To write, direct, produce, and star in your own film is pretty ambitious. Add to that composing and performing the musical score, and you’ve undertaken a downright formidable project.
But that’s exactly what New Hampshire native Justin Connor undertook more than five years ago when he started working on his new film, “The Golden Age.” Connor, who now lives in Los Angeles, has years of experience as a working actor and musician, but he had never before directed or produced a film.
“It was pretty daunting,” Connor said. “It’s a lot more work than I imagined it would be, but it’s also really rewarding because at the end of the day you’re able to say, ‘This is the story I wanted to tell, and I’m sticking to it.’”
“The Golden Age” premieres during opening night of the 16th annual New Hampshire Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 13, at The Music Hall Loft. The festival continues through Sunday, Oct. 16, with close to 100 film screenings, workshops, panel discussions, and other special events scattered around downtown Portsmouth.
A (fake) legend
Connor’s debut film is a fictional rockumentary about a subversive pop star named Maya O’Malley. Hailing from rural New Hampshire, O’Malley rises to sudden fame and signs with a prestigious label called Aspect Records. But, following a string of controversial statements to the media, he is abruptly dropped from the label in 2012 and vanishes from the spotlight, leaving his friends, fans, and critics to wonder where he went.
The movie consists almost entirely of excerpts from interviews with O’Malley and others (including Pixies drummer David Lovering, who plays himself in the film), interspersed with footage of O’Malley performing on stage and in the studio. The film documents O’Malley’s struggle to confront his troubled past, and his quest for spiritual discovery in northern India.
Connor, a pianist and singer-songwriter, plays O’Malley. He said the film was inspired by true events, some of them based loosely on his own life. Like O’Malley, Connor is an artist with a somewhat turbulent family history, and like O’Malley, he has traveled to India.
“I kind of have been on my own spiritual path … that led me to India and Hinduism, so I kind of infused some of that,” Connor said. “Some of these storylines are very close to actually what happened, and some of them are a little bit morphed.”
“Maya is kind of my Ziggy Stardust, you know, close to me but a little bit more outlandish than I am.”
He also borrowed from the experiences of his musician friends, some of whom have “nightmarish stories” about getting dropped from major labels.
The character also shares traits with some of Connor’s musical idols, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Harry Nilsson. Like them, O’Malley is portrayed as a talented but eccentric artist who constantly challenges the conventions of his craft.
“Some people that have seen it were like, ‘Oh my God, I really like this Maya O’Malley guy. Where can I find the album?’” Connor said with a laugh. “I like the fact that it blurs the line and you’re not sure what’s real and what’s fake.”
There’s a parallel to David Bowie as well — in a way, Maya O’Malley is Connor’s own alter ego.
“Maya is kind of my Ziggy Stardust, you know, close to me but a little bit more outlandish than I am,” he said.
Connor grew up in Manchester and spent much of his youth at a summer house in Rye. After college, he moved to L.A. to pursue a career as an actor. He appeared in several independent films and TV shows, including “Six Feet Under,” “Monk,” and “Angel.” But he found that life as a working actor was not entirely fulfilling.
“I mean, you take on these roles, but they kind of come and go, and they get cut out or they get reduced,” he said. “I wanted to do something a little more truthful, a little more creative, a little more artistic.”
Connor decided to turn his focus to music. He released his debut album, “Kaliyuga,” in 2004 on his own indie record label, Wiry Pulse Records. “The Golden Age” began, in part, as a follow-up to “Kaliyuga.” But, as Connor began working on the album, he envisioned a fictional character performing the music. Then he imagined the album unfolding as a film, crossing rockumentaries like the Dylan doc “Don’t Look Back” with mockumentaries like Christopher Guest’s “Spinal Tap.”
“The main thing I wanted to get was doing a narrative film as a musical, but with no lip-synching, and that it was told through this real documentary-style form,” he said.
“The Golden Age” lacks the humor of Guest’s work, though, with a weightiness that borders on pretension. Connor said the film is intended as a multi-layered satire.
“I always set out to make a satire of material life, and it comes through the guise of a musician,” he said. “So not only is it satirizing being a human on this earth and getting wrapped up in all these silly institutions, it’s satirizing the music business, it’s satirizing being a musician, it’s satirizing how so many artists are in pain and trying to overcome their past, it’s satirizing documentaries, even rockumentaries. Sometimes even religion.”
Connor is excited to return to New Hampshire to premiere his film in the state where he grew up. Beyond that, his plans include recording several more albums and making another trip to India, where he shot a portion of the film. Like the character he created for “The Golden Age,” he is wary of lofty expectations.
“I live out here in L.A., and I see many very famous people that everyone’s craving what they have, and they don’t seem very happy,” Connor said. “I guess I’m just not as focused on material fame anymore. … I think it’s more important to just put the focus on the work and do the best you can.”