The True Maverick
Being an outsider allows him to get inside, inside what is essential.
First Published by REED MAGAZINE 2018 By KMart
When Halfdan (hallf-dun) Hussey was attending NYU he drove around in the unbound chaos of New York City in his Taxi cab, picking up microcosms of the world and transporting them to various places, some places others would not go; well, he would and went to those places. “As a cab driver I would go anywhere. A lot of cab drivers won't take you in certain neighborhoods but I’d say, ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do it.’ You could call it an inclusive cab driver or a stupid cab driver, whichever you prefer. Sometimes I got shot at but I never got hit. Um, (he laughs a quiet steady laugh) it was a good experience for me.” This willingness to go where others aren’t willing to go, a person who risks a lot and takes chances continuously is what makes a great innovator. San Jose is fortunate to have such an innovator, writer, film director and producer, Halfdan Hussey.
Halfdan grew up in the same town where Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage, and Diane di Prima founded the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. He grew up in the same town where when exiled from his native Tibet in 1959, Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche made is home, and started Naropa University who, “according to legend embarked on spiritual journey to find the meaning behind the texts he studied.” Halfdan grew up in the small town of Boulder, Colorado, population one thousand at the time and, he proclaims probably still is. However, Halfdan says the town has “always been a place with forward thinking, a place where east meets west, a place expanding the horizon of thought and spiritual thinking, conscious thinking, and a place of poetry and writing but yet, it’s a small town, y’know.” I would say Boulder sounds a lot like San Jose.
With the history of all the creative writing fervor in Boulder, Halfdan was studying math as a kid. He studied math because he was good at math. He had been told repeatedly that he was not good at English. Of course a parent of a family that comes from the lower economic bracket would encourage their child to go into something practical like math and engineering, “ It was our way out of our economic situation. My family didn’t have much money. I guess we were borderline poverty.” Halfdan had made his mother happy. He pursued engineering at the University of Colorado; But, half way in the school year, Halfdan said he caused his mother to faint on the kitchen floor when he announced he was changing his focus to English.
“My dad, who is one of the first runners in Boulder, would get arrested.” Halfdan’s father has a rheumatic heart. All through his father’s childhood his father was told he couldn’t be athletic and had to stay in bed because of his heart condition. When his father got older, and right before the fad of getting physical by running and biking started to happen in Boulder, his father began to read about running. “ He said, ‘I’m going to try this. I’d rather die. Maybe it will build up my heart.’ And he did. And he would be running around Boulder in these old shoes that weren’t meant for running. He would be running in the evenings and they (the cops) would arrest him. They would drag him to the local jail because they thought he was running AWAY from something.” The cops would interrogate, “What are you running from? You must be stealing?” These jail trips had never stopped Halfdan’s father from running. Halfdan smiles, “My father was that kinda maverick guy.” Do we start to see the similarities of father to son?
Because Halfdan’s father was clinically depressed, surviving his own hostile family situation with one parent being violent and both parents being alcoholics (Halfdan’s paternal grandparents), his father as a child would hide in books, writing and art. His father became an avid reader and shared his love of stories and art with Halfdan. At first Halfdan had no interest because his focus was math but in high school he found himself starting to read for the first time. His father’s influence broke through. Halfdan remembers, “ It (reading) turned me on. And then my mind started to light up, and my heart, with all these stories about people that were like me, sharing the feelings I had.” So it was no surprise for his dad when Halfdan left engineering for the English Department, “My father said I would be fine. He probably had felt he had given me too much influence by showing me too much art!” His father told his mother, “He’ll (Halfdan) figure it out. Let him go down the path of the artist.” Halfdan continues, “So that’s how I got into the world of writing. I fell in love with it!”
Not only did Halfdan alter his course in life toward his new found love but he dove full on into writing and studying literature with such devotion that he received the highest honors in
Halfdan Hussey his graduating class. At age twenty two he earned Summa Cum Laude in Literature. Halfdan leans back as he sternly delivers, “So many times in life when there is something right for you there will always be someone who will tell you you’re no good at it. When I left math it was early on for me so it was easy but I was always told that I was no good at English. I majored in it and I worked really hard at getting good at English. When I graduated from my university I got the highest honors in English, a subject I was no good at? So I’ve always been a believer if you’re really passionate in your heart about something it’s probably what you really are good at even if somebody tells you the opposite.” The next stop from the University of Colorado would be New York University, where Halfdan would begin studying film.
