Commentary: 'Hottie' could heat up with 'Napoleon' fans

Teen comedy premiering at L.A. Film Festival

"Hottie" history:  We're told not to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to movies we certainly make decisions about seeing them based on their titles.

If a title grabs us, the chances are we'll want to find out more about a film and that typically means we're more likely to see it. As titles go, one of the most intriguing I've run into in quite some time is the coming of age comedy "HottieBoombaLottie" from first-time filmmaker Seth Packard. "Hottie" will have its world premiere Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival with additional screenings June 24 and 25. Distributors, who are getting their first look at "Hottie" at the festival, will see it's a film that could resonate with audiences that enjoyed "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Juno."

"Hottie" is written and directed by Packard and was produced by Ben Lakey and Packard. Packard also plays the film's lead role, Ethan, a Utah teenage underdog in love with high school hottie Madison (Shay Williamson), who's stolen away by Ethan's really cool older brother Clay (Matthew Webb). Ethan's misbehavior while trying to get Madison back prompts his overbearing mom to ship him off to California to stay with his cousins Asher (Trace Williams ) and Cleo (Lauren McKnight). And that, as you might expect, ultimately leads to him find the real girl of his dreams.

Having enjoyed my early preview of "Hottie," I was glad to be able to ask Seth Packard recently how he managed to bring it to the screen and, in particular, where the film's unusual title came from.

"HottieBoombaLottie was a word that the cheerleaders in (my Utah) high school used for the hot guys," he explained. "They used it all the time and I remembered not being the hot guy and always wishing they'd use it for me. They never really did so it always stuck with me. Everyone wants to be a HottieBoomaLottie, but it takes some work to become one. I made the film with my best friend from high school (Lakey). It's based on all the stupid things that we did. Most of the stories in it actually happened to me or one of my friends."

Packard said he turned to writing and directing not really because he was driven to make films, but because "I wanted to have a vehicle to move my acting career forward. I've done a lot of stuff in Utah, but I haven't always been satisfied with the scripts and I strongly believe that the script is the most important part. So what got me writing was the determination to write something that I thought would be good and would be able to move my acting career forward."

"Hottie" isn't just his first feature, it's his very first film of any kind: "The only thing I ever did -- and it wasn't very much -- is I wanted to make sure I would be able to act in something and direct it, as well. I wasn't sure if that was going to be possible so I went to a local high school that I know is huge in the performing arts and way bigger than my high school ever was. I went to that school and talked to their teacher and told her I was about to produce and direct and be in a film this summer and I was wondering if I could use some of her kids and practice with a camera doing a few scenes. So besides a little bit of that stuff, I haven't done any other directing. Funny enough, the girl (Lauren McKnight) who plays Cleo, the lead girl in the film, (is someone) I actually met at the high school doing that."

At the time, McKnight was a senior and about to graduate: "I actually didn't get to work with her (on the practice scenes). The teacher let me sit in on a class when they were all doing basic acting exercises and she said, 'You can choose the kids you want to work with.' Right away I saw her and I said, 'She's incredible. She totally looks like she is a film actor.' And the teacher said, 'Well, she is, but she hardly ever comes to class.' I said, 'Why's that?' And she said, 'Well, because she's working a lot in films and stuff' and I said, 'Oh, boy, can I work with her?' But then she got dropped from the class so I wasn't able to work with her. (Later on) she showed up in the casting session room and I totally remembered her and she nailed it."

Asked how a young filmmaker with no previous experience gets to make his first movie, Packard observed, "There's a lot of hard work. There's no way I could have done it without the people I had helping me. On this first one I pretty much used up all my favors for the next 25 years of my life from everybody that I know. I have a great support group around me like my family and my friends. I think the first step to making any film is obviously finding a script that you love. I wrote it and  thought, 'This is something I actually like. This is pretty good.'

"My best friend Ben Lakey was in Afghanistan (at that time) in the military. I was talking to him on the phone and (told him) I was really excited and wanted to make this film and he said, 'Man, if there's something I can do to help, I'd love to help.' So I took him up on that. I guess what you have to do to make your film is come up with a good script and then get all the help you can in piecing the rest of it together."

Packard began writing "Hottie" in college about four years ago. "I spent a couple of years writing it," he said, "until it was something that I liked and then once I had that script the real pre-production started about a year ago. I hadn't written (any films before that). I wrote one script called 'Night Games' because me and my friends all played night games where you go the local church and stay up late playing Steal the Flagman. I wrote that before I wrote this script and I looked at it and I just chalked it up as a learning experience. It wasn't my favorite and I thought, 'I can do a lot better than this.'

"So I spent a lot of time reading scripts and watching my favorite films trying to understand what makes them work. I tried to spend three or four hours a day reading and watching stuff and trying to really understand and then I set out to write my next one. So this is the first thing I've ever done that's ever left my computer."

How did Packard make "Hottie" happen? "Well, I came out of BYU," he replied. "My Dad's a professor there. He has a PhD in film and philosophy and he has a lot of connections. So probably the first thing I did was go and talk to him and say, 'What do you think I should do?' He helped me a lot. Another reason why I was really fortunate is that I've acted with most all the crew members in Utah. So after Ben signed on to help me we just made a list of all the keys that we needed to get.

"The first person that we found was Travis Cline, our cinematographer. He liked the script and I loved his work (like the 2003 college set romantic comedy version of 'Pride and Prejudice'). And then we found the other (department heads like) our hair and makeup person Greg Moon and my first AD (and line producer) Eric Johnston. We just called them up and they all knew me (from having worked together on past projects). I said, 'I'm making a film and do you want to join up?' As soon as we had our keys I said, 'Choose the people you want to work with' and the crew kind of filled out. Ben took over most of the financial side. He took over the technical side and made sure we got the right technical equipment that the people needed."

That division of labor enabled Packard to focus on the creative side. "I spent four months storyboarding the film while he was doing a lot of (the technical) stuff," he noted. "I wanted to have the shoot go as smoothly as possible. We shot it in 18 days. I came up to the crew with my three or four inch stack of storyboards with three pictures per page and some of the people were saying, 'They never use these' and I said, 'Seriously, we're going to use these. We're going to shoot every storyboard we have.' That's how I started. We ended up needing to cut some of the shots that I wanted because of time, but we got most of what we wanted. But it helped so much. I don't know how people do it without storyboarding."

What Packard wanted to do during shooting was "spend my time working with actors. I knew I was wearing so many hats that during shooting I just wanted to be able to focus with acting. The only way I was able to do that was with storyboards. I gave Travis Cline the storyboards and said, 'This is what I'm thinking. Feel free to move things around if you feel like it's going to make it better, but I'm not going to have time during the shoot to really be working on this kind of stuff.'"  

As things turned out, directing and acting was a winning combination for Packard. "I had my father on set the whole time and he took care of the monitors to record everything," he explained. "I had the incredible opportunity to perform the scene with the actors and perform the very best I could knowing that it would help their performances come through. So I kind of got to direct in that sense inside of the scenes and then after the scene we'd all run back to watch the monitors to see how we did.

"For me as an actor, I can in my peripheral awareness know when the scene is going really well, but I have to stay peripheral. If I start focusing on it, it pulls me out of the scene. I just knew that if I could stay focused on my character and really perform well it would give them something good to play off of."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel