SAM NOW is a multi-award-winning documentary that has its television premiere Monday, May 8, on INDEPENDENT LENS on PBS.
Filmmaker Reed Harkness began making short films featuring his younger half-brother Sam Harkness when Sam was eleven. These shorts often featured Sam as the character the Blue Panther. Sam’s mother mother Jois (pronounced Joyce) had divorced Reed and Sam’s father Randy Harkness and remarried. When Sam was fourteen, Jois disappeared.
But SAM NOW is not a true crime story. Reed and Sam Harkness set out on a road trip to find Jois when Sam was seventeen. What they found shows family, parenting, and emotional recovery in a light not usually captured in either fiction or documentary.
Reed Harkness, Sam Harkness, and their paternal aunt Cindy Harkness Howard have just done a Q&A panel for SAM NOW at PBS’s portion of the Winter 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour in Pasadena, California. They then sit down for an exclusive interview about the film.
ASSIGNMENT X: When you just started filming Sam, when he was eleven, was he your only brother – since you have others – who was willing to let you film him, or was there something about Sam that made you feel he was particularly film-worthy?
REED HARKNESS: As a teen, I was very impulsive. “I have this idea, I’ve got to do it now.” And so, I was just looking around, and it’s like, “Okay, there’s Sam, he’s sitting there on the floor, playing videogames. He looks available” [laughs].
There are other reasons. I was really interested in his personality. I think being the youngest child, the youngest child in a family tends to be the one that’s the clown, the one that wants to entertain, because they need to grasp for attention, so I think Sam would have this sort of built-in character of, “I’m going to be the funny one.” And then he also had that resilience, where somehow he’d take a fall and get right back up. At the time, I was really into the Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton, I wanted to work in silent film, and so I was like, “Okay, yes, let’s do this.”
AX: Did you ever have a period where you thought, “I want to be an actor, I want to be a stuntman”?
SAM HARKNESS: Not particularly. I knew it was playtime, I knew it was a game, it was just something we’d do. Even before Reed had a Super 8 camera, we were doing all sorts of video/camcorder movies. They were just fun, I think.
REED HARKNESS: Yeah. Always as a game and playtime. It was crazy. He is phenomenal as an athlete, like Spider-Man. He does things that are just unreal. So, yeah. He’s not telling the whole thing.
AX: When you were originally filming Sam, did you know that you were going to make a movie, or were you just having fun with the camera?
REED HARKNESS: I didn’t know that I was going to make a feature. I knew that I was going to make my kind of movie, which was these short, experimental Super 8 movies, with animation, and fantastic elements. But the project evolved from there. There was a turning point where we apply our filmmaking to seeing if we can help with an urgent family matter, which is, Sam’s mom, my stepmom, is missing, and can we find her?
AX: When Reed started interviewing you, did you think “This is fun,” did you think, “This is intrusive,” did you think, “He’s crazy” …?
SAM HARKNESS: It kind of seemed to me more as another adventure to go on, not really knowing how in-depth it was going to get [laughs]. I knew these little films that he would do, where he had a club, and he was the host of it, and we would all watch these little five-minute films. I thought that was going to be about the size of it. It is much bigger than that.
AX: What did you think at that time?
CINDY HARKNESS HOWARD: Well, [Reed Harkness’s] early films and prints were unremarkable. They were just part of family photos and videos. But then, when he got serious about making these little movies, and then decided to make the documentary, I was all for it. I thought maybe Reed’s creativity could find some sort of positive place in this weird situation. I thought it was great.
AX: Did you ever have to balance moviemaking and investigation – that is, people might give you information you needed, but not want to be on camera?
REED HARKNESS: In the early stages of doing the detective phase of interviewing everyone to see if we could get information, to find out where Jois’s whereabouts might be, I did pretty much film everybody. There was one person who didn’t want to be filmed, they didn’t make it into the movie. It was the person that drove her to the train station. But for the most part, the camera kind of opened the door. The camera allowed me to do in-depth interviews with people who I probably had never had a deep conversation with.
Cindy’s friend Phil, who worked with Jois, I’d never met the guy. I go and I knock on his door – “Hey, can I talk to you?” – and try to get as much information as I can. And then, even people like my aunt – over time, sure, we’ve had small-talk conversations, and we talk about this and that, but we never talked about the pain of our family before [laughs].
CINDY HARKNESS HOWARD: Yeah, until Reed started filming, we really didn’t really have that conversation [about] that raw pain, and [how that was] a trauma for the kids. We asked a few questions to a few key people that knew Jois and her husband, but they were in denial and just didn’t want to help in this venture. I think Kevin [the man Jois was married to at the time of her disappearance, following her marriage to Randy Harkness] was just in denial. I think he always thought she was going to come back.
REED HARKNESS: Kevin was protective and wasn’t very forthcoming with letting us know that Jois was missing in the first place. Kevin was covering for her, saying that, “She’ll be back soon,” or things like that. But this is something where it’s like, three years passed, and there’s no communication. If you don’t know where she is, and you don’t know how to reach her, eventually, time passes and nobody really has any answers.
CINDY HARKNESS HOWARD: And peculiar things like a package of cookies being sent to the kids without a return address.
AX: Were you all living together with your dad?
SAM HARKNESS: Yeah. Me and my brother Jared were living with my dad at the time.
REED HARKNESS: I was out of the house by that point.
AX: At what point in all this did you decide that you were making a documentary?
SAM HARKNESS: The catalyst for the trip was using the storytelling as a vessel to find my mom [laughs], and work on that. I heard it more as like, “Do you want to do another movie adventure and hang out?” I didn’t think it through, really, about like what it could mean to actually find her.
AX: How long did it take to find her once you started looking?
