One day in 1936, the Peekskill Evening Star ran a cover with two obituaries for two men named Hamilton Fish: one, a New York statesman and the son of a former secretary of state, and the other, a cannibalistic serial killer who met his end by electric chair.
Discovering the newspaper’s cover led Rachel Mason ART ’04 to venture into the world of film, which resulted in a 2013 release titled “The Lives of Hamilton Fish.” Starring Bill Weeden ’62 and Theodore Bouloukos as the two Fishes, the film, which will be screened tonight at the Loria Center, traces the very different lives and deaths of both men. The film has earned a number of distinctions, including the award for “Best Picture” at the 2014 New England Underground Film Festival. Phil Hall, a film critic and the director of the festival, said the film’s unconventional score is a large part of what makes it stand out among other movies.
“The score is challenging; it’s not your typical Broadway score, or even typical movie-musical score,” Hall said. “You’re not going to come out of theater singing ‘Let It Go.’”
Characterized by many as a rock opera and a psychological thriller, the film features a musical score written and performed by Mason, with Weeden and Bouloukos lip-syncing over her songs. Tonight, Mason will perform her soundtrack live with the film reel running silently behind her.
A visual artist by trade, Mason said that though she has penned 12 albums and has been songwriting for the last 15 years, she has no formal training in music composition. Critics have equated her voice to the likes of Yoko Ono, Tori Amos and Janice Ian. Mason compared her own voice to that of Joni Mitchell, adding that she was inspired by male singers like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. She said that “The Lives of Hamilton Fish,” which she likened to a massive and complicated music video, drew from these influences.
Before the idea for making a film emerged, Mason said, the project was solely a collection of songs. She said she first presented the project as a gallery exhibition that consisted of a series of songs and a few video elements. Mason noted that she decided to turn her project into a feature-length film after the gallery showing.
Weeden, who wrote several musicals during his time at Yale, said his musical background allowed him to lip-sync effectively. But he noted that in portraying a sadistic serial killer on screen, he had to search for an emotional access point.
“Yes, it’s difficult to get yourself there, but if you can find anything to identify with, you start there and build,” Weeden said, adding that Mason crafted his character to be more sympathetic than his real-life counterpart.
Mason and Weeden highlighted the film’s long journey to public appreciation — filming took place nearly three years ago. Since then, Mason said she has had to take on an organizational role to which she was not accustomed in order to book screenings and festivals. She added that for the first year after its completion, the film was rejected by the vast majority of festivals to which she applied.
But after several of festivals and theaters began to book the film, Mason noted, it received nearly universal praise. She recalled being surprised by the amount of positive feedback from audience members, given the number of rejections the film initially faced.
“I keep expecting some of what film festival curators who rejected it — who say ‘too long, too confusing’ — to be coming from the audiences, too, but I’ve never once gotten it,” she said.
Mason, Hall and Weeden all said the film’s unconventional format is both what can make it brilliant as well as confusing or unappealing for viewers.
“So much in movie theaters is like a facsimile of other films,” Hall said. “I would suspect that other programmers are either too obtuse to recognize the greatness and originality of this, or their appreciation of films has become so dulled that they wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit them in the face.”
The film’s corresponding music album will be released for sale on March 6.