Writer/director J.S. Hampton discusses The Unseen ahead of Kansas City FilmFest International
J.S. Hampton is an indie film veteran, having produced seven feature films. His most notable film, Jayhawkers, was directed by Oscar-winner, Kevin Willmott. Hampton’s projects have screened globally from Mexico City to London and found homes on streamers from Prime Video to Showtime.
At Kansas City FilmFest International this year, Hampton’s writer-director debut, The Unseen, will screen on Sunday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m.
The film was shot locally with KC-based actors such as Brianna Woods, Walter Coppage, Donovan Woods, and Meredith Noël Johnson.
In the movie, a witch from the 1850s is transported into the head of her descendant in modern Kansas City, who is tasked with helping get her ancestor’s body back.
The Pitch: Where did the idea for the story come from? And what was it like collaborating on the script with Briana Woods who also stars in the film?
JSH: So the film’s title is The Unseen, and it has multiple meanings.
What I really was hoping to accomplish with a lot of it was to put people in a position who had never been in those positions before. So I kind of worked backward by looking at shooting low budget, what I had access to, and who I wanted to work with.
Coming out of the pandemic, 2021, I started to craft the idea. I didn’t want to write anything too heavy. I wanted to write something a little lighter, a little more fun. I wanted to do something with magic. I had worked with Bri Woods previously on something that we enjoyed, and I really liked her energy.
I hadn’t seen a whole lot of Black witches in movies over time, and it’s a genre that I enjoy. I grew up on fantasy, and I grew up on a lot of supernatural stuff. I contacted Bri and said, “Hey, I think I’m gonna write a script about Black witches, are you in?” not knowing she had an affinity for the genre, and the subject matter as well.
She was a big influence on the story’s direction, even if she doesn’t know it. I would just be asking questions about X, Y, and Z, and she had no idea why I was asking questions. Working with my cinematographer Marcus on what we could conceivably pull off and then my VFX guy, Derek, about what we could pull off, we crafted a story matched with the resources that we had available.
How was the creation of this film more challenging or more rewarding from the other seven films that you’ve worked on?
So this is my first one as a writer/director. I produced it as well, but the other ones I was almost solely a producer on. So, this was the first one that I did, from day one pen to paper, characters, you know, plot, the whole thing. So, in a lot of ways, for me, it was more freeing, because it was whatever I crafted with the people I was working with, instead of trying to make someone else’s vision happen. So, this is the first time that, from day one to the last day, alpha to omega, it was me. I didn’t carry the whole load. I had a great support team with me. But if you’re asking about the difference for me from the films that I’ve been on before versus now, it was a little different being the guy.
You’re not from Kansas City originally. Why was it important to you that the story take place in Kansas City?
I’m originally from San Jose, California. I’m a Bay Area kid. I had a kind of weird, long trek between football and restaurants. I ended up at KU with Kevin Willmott, and that’s where I really got my start. Kevin allowed me to hop on board a couple of his films, and I had the honor of doing that.
But after my time in Lawrence, I moved back to LA for a while. I moved back to California. And then I moved to LA for six, seven years. And when I started to craft this idea, I was actually living in Southern California. And I knew that I wanted to film it in Kansas City for various reasons. So, I’ve been in Kansas City now since the summer of 2020. And I wasn’t going to leave until I finished, and we’ll see what happens now.
I wanted to set the story in Kansas City for a couple reasons. One, is the setting of Kansas City, the greenery. It’s something that you don’t get very many places. So me being from California, obviously, you get everything in California, right? You’ve got the beaches over here, you’ve got mountains over there, blah, blah, blah. But you don’t get the nature inside the city setting most other places, like you do in Kansas City. The only other city that I’ve been to that really has that feel is Atlanta. I wanted to integrate that in.
I have an affinity for this part of the country. Obviously, I got my career started out here, my first handful of films out here. And so, that was another part of it, was going somewhere that I know I’m comfortable with to shoot something like this. I’m not sure I could have pulled this off in Atlanta. But that greenery, that nature, plays into the story with the characters kind of finding magic for the first time in nature. And so I really wanted to film it somewhere that it felt right.
And then there is a history in Kansas City. Bordering Kansas and Missouri, you get a lot of those dynamics with some of the racial aspects that we didn’t key in on or highlight in the film, but there are undertones. It was all just important to me to just bring it all together.
And then a lot of the talent that I wanted to use, I had met through jobs working out here. I knew Bri could carry a film. I knew Marcus Guider, my cinematographer, was incredibly talented, he just hadn’t been able to shoot a feature yet. My editor Derek Sellens, same thing. He had never edited a feature. so a lot of those people were based around this part of the country. I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go back and make it happen.”
How long did filming take, and what was a typical day on set like?
Filming took place over a year. We had intended to do it all for like six weeks. So, we did three weeks consecutive, and then we were going to do two or three pickup days, a few weeks later. And then we had, of course, because we were filming in 2021, we ended up having multiple people get COVID, so we kept having to extend the productions. So thankfully, it wasn’t on our set. But you know, in that gap from when we were shooting to when we came back to shoot, people got sick.
