Netflix streaming services is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the number of films is severely limited, especially popular commercial hits. On the other hand, having the streaming service allows and sometimes forces you to try movies you might otherwise miss.
That will be the purpose of the occasional You Might Have Missed blog: profiling excellent films that may not have gotten the attention they deserve.
Today's entry is Brian Crano's A Bag of Hammers. Bag is marketed as an indie comedy. But like many indie comedies, that label only tells half the story. The film is exceedingly funny, especially in the first half, but slowly transforms into a drama that is both heartbreak and uplifting.
Co-writer/director Brian Crano was gracious enough to take some time out of a recent Saturday morning to chat with Im With Geek about his career and his film.
The road to a career as a director began at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. What was an American doing in London? Brian explains: "When I was a child, my father worked for the British Navy, and so we lived over there. The pull of the theatre was what got me into all of this. I had been writing there, and a play that I had written, 12th Premise, had done really pretty well. And then my mother got sick in the states, and I moved back and was in LA. I realized quite quickly that there was not a huge demand for playwrights in Los Angeles.
The notion of Alan and Ben posing as parking valets at burial services to make off with other people's cars was inspired by a gigantic cemetery on the drive between Brain and Jake's house, as well as by LA's deeply-ingrained valet parking culture. "We'd been talking about stealing cars and I thought that's the best way because nobody would pay attention to who's taking their car. That's an LA thing, you'll give your car to just about anybody. I mean anybody in a polo shirt."
As for the more dramatic portion of the film, the neighbor's child who becomes a part of Alan and Ben's lives: "Jake had a neighbor who was a ten-year-old boy with diabetes who was not being very well looked after, and he would kind of come and hang out with us. So there was a certain element of realty to that part of the story."
When collaborating on a script, Brian has strong opinions. "It has certain structural benefits and certain emotional costs. What's great about it is you have someone who is there immediately to fact check your brain and to spitball an idea and to make it a bigger and better idea, but you also lose a huge degree of autonomy."
As for the process itself: "We'd meet in the morning at breakfast and watch movies that had nothing to do with this film. Silence of The Lambs or I Heart Huckabees. Then we'd sit down and write five of six pages, then go play mini golf.
Brian was not originally slated to direct A Bag of Hammers, but his strong connection to the material changed things. "We had written the script and had been meeting with some directors. We'd have these meetings and I would pipe up and be like 'yeah, yeah, yeah your ideas are fine, but what about this?'" That was kind of obnoxious because we're meeting with classy big indie directors."
Eventually producer Peter Friedlander suggested that Brian direct. Hesitant due to his lack of experience behind the camera, Friedlander suggested Brian direct a short film first, to see if he had the knack.
"I wrote this short film called Rubberheart. That went really well and ended up playing twenty-four films festivals. That was the ticket to go. We made another short for the next cycle called Official Selection which was basically a satire of a short art film we had seen while playing all those other festivals." (Official Selection can be viewed at here)
Brian also makes the web series Simply Plimpton. "David (Joseph Craig) who's in that is my partner. That's our sort of house project. Those are really fun to make. It's nice to just engage and be really silly. The great thing about doing a web series is there's no sort of permissions asked. A good opportunity to make my partner roll around in pizza.
"For me, we're serving a giant narrative. If you read the Poetics and you believe Aristotle, it's all about reversal, recognition and catharsis, and that to me is foundational. I think there's a kind of an indie aesthetic to not have these giant changes in a movie or not have these characters come to a big revelation. I think that denies the audience the experience that we're looking for. I want to go feel something and learn from that. Swing for the fences. I want to push as much as I can."
A great script is nothing without great actors. In the case of A Bag of Hammers, the cast is truly exceptional. Co-writer Jake Sandvig, Jason Ritter, Rebecca Hall, Chandler Canterbury, Carrie Preston, and Todd Louiso are prominent in an absolutely stellar group of actors.
The enthusiastic response from the acting community can be attributed to the script's engaging characters. "The characters are central. It's more about the characters more than almost anything else. That's where I start and begin and end, plot is not so interesting to me. Things like that are secondary to what feelings are moving around and what changes are happening to the characters."
One of those central characters is Kelsey, playing a mistreated young boy who lives next door to the Alan and Ben, the car thieves. Chandler Canterbury gives an engaging and moving performance and seems to be exactly the right person for the role. It turns out he was. "He's the first kid that we saw. We weren't looking to see kids yet in our process, we were still looking for Ben. We thought we were going to have to read a thousand kids, and we thought we were going to have to read the kids particularly with the two guys to make sure there was some kind of chemistry.
Working with Chandler was as easy as casting him. "He's like a little machine. He would come in, even on the harder more emotional takes, he would just do them the first time full force, no particular warm up, didn't need anything, just do it. Had we had a kid who'd been difficult, we couldn't have made our schedule because our schedule was so tight. He really saved us again and again and again. He's a great actor."
In a pivotal moment of the film, Alan, Ben, and Alan's sister Melanie (played by Rebecca Hall) have to give Kelsey some terrible news. The camera lingers on Kelsey in what may be the film's most emotional moment. Asked if he did anything special to elicit that reaction, Brian answers: "No. We just put the camera on him. Most of what's in the movie is the first take of that scene."
As for the decision to hold so long on the boy's face: "My feeling as a director is if you have something that's working just stay out of the way of it. We wanted to hold those moments and not cheat the audience of the emotion of that scene, which is pretty intense."
A Bag of Hammers was shot using the RED One camera system, one of many high-end digital cinematography platforms that have come into widespread use over the past few years. Coupled with digital distribution through outlets such as Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon, the independent film world is clearly changing. Brian has his own take on the digital transformation. "The shooting stuff, that's great. It makes it much easier to deal with. I can't imagine not having a lot of this technology. And yet the distribution stuff is making everybody a little nervous. Not me so much because I think it's positive in the end. I think the distribution channel will become much more specific as it is in music so you'll be playing to a much more loyal but smaller audience. But to me that's fine. That's exciting."
Brian is taking that positive attitude into his next short, Dogfood which will hit the festival circuit in 2014 followed by Retrace Your Steps, his sophomore feature which will star Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, Thor) and Rebecca Hall.
You can find out more about Brian and A Bag of Hammers at www.briancrano.com.