REED HARKNESS: We found her relatively quickly after doing our little research. Because when I brought up, “Well, how about THE BLUE PANTHER FINDS HIS MOM?”, Sam wanted to go [seek Jois out] on his midwinter break, which was a month later. So, we had that deadline of, “Hey, we’ve got to do something in a month.” So, I go and I interview everyone, and I come up empty-handed. I didn’t have any lead whatsoever, and then finally, my stepbrother Peter presents a name of this professor. So, then we had this professor, and his office hours. And we were like, “Okay, we’re going to go meet this guy on his office hours, and he’s going to see these guys and want to help us.” This was a good plan that might work – maybe in a movie [laughs].
AX: Did the idea that you were making a movie somewhat influence your expectations?
REED HARKNESS: The lines are blurred. I think that we can look at the making of movies, and reality, and we can say, “Is our reality more real than us making the movie? No. They’re the same thing.” But also, making the movie, and us tapping into our fantasies and our fantasy world, adds so much to the authenticity of who we are, and what this story is.
AX: When did you find Jois?
REED HARKNESS: We found her in 2002. We’ve been in contact with her since then.
AX: Did you have a period of grappling with, “I’ve found her, but do I really want to talk about this publicly?” Or, in fact, were you thinking, “We’re going to complete this movie, and it’s going to have real impact,” or did you think, “We’ll complete this movie, and we’ll have completed the movie”?
REED HARKNESS: Yeah. It was a long process of just getting to finishing the movie, but I did have a hunch that it would resonate with people. We did test screenings as we were wrapping up the edit. We got a lot of feedback to understand how it was working on people.
SAM HARKNESS: Later on, as my relationship with my mom gets a little bit worse, and I deal with it, and I know that the movie’s not finished and complete, I know Reed’s still working on it, but I was starting to feel a pressure to end it in a way that me and my mom are going to get along. And it started to become like, “That’s probably not going to happen. It’s never going to be this fairytale-ending relationship.” That was when I was like, “We need to wrap this up and end this movie, even if we don’t get the ending either of us want.”
REED HARKNESS: Yeah. The whole time, I just felt like I was pulled by some invisible thread that, when I’m making these early movies with Sam, I don’t know why I’m doing it, but I’m pulled in that direction. And then when I was helping Sam to try to do something with it, and try to find Jois, it’s the same kind of pull. It just feels like a thing I need to do. All the way through, I felt like it was a personal quest, like, I want an answer, I want to know, I want to understand this, because it didn’t add up, didn’t make sense to me.
AX: Did it add up to you in the end?
REED HARKNESS: I feel like I learned so much from this movie. Making it, watching it every time I get something new, it’s like you can look at this whole ecosystem of our family, and see how everybody plays a different role, and how we’re all trying to just exist and be human to each other, but it’s not that hard to make missteps. And it’s certainly not that hard to make missteps if you’ve been dealt a really bad hand.
AX: Did you have different feelings about SAM NOW as it progressed?
CINDY HARKNESS HOWARD: I did. And like Reed, when I watch it now – I’ve seen it three or four times – I get a different feeling, different emotions. I look at Jois a little differently when I’ve watched it several times, I look at body language.
AX: You work as a violence prevention instructor, and you give workshops for survivors of domestic violence. Do you feel like your own life experience has influenced your profession as far as, “I feel like I’ve been hit metaphorically, and I would like people to be able to defend themselves from getting actually hit, or perpetrating this on somebody else”?
SAM HARKNESS: Yeah. I think it’s more subconscious, though, that I got into work that is reflective of a lot of my mom’s upbringing, and my own, too. I worked in foster care even before I was doing domestic violence [counseling]. It’s actually probably been really helpful for me to process a lot of what happened to me, and to be able to empathize with my mom, too, to see what harm looks like among family members.
AX: There have been a lot of advances in technology between the time you started shooting and when you finished. Has that caused you to reconceive anything about the project, or has it just helped, or has it been crazy-making?
REED HARKNESS: Oh, God, the technology. I don’t even want to answer that. Jason Reid, one of our editors and another producer, dealt with the really big conversions of the whole archive, and that was just a massive undertaking. SAM NOW is shot on so many different formats – there’s VHS, Super 8, Super 16, mini-DV, HDV, Arri 4K – it’s a collage of formats. And as a filmmaker that has always appreciated how things are made, I’m so happy that I could put that into my style.
AX: Do you know what kind of movie you want to make next?
REED HARKNESS: Something very simple, maybe a one-minute film [laughs].
AX: What would you all most like people to know about SAM NOW?
REED HARKNESS: The movie is not a direct representation of who my brother is, or his life story. It’s a film made about family, and the complexities of family, and how messy family can get, and also the beauty of family, and what it can be, and the beauty of family connection.
CINDY HARKNESS HOWARD: I couldn’t agree more. He made it into a beautiful story, and hopefully that helped Sam and Jared move on.
SAM HARKNESS: Yeah, same. I think normalizing the messiness is what I really like getting out of it.
AX: You’ve directed other projects that are not about your family. Is it easier or harder for you to make films that are about people you don’t know?
REED HARKNESS: It’s easier for me to, in one way, make a film about somebody I don’t know. But I still approach things with a lot of depth and compassion, and I want to bring out something interesting about the human part of this. So, I still tend to go pretty deep. I think that one of the things that we’ve talked about is that we really had to create rules around how to do our relationship [off-camera]. Especially as the project got near the end, and I’d be like, “I need to shoot more,” and then we were like, “Okay, we’re going to schedule hangouts that are absolutely camera- and recording-free, and make sure that that happens.” The thing is, film doesn’t matter to me as much as my family does.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: SAM NOW filmmaker Reed Harkness and his siblings talk about his new documentary