Amidst all the early awards hoopla and limited release of some “big” movies, this week I direct your attention to a very special indie film - HOURS. Written and directed by Eric Heisserer, who here makes his directorial debut, HOURS is also one of the final films of Paul Walker and the one of which he was most proud. Close to Walker’s heart, his passion and dedication to the story results in a tour de force performance that makes his recent passing all the more poignant, as with HOURS we see the emotional depth and gravitas he could bring to a character and a film beyond the fast and furious physicality we’ve come to know and love over the years. This IS Walker’s film. On screen in every frame, he is commanding, tugging at your heart strings as you watch a father’s fight for survival for himself and his newborn daughter at the height of Hurricane Katrina. As intensely riveting as the film was on viewing before Walker’s passing, it is now hauntingly unforgettable.
HOURS is the story of Nolan Hayes, a man trapped in an evacuated and now abandoned New Orleans hospital with his newborn daughter at the height of Hurricane Katrina. Born prematurely, the infant is put on a ventilator with 24/7 monitoring in a NIC unit. The first 48 hours are the most critical and will determine her fate. Initially consumed with grief and shock over the passing of his wife Abigail during childbirth, Nolan’s first reaction towards his daughter is “I don’t know this person.” He is seemingly indifferent and disinterested, more in disbelief that his beloved Abigail is dead. So grief-stricken, Nolan leaves his daughter and searches the hospital to find Abigail’s body as if seeing her will make him believe the hand Fate has dealt. On finding her, lying cold on a floor outside the hospital morgue, he can’t even bring himself to lift the sheet covering her stillness. As if in a trance, Nolan makes his way back to the NIC unit only to be met with a mad rush of patients and hospital staff being evacuated because of the storm. Assured someone will be back for him and his daughter, Nolan begins his vigil by the baby’s incubator. But when Katrina strikes with her full force, power is lost and the hospital is completely evacuated but for Nolan and his daughter, his paternal instincts kick in. No one is coming back for them. He is the only thing, the only person, that stands between his daughter and death. With only his wits, his memories and his heart to guide him, we count down the HOURS with Nolan as he fights to save not only his daughter, but himself.
Paul Walker is mesmerizing as Nolan. Reflecting on the film, Walker opined, “It speaks to me in just a very pure and truthful level, but I didn’t realize [the immediate connection]. I was like, ‘This is my freaking life! This is all of our lives.’” Delivering a tour de force that surpasses the depth of any of his prior performances, in Nolan we see a fervent, cogent, determined performance and character arc that is believable, resonating within. Walker embraces the character and the situation at hand. Walking an emotional tightrope balancing the grief for Abigail’s death with the fight for survival of a newborn daughter, Walker fuels the performance with adrenalin and intelligence that believably kick in when a crisis develops and Nolan just keeps moving forward. Walker's performance is strong enough that we feel the bond growing between Nolan and his daughter whom he has named Abigail. As the emotional intensity grows, Walker's movements become more intimate - he leans more onto the ventilator unit, looks more directly at the baby, even his voice gets softer with each story that he tells much like a child's bedtime story. Very touching. Thanks to a subconscious time clock tied in to the NIC unit battery being defective, initially requiring manual cranking every 3 minutes and then every 105 seconds as the HOURS pass and the battery becomes less effective, we have the adrenalin fueled aspect of Nolan as he runs through the hospital, up and down stairs, trying to grab supplies, call for help, etc., all within a 105 second time window. So intense is Walker at being “in the moment” and so well done is Heisserer’s direction and work of cinematographer Jaron Presant that the breathless race against time becomes palpable to the audience. As Walker noted, “I had a good balance – the physicality and the emotional component.”
Not exactly the first person one would think of to cast as Nolan, even Heisserer admits that when Walker’s name was suggested his first thought was “This guy? Really? . . .[But] after 20 minutes I was blown away. He shared with me stories that he had a daughter and there were complications during birth and to see him go back to that allowed me a real clue as to how I could direct him. Knowing that a lot of the acting you see from him in this movie is such an honest space for him and it’s so true to who he is, it made it easier for him to reach those moments.”
Although with limited screen time, key to the creation of Nolan is the relationship between Nolan and wife Abigail. In Genesis Rodriguez, Heisserer found an uplifting energy that buoyed Walker’s performance. For Walker, there was no one better than Rodriguez to play opposite. “I felt some things. I was connected with Genesis. I love that girl, working opposite her. I fell in love with her. . . It was reinvigorating.”
Adding an important element to the story is a rescue dog named Sherlock. “A cool dog” according to Walker, the storyline of Sherlock is based on a true story to come out of Katrina. Here, Sherlock is played by 7-year old Balco and serves as not only a sounding board for Nolan but plays an integral part in the character’s sanity and survival.
Known best for his horror screenplays (“The Nightmare on Elm Street” 2010 reboot and “Final Destination 5", among them), HOURS is not only a departure from the tried and true but marks his directorial debut. Described by Heisserer as “A very personal, intimate story for me on the creative front”, his decision to also direct was directly related to this personal connection. “I have a lot of fears, irrational or otherwise, about parenthood and that came out in this movie. I felt that I knew what I wanted to protect and one of the more controversial elements of this was Nolan’s first line to his daughter is ‘I don’t know you’ and the last line is ‘I know you.’ That arc was something that I wanted to preserve, something that I worried another director might not be so protective of.”
