Samm Hodges grew up in a house without running water or electricity. His father is a former drug addict who moved the family to the woods of Washington state.
Pittsburghers may be familiar with Hodges’ work on the short-lived and locally filmed ABC comedy “Downward Dog.” Though his filmmaking career has diversified since that show’s 2017 cancellation, there’s one subject he had yet to explore on celluloid.
“I’ve always wanted to write rural poverty in the way I experienced it, but not in a way that’s poverty porn,” Hodges told the Union Progress. “I wanted to make something that was wild and very physical.”
He set out to plug that hole in his cinematic resume by writing and directing a short film that would depict the essence of his childhood experience. The final result was “Tender,” a raw and surrealist riff on Hodges’ formative years that he shot in Western Pennsylvania and is premiering later this week at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“A short film is a time when you can go really hard,” he said. “You’re not trying to go for a broad audience. … You get to do something more intense and avant-garde than you would in the marketplace.”
Most of Hodges’ wife’s family is from the Pittsburgh area, and he lived here from 2008-16 before relocating to Los Angeles. He still does a lot of work around here and even shot the campaign launch video and subsequent television advertisements for newly sworn-in Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman.
“Downward Dog” was a collaboration between Hodges and Animal Inc. co-founder Michael Killen about a woman named Nan (Allison Tolman) and her philosophically inclined dog, Martin (voiced by Hodges). It was a departure from his grittier filmmaking style, but Hodges said “Downward Dog” “got me in the door” and taught him a lot about working within the Hollywood ecosystem.
“It was a lot really fast, going from being a commercial director to doing that,” he said. “That was a crazy start, and I feel like I have my legs under me a lot more.”
Hodges said that ABC wanted to keep “Downward Dog”going beyond its eight-episode first season, but other powers that be disagreed.
“That’s Hollywood, baby,” Hodges quipped. “That’s how it works.”
On the bright side, “Downward Dog” also screened at Sundance, which means “Tender” marks Hodges’ triumphant return to Park City. He’s excited this time around to be showing off such a personal project while also hopefully making more “meaningful connections” with other filmmakers there.
“Tender” was filmed almost two years ago in Apollo. It follows a rural family who is torn apart after patriarch JD (Will Brill) loses his wallet and goes ballistic on his partner, Kelsey (Louisa Krause), and son, Damon (Alexander Hubble). The perspective then switches to Damon, who goes on what can only be described as a junk food-assisted spirit quest.
“Honor culture” has always fascinated Hodges. Specifically, he wanted to write a character who was willing to “unravel someone’s life” purely because of the most innocuous slight. Hodges believes that phenomenon stems from “being that exposed and vulnerable” in a rural setting, but he didn’t want his portrayal of that lifestyle to devolve into caricature.
“How can we begin to have compassion for the kind of characters who are doing so much damage?” he mused. “It’s a complicated conversation, but I felt it was important to understand the complexity and emotional trauma that happens in those houses.”
A lot of “Tender” is filmed to look like one continuous shot as a way of making audiences feel like they’re “trapped in there with” Damon and his extremely difficult family, Hodges said. There’s also an extended underwater sequence that takes advantage of Hodges’ background as a visual effects artist and is an “intentionally surreal” way of peeling back the layers of past trauma.
“Can this kid get out?”he said. “And if so, what do we want for him? I don’t have the answers either, but I feel a lot of compassion for that character.”
He’s hoping that Sundance audiences are equally invested in Damon’s journey. Hodges still can’t believe he’s getting a second chance to screen a film at such a prestigious film festival.
“I was really, really shocked to get in,” he said. “They screen so few films. … It’s cool that people want to talk about these kinds of experiences, which I think matter.”