Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Talking with Brotherhood director Will Canon

Like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, Will Canon is a proud alumnus of the NYU film school. But when it came time for him to direct his first feature – Brotherhood, newly released on Blu-Ray and DVD – the Lufkin-born, Arlington-reared filmmaker opted to return to his Texas roots.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Doug Simon – based on a short film, Roslyn, he made as a student project at NYU – Canon shot Brotherhood throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, spending much of his time at a former fraternity house near University of Texas at Arlington. Last year, he premiered his low-budget, high-impact thriller in Austin at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival, where it earned the Audience Award and several rave reviews.

And before you ask: Yes, I was among the early ravers.

In my original Variety review, I praised Brotherhood an ingeniously constructed and propulsively paced thriller that gives a film noir twist to frat-boy misbehavior – think Animal House meets Detour – while demonstrating just how speedily a very bad situation can metastasize into a worst-case scenario. Specifically, I noted:

Canon authoritatively sets the overall tone and establishes the central characters in his pic's 13-minute pre-title sequence, as demanding frat prez Frank (Jon Foster), evidencing all the browbeating expertise of a Marine D.I., orders intimidated pledges to prove their worth by robbing convenience stores.

The pledges are being punk'd: They don't know that, each time one is dropped off at a store, another fraternity brother will halt the guy before he actually attempts a stick-up. Trouble is, one frat boy, Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci), is at the wrong store at the wrong time, and winds up getting shot and wounded by an armed store clerk.

So it's back to the frat house, where Adam (Trevor Morgan), a pledge who gradually emerges as the pic's protagonist, demands that Frank call an ambulance or, better still, rush Kevin to a hospital. But Frank nixes both requests, insisting he can find a way to ameliorate the situation -- and, he hopes, stop Kevin from bleeding to death -- without alerting the cops and risking jail time. The other frat brothers follow Frank's lead -- from force of habit, of course, but also to avoid any penalty for being not-so-innocent bystanders.

Unfortunately, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Despite the buzz generated at SXSW, and despite supportive reviews from other impressed critics – Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times credited the movie for having “the unrelenting pace and cascading-catastrophe structure of a 24 episode, along with a cast of young actors who play it for everything it’s worth” – Brotherhood made only a fleeting appearance on a handful of screens during its theatrical release a couple months ago.

This week, however, it gets new exposure, and another chance to grab the audience it deserves, by way of home video and (through cable and satellite services) video on demand. Will Canon called from his new home base in Los Angeles a few days ago to promote the second stage of his first-rate film’s release.

Q. Will, you grew up in Arlington, and even attended Arlington High School, where you were captain of the basketball team. So did you feel good about going home to make your first feature?

A. Yeah, I think it was all about being in a comfort zone. I mean, when you’re making a first feature, it’s so difficult. I didn’t know until I started actually how difficult it was going to be. We started out planning to shoot in Louisiana. But when you’re working on a low budget – well, you realize that there are certain things you’re going to need help with, and you’re going to need problems solved. And for me, it worked out much better to do it in Arlington. Because whenever we had a problem while we were shooting, there were other people in the community who could sort of step in and help us out. Really, help was always just a phone call away.

Q. Is there an extended film community in the Arlington area?

A. There is, there is. A lot people come out of the UTA film program. And, of course, you’re by Dallas, where there are, like, a ton of filmmakers as well. I had already done a handful of short films there. So I knew people all over the area.

Q. Like I said in my review, Brotherhood is a unique mash-up of frat-boy misbehavior and film noir suspense. Which element popped into your head first?

A. Actually, the fraternity stuff came first. It started out as a student film I did at NYU. And the short film is really like the first eight minutes of what turned out to be the feature film. I just had the idea that I wanted to do something about fraternity initiations. And then the story kind of evolved into something with thriller aspects to it. See, I was watching all sorts of movies at the time, and I knew they all related to what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know how. And I kind of liked that I didn’t know how. I liked that I might be taking in all of these things, and that it would all make sense somehow. But I didn’t have an exact bull’s-eye that I was trying to hit, and that was nice.

Q. I want to be careful how I phrase this, because I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but there’s a really clever, really nasty twist at the end of the movie. And it’s a pay-off for something that you plant in plain sight very early – but is easy to forget about. It’s like the law of Chekhov’s gun – you don’t introduce a gun in the first act unless you’re going to fire it in the last act.

A. Actually, when I first sort of came up with the idea for Brotherhood, I knew I wanted to plant something in the first act, and have it pay off in the third. That’s part of what really got me excited about doing the film. I figured that if I had enough things going on, and we’re swept up in the story, people will forget all about that thing that happens in the early scene. And that’ll make it all the more jolting in the end.

Q. How did you go about casting the lead roles?

A. Well, with some of the actors – Trevor Morgan, Jon Foster and Lou Pucci – I had seen them in other stuff. Like, I had seen Trevor in a movie called Mean Creek, which I thought he was fantastic in. So he was the guy who immediately came to mind for his role. And I’d seen Pucci in a movie called Thumbsucker, which I thought he was fantastic in, and he actually won an award at Sundance for it. But I didn’t think we’d be able to get him for the role that he ended up doing. But he turned out to be friends with Trevor. And Trevor kept telling me, “You should take a look at Lou.” And I said, “I’d love to.” And as for Jon – most of the stuff I’d seen him in was stuff he’d done when he was younger, like The Door in the Floor. But I’d never seen him after he’d sort of grown up. And my casting director said I had to take a look at Jon. So I did – and I knew he’d be perfect for the role of Frank.

Q. I have to say that after catching Brotherhood at SXSW – and seeing how well it played with an audience – I expected it to get more attention during its theatrical run.

A. Well, I was certainly hoping for that. Especially coming out of South By Southwest, when it seemed to have so much momentum. I would have liked to have seen it go into more theaters and get a bigger push for sure.

Q. On the other hand, Tiny Furniture, another film that made an impact at SXSW last year, didn’t get all the much wider a theatrical release. But when I spoke Lena Dunham, the movie’s director, she said that she was happy for her film to reach people on home video or VOD – video on demand – just as long as it reached them, period.

A. And I agree with that. There are certain places where an independent film, no matter how big a push it gets – it’s just not going to play in those markets. So the great thing about VOD is, no matter what cable provider you have, if they’re carrying it, that movie is available to you. And if it’s on DVD, you can buy it or order it anywhere.

Q. The only downside is, there’s nothing like the communal experience of seeing something as exciting as Brotherhood with a lot of other people. What did you make of the audience response at SXSW?

A. I was very surprised. I mean, there are certain parts where the audience literally jumps. Almost like it’s a horror film or something, and they’re reacting to a scare. And I was surprised that people were reacting audibly as well. I didn’t anticipate that.

Q. So what’s next?

A. I just finished a script with the same co-writer, Doug Simon. It’s a thriller that takes place in the financial world that we’re hoping to do next. And there are other projects that are coming our way, either for me as a director of the both of us as a writing team. We’re hoping the one we just wrote is coming next. But you never know.

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