More than impressive debut as a first time director, Heisserer defines the time and locks us in through our shared consciousness of Katrina then puts an individual, internal, microcosmic spin on it; personalizing it. The result is a testament to the human spirit, and in even the tiniest human. By tapping into well known treatments for coma patients of constantly talking to them, structuring Nolan’s growing connection to his daughter using that concept is palpable and telling - particularly after his early line of "I don't know this person." The infant Abigail gives him a purpose and keeps him going as much as he keeps her going. Very powerful dynamic.
Shooting not only in New Orleans, but in United Methodist Hospital which was evacuated during Katrina and which is abandoned to this day, just adds to the emotional power. According to Heisserer, every crew member “had a Katrina story and survived it one way or the other and they kept me honest because of that” and working every day inside United Methodist just added to the honesty. A perfect time capsule, calendars hanging on the walls of nurses stations seen in the film are the actual calendars that were hanging on the walls when the hospital was evacuated, still showing the fateful day of August 29, 2005, when Katrina struck. Clocks stopped at 10:35 when the back-up generators died. Charts, notes, computer equipment, gurneys, IV poles - even an MRI machine - are all still sitting where they were abandoned, and became part of the reality in HOURS.
Thanks to growing up with a dad who was a contractor, and spending summers working for him and his buddies, Paul Walker was well familiar with the construction and destruction of a building. “[A] lot of the buildings surrounding the hospital, you could just see the water line because they hadn’t repainted yet. On the inside, if you see a water line, you know darn well they took all the sheet-rock off the walls because they have to make sure there isn’t any mold. Black mold is nasty. . .So the base of this hospital, same thing. The water level came up almost 12 feet. So, the bottom level, when you go into work everyday, the reminder is the skeleton of the building. It’s reduced to just the aluminum and the steel. That’s the first floor. . . But every morning getting there, it’s like, ‘Wow look at this.’ It’s really bad. It puts it in perspective. It’s a reminder every day.”
Technically, the lighting contrasts and the ever present golden glow of a single light in Abigail's room and the ventilator add a very “light at the end of the tunnel” aspect. Metaphorically signifies warmth, love, home, hearth - actually very womb-like. Sharp contrast with the icy and often eerie cyan and green denatured tones of the darkened hospital or even minimally lit hallways thanks to exterior sunlight casting a ghostly pallor through scant windows, propels the visual tone. Given his prior work in films like “Carrie” and “Don Jon”, cinematographer Jaron Presant was a good choice for HOURS, especially when considering his use of Dutch angles when it comes to furthering the storytelling and establishing POV, more than capably melds emotion with visual synergy. The visual design that moves us throughout the hospital is key as it not only builds tension in the race against time to get back to the baby to charge the battery, but keeps the visuals "fresh" and engaging as opposed to stagnating like the flood waters. An important consideration for Heisserer and Presant and that they were very cognizant of was not wanting the film to “feel claustrophobic except at very certain times. This should be a very epic place. If you’ve ever been in a large building, in an institutional building, alone at night, you know how lonely you feel.” Heisserer talked to Presant about “how there are plenty of times I want to see Nolan as small in a very big space versus having him cramped in that room all the time.” It was important to be able to direct Walker in the NIC room “so that he feels like it’s a bigger space.”
Sam Bauer’s editing is key to keeping the audience cognizant of the passage of time thanks to the cuts to actual CNN reports of the day. With every image, one vividly remembers where they were, what they were doing when they saw tv images of the levee break, when the storm hit, when the Superdome roof blew away. It keeps the audience tuned in to the world around them and around Nolan and Abigail.
As strong as the emotional tone of HOURS is, and as palpably tense as the visuals are, there are some notable oversights and holes within the details of the film, starting with a severe cut that Nolan suffers. Covering the wound with a piece of dirty torn sheeting, one is plunged into disbelief given that there are bandages lying all over the place and Nolan never uses one for his hand - even after plunging into contaminated water. In line with the contaminated water is infection. With that hand cut and Nolan flailing in muck, within 48 hours that hand would have been swollen up and him raging with fever and sepsis. Only one baby diaper change? And don’t hospitals have battery operated radios or communication for emergencies?
Minor flaws aside, HOURS showcases the talents of writer/director Eric Heisserer, proving him to be a force to watch in the future. And in a cruel twist of Fate, serves as a testament to the actor that Paul Walker was and what he could have become. Having had a chance to see the final cut of HOURS before his passing, Walker was his own harshest critic. “[W]hen I watch myself, I just have bullshit meter on the whole time. I can tell when I’m telling the truth and when I’m in the moment and when I’m not. . .[T]he second that I don’t believe myself, I hate it. This one, honestly, I sat down, I was like, ‘I told the truth’.”
HOURS - raw, honest, truth that grabs your heart and doesn’t let go.
Written and Directed by Eric Heisserer
Cast: Paul Walker, Genesis Rodriguez