How I Letterboxd: Chad Hartigan

Filmmaker Chad Hartigan talks to Jack Moulton about his prescient new sci-fi romance, Little Fish, why radio silence is worse than a bad review, and his secret system of Letterboxd lists.

I’m a Virgo and I have a little bit of OCD, so I have to have some system.” —⁠Chad Hartigan

Chad Hartigan has won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and the Film Independent Spirit Awards for his acclaimed films This is Martin Donner and Morris From America. He’s also been a Letterboxd member since way back, joining what he proclaims as “my favorite website” in 2013. Hartigan has always been an obsessive logger: he has transcribed all of his viewing data since 1998 and continues to work on filling in the gaps in his downtime.

Like many ardent Letterboxd members, Hartigan is a diligent list-maker, keeping tabs on his best first viewings of each year and assembling an all-time top 1,000 films over the summer (with an accompanying 26-minute supercut). Perhaps unusually for a member of the film industry on Letterboxd, he’s unafraid to hold back his opinions and regularly voices his critiques on even the most acclaimed films.

Hartigan’s newest film, Little Fish, is a sci-fi love story starring Olivia Cooke (Sound of Metal) and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken). Written by Mattson Tomlin, it’s set during an imagined pandemic—shot long before our own actual pandemic—wherein a disease causes people to lose their memories. It was set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, and then postponed due to Covid-19. It’s now out in limited theaters and on demand, and we were delighted with the excuse to put Hartigan in the How I Letterboxd spotlight.

Olivia Cooke as Emma and Jack O’Connell as Jude in Little Fish.
Olivia Cooke as Emma and Jack O’Connell as Jude in Little Fish.

You made a pandemic movie before the pandemic. How do you feel about accidentally hitting that unfortunate zeitgeist and now consequently being asked questions like this one?
Chad Hartigan: Yeah, strange. The questions are fine. If it wasn’t this one, it would be another that you would have to answer over and over again. One of the things that drew me to the project was that it felt like a fantasy that wasn’t necessarily rooted in reality in a way that my other [films] were. I liked that it’s old-fashioned in its attempts to purely take you somewhere and wasn’t intended to hold up a mirror to our times—but then in the end that’s exactly what it’s doing. I’m curious myself, and I’m checking Letterboxd to see the reactions from people because I really couldn’t guess what it would have been like [now].

Are there any prescient details you’re proud of getting right?
I’m so grateful and happy that Jack [O’Connell] is wearing his mask correctly. That’s the number one thing that I’m glad we got right. I think it was very smart of Mattson to focus the movie on [the relationship] rather than the details of this global pandemic. I feel the reason it’s not in bad taste is because it dealt with those things as a backdrop and instead focused on people just trying to remember what’s important and clinging onto those that they love.

Onto our own favorite memory aid, Letterboxd. How did you discover us and how did you manage without us?
I’ve been on since 2013, so I’m probably one of the earliest people to jump on it. I love the interface and the diary, just aesthetically it was really fun. I’ve been keeping track of what I see with analog [methods] for as long as I can remember. I have diaries and planners so I logged all that old information. If I was running for president, my platform would be that everybody is required to use Letterboxd comprehensively, because I just love to know what everybody is watching all the time.

Do you talk about Letterboxd in the real world with the other filmmaking people?
Yes, and I’m often trying to convince them to join. Other filmmakers are more concerned about having their opinions on peers be public knowledge than I am, I guess. I’ve made four films now and each one’s been bigger and more widely seen than the last. The very first one was a total no-budget affair that couldn’t get into any festivals and I was very excited when I finally got it into the Hamptons Film Festival. It was about half-full and one or two people came up to me afterwards and said they liked it. This was pre-Twitter so I spent the whole next day Googling to see if anybody had written anything. I was so curious to see what people thought and there was nothing—not a review, not a blog—just total emptiness.

When the next film got into Sundance, there were people tweeting their reactions and actual reviews and I read everything. People were asking if the bad reviews hurt me. Absolutely not—nothing can be worse than the radio silence of nobody caring about the first film. The fact that people care enough to sit and write about this movie—good or bad—is a win, and I’ve carried that onward. I like to see what people think, it can be helpful in how you view the film as a success or failure. You learn and move on.

Jack O’Connell at least remembers how to wear a mask in Little Fish.
Jack O’Connell at least remembers how to wear a mask in Little Fish.

Some filmmakers have told us they’re kinder to films after making their own, but you’re not shy at all about being critical. How did making your own films change your perspective as a critic?
I don’t consider myself a critic so that’s why I’d be less concerned with someone reading what I thought. Why should they put any stock into what I think? If they get hung up on it then that’s their own stuff because I’m not a critic. Like everyone else on Letterboxd, I just love watching movies. Obviously I can appreciate and understand some of the technical aspects maybe moreso than people who don’t make films, but at the end of the day, rarely that’s the thing that makes you love a movie or not. There’s a great bit in Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary track for Finian’s Rainbow where Fred Astaire’s doing a dance number and [Coppola admits] he totally messed it up because Astaire’s feet aren’t fully in frame. He’s very honest about his mistakes because it’s one of his earliest movies. Then he goes on to say that he thinks there’s the same number of mistakes in Finian’s Rainbow as there are in The Godfather, it’s just that he made mistakes on the things that don’t matter for The Godfather. No film is perfect, but if it can latch onto this one magical aspect that connects you to it, that’s what makes you love it or not.

You had a project where you chart the best films made by directors at certain ages as you reached that age. Tell us more about it.
That was a great project. I got the idea when I was 26. This was back when I had a Netflix DVD subscription and it was just hard for me to randomly choose DVDs to throw in the queue. I needed a system. I decided to watch movies from directors when they were my age and see if there’s some common denominator, something I can learn. At that point, there weren’t many, there were films like Boogie Nights and Fassbinder films. Not many people had made stuff when they were 26 or 27, so it was very feasible. Every year there were more movies and more directors to add to the list and it became time-consuming. I did it all the way up until I was 34 and the reason I stopped was because I had a son and there was no way I could continue this level of viewing output.

My favorite part of your account is the fact that you log every viewing of your own films. You know for a fact that you’ve watched Morris From America 26 times and Little Fish fifteen times. Why do you log them? What counts as a viewing?
I’ve clearly watched those movies many more times in little chunks but I’ll only log it if we’re sitting down and watching it from beginning to end. I have a ticket to see Little Fish in the drive-in on Saturday, so it’s going to be logged again. Why do I do it? Like I said, I wish everyone was required to use Letterboxd comprehensively. That’s what it’s there for for me, an accurate log of what I watch. This is psychotic behavior but I’m tempted to have a Letterboxd account for my son. I’ll do his views for him once he starts watching movies until he’s old enough to take over. It’ll just be, like, Frozen a thousand times but he’s not old enough to watch anything yet, so we’ll see.

Have you discovered any films thanks to Letterboxd discourse that influenced your approach to filmmaking?
For sure, I can’t maybe say specifically, but once I dropped the directors my own age system I didn’t replace it with nothing. I’m a Virgo and I have a little bit of OCD, so I have to have some system. I’ve replaced it with a new complicated system where I pull from different lists and that’s now my main source of how I choose a movie to watch. I have like ten or twelve different lists, each about a thousand movies with a lot of overlap. One of them is my own list of every movie I’ve seen in a theater and I’ll go and look through that and if it’s something I want to revisit. Recently I rewatched Twister, which I hadn’t seen in a long time and is an old favorite from when I was in high school.

I have a bunch of private lists I cycle through; every movie nominated for a Spirit Award, every movie that’s won an Oscar, every movie that’s played in competition at Cannes, the top 1,000 films at the box office. There’s another great website that I use as a biblical resource which is They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? and their lists of acclaimed films for all-time and the 21st century. I hit those up often. Something that I watched purely because of the very high Letterboxd rating and really loved is Funeral Parade of Roses. I try to see as many movies as I can that have a 4.0 rating or higher.

You respect the Letterboxd consensus.
I do, but I don’t always agree with it.

Little Fish director Chad Hartigan.
Little Fish director Chad Hartigan.

Which is your most underrated or overlooked movie according to Letterboxd?
I can say I was the very first person to log a movie called Witness in the City, which is an Italian noir movie I watched when I was doing my ‘directors my own age’ series. Literally nobody had logged it, so my review was like “whoa, I can’t believe I’m the first person to log this!”. It was very exciting for me because it’s great, but I’m the OG logger of that movie.

From your list of every film you’ve seen in a theater since you were twelve, which was your most memorable experience?
The cheap answer is that it’s hard to top my own movies. The Sundance premiere of Morris From America at the Eccles Theater is maybe the best, but if I’m disqualifying my own films, seeing Scream 3 in a very packed theater in Virginia Beach was really fun, really rowdy. There was a trailer for a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and I remember the climax was Van Damme going “you lied to me!!!” and everyone laughed. Someone did a George Costanza move later during Scream 3 and yelled out “you lied to me!!!” and everybody laughed again—so that’s a high. That’s the thing I miss the most about movie theaters, and the worry I have if theaters go away, is that so much of how we feel about a movie can be tied to the experience; who we saw it with, what we did before or after, what the crowd was like, or if anything strange happened. There are a lot of movies I have strong memories and affection for because of the experience of seeing them and I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about if I just watched it at home on my laptop.

I typically like to cap interviews off with what filmmakers thought was the best film of the past year, but we have your data to hand. For you, it’s Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time. Can you talk a bit about what makes the film stand out for you?
One thing I learned about myself from the pandemic is that the motivation and desire to see new things is very closely tied to the theater-going experience for me. Once that was taken away and you could watch a new movie at home, it joins the pile of all the other movies. The fact that it’s new doesn’t really do anything for me. Why would I press play on Da 5 Bloods when I still haven’t seen Malcolm X? I gotta see Malcolm X! There wasn’t an urgency, so I saw far fewer films than in an ordinary year. But Time I found incredibly moving and important. Similar to what I liked about the Little Fish script, it’s so hyper-focused on one relationship and within that one story it has so much to say about larger issues and the world at large. It was an emotional and rich viewing experience.

Little Fish’ is on demand and playing in select theaters now. Images courtesy of IFC Films.


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