Josh Hartnett has tried to make a life in new places, most recently Los Angeles, but always found a reason to come back to Missouri. The Kansas City native knew right away that Columbia would be the best place to shoot his first film, “Ron Is an Island,” about a rudderless college boy.
“I’ve always been a Midwest boy,” he said.
He made the long trip from California, with a pit stop in Kansas City to see his parents, to do casting calls and begin filming.
Hartnett, 24, realized his home was truly in Missouri during his freshman year at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After one semester, he decided to come back.
“I guess it was mainly homesickness,” Hartnett said. “I didn’t care for Drake, and I was really unhappy there and didn’t want to adjust.”
He transferred to MU and began classes for his second semester.
Hartnett — who acknowledges with good humor that he shares his name with a popular actor — said “Ron Is an Island” began three years ago as a play for a writing class. The inspiration was rooted in a major historical event. The tragedy of Sept. 11 struck Hartnett with such force that he decided to make it pivotal to the story line.
“It was a defining moment for our generation,” he said. “Three weeks into my freshman year, I’m in this new environment and (Sept. 11) happens, and I couldn’t even put into words how I felt. That feeling has always stayed with me.”
Combining his feelings about 9/11 and his experiences with starting a new life gave him a push he needed for the writing assignment. Throughout college, Hartnett was a committed writer, working hard toward his degree in creative writing by taking mostly theater classes, where he worked on improving character development.
“I’ve always had a passion for writing and film and TV,” Hartnett said. “I was always good with dialogue. Every line is important in making the story move forward.”
After graduating with a degree in English in 2005, Hartnett made the decision to move again, this time to Los Angeles. Before the move, he changed the format of his play to film, which he thought better suited the work.
“I switched ‘Ron Is an Island’ from play to film because with a play, you have fewer scenes,” Hartnett explained. “I can add more to characters and add more scene changes. I can give the story a different landscape through film.”
With screenplay in hand, he didn’t realize until later how hard it would be to pitch his movies. He kept body and soul together by working at the local Blockbuster in south Pasadena, but his story was always in the back of his mind.
In February, he spoke with his friend Dave Wells, and they collaborated to make Hartnett’s script a real piece of art.
“I went to Dave, and we asked ourselves, ‘What if we got some money together and we did this?’” Hartnett said. “Dave is now directing the film.”
For the next couple of months, Hartnett kept busy making phone calls, looking for potential production crew members and actors and “making sure that every angle is covered.”
His new life in Los Angeles, however, wasn’t everything he thought it would be. Hartnett recalls all the hard work he did, but never feeling like the move was right for him. The few months he stayed in Los Angeles brought little more than feelings of displacement and loss.
“The move to L.A. was different because basically I gave up everything in my life to start my career there: my job, my girlfriend,” Hartnett said. “I mean, it goes with the territory, but I really didn’t enjoy myself there.”
These feelings led to his decision to move back to the Midwest. In April, Hartnett packed up his bags once more and traveled to Columbia to begin shooting “Ron Is an Island.”
Hartnett and his assistant director, Lauren Caldwell, worked on designing and handing out fliers for casting calls and those interested in working on the production crew. The response was overwhelmingly positive, he said.
“A lot of people were interested,” he said, “and I saw that these fliers were generating a buzz, which was cool.”
The aspiring filmmaker and writer found that Columbia had a treasure trove of qualities Los Angeles lacked, mainly the personalities of the people and the city. He realized while in Los Angeles that it was the people he missed the most.
“Los Angeles is a hot spot, but there’s a lot of competition,” he said. “Everyone shoots out there. Here, it’s easier to get people involved. I just like the people here better and the people’s laid-back personalities.”
“Ron Is an Island” follows the life of college student Ron Kelly, who goes through the motions of living, without any real care in the world. Having already gone through two colleges within a span of three years, his parents send him to his third college where they hope he will learn to stand on his own feet and take charge of his life.
But the move from New York to mid-Missouri doesn’t shake his apathetic tendencies. It isn’t until the tragedy of 9/11 takes the lives of his parents that his character begins to transform.
Ross Taylor, 22, is cast to play the part of Ron Kelly. A theater and English major himself, he is already familiar with the hard work that comes with acting and filming. Taylor said that even though the movie is still in its early stages, Hartnett’s professionalism and level-headedness is setting the film up well.
“Pre-production has gone pretty smoothly,” Taylor said. “He’s a very controlled and very, very smart person. Working with him is pretty easy, because he’s clear on what he wants.”
Hartnett began shooting June 18 and projects finishing in the beginning of July. His hope is that he can show it in Columbia and take it to film festivals.
“This is my first time producing and filming, so hopefully things go well,” he said. “I’m a writer first and foremost ... and I definitely want to continue to write after this.”