Poster for Country of Hotels, with a black-and-orange graphic backdrop. Center is a large keyhole, with an older white man's face peering in. Another man in a white shirt is seen standing in front of the keyhole, his back to us.
Poster for Country of Hotels, screening this Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers. Credit: Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

Writer and artist David Hauptschein has been working in Chicago since the 80s, curating live performances, writing plays, and working in visual arts, but his work has been produced more often—and to more notice—outside of the U.S. This is thanks, in large part, to Hauptschein’s collaboration with UK-based director Julio Maria Martino.

Martino first ran across Hauptschein’s work when Martino was 20. “I was a student at Manchester University,” Martino recalls. “I was watching plays at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And a friend bought me a ticket to see a production of a play called Trance [an early play by Hauptschein]. I knew nothing about the play going in. We were just trying to see as many plays as possible.”

Trance,” Hauptschein explains, “is like an alternate version of the Manson murders. You have an ordinary family situation and one of the characters has this unexplained pain in her hands, and she’s kind of crippled from it, and they bring in a psychiatrist to evaluate her, and she begins to have visions. And some of these visions seem to start to come true.”

When Trance was produced in an off-off-Loop production at Live Bait Theater in Chicago in the mid-90s, it received a lukewarm review in the Chicago Tribune (“not for the faint of heart or full of stomach”). It was better received in the Chicago Reader. Justin Hayford gave the show, and Dan Sauer’s production, a mostly positive review; Hayford had problems with the play’s ending.  The play had a respectable run, and later moved to late night at A Red Orchid Theatre. But Hauptschein was not as appreciated in his hometown as he would be in Edinburgh, where Trance was a smash success. 

“At first I thought I was watching sort of like a slightly off-kilter comic play,” Martino continues. “Maybe, you know, a sitcom gone slightly wonky. I couldn’t understand why people were laughing. Then at about the halfway point, the play kind of flips into a much more obviously nightmarish world, and I found the whole thing very unsettling.”

When he says this, you can tell he means unsettling in a good way. “I felt like I was watching, the way when you, as a younger person, maybe find yourself watching a horror film—and you want to get out of the room. It was one of those experiences where I thought I was in dangerous hands.”

Still from Country of Hotels Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

Trance ended up winning the Fringe First Award that year, and Martino was hooked on Hauptschein’s work. “I sort of expected to hear more about this play—and about the writer. But I didn’t.”

After Martino graduated, he decided he wanted to direct a production of Trance and sought out Hauptschein online. “This was the very early days of searching online,” Martino explains. “I mean, it’s 1999, 2000.” An online connection led him to Chicago actor Sharon Gopfert (who had appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe version of Trance).

“She put me in touch with David,” Martino continues, “and we began to correspond. He sent me a copy [of Trance]. I read it and I thought, yeah, what unsettled me was actually in the script. It was woven in, in a very intentional way.”

Hauptschein continues the story: “Meeting Julio was a life-changing experience for both of us. We are so simpatico. It’s perhaps second only to my marriage, you know, in terms of importance in my life.” Martino did a small production of Trance in London—“a little off the beaten path, but still in a pub theater.” Hauptschein went to London to see the production. While there, Hauptschein told Martino, “I have a lot of other plays I’ve been writing.”

Country of Hotels
Sat 6/18, 7 PM; Chicago Filmmakers, 1326 W. Hollywood, 773-293-1447, chicagofilmmakers.org, $10.

In all, Martino has directed nine of Hauptschein’s plays so far, most of them in the UK. (Though he did direct one here, When the Walls Have Ears, at the now long-gone Mary-Arrchie Theatre.)

Martino and Hauptschein were informally brainstorming about what to do next when the idea of doing a movie together came up.

“I think I began as a young person wanting to make films,” Martino admits, “but was sort of too scared to do anything about it. My father, one of the many, many things he did for a living was he ran a video rental shop, back in the days of VHS. All I would do is watch films, and I really wanted to get into filmmaking, but I was really kind of outside any sort of world where you might pick up a camera and start filming things. As I approached 40, I began thinking, you know, I have got to try and make a film somehow.”

That’s when Hauptschein and Martino started casually discussing film ideas.

“One day,” Hauptschein tells me, “we were just kicking around this idea. And the idea was really simple. It was: a guy wakes up. He’s been on a bender. He’s drunk. He’s had a blackout, and he wakes up in a hotel room on a bed. He doesn’t know how he got there and there’s a woman’s belongings all around the room, but he’s alone. What happens then?”

Initially the plan was for Hauptschein to write a short script. But as Hauptschein puts it, “I don’t like to do things small.” After writing the short script, Hauptschein said to Martino, “Why do you want to do a short movie when we can do a feature?” Martino agreed to give it a go.

