon. The commercial shoot had been a lot of fun for all of us I think––it was such a weird, wacky, bizarre concept. All the ideas we talked about, when they hit the light of day, were not very realistic to achieve––though Mimes of the Caribbean would have been quite fun I think. The story that ended up emerging came from the fact that there was this push and pull between father and son. The expansive world of the mimes zoomed in on this relationship. Mime Jr, who became the titular Hugh, trying to establish his own identity while his father is trying to mold his son into a very classic mime, really established itself for me as a very off kilter coming of age story. The title ended up being a spoof of the very-so-comedic The Double Life of Veronique, the story of a woman who meets her doppelgänger. Felini's La Dolce Vita, naturally, was also required viewing material.
Before we got started, I really needed to hammer out the script. A few things had changed between shooting the commercial in April of 2018 and the film over the course of the summer, the most significant being that our Hugh actor had a growth spurt and looked a lot less like a kid, and much more like a teenager. I also decided to try and shoehorn a story about Hugh falling for a human statue into the mix as part of his search for identity (this element was split off into a separate piece). I also realized I'd need to flesh out Hugh and his father Hugo's dynamic more. The original piece involved a lot of improv and goofiness that coalesced into a sequence. There was a lot to work with given the improvisation of the actors and the comedy of watching them push and pull each other's buttons. It wasn't until we got close to filming that I realized the conflict in their relationship needed a spark to get the story going.
This spark ultimately came from the fact that our child actor was now a teenage actor, and the question became "what does teenage rebellion like like for a mime boy?" In the real world, rebellion can involve trying on different identities and fashion styles and going in a very different direction than one's parents. The actual period of teenager-dom has been explored ad nauseam in cinema and the actual trials and tribulations have been captured time and time again in a far more nuanced fashion than I have here. I had the mime elements, the theatricality, the silence, and the father/son relationship to play with for my film. Hugh's version of rebellion, I realized, needed to go in the exact opposite direction of a mime, which ended up being a hyper-normal, preppy, middle-aged man-dressing character. George Clooney in the wonderful The Descendants by Alexander Payne came to mind. I can recall an interview where the director talked about taking Clooney, this big Hollywood star, and dressing him like a dorky suburban dad, and having him run around in his sandals. The look ended up being a big part of the film's back and forth between tragedy and comedy. There was something unexpected about seeing Clooney take on this persona, and that unexpectedness lent itself to comedy and visually communicated the themes of the film. I wanted that push and pull to be present in this film, the answer behind the clown that cries. That's how Nate wound up in the below costumes.
Nate was a very enthusiastic mime. Bright pastels and slacks were a much bigger ask for a teenager in the modern era. I will add that he was a VERY good sport about it and didn't complain....much...
Nate had signed on to reprise his Hugh character, and here he was on day one wandering the mean streets of town in a fanny pack. It was definitely not what he was expecting, and hoping for, but he embraced the comedic elements of the costume with aplomb. A particularly memorable encounter involved bumping into another teenager bedecked in piercings and ripped jeans. The two of them just gave each other's outfits a horrified once over. "That kid had way too many piercings" Nate said. It was a hilariously on point observation that felt very in character given the costume. I think especially with younger actors, when you give them props and a costume and let them run with their instincts, you can get some truly unplanned but wonderful character moments. Just literally stepping into someone else's shoes changes how someone acts. Nate developed a silly walk and found increasingly innovative ways to tap into the fanny pack. The important thing Nate figured out about Hugh that day is that, despite trying to fit in, and be "normal," that at the end of the day he's still a clown. He's still this exaggerated theatrical character. In the film, at this point, Hugh thinks he's achieved something that'll enable him to relate to other kids his age, but he's swung the pendulum a bit too far in the other direction. He doesn't have a frame of reference for what lies behind the stage. The thought was he's kind of like the little mermaid, fascinated by a fork....the mundane and the "normal" have this fantastic element for him because it's so different than his reality. He loves it, but he also doesn't really understand how to fit into this square peg, and so this is his interpretation of being "normal." It's a fish out of water/grass is greener situation, and Hugh realizes by the end of the film that, while he still wants to be his own person, and have his own identity, he can't escape the fact that he loves his father as much as he loves his acts of rebellion and self discovery.
We didn't end up using the pink or yellow outfits in this film, though we shot material involving them. Originally I shot Nate in all of the outfits performing similar actions so there was extra material that ended being used with the human statue side story. That thread ultimately got cut because it did feel like another story entirely. I will again note that Nate was a very good sport about his costumes.
