As a 40-something gay man dealing with age issues in a culture that places a high premium on appearances, actor Rick Hammerly had little difficulty sliding into the role of, well, a 40-something gay man dealing with age issues in a culture that places a high premium on appearances. The transition from Helen Hayes Award–winning stage performer to first-time film director, however, proved much more difficult.
“In theater, I can hang lights, I can direct a play, I can act…[but] there’s a lot of differences between film and stage,” says Hammerly of working on his 12-minute short, Signage.
The 43-year-old Logan Circle resident, who’s performed in local stage productions of Angels In America, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, earned his master’s degree in film and video production at American University last year. “I’ll never give up the theater stuff,” he says. “I just wanted something that I was calling the shots in.”
That would be the case with Signage, which chronicles a romantic encounter between Hammerly’s character and a deaf—and significantly younger—Gallaudet University student at a D.C. nightclub. Full control over the film, however, came with its share of complications. After he completed initial filming in June 2006, Hammerly turned his work over to editor Claudia Myers, who had some bad news for the inexperienced filmmaker. “I said, ‘Here’s the script, here’s the film, I don’t want to have anything to do with this for a while because…I produced it, I wrote it, I directed it, I’m in it for God’s sake. You put it together,’” says Hammerly. “She said, ‘We have one issue here, Rick: You filmed this like you’re filming a play. If I could do lights up, lights down, it would be great, but you don’t have any transitions.’” To get the necessary footage, Hammerly arranged a six-hour pickup shoot at Omega D.C., the Dupont Circle club where the original scene had been shot.
The extra effort has paid off. The film has screened, or is set to screen, at close to 40 film festivals worldwide and has won several jury and audience awards—including Best Narrative Short Film at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, Best LGBT Short Film at the 2007 Cleveland International Film Festival, and, most recently, Best Local Film at the D.C. Shorts Film Festival. The film, whose next local screening will be at the 2007 Reel Affirmations Film Festival in October, has also made the shortlist for the prestigious Iris Prize, which is worth almost $50,000.
“It’s very odd for a short film to take off like this—especially a first film,” says Hammerly. “The thing I’ve been most pleased about is that we’ve been able to play a lot of the gay festivals, but we’ve also crossed into a lot of the mainstream festivals…I didn’t want the film to come across as a gay niche film.”
Hammerly credits much of the film’s success to co-producer and fellow AU graduate Charlotte Hendrix—who is also Hammerly’s partner in Idle Rich Productions, the duo’s recently-formed film company—as well as D.C.’s supportive arts scene.
“I approached the manager at Omega…and asked him, ‘Can I shoot a film in here for a couple of days?’ And, rather than being like, ‘That’s going to cost you,’ he was like, ‘Great, let’s work it out,’” says Hammerly. “People in D.C. are very excited to work on films, and they’re not looking at what they can get from you.”
If there’s any downside to the promising start of Hammerly’s filmmaking career, it’s that he has considerably less time to pursue theatrical endeavors. “I remember in this town in the ’90s, when I was clawing and scratching, I wanted to work on that stage. I’d do anything to get work,” says Hammerly. “For the first time in my life, theaters are calling with auditions…[but] I’m saying ‘No.’ I haven’t said no to auditions in, well, I can’t remember ever saying that.”