Writer and director Brett Haley creates a hit film with 'I'll See You In My Dreams'

Brett Haley’s ('05) first feature-length film was terrible. He’s the first to admit it. With no budget and just childhood friends as the actors it didn’t stand a chance. But what can you really expect from a 16-year old?

The graduate of UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking has come a long way since his after-school backyard adventures. His film “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott and Rhea Perlman, just premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and opened theatrically in May. 

Haley got his filmmaking start at an early age. He picked up his first VHS video camera at the age of 9, and has been making films ever since.

“From a young age,” he said, “I was a storyteller. I just knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Haley was born in Illinois, but moved to Key West, Fla., when he was just a couple years old. His childhood was split between there and Pensacola, Fla., where the family moved when he was about 10. 

His older brother, Joshua Ferris, now a famous novelist, was very influential on Haley in those early days.

“He was a big influencer of taste,” Haley said, “showing me movies I probably shouldn’t have been seeing, like ‘True Romance,’ De Niro and Micky Rourke films.”

Haley grew up on the ‘80s and ‘90s action flicks like “Alien,” “Terminator” and “Die Hard.” But his interests didn’t stop there.

“When I was young I was really into girls, young love – I was very passionate,” he said. This romanticism was, and still is, reflected in his movies. But he didn’t shy away from other genres, making everything from dramas to gangster and horror movies.

When it came time for college, Haley knew the classic college experience was not what he wanted. He started looking into UNCSA, and was drawn to the conservatory approach where he would be surrounded by artists in a small, intimate atmosphere.

“It really is a safe haven for artists,” he said, adding that for him it was a “constant place of inspiration with pure filmmaking, all the time.” 

He entered the School of Filmmaking in 2001, and became very vocal about his desire to be a part of the Directing concentration. He did eventually earn that coveted spot, and took full advantage of the opportunity.

He recalls Renata Jackson’s analytical film history course, and how she pushed her students to see film in a new light by “thinking” about the film, rather than just enjoying it. Two films that she screened were life-changing for him – “Children of Paradise” and “Day for Night.”

The reflective approach of “Day for Night” perfectly captured for Haley what it means to be a filmmaker. “As a filmmaker, there’s something very magical and special about the process,” he explained, “but one day it’s all over, and it’s really bizarre.”

Of his time at UNCSA, Haley said, "it was a really great learning opportunity because it was very intense in a good way. The pressure mimicked what I go through every day now." 

Much of that pressure was a bit self-inflicted. Every summer he pushed himself to make a feature-length film, using friends at the school to make up his crew. He even decided to make a film during the week leading up to graduation.

“I have a way of galvanizing people and getting people together,” he said. “I think my professors’ biggest concern was probably my ego. I had a healthy bit of an ego, but the real world takes care of that.”

Haley entered the real world after graduating in 2005. Like many aspiring filmmakers, Haley ventured to Los Angeles and worked as a production assistant. Knowing that it wasn’t the right path for him, he packed up and headed back East to Brooklyn, N.Y., that October.

While waiting tables to make a living, he got a job for about a year as an assistant on “Reservation Road.” The film’s screenwriter, John Burnham Schwartz, became a sort of mentor for Haley, and he ended up assisting him for a few years after the completion of the filming. 

Through the years, he’s learned to love every aspect of filmmaking, “all out of necessity and passion,” he explained. Initially, all he wanted to do was direct, but found himself asking, “Well, what am I going to direct?”

He realized that in order to start directing films, he needed to write his own. He also realized that he would have to play the role of the editor when the budget wouldn’t allow for one.

Luckily his time at UNCSA had prepared him to take on these multiple roles. “I learned a lot about what it means to be a collaborator at UNCSA,” Haley said. “You learn quickly that film is very collaborative."

While he enjoys writing, he admits that it’s the hardest part of the process. His true passion is directing. “Directing is so much fun. When you get a scene right, it just feels great,” he enthused.

Haley eventually wrote and directed his first film, “The New Year,” with only $5,000 and a ragtag crew of UNCSA alumni and friends back home in Pensacola. It premiered in 2010 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, surprising Haley with how well it was received.

Next up for Haley was directing and writing his recent hit, along with Marc Basch, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

After premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival it was quickly picked up by the film distribution company Bleecker Street, making its theatrical debut in May and enjoying a successful run just shy of six months.

“I had no real expectations, but of course I wanted it do well,” Haley said. “We’re all very blown away that it’s resonated so well, but I think because it’s about real people, people resonate with that.” 

Producing the film was Rebecca Green, also a UNCSA alum. Haley met her through an alumni-networking situation, a resource of talent that has been benefitting him through the years. 

Even from his early days at UNCSA, Haley felt like there was always a group of artists ready and willing to serve as a film crew, acting, directing, editing, whatever was required, all seeking their first big break like he was.

Not only did the networking and sense of camaraderie benefit Haley professionally, but he met his future wife, Linda Lee McBride, while at UNCSA. While he always had a “mad crush on her,” the two never dated but kept in touch. She became one of the actresses in his first film “The New Year,” and they married about five years later.

The connections made at UNCSA have been invaluable to Haley, helping his dreams of directing his own films a reality.

"I was pushed and motivated by the people around me. There's a kind of mentality that attracts such great people,” he said of those fellow students at UNCSA. “There's just something about it that I can't quite explain."

While his movies have evolved and certainly improved since his VHS days, one aspect of his filmmaking remains constant –his appreciation for the help offered by those around him and the self-awareness that he can’t do it alone.