“Dave and I decided we wanted to make a feature that we could take to festivals, we could showcase. Places where the work would live on after the initial work has been done.”

Martino brought in a friend of his from Italy, Stefano Slocovich, to be his right-hand man as the director of photography.

The result was Country of Hotels.

Hauptschein and Martino did most of their early work over the phone. Hauptschein would write and Martino and Hauptschein would review what had been written, and prepare for more writing. Martino did come to Chicago for a week where, Hauptschein recalls, they spent the full week “going through the script with a fine-tooth comb.”

Martino and Hauptschein were painfully aware of the differences between a play and a movie. “You have to acknowledge that [cinema and theater] use fundamentally different building blocks,” Martino explains. “With cinema, the obvious thing is you’re telling the story through images. Plus, this is largely going to take place within one room or a series of, you know, one room and a corridor, and a few other locations. But yeah, 80 percent of the story would be in one room.”

At the same time, Martino put together a low-budget production company in Great Britain and prepared for a quick, three-week shoot.

“We filmed it in England entirely 100 percent on a constructed set,” Hauptschein tells me. “We were going to do it in the studio, but they pulled the rug out from under us at the last minute, saying it wasn’t going to be available. So at the last minute we found a warehouse [in Basildon] in Essex, which was like a 40-minute train trip outside of London. It was a warehouse where they were storing, like, Nike shoes. And the people who were running the warehouse were really cooperative. They said, ‘You can use this whole second floor and you blow a horn, anytime you’re ready to film, and we will stop all work.’”

Martino and Hauptschein needed a space where they had total control over everything. They were very aware of the limitations of shooting a movie set in confined quarters.

Martino cites an earlier film set in one room to illustrate the difficulties. “If you’ve ever seen the film of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with Donald Pleasence,” Martino elaborates, “it’s obvious the camera is sitting up against the wall, right? So the distance of the lens to someone’s face is—you’ve only got so much space, and after a while the audience unconsciously realizes that this is a very limited location and the number of shots available to the filmmaker is very, very limited.”

To avoid this, Martino created a set where the walls could be moved or removed, and where they could even film scenes from above.

The movie was shot on what Hauptschein calls a micro-budget, with a very tight shooting schedule. Minor problems can eat up lots of precious time. And sometimes crucial equipment is not available. Martino recalls a time when he discovered he only had the use of a zoom lens for the movie camera “from midday to 4 PM,” when it had to be taken back to the shop it was rented from.

“What we realized,” Hauptschein explains, “was that we were on an incredibly tight schedule, there was no wiggle room. And so if we had to reshoot scenes because an actor was having trouble with lines or because something went wrong technically, we fell behind schedule.”

Still from Country of Hotels Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

Still, the filming part of the movie was completed on schedule in 2014. They then spent the next four years on post-production.

“I thought, ‘Well, it’ll take a year to edit,’” Martino laughs. ” I think a year later, we’d only just started editing it because it took that long to find the right person, and then we had to wait for that person to become available.”

“You know, we didn’t have the kind of money to hire some big gun to come in,” Hauptschein elaborates. “And so a lot of it was some young guy who knew what he was doing for the most part but could only work on Saturday, you know.”

There were other various delays. Hauptschein believes there was a jinx on the movie. “Things happened,” Hauptschein says. “There were several deaths, people peripherally connected to the movie. Not the main people, but people that were related to people working on the movie. The cinematographer was in a bad motorcycle accident.”

Slowly but surely, things got done. And then, just when they finished the movie and were sending the movie out to festivals, the world shut down for COVID-19. Suddenly, all movie festivals were online, which both Martino and Hauptschein admit were not as exciting to attend as in-person festivals. But Martino also noted that the theme of the movie—people confined in a room—seemed to fit the feel of the lockdown. 

Now that the world is opening up again, Country of Hotels is being screened at in-person festivals.

I mention to Martino that his adventures making Country of Hotels remind me of something I had read about the difference between big-budget Hollywood movies and independent film. Big-budget Hollywood movies are built like appliances on modern, efficient, industrial assembly lines. Low-budget films are like medieval cathedrals, which took decades to build because artisans only worked part of the year on the cathedral—the rest of the time they had to tend to their crops to stay alive. But that’s OK, because you have lots and lots of time to finish the building. It doesn’t have to be done in a year.

Martino laughs ruefully. “Yeah. You’ve had plenty of time and you’re building some of your cathedral with really good stone. But also bits of Scotch tape. And then you’ve got bits of color board that you’ve cut out with scissors to make it look like stone. Yeah. I mean, it’s maddening.”