Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A BAG OF HAMMERS, from Brian Crano & Jake Sandvig, is an original worth seeing

What makes an original? Certainly not the subject matter, for what hasn't been done already, time and again? What makes A BAG OF HAMMERS original is how its filmmakers treat the tried-and-true -- charming con artists, men who don't grow up, a lonely little boy with an unemployed mom, the homeless, mismatched lovers (all stuff we've seen countless times). But never like this. What writer/director Brian Crano (shown below) and writer/actor (he has one of the leads) Jake Sandvig have achieved with their really special new film is to give us something missing from so much that we see nowadays: surprise. (For more on this subject, see the interview with Mr. Crano at the end of this post.)

The filmmakers take their subjects and events (and the dialog that wraps around them) and treat it, first, realistically (I don't think there's a dishonest moment in the movie) and then quirkily, humorously, sadly, and sometimes just amazedly. They -- and their actors -- spin on a dime, and so we, the audience can never be fully prepared for what will happen. Yet when it does, we buy it. (Not for nothing is the movie about a pair of con men -- but sporting "decent streaks" a mile wide.)

The movie is almost constantly -- yet quietly and below its delightful surface -- raising the question of morality in the actions we see. Who's right? Who's wrong? The answers are not so easily found, and this is part of the movie's great strength. It deals with some of life's most primal themes, often humorously, and doesn't give us easy answers, even as it does entertain us quite well.

How did the director bring together such a semi-starry cast (even Amanda Seyfried turns up here!) to involve themselves in a very small-budget movie? I guess it's, as usual, who you know that counts. And thanks be that Crano and his casting director Brad Gilmore know some attractive and unusually gifted actors. Britain's Rebecca Hall (above), sporting a fine America accent, as she often does,  just keeps amazing us over and over again -- from Starter for 10 and Red Riding through The Town, Please Give and Everything Must Go. This actress is a continual treat to watch, and here, as the waitress at a waffle-themed diner, she's once again... well, everything you could ask for.

Jason Ritter, above, another fine upcoming young actor who was wasted in last week's The Perfect Family, is a standout here as one of our two troubled heroes. His scene with a lovely actress named Barb Rossmeisl is a stunner and a keeper, and his explanation to young Chandler Canterbury (below, in red, and one of our best current child actors) about what has just happened is simply sterling (that's where the film's title is put to use).

Ditto Mr. Sandvig (above, right) who takes -- perhaps because he wrote it himself -- the less showy role, but still grounds it with gravity and charm. Maybe its Carrie Preston (below), however, who walks away with the dramatic crown. She is simply so good, so real, making us, by turns, root for her and then hate her. Ms Preston, shown below, is largely responsible for the movie's success at keeping us off-balance -- and loving it.
I'll not go into plot. You deserve the surprises that Crano and Sandvig have up their sleeves. A Bag of Hammers, from MPI Media Group and running (on my screener, at least) only 75 minutes, opens this Friday, May 11, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles on Friday, May 18, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. Other playdates around the country, I hope, will follow, as well as VOD and eventual DVD.


We had time for only a short phone interview with co-writer/director Brian Crano, below, so we tried to make the most of it. (Note: there are some spoilers in this interview, so for the sake of the "surprise" that's so important to the film, see it first and then come back to the interview.) In the below conversation, TrustMovies appears in boldface and Mr. Crano in standard type:

First off: is it pronounced Craaaano or Crano?

Long a -- as midwestern as you can make it.

What I loved best about the movie is how original it is. It strikes me as a real original. It takes stuff that we’ve seen countless times -- the abandoned kid, the mom who can’t find a job, the scam artists who need to grow up, hell, even suicide – and works it all into something surprisingly real and “felt.” And funny and odd. Did you mean it to accomplish all this?

Without being lofty about it -- yeah, absolutely. For me the thing missing most in my movie-going experience is surprise. So I am trying to find out a way to make this happen. That’s my job as a filmmaker, as I see it. To find something emotionally true or something funny, but something that the audience doesn’t see coming, that undercuts their expectations. This movie gave us a lot of opportunities to set up red herrings. We did that time and time again in the film.

The dialog is excellent -- always believable but also often funny, witty, caustic. How was it to collaborate with someone. How did that go?

It was very easy. In writing the first draft of the movie, Jake Sandvig and I would basically just play out the scene between the us. That proved really useful. If you have to say something out loud, that will tell you if it's a good thing to say – or not. When you actually hear it, then you know when something’s funny or true. The whole movie was sort of “written out loud.”

It does occur to me that the initial set-up is pretty fake. Stealing cars is grand theft auto, right? If they’re doing this kind of thing all in the L.A. area, the police would quickly be onto their scam and arrest them. (But this didn’t bother me during the movie – only after.)

Yeah – this came up sometimes to me, too. But to me it wasn’t such a big deal. There is a certain kind of “movie logic” operating here that you kind of have to give in to, to enjoy the movie. And, actually, if you look at the L.A. police statistics, the percentage of crimes that are prosecuted are extremely low.

The end credit sequences are pretty jokey and quite fun, but they tend to distract from any “moved” feelings the viewer might have. Did you want audiences to end up saying – oh, it’s just a movie, or it’s just a good joke?

The end credits piece –because the last quarter of the movie is pretty heavy -- gave us an opportunity to leave em laughing again. As serious as the film is at points, it's still a comedy and I didn't want it at any point to be a labor. This is just like giving you your dessert at the end of the meal, like after a steak dinner.

I get it. The end stuff certainly wasn’t like the usual “outtakes” that you often see at the end of films.

These definitely were not outtakes. These are scenes that were written for this purpose.

Where did you get such a terrific cast (well, Jake Sandvig co-wrote it, so you knew him) but the others: Jason Ritter, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston (who is really good!), Amanda Seyfried, Canterbury, Todd Louiso (shown above), Sally Kirkland, etc. But especially Rebecca. She is one my favorite actresses.

Rebecca is the best you can find. She is really top shelf. It is helpful that she and I have been friends for such a long time. We met during when we were just both out of drama school period. We started making each other laugh and have not stopped, pretty much ever since then.

She seems so willing to do so many different things, take on so many different roles in big films and small films…. And what a fabulous American accent she has! 

She is totally fearless. She has no typical “actor's pride,” like, “’Oh, I won’t do this! It's too risky,” or "what If I'm perceived incorrectly." Carrie Preston is the same way. Everything they do, they are doing this for the right reasons, and when you watch them, you can tell that right away. Same goes for the boys: Ritter and Sandvig (shown at left) -- and Chandler, as well.

You filmed in L.A., right? But you live in NY? And you’re from Michigan….

I just moved to NYC a month ago; right now, in fact, I am waiting for our mattress to be delivered. For 10-12 years prior to this, I lived in L.A. -- pretty much since drama school in England.

I want to see your short films. Where/how can I see Rubberheart?

I’ll send you a copy. Rubberheart has Rebecca in it, it's based off of a short story she wrote. My hobby is kind of making comedic, satirical shorts. The other short I made that you can see on my web site – Official Selection -- is my response to the thousand of short films I had to watch while Rubberheart was playing at various festivals. It is sort of a pastiche of art films. I also do a web series with my boyfriend called Simply Plimpton, where he portrays a version of actress Martha Plimpton.

The scene with the homeless woman is just terrific – one of the best I’ve ever seen on this subject. How/why did that come about? (Did you see Monday Morning? That’s another film about the homeless, which has only opened in L.A. at this point.)

No, I didn’t get to it.

It also covers the homeless in a very different manner. But back to your scene with the homeless woman. It is particularly moving and real.

It was written almost as an interstitial scene. That is, it could have quite easily been skimmed over when reading. But our great casting director, Brad Gilmore, found this incredible actress, Barb Rossmeisl. She and Jason hit it off so well and were so good together. They both understood what was needed and how this was kind of the whole movie’s message in a single scene. The film is about connecting with things you're afraid of -- and connections that might not necessarily seem ”normal.” This is one of my favorite moments in the film.

The big question: did the guys raise the kid while grifting and scamming, and did Kelsey help them? And if so, what the fuck does that mean?

For me -- I was at a talk-back the other night and a woman asked a question like that, laid out her take on the film and then asked if I agreed with her interpretation. She wanted me to agree with her response. But I told her, no, that I'm much more interested in her response and that it would be much more interesting than mine. In that, there’s not going to be a test. No one will get a gold star here. What did the movie make you feel? That’s the right answer.

Generally, I see the criminality in the movie is a metaphor for any kind of damage. Or any kind of thing that we, as a society, have decided is morally questionable. The heart of the movie is about how to make an untraditional family. So many children now are being raised by single parents, grandparents, whatever. There is no more nuclear family that means anything. So our point was to try to make a movie about that -- without making it a polemic or waving a flag. That is where we were going.

You certainly got there. What’s next for you?

I am just starting another movie that I wrote by myself this time. It’s called Retrace Your Steps, and that is about all I can say about it right now. Except it’s set in a Canadian forest.

Can you talk about the music in the film?

The score for this movie was done by Johnny Flynn, a British musician. I wanted him to make something different – a series of songs that was like a companion to the movie but not necessarily a traditional score. Meaning that the music in the film, I didn't want it to be emotionally prescriptive. Rather just be Johnny's interpretation of what's going on.

Lastly, Brian: Is there any question you’ve always wanted to be asked about your movie but never have been. Now’s the time. I’ll ask it and you can answer.

(He thinks a couple of seconds…) I can’t think of anything. I’ve spent six years on this movie, and have talked to so many people and fielded so many questions….

…that you’ve probably, at this point, heard them all? Well, thank you, Brian, and I wish you great good luck with this film, which really is a wonderful and original piece of moviemaking.

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