To be a professional film projectionist from its post-classical period to the final film period, years spanning from 1953 to present, you would have to have dealt with various technical situations. Before celluloid film, the handling of nitrate film a projectionist had to be cautious of starting fires. The reels had to be changed out after 20 minutes of film play. During the celluloid film time, post-classical period, projectionist used xenon arc lamps and long-play devices. Even with all these advances the projectionist still had to deal with carbon arc lamps and nitrate film, especially if you worked at an art-film house or small independent cinema. Being a projectionist was a much more active and dangerous position years ago. Halfdan’s father was one of these small independent cinema projectionists and would bring Halfdan up into the booth to watch the magic unreel. This was part of Halfdan’s childhood and set memorable bonding time with his father. Think of the award winning independent Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore, Cinema Paradiso. Only think not of the Mediterranean terrain of hot Italy but the cold, snowy landscape of the Rocky Mountains. Halfdan, a curious boy reflecting the enchanting, floating film images like ghostly snowflakes falling into his wide blue eyes.
Halfdan had movies on his mind when he applied for New York University. Accumulating characters through all his service jobs in New York, cab driving to bartender to bouncer to wait person to scanner for medical company, “These things, all these things, they all add up. You meeting people, getting to see different lifestyles, accessing them. My work ended up giving me access to different kinds of lives.” Although Halfdan was literally character building with all of his experiences supporting himself at NYU he realized he was racking up a lot of dept, “I was racking up horrific y’know amounts of debt doing his. I’d rather rack up that amount and make a film. They (NYU) were teaching me by ‘learning by doing’ so that’s what I did.” Halfdan wrote his script after school late nights cab driving. Halfdan left NYU and he took his script back home. He collaborated with an old engineer friend to find funding for his script to be made into a film, it would be Halfdan’s first full feature film. Here is part of the story that we should all take note of, “ I made a film I wanted to make. Everyone on the film hated the way I directed the film because I picked a style that was not contemporary, a fad style. … The film is about stasis and how this individual doesn’t change. It was shot with a lot of long shots and composed images in black and white. That style was not popular with the people I was making the film with but it fit the content of the movie.” Halfdan had a maverick vision that led to the opportunity of having his first ever film, It’s Still There, to be played at the Venice Film Festival. It was rare opportunity because they didn’t showcase independent cinema at that time but his was exceptional. The warm welcome and hospitality from the film festival inspired what fortunately San Jose has now, Cinequest Film Festival. Halfdan co-founded this festival in 1990 with an audience of about 3,000. Now Cinequest has over 100,000 audience with being labeled the best Film Festival by USA Today. The films come from all over the world, I like to say it is like traveling around the world in two weeks while in your seat. Or, perhaps it is like being a cab driver, the fly in the yellow car, driving through the multi-faceted minds and streets of New York city. Not surprisingly the most honored award at the festival is the Maverick Spirit Award which has been presented in person by many outstanding achievers in the film industry such as Werner Herzog, John Waters, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wes Craven, Ian McKellen, James Wood, J.J. Abrams, Harrison Ford, Neil Gaiman, Rita Moreno, Salman Rushdie, and James Franco; I could go on! This award is given to influential people who embody the independent and innovative mindset.
In the first chapter in Halfdan’s book, To The Dogs, Halfdan grabs the reader and forces them to witness the gruesome mauling of Jack’s brother Bill, as Bill is dragged under uncontrollable mechanical mandibles of a farm tractor, clutching Bill’s arms with its long toothed blades, severing to leave him in a bloody array. This visceral story telling is read like a film being seen. Halfdan has adapted this book to a screenplay, letting it brew, he has moved on to writing another novel, Whirlwind of Whores, which he says is more biographical and leans heavily on characters in his family, personal and work life. It’s a satire on people’s hunger for gold. Halfdan says that his family was like that of the “Great Gatsby types gone bad.” His grandparents were European decedents with wealth that was lost who had lives that were littered with drug and alcohol addiction and severe abuse. One can imagine if you survive such drama what better use for it than to put it in your novels. In fact some of Halfdan’s favorite writers are very dramatic; William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Raymond Chandler, Milan Kundera and John Steinbeck. Halfdan’s next writing project is a screenplay called, About Face, “It’s a story about friendship between a young Chinese boy and a young Italian boy, in the Five Points of New York, that develops through their very different worlds that collide as kids and then in WWII.”
Halfdan goes back and forth in writing from different genres, “I think screenwriting can be done in teams or with a principal partner. I think that makes it more fun and lessens the responsibility of novel writing. The problem with scripts is they are essentially blueprints and rely upon so many people and factors and money to come into reality. A novel is real upon it’s writing and somebody reading it. I like that part (of novel writing) way better.”