The "pink outfit" ended up being shifted over to the human statue thread. Originally we were just going to have one alternative to the mime look, the "green outfit." As the need for more of Hugh's "rebellious" persona grew so too did his wardrobe. I'm very conscious of the environmental footprint of a film, and the cost, and so certain items that were extra costume from previous movies ended up getting a new lease on life. The pink shirt ended up being a recycle from Nate's headshots for A Home for Curiosities. I tend to donate any remaining costumes to local theater groups or to the thrift stores so that I'm not throwing out still usable clothing. In this case, I had not yet donated a good chunk of the costume remnants. That film was set in the 1960s, loosely, and not being able to find many period options for a twelve year old, I ended up buying a big stack of khaki slacks for Nate as well in a variety of sizes. My worry at the time, given my budget, was jeans wouldn't be sufficient to sell the period. The volume came about because I wanted to be sure at least one pair would fit. Drawing some inspiration from Rob Reiner's Flipped, we wound up kitting Nate out in a combo of authentic period shirts and then these older fashioned slacks and suit pants. It worked well in that film, and when it came time for his headshots for the press
kit. I decided to have him dress up for them too and keep the look consistent. The pink shirt came back up when we did the scenes with Lila (Ripley Dresser). It seemed a shame to waste this getup as it had never been onscreen, and it fit in with the scenes between Hugh and Lila going on an old fashioned date. The khakis carried through mostly because there were so many pairs left over to work with, and the color worked aesthetically. The lightweight fabrics also ended up being helpful out of doors given the heat, and we found from Curiosities that the khakis were a good option all around to add a vintage vibe, give Nate freedom of movement and comfort, and have him looking dapper at the same time. The idea with the scenes with Ripley were that they would be a bit cheesy. We were again playing with silent movie tropes and these vaudevillian characters. Going over the top, or at least the right degree of over the top, felt right.
The "yellow outfit" ended up also getting relegated to the secondary thread because it was redundant being in the same location as the "green look." We made good use of the big pile of khakis once again, and so it felt repetitive all around. There were some good moments, but all of it ultimately got pushed off to the human statue arc.
The idea behind this, and the other non-mime outfits, is also to create contrast. The mime costume is a very stark black and white pierced with red. The pastel colors ended up standing out more. The aforementioned fanny pack was going to be a one off joke along with some elements that never made it in like a mini van catalogue...again, playing with that little mermaid notion and her fascination with a fork. After the first scene, however, it became clear that fanny pack needed to play a bigger role, much to Nate's chagrin. The fanny pack almost became its own side character, and it ended up really enhancing this endearing quality Nate brought to the character. One of the qualities we played with was that Hugh is growing up and he's having trouble leaving behind his childhood, and his father presents obstacles to that outcome as well. With this alternative persona/amalgamation Hugh has also chosen to present himself to the world dressed as a much older person. This added another layer of contrast to the character––a character who notably cannot talk or express himself. Everything with him needed to be communicated visually.
The film concludes with Hugh and his father finding a middle ground after they fight. Hugh's transformation across the film is a bit on the nose, and quite theatrical on purpose. He's a performer and a clown, and it needed to feel bold but also reveal the subtlety and the sadness in the character that hides underneath. In a short film, there wasn't a lot of time to peel back all the layers of the character, but my hope was we could express a lot with those visuals. Nate is also very gifted with his expressions, and he really sold the many aspects of the character...especially given he couldn't speak. I'm very proud of the performance he gave, and it was really all him. At the conclusion of the film we see Hugh fuse his mime persona with his preppy alter-ego. With the costume we took Hugh's hero costume, and simply swapped in new colors. We made the red into pink for the pastel, and changed the shorts to khaki ones. The knee socks and beret stayed put. It was a surprisingly simple solution and one that I agonized over for a long time. Originally there was going to be a very different costume to represent this transformation...something more dramatic, and he was also going to show up in one of the pastel costumes for a time, but ultimately it narratively made sense to show that Hugh and his father still have this connection. He needed to still be a mime, because Hugh is still a mime. He grew and made some discoveries about himself, but he's not done growing yet and he still has a connection to his past.
I will note that this outfit from the finale also played a role in the secondary story with the human statue that got excised. Originally the film was going to end with Hugh and his human statue girlfriend forming a new act, until it became completely obvious that this took away massively from the reunion with his father. Even though the movie played with certain cliches and tropes, it didn't feel right. The problem I faced with the endings of both story threads was basically did boil down to what the costumes would be. The costumes really influenced the story more so than any other film I've done. We had established a hero look for both characters early on, and the look for Hugo. Various ideas came up such as kintsugi inspired makeup (putting the broken pieces together with gold), or trying to recreate a famous painting. It became clear overall that the ending of both stories 1) needed to be separated but still visually linked in some way and 2) that the costume trajectory needed to stay true to the overall narrative and not feel like an out fo the blue decision.
