This series of posts highlights some of our local industry talent: on-screen and behind-the-scenes, established and up-and-coming. We asked Cole Sax and Phil Hessler to provide insight into the work on their newest film ‘Second Sight’, how they got started, and what advice they have for people trying to get into the film industry.
Cole Sax is an award-winning film director & producer, based in Salt Lake City, UT. Fascinated by the human experience, and unique sub-cultures that exist within it, he uses the art of storytelling to highlight the empowerment of human life. He gravitates towards telling stories on love & identity while attempting to understand who we are, why are we here, and what might be possible during our one shot at life.
His work has taken him all around the world, telling stories from the foothills of the Himalayas to the rice fields of the Philippines, creating branded content for companies including; Snapchat, NBC, The International Olympic Channel, Facebook and more. He has won two Silver Telly’s, a Gold Telly, and a Bronze Clio. He is also proud to have participated in giving a TEDx talk at our local Marmalade library and to be one of MAST by Salt Lake Film Society’s 2019 Fellows. You can learn more about him on his site!
Phil Hessler is a producer, director and founder/head of development of WZRDmedia. He grew up on the east coast where skateboarding and snowboarding were his main passions. By way of Jackson Hole, he found his way to Utah for college and fell in love with the mountains. His projects range from branded short films to documentary series, which started out as unlikely sports stories but have since grown to focus more on the human experience and stories of people who overcome obstacles to become the best versions of themselves.
He has produced projects around the world from the favelas of Sao Paulo, to the foothills of the Himalayas for brands like Red Bull, Bridgestone, REI, Vice, and Fjallraven, among many others. His work has premiered at dozens of film festivals and won two Silver Telly’s, and a Gold Telly.
Joanaly is the matriarch of a sprawling, loving family in the Philippines. When Joanaly loses her sight due to cataracts, the family struggles to support her needs and fill her shoes. With stunning cinematography, the film tracks how a simple medical procedure restores vision and hope after years of darkness.
What led you to document the story of Joanaly and her family?
Cole Sax: For me, the story began while I was living in Park City and heard stories from a family friend of his travels abroad, curing the blind. I watched a video of a patient who was blind for two years, dance, and sing in joy after having this sight-restoring surgery. Their whole body language and demeanor changed… they blossomed like a flower. That was special to watch, and you could genuinely feel the emotion they were feeling. That, to me, was a big indicator that there was a film worth watching there.
How did you prepare for this film?
CS: In short, we put a ton of effort into our development & pre-production process. We put together a character criteria list & hired on a local production company in the Philippines to help execute the casting/scout process. Virtually, we worked with them in finding 60 patients, then bringing it down to 15, then our top 3. The process was comprehensive, and if done differently, we would have had a very different film.
Phil Hessler: My main responsibility tied into ensuring we could execute Cole’s vision for the story. The first step started with casting, we envisioned the type of character that would be best to tell the story, wrote scenes based on the story we wanted to tell and around the truths of this experience, and then began the process of casting and scouting.
What was your day-to-day experience while filming?
CS: Everyday was different, but the one consistent thread was that everyone involved was committed to the production and wanting to make something special. Having that “it takes a village” mentality was extremely important during the production of this as we were working very long days in intense conditions.
PH: We built this film like a narrative so our time was very efficient. Our scenes were broken down by the minute across our locations. The most moving experience for me was being in the hospital when hundreds of these sight-restoring surgeries were going on. Seeing the moments of pure joy and elation when patients were given their sight back was incredibly moving.
What did you take away from this experience?
CS: This is somewhat obvious, but filmmaking, in my opinion, is one of the most difficult artistic endeavors you can get involved with. The project never belongs to just one person, as it requires so much support from everyone; you end up sharing it with all parties involved. You end up forming bonds and relationships that you take with you through your life, and the lessons learned are priceless.
I feel like for myself, and the whole crew, there was a high level of commitment to the story. We understood the importance of showcasing the unconditional love that existed between our characters and the doctors. I think it is something that transcended into our production.
PH: Spending time with Joanaly and her family reaffirmed to me that happiness comes from connection and experience. Here is a family that lives on around two dollars a day, yet they are some of the most joyful and happy people I’ve met. They reminded me that there is so much to appreciate in this life and that the majority of problems we create for ourselves are irrelevant.
What do you hope your audience takes away after seeing this film?
CS: The importance of love. Understanding that despite our views, where we are from, what we look like, language barriers, and so on, we are all participating in the human experience. We can open our hearts to that and show unconditional love to the people we care most for, and even for people we hardly know. The unconditional love between the two main characters in the film, Joanaly, and Virgilio, along with the doctors serving the patients, truly was inspiring.
PH: I hope people are invigorated to contribute to the work of SEE International by visiting our website and donating. These surgeries only cost $25, and they don’t only give someone their sight back, but gives them their life back. There’s approximately 20 million people suffering from cataract blindness yet the solution is simple. My hope is that this film can help be a part of the solution to end this epidemic.
Is this career path something you always wanted to pursue, and how did you initially get into the industry?
CS: It was a mix of many different things. All of which I was very fortunate to have. When my family moved to Park City, I became infatuated with ski films, and I ended up teaching myself out to make little edits of my own. My dad saw that I had a thirst for knowledge in the process and pushed me to continue exploring. I also was very inspired by the Sundance film festival and having access to watching films during my time at Park City High School. From there, I snagged an internship with an LA-based motion picture trailer house and started interning there at a young age.
Again, the filmmaking journey has been a mix of many different things. I am still in my infancy career-wise, but so far, a lot of the opportunity has come from me being open and saying yes to opportunities, doing my best at forming strong relationships along the way, and wanting to continue to make pieces of work that elicit some emotional response. It is an outlet for me to connect with others emotionally.
PH: It all started with skateboarding and snowboarding. Growing up, I was obsessed with these two sports and would make little edits with my friends. From that, it spawned into creating a feature film about my adopted brother in his quest to become the first African to snowboard in the Winter Olympics. Everything snowballed from there and I began doing short films for brands in the outdoor industry, eventually moving into bigger, unscripted projects. Everything builds on itself in film and every project is different but at the base of it all is focusing on relationships and doing great work. One thing always leads to the next.
Do you have upcoming projects that you’re working on?
CS: I have a good # of projects on my development slate that are in various stages. All of them focus on some of the themes I mentioned above.
PH: Always! The project I am most excited about tells the story of skateboarding, surfing, and rock climbing’s acceptance into the 2020 Olympics. I can’t reveal too much about it but look out for it next summer.
What advice would you give to a local who is trying to get into the industry?
CS: Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Connect with the resources you have locally for support. Challenge the status quo. Stay Humble. And most importantly, work hard. There is no substitute for putting in the work to accomplish what you are after.
PH: Go out and make things. The barriers to creating films is so low these days that you can go out and tell the stories you want with pretty low costs. Focus on the relationships with your collaborators and create a deep sense of trust between the people you work with. Make it about the project not about you. Once you have some experience under your belt, understand how to articulate your value and put yourself in the shoes of your clients to find that balance between art and commerce.
Don’t miss a FREE screening of Second Sight on October 10th at Broadway Centre Theatre at 6 pm, in observance of World Sight Day. Another screening will be held on October 18th, as part of WZRD’s Fall Film Screening.
Allie Russell is the Marketing Coordinator at the Utah Film Commission, based in Salt Lake City. She’s an actress and studied Film and Media Arts at the University of Utah. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at [email protected].