This is the third in a three-part series of features drawn from Donovan Wheeler’s lengthy interview with Reparation’s director Kyle Ham and screenwriter Steve Timm. In part one, Wheeler discussed the impact of filming in Western Indiana. In part two, they discussed the challenges of creating a film on a limited budget. In this installment Ham and Timm discuss the 22 years they spent transforming Reparation from a DePauw stage play to an independent film.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Kyle Ham and Red Dirt Pictures
When Kyle Ham returned my call seeking answers to few follow up questions, he spoke to me from the streets of San Angelo, Texas. Posters in hand, Ham was pressing the pavement looking for some Scotch tape.
“Just living the life of a movie director,” Ham laughs. One week ago, Ham’s directorial debut, Reparation, premiered in Greencastle, Indiana. An opening so successful that the original four-day run found itself extended by another week. After the Sunday evening showing and a quick back-and-forth with a supportive local crowd, Ham and company hit the road following Reparation’s September screening schedule across the country. For many of us living in what served as the film’s shooting location, Reparation began as a fascinating novelty and transformed into a national event. For Ham and his screenwriter Steve Timm, however, the long September spent promoting the film’s release pales compared to the two decades they spent bringing the story to life.
It began in a DePauw University classroom, a Theater Production class to be specific. Ham, a freshman (or “first-year” as they’re called now in the age of Trigger Warnings), walked into his first class, taught by a newly hired Timm, experiencing his own first day as well. Although a few years would pass before the two begin fleshing out Reparation as a film, Timm had already been developing the project before he had even arrived on the Greencastle campus.
“There was an idea in ’83 which became two ideas,” Timm explains. “One of those ideas became my thesis, and the other one—which I had drafted and then let sit around for a few years—was the first version of this story. I finally finished that in ’91 or ’92 and then produced it the next year.” That second idea, originally titled The Activist, told the story of Bob Stevens’ Air Force trauma from a slightly different perspective.
“The original play carried an ‘eco-terrorist’ angle to it that’s not in the movie,” Timm says. “And Bob didn’t suffer a memory loss, as he does the film, but the fundamental question of the play, is also the fundamental question of the film. And that question is: ‘When does the law become more important than friendship?’
Donovan Wheeler: Given that it was written for the stage and then rewritten for the screen over the course of so much time, would the changes seem obvious someone who had watched both versions?
Steve Timm: “There were changes in my life which affected the story. When I first wrote it I didn’t have children, so the by time we got to the turn of the century when I had two kids, that I think affected Bob’s and Lucy’s relationship with their daughter. I think Charlotte sounds more authentic because as I’m rewriting her, experience feeds into it. The other change involved moving it off the stage. When it was a stage play, it contained elements which didn’t translate easily to film…and we had gone through number of stages and rewrites before we ever got to any of the Hollywood stuff.”
DW: Did you find yourself thinking about all the conflicts between citizens and law enforcement—from Ferguson to Baltimore to Dallas—as you worked on the film?
ST: “Well, that stuff has been going through my head since 1978, when I left the [Air Force] myself. My experience—which was an intense sort of experience—informs my thinking about everything that’s going on today.
Reparation tells the story of former Air Force investigator Bob Stevens (Mark Menchaca) who wakes up in an institution haunted by immediate aftereffects of a three year memory gap. Over the next decade, Stevens moves on with his life, settling in Indiana with his wife (Virginia Newcomb) and daughter (Dale Dye Thomas) putting those nagging questions about his past behind him. But when a mysterious colleague from his missing past (Castle’s Jon Huertas) returns, Stevens’ new life unravels drawing his family into the chaos which follows. Besides the larger theme of law versus friendship, the film raises more fundamental questions: What is good and evil? Are the realities we manufacture more real than physical events lost to our memories? And even though it’s a story which Timm could have sold away to a detached team of filmmakers, his decision to hang onto the story and co-develop it with Ham deeply transformed what was initially a student-teacher relationship.
KH: “The age difference magically shrinks over time. When I started with Steve I was 22 and had finished my last class eight months before. Steve was so experienced working with students that age that, for me, it never felt as if he was ‘constructing’ me, but I was constantly learning from him. I was very fortunate to have that experience because he’s not only a writer in the sense of this film, but he’s someone who teaches it for a living. I think that, at that time, I was still a little intimidated, however. Not by him as a person, but by his talent.”
DW: And then it changed.
KH: “Yes. As we started making major discoveries together, that started giving my own footing in the relationship. I was gradually bringing my own cinematic experiences and expertise into it, but by 2006 we had worked together and written our second version of the Reparation script. By then the relationship had evolved out of that student-teacher dynamic into one that was simply friendship.”
DW: How has working him affected what you do when you’re not teamed up with him?
KH: “Steve’s style is one of diligence and of being prepared. Consider that, when he was in grad school, and would write a new play, he did all of that on a typewriter. So the ideas needed to be fully formed or very close to it before you start punching keys. I grew up in the age of the word processor…of cut-and-paste…and the mouse. So, for my generation (and more so every subsequent generation) the immediacy of everything is very tempting. The mentality now is to go out a shoot something right now, right after a first draft.”
DW: But today…?
KH: “But my way now is to be patient. To put deliberative thought into something before I push that first keypad. Then, when I’ve finished that first draft, I’ve learned to sit on it and then go back and look…go back and look again…and again. What he’s done for me is he’s taught me to enjoy the actual process of creating something rather than obsessing over the finished product.”
Ham tells me that, “by the end of this year or early next year” he and Timm will be able to mentally shelve Reparation for the first time since the 1990’s. Once that happens, the two men will face a question they’ve only pecked upon around the edges: Where do they take their working partnership next? For Ham, the answer to the “where” remains undefined. But what’s not in doubt is the answer to the other question: Keep working together, or go separate ways?
“I would be a fool not to keep working with him,” Ham answers. “This is not to say that I couldn’t go out and make a good movie if Steve wasn’t working with me, but I know the experience is going to be a hundred times better and a lot more fun if he is. When you do something that connects with an audience, like we’re seeing with Reparation, then…‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That thing we do: bouncing stuff off of each other, then sitting on it, then picking at it, then bouncing off some more…it works.”
If the confidence in Ham’s voice isn’t enough to reinforce his claim, then certainly eleven film festival awards and a string of effusive reviews will. It works indeed, and even though we will have to wait a little while to see where their teamwork next takes them, both men assure me that it won’t take another 22 years to get there.