Though Cornell — and the students around him — may not have known at the time, Matt Hagerty ’17 spent much of senior year in Mann library directing and producing a film.
At the end of September, Amazon will release the short film “Anatomy of a Breakup,” written, acted, produced and directed by Hagerty — with some steps of the process completed in Ithaca.
Hagerty began writing the film while in Los Angeles for the Cornell in Hollywood program. Returning to campus after this year off-campus, Hagerty split his time completing both his degree and the film.
The film, which could also become the pilot of a television series, follows fictional college student and fraternity member AJ Fitzpatrick as he navigates a breakup with the guidance of his two close friends. While the film does not focus on the breakup itself, it narrates “that sort of in-between period where you’re left, if you’re lucky, with the friends who were there all along,” Hagerty told The Sun.
In choosing to focus on three brothers of a fraternity, Hagerty, who was not a member of a fraternity, said he was not intending to “glorify that culture.”
“Considering Greek life is a big part of college, and ripe with comedic and dramatic possibilities, of course I have to explore it, and walk the line between lampooning it and allowing the characters to be smart and three-dimensional,” he explained.
However, the plight of the protagonist, Hagerty admits, was influenced primarily from Hagerty’s own experience, but he said he “had no idea I was going to write until the day I wrote it.”
Hagerty explained that the entire film was an unexpected result of Hagerty’s Valentine Day pining.
“I started writing it in the first place for no particular purpose,” he said. “It was enough. I had spent a lot of the day on Facebook, refreshing obsessively over a girl.”
At one point during this fateful Valentine’s Day, as an attempt for resolution, Hagerty decided to delete his Facebook profile. In Los Angeles at the time and “so immersed in the industry,” Hagerty turned away from profile refreshing and began to write.
“I stayed up all night and wrote like 70 pages — drank a lot of Red Bull, and not only have I not gotten back on Facebook since, but that dialogue ended up being very well received and formed the basis, a lot of it sort of verbatim, for the first script,” he said.
From this all-nighter script, Hagerty admitted he had “very little ambitions,” planning to team up with a friend and produce the script, hoping at most to get SAG-AFTRA cards out of the production.
However, praise from a role-model shifted these ambitions.
At a casting audition, after reading the script, one of the auditioners came with Richard Schiff, Emmy-winning actor from The West Wing. The writing impressed Schiff, and he wanted to know who wrote the script, figuring that there was no way a 20-year old rookie to the industry was behind it.
This unexpected praise propelled Hagerty to launch the film into a greater project than expected. Because he “wanted to have creative control” and direct it himself, Hagerty decided to produce it independently with friend and co-producer Ashley Khakshouri.
The two were able to shoot their first cut while Hagerty was still in Los Angeles. Not entirely happy with that first cut, Hagerty used the first shot to raise money for a pick-up shoot.
However this pick-up shoot had to be filmed after Hagerty’s return to Cornell. Thanks to modern technology, Hagerty found a way to make this possible.
Returning to Ithaca to complete his second year — what ended up being his senior year — Hagerty then cast the female lead, directed the remaining scenes and worked through the post-production process, all while completing his AEM major.
“I directed from FaceTime from Mann Library at Cornell. And I looked crazy because nobody knew what I was doing and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing,” he said. “The director of photography served as like the interim director and I still directed the entire thing from FaceTime. We literally had a person hired to hold me on an iPhone for 12 hours and walk me around.”
Hagerty attributes the success of the film to its unique “quirks,” combined with “lucky breaks” along the way. One such lucky break included being able to film for free in a neighborhood that was home to Jennifer Lawrence, Christina Aguilera and Charlie Sheen. By nature of this location, Michael Bay came to set on their first day of shooting.
The two main “quirks” of the film are its quick dialogue and a percussive score — inspired by the play Hamilton.
Hagerty was also able to hire Emmy-winning sound-mixer, Ken Polk, who worked on the sound team for “Juno.” After sending Polk a cut of the film, Polk gave Hagerty a 99 percent discount off his usual rate.
The fast-paced dialogue was inspired by screwball comedy, which averages to being about “three times faster than the average piece of a usual screenplay,” and allows for “maximizing intensity and emotion on a smaller budget,” he said.
These quirks and the breaks Hagerty received along the way allowed him to stretch its limited budget. As praise for the film grew and grew, Hagerty said he was surprised, summing the process as “being one step out of our league every step of the way,” he said.
In terms of the film’s potential for the future, Hagerty said it could become a TV pilot if it were picked up and became a series. But for “right now [he’s] just focused on making “Anatomy of a Breakup” as successful a standalone short film as possible,” he said.
Though his focus lies in the film being standalone, that is not to say that Hagerty does not have some ideas for its adaptation.
“What I can say for sure about a possible adaptation, should we go there: it won’t be called Anatomy of a Breakup, because that’s just the title of this short; and it won’t just be about these three frat guys,” he said.