So by the time we tried to pick up and shoot again when everyone got healthy, all the leaves had fallen off the trees. And if you remember me saying, the greenery was a lot of the reason we were shooting here. We had to wait until Kansas City got green again before we could finish. So, it was almost exactly a year from when we finally stopped rolling from when we started.
It was a challenge, but, you know, it also allowed some time for some flexibility. When you’re on a low-budget thing, we were trying to push ourselves as much as possible. Those 12-hour days that were on set for me and the DP and a couple of other people, turned into 14- or 16-hour days real fast because we’re planning for the next day after we finished those 12 hours.
It was a little nice to have breaks, even though they were unfortunate breaks. But the fact that people got sick allowed us a little more breathing room and allowed us a little more time to craft some of the things that we were able to craft.
That gap that we had also allowed us to shoot our opening sequence at a time of the year that was a little bit better for the greenery. So, when people see the film, that first scene, there is a lot of really dense, lush greenery. And if we had shot that when we planned on it, it wasn’t nearly as nice looking. So I’d say we used whatever we could. Every moment we had, we tried to take advantage of it.
What would you say your mission is as a filmmaker? And how did you first get into filmmaking?
We’ll start with how I got into filmmaking. I was working my way up as a chef, I was a sous chef. And I was getting burned out. And one day I was on a break, I was sitting on a crate behind a restaurant, and I called my brother. And I said, I don’t think this is it for me, I think I’m supposed to be doing something else. And we had a short conversation. And he said, Hey, maybe you should try going to film school. Whatever you do, just don’t be a writer or a director or producer. Get a career path that people will use you on set instead of you having to create on your own. And of course, the three things that I now am are a writer, director, and a producer. So my brother was halfway there. He sent me in the right direction. I didn’t fully listen.
And then as a filmmaker, I’ve been really fortunate to work with people like Kevin, doing more serious and thought-provoking work. But I also remember that what got me into film was a lot of escapism and being able just to be entertained for a couple of hours at a time. So I think that I have to split my career between those two things kind of, making things that have a point and have a purpose and touch the culture and then making things that someone might just want to laugh and enjoy for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.
What advice would you give to people who want to start making their own films?
I can joke and say, Don’t do it, this is the hardest thing you will ever do. But one, trust yourself, trust your vision. All of us are unique. We all have stories to tell. Even if you don’t find value in it, someone else will. There are moments I’ve watched, I don’t know, 1000s of movies. And I can tell it probably wasn’t written to be a moment that grabbed someone or made someone realize something, but I did. And so we all have those moments inside of us whether we realize that or not.
And then try to support or find the people to support you. Right, try to find the right team. So again, like I was saying, I’ve been working with my cinematographer and editor for about a decade now. My executive producer, who put up a good chunk of the funds for us to start production, is my brother. You get people like Bri and Donovan and Ashley who I’ve worked with in the past. But you get a group of people that becomes your community and becomes your support system. If you trust yourself and you’ve got a good group of people around you, you can pull off great stuff.
Who are some of the most influential filmmakers to your own work?
Obviously Kevin Willmott. Even though I didn’t meet Kevin until I was in my 20s, it was a lot of the lessons that I learned with Kevin that allowed me to be able to pull off The Unseen with the minuscule budget that we had.
One of the movies that I kept coming back to was The Princess Bride. It’s one of my all-time favorite films—Rob Reiner, who directed that one. And then the other thing that I watched probably 10 times during production was Dolomite is my Name, an Eddie Murphy movie. Craig Brewer directed that. And so those are the people that genuinely influenced this film.
There’s a shot in the film that is clearly a Spike Lee double dolly shot. So just things like that. There will always be little influences or little nuggets that pop up.
Can you tell us anything about your next idea or your next project?
So there are two different ideas that we’re kicking around. They’re just at two different budget levels. And for things that I write and direct, they’re always going to be either surreal or fantastical, or they’re just not going to be your average film. There’s always a wrinkle that I’m going to add in. I’ll just say both of them include time travel, which is a theme in this current one, but they include it in drastically different ways. Most likely, the next thing that I do will also include time travel.
Aside from the screening of your own film, what are you most looking forward to at this year’s KCFFI?
It’s not just a screening. In a lot of ways, it is like a celebration. And I get to thank people in person. My family is also coming, which is great.
There’s a film called Kick Me that I followed a little bit of the journey for, I don’t know, six, seven years now. Some people worked on it, and then I’m not really sure what happened to the film for a few years, and then it kind of popped back up.
Why do you think that film festivals are still vital in our current age of streaming services and downloads?
It’s fostering a community of filmmakers and film watchers. You know, a lot of stuff that gets put out that’s big budget, not everyone can make those things. And not everyone has access to watch all of them. And film festivals, I think, for a film like mine, specifically, that is set in Kansas City, it’s great to experience it with the Kansas City audience. There are going to be some things that people in Kansas City might pick up on. Not everything is for every single person, but I think that you get a little of that regional love, you get a little of the auteur feel. It feels a little more pure.