After all the zany ideas of what the kids should be wearing, it came down to the simplest choice. We actually shot the statue material before we shot the finale with Colin. This ended up being very helpful because we established Nate's makeup and his costume. For the conclusion of the human statue thread he's become a joint act with Lila (portrayed by Ripley Dresser). Nate and Ripley have been scene partners before, though them being a couple became more awkward given teenager-dom. The blue eye shadow and cheeks were added to Nate's makeup and Ripley's costume went from gold to silver.
The colors were all around softened. This was an odd point in filming continuity-wise because at this stage the human statue was still going to end the film. Somehow it ended up not being confusing and we were able to work through the aesthetic choices before proceeding to the final scene where the only major change was that Nate doesn't have his blazer. The pink bow tie ended up coming in because the striped shirt no longer worked visually, and added another element to the new identity.
One of the big inspirations for Hugh's hero costume/look came from the classic mime costume. We toyed with some other ideas, but ultimately decided for the original fake commercial that these needed to read as mimes instantly, and the costume carried over. In order to establish the big mime little mime visual, and given the vaudevillian nature of the characters, we made the choice to have Colin in a traditional mime getup, and give Nate a mini-me version (which is where the shorts and knee socks came in). When we shot the ad, Nate still looked very much like a kid and the costume suited him well. It visually looked very appropriate, and the knee socks especially gave the dynamic an added bit of humor and a vintage quality. One of the big things that happened between shooting the fake commercial and shooting the film, aside from Nate getting much taller, was that his costume didn't grow with him.
When we went back the shorts and knee socks and shirt didn't fit. I initially considered aging the costume up to suit Nate's new height and change the shorts to pants, but after working in this notion of Hugh trying to grow into his own person, and Hugo trying to keep him in the same place, thematically, it made sense to keep the costume the same. The final look in the film really helped sell the idea that Hugh needs a change. I got the idea from Hugo where the costumer noted they intentionally made Asa Butterfield's costume a little short to show he hadn't gotten new clothes between his father dying and going to live in the train station. The same effect applied here, except it also ended up adding to both the humor and the sadness of the dynamic between father and son in a subtle way. Now, visually, we had this sight of Nate being too big for the shorts and knee socks (though we needed to bring in men's knee socks). He's too old for the look, and the father hasn't accepted this yet. He hasn't accepted his son is his own person growing away from him.
A big inspiration for Hugh's hero look came from the Leave it To Beaver episode "Beaver's Short Pants," wherein Beaver's old fashioned Aunt Martha buys him an equally old-fashioned suit. In the original footage, the notion was simply to differentiate the father and son mimes, and have the classic mime costume be a Mime Jr version as noted above. The short pants and knee socks became a throughline, even after he evolves into a different character it was a stable element thematically and humor-wise. I will note again, that especially after his growth spirt that Nate was a VERY good sport. Nate wore knee socks when he played a boy from the 1950s in a previous film, which is why they were around in the first place, and it was less of an ask at the time. In Beaver, his suit becomes the focal point of the humor and also serves as bonding moment with his father...so the reference felt right on a few levels. Leave it To Beaver ended up also leading us to that same final look where we took the mime costume and turned it into a full blown short pants suit.
Again, Nate was a very good sport about the costumes. Because of an understandable dearth of short pants suits for teenagers, we ended up simply taking a very classic look (a blue blazer and the khaki from earlier) and morphing that with the mime elements. It ended up connecting the dots on both Hugh's personas, and narratively connecting dots between the human statue scenes and the final scene where Hugh and Hugo reconcile. The final look was really the hardest one to get right. It amazed me in the end how that costume really did accomplish so much narratively for us. It just worked on a variety of levels. It reminded me again how very important telling the story is throughout all the artistic disciplines involved in the film. Music and sound design, and set design...when the narrative is there in all the elements it just makes everything come together...even very bizarre seemingly incongruous elements.
Ultimately, while there is more I want to do in this world, and have so many more ideas for turning this into a longer, more involved piece, I am happy with how the film turned out. It was a very important lesson to always bring on a costume designer who really gets narrative, and can take all of your crazy, wacky, disparate ideas and turn them into a cohesive story in cloth. And now we rest and prepare for the next story to be told as Hugh makes his way through the festival circuit.