Homegrown LGBTQ film ‘Hailey’s Game’ wins Oklahoma film festivals

Katie Hightower blame The TV show “Dawson’s Creek”, James Van Der Beek’s title character and teen drama series creator, Kevin Williamson, for her burgeoning filmmaking career.

“It’s not the greatest show in the world, but I remember watching it. I saw Dawson, and he wanted to make movies. And I wanted to be Dawson. I wanted to make movies, too. So, I told my dad, ‘I going to go to NYU.’ And he was like, ‘No, you’re not,'” Hightower recalled. “So, I didn’t end up going there. But I ended up finding my way to film anyway, which I think is kind of kismet.”

Hightower, a queer filmmaker from Oklahoma, made his feature directorial debut with “Hailey’s game“, a supernatural LGBTQIA romance filmed entirely with Oklahoma City locations, cast and crew. Based on her web series of the same name, she made the independent film on a micro-budget of $20,000 over nine days with a crew of just nine people.

What is the OKC indie movie “Hailey’s Game” about?

“Hailey’s Game” follows Carter McDowell (Abby Bryan) as she searches for a way to overcome her grief over the death of her best friend, Hailey (Kayleigh Adams). With the help of Hailey’s ex-boyfriend Tanner (Christian Stroup), a crazy bookstore clerk named Billy (David Greyson), and some supernatural intervention from Hailey herself, Carter embarks on a journey of love, loss and healing.

The indie drama had its world premiere in June at OKC’s 24th annual deadCenter Film Festival, where it was named Best Pride Film.

And the LGBTQ ghost story earns another home-state award, for best narrative feature, from Tulsa’s Circle Cinema Film Festival. A celebration of new films made in Oklahoma by Oklahomans, the Tulsa fest is set for July 11-15 at non-profit cinema Circle Cinemawith “Hailey’s game” will be shown at 6:30 p.m. on July 14, followed by a post-screening Q&A with Hightower.

“I talked to my producing partner (Michael Johnson) about it, and we both agree that it’s so important to show at any Oklahoma festival that wants to accept us, just because we had so many Oklahoma hands that created this piece,” Hightower told The Oklahoman. “We want to honor our hometown festivals. We want to bring the film to places that maybe wouldn’t necessarily see it.”

During the deadCenter Film Festival, Hightower spoke with The Oklahoman about “Hailey’s Game”:

Q: How did you decide this was the right time and the right story to make your feature directorial debut?

I started out as a novelist, and then I wrote this novel and I had some interest from other people who wanted to adapt it. And it turns out you shouldn’t trust everyone you talk to, because not everyone actually wants to make your movie. They just want to film it on an iPhone, which is fine; I learned that lesson, and it was hard. But then I sit there and think: ‘Well, I’m a writer; I can learn to write a screenplay. There is nothing I cannot do; with the internet it’s amazing what we can learn to do.’ So I ended up learning how to write a screenplay, and then we wrote a prequel web series to my novel with these characters. …

We did the first web series and we crowdfunded the second one. We haven’t actually released the second season yet. But we shot both of those things and then we were done. But we had done so much production in such a short amount of time, and we were totally addicted to the dopamine hit of being on set and telling stories through a visual medium. So I thought, “Let’s do it again.” … Through that, I realized that I could tell stories in the medium that I always wanted to tell them.

I feel that being a novelist was the next best thing to me. … This feels like something I was meant to do, and on any scale. I think I understand how to scale projects, and I’m happy to just do something in my backyard. I don’t need to make a big movie as long as I do something and somebody else says, “Hey, that was cool.”

Q: What was your goal for the feature film “Hailey’s Game?”

The only thing I wanted out of telling this story is to explore grief. It is a universal feeling. … At one point or another we will all lose someone. For me, last year I lost my grandmother, and we were very close. I worked through my own grief and thought, “How would it feel to have only two days to sit and talk?”

And it became that exploration through the characters – through Carter’s eyes and through Tanner’s eyes – thinking, “These two lost this person, and now they have her back for a limited time. But still, how monumental would it be to have a chance to just sit with someone you miss so much? And how would that affect the grieving process? Would that help?’

Q: Can you talk about creating your own mythology for the supernatural story?

I didn’t want to have to explain too much. … We wanted a rule system, but we wanted it to feel more like you could explore that rule system. You can make your own assumptions about the rules.

So, our only rule was that if you want to survive, you have to sacrifice. … I really enjoyed creating and world-building that, because it felt really liberating to not have the typical Hollywood archetype of the supernatural.

We have this part of pulling people to the other side, and then we have this part of “we can’t just make life unbalanced.” So those two things together create this world where we can suspend our disbelief.

Q: What approach did you take to tell an LGBTQ love story?

When I was growing up in the Stone Age in 2002, 2003 … there was no (LGBTQ) content that wasn’t violent, that wasn’t depressing. I remember reading books about LGBTQ characters, and they would die or they would be alone forever. And it was so grim and so bleak, and I remember thinking “(Expletive), I’m going to be miserable forever.” In small town Texas, I grew up in a super religious household that wasn’t okay with me being gay. And all I’ve wanted to do in my adult life is look at kids who grew up like me and say … ‘You’re going to be good, and you’re going to be happy.’ …

Of course it’s a bit tragic, but it never questions the fact that they’re both women. … I want queer characters to be represented on screen just alive, just eating Taco Bell on a Thursday night and being happy and having their struggles internal and not about their queerness.

It’s hard to be queer. Yes it is. I agree with. I don’t think we always need to see it on screen. I think sometimes it’s important to represent that. … But that’s not the kind of story I want to tell.

Q: What were the challenges of making a film on a micro budget and within a very limited time frame?

It really was moviemaking in the pants. When we first wrote the script, we knew we would have a 10-day shoot. So we planned for weekends, since my producing partner and I both worked full time, Monday through Friday.

Then, our second weekend, our camera crew got covid, and we had to shut down. So we lost a weekend. And in the midst of all this, we thought, “How the hell are we going to make up for these 24 hours of filming?” … So, we filmed every night for a week and shot different scenes.

We pulled together our stars and all their scenes … and we got a special kind of magic that week. We all became this huge family during that week, so we call it “summer camp week,” because that’s what it felt like. …

At the time, it was probably our scariest obstacle. But something really beautiful came out of having to overcome that obstacle.

Q: How has that experience changed how you plan to make future films?

It’s really nice to meet people who are so creatively collaborative and make you better. I talk about them all the time and how they challenged me and how they asked me to be a better filmmaker and a better writer and asked me to think about things that I never would have thought about before. Their views have made the film beautiful. And I think I will always approach filmmaking this way now.

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