On The Hook
When Minnesota Film Arts' new executive director Jamie Hook was a jobless college grad in Seattle's grunge heyday, he thought he had landed his dream "peon" gig on the set of Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha.
"I thought, What a beautiful first step!" recalls Hook. "Then I showed up and they told me that my job was to follow the Italian camera crew and pick up their cigarette butts--literally. It took me about four days to realize that this really didn't have much to do with making movies." At that point the onetime East Asian history major could have searched for some wisp of enlightenment in the cigarette smoke and thoughts of Keanu getting keyed up for his role as Buddha. Instead, he walked off the set.
When the 33-year-old Hook became MFA's first full-fledged director a month ago, it was the latest move in a dramatic career that could be broken into existential acts.
Act III: Hook gives rise to Wigglyworld, a filmmakers' collective that he compares to a cross between MFA and IFP, only with a much cooler name. The organization flourishes, attaining a pair of nonprofit art house cinemas and producing several films a year.
Act IV: Hook takes a job as film critic and arts editor at Seattle weekly The Stranger; hired by former City Pages editor Jennifer Vogel, he's later fired by The Stranger's Dan Savage. While watching CNN footage of the smoldering Twin Towers on 9/11, Hook decides the time has finally come to make his own movie.
Act V: Thus is born The Naked Proof, a quirky dramedy that follows an aloof grad student who seeks Truth by trying to prove that other people exist. (It premiered locally at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival in April, and screens again Friday and Saturday at St. Anthony Main as part of the Central Standard Film Festival; see review, p. 53.) After The Naked Proof plays at the Seattle Film Festival and everyone gets severely intoxicated, Hook wakes up and realizes the speed at which one can turn from a promising filmmaker into a penniless father of two in a slumping Northwest economy.
And now Act VI. Sporting three-day facial scruff and a shaggy mop of black hair, Hook definitely looks the part of Minnesota Film Arts boss. His rectangular specs make his wide, bluish eyes appear even wider, and he often speaks excitedly, successively quoting, in various digressions, the likes of Truffaut, Kierkegaard, and Yoda. A onetime stage actor in Seattle, Hook made a cameo appearance in The Naked Proof as a jabbering savant at a bus stop.
Hook, who's equal parts German and Japanese, grew up in East Africa as the son of a developmental economist. Before coming to Seattle, he spent time in Indonesia and Japan, where he became fluent in Japanese and furthered his passion for Japanese cinema. To get Hayao Miyazaki at next year's MSPIFF, he says he may be willing to sacrifice a limb.
At last year's MSPIFF, Hook found out that The Naked Proof had won him the Emerging Filmmaker award. He says he received a short-notice letter that read something like, "Jamie: Congratulations. Your film has won the festival." That was about it.
Hook cites the letter incident as being among many examples of how the chaotic and understaffed MFA needs to tighten its organizational bolts about 250 turns. (Recently hired by Hook is Sound Unseen's overseer Gretchen Williams in the position of MFA's managing director.) Hook mentions his visions for starting an MFA artist-in-residency program and a production division, and for inspiring fundraising and other community efforts around the theatrical model of Wigglyworld. But then he adds that, at least for the moment, "I am literally entering essential information into the database--doing all of these dumb, very critical administrative tasks."
Hook calls himself a "shockingly good--or at least decent--bureaucratic manager" despite his philosophizing-filmmaking ways. Besides running Wigglyworld, he has extensive experience directing for the stage, so the egos and politics of the arts community are nothing new to him. In fact, Hook has already ruffled a number of local feathers; he admits that he can sometimes come across as abrasive.
Of course, any discussion of Hook at this point leads to the legacies of the two men who gave rise to the institutions--Oak Street Cinema and the U Film Society--whose merger spawned Minnesota Film Arts three years ago.
"One of the first things I did was scrape the 'U Film Society' sign off the front [of the Bell Auditorium]," says Hook, "which is totally going to alienate some people. But it needed to be done. What I see here is two theaters and a film festival--and a lot of goodwill and the potential for people to really build a community."
Such obvious statements would perhaps go without question were it not for the larger-than-life presence of Al Milgrom, who let the first reels roll at U Film more than 40 years ago. When Milgrom's Oak Street counterpart Bob Cowgill stepped down as MFA director at the start of this year, those old inquiries into the issue of Milgrom's retirement came up again--and since Hook's hiring have spread in the film community like gonorrhea on a merchant ship.
"Rumors of my legendary demise have again been greatly exaggerated," quips Milgrom. Having just returned from the Toronto and Montreal film festivals, he has hit his regular stride in search of the latest cutting-edge work from Kazakhstan and the like for next year's MSPIFF.
With no immediate plans for retirement, Milgrom says he has gotten along amiably with Hook thus far and has no misgivings about leaving behind the final vestiges of the U Film Society or working under the thirtysomething director. Then again, it has only been three weeks.
"I think we're on the same wavelength," says Milgrom. "[Hook] wants to maintain local traditions as well as move forward with fresh ideas. His enthusiasm is contagious in the office. It's synergistic. But time will tell. He has a lot to prove in this town."
For now, Hook is just trying to find his way around the cities while living with his wife--who'll bring her Childish Film Festival to town next year--and two kids in south Minneapolis.
"I like that Minneapolis, somewhat like Seattle, is a small city far away from the central nodes of culture," he says. "You could invent something here that simply couldn't exist in another place. It's an adolescent city in a lot of ways, too--which is great because it means that its future is ahead of it."
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