SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 26, 2012
With his debut narrative feature film Booster, Matt Ruskin has made a gem of a movie that on its surface is a Boston crime drama but underneath that skin lies the heart of a 70’s American cinematic character study that is more about family and the ties that bind than it is about crime and violence. Featuring a spellbinding leading performance by first-time actor Nico Stone, who was awarded a Special Jury Recognition for Performance at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival, as well as a solid supporting turn by another non-actor Adam DuPaul, the film is beautifully shot and slowly paced and was one of my favorite films of the festival. I saw the film on a whim, the writeup sounding promising, and in one of those moments that make film festivals magical, I was captivated. It was my privilege to sit down with the three longtime friends Matt Ruskin, Nico Stone, and Adam DuPaul, in the lobby of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin a few days after the film’s world premiere to discuss the making of the film, Matt’s influences, and what it was like to work with the legendary Seymour Cassel. (Check out our SXSW 2012 review of Booster).
Linc Leifeste: You know, although I loved Booster when I saw it, it wasn’t until I found myself days later still replaying that closing image of Nico sitting in the laundromat wearing his Saddam mask, that I decided to try to pursue an interview with you guys. That’s a very powerful visual ending to the film.
Matt Ruskin: I appreciate it.
LL: Talk a little bit about the evolution of the film, what initially gave you the idea of making this film, and the process from there.
MR: I spent a couple of years writing a much bigger screenplay and I just kind of got tired of waiting around for that to go somewhere, it seemed like it was never going to happen. You know, Nico and I are lifelong friends and we always wanted to make a film together and we started talking about something that we could do much more independently and we just started kicking around ideas. One of the things, when you don’t have all the resources in the world, you have to start figuring out what you do have access to and that kind of guides what film you’re going to make. So we were just kicking ideas around and then when I started writing I enrolled Nico in an actor’s workshop, just to kind of get his feet wet, and we pretty much talked every day that I was writing, all three of us.
LL: And as far as the writing of the script, were there any particular films or novels that influenced your story and your writing or was it more based on your own life experiences?
MR: Yeah, the story was inspired by people that we knew growing up and it became sort of a composite fictionalization of the stories we had heard, people we had known, things they had gone through. But you know, we also all really love 70’s films, films that feel really authentic and with sparse dialogue. You know, Nico’s not the kind of guy that’s going to talk about his feelings all of the time…
LL: Right. One of the things about the film that really struck me was the amount of silence and particularly in regards to your character and his interactions. It seems like Simon probably communicates more with his eyes and his body language than through his words. How did you prep for that role?
Nico Stone: I just did my best to sort of put myself in that character’s situation and I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly where I would be emotionally if I was going through those situations.
LL: Can you talk a bit about your role in the writing process.
NS: The process is kind of like I have an idea, I give it to Matt, he would do his thing with it, we would talk a bit, see what works and what doesn’t work. I don’t know…
MR: It was sort of bigger picture stuff, trying to figure out thematically how it would work and sort of what the story is in broader strokes and then sometimes very specific ideas. And you know, I’d call Adam and ask about specific scenes I was writing for his character.
Adam DuPaul: Sometimes some of the dialogue that was written down just didn’t feel exactly right to me. And he’d ask “Well, what would you say in this situation?” or something like that. And that just allowed me to feel more hands on with my role and that was really important for me. I wanted it to feel real, the day to day struggle, and to get that point across. That it’s not all gunfire and women and partying and all of that stuff. It’s a tough lifestyle.
LL: After seeing the film, when I heard that this was the first acting experience for both of you guys, I was amazed because you both give such strong performances and the intimate interaction between your characters felt so authentic. Had all three of you known each other for a while?
AD: Yeah, all three of us grew up together. Matt had since moved away and so we lost track of him for a while but when we were working together it was a very comfortable environment. And I know that made it easier for me to do this, the first time working on a film.
NS: Yeah, it was just a process of all three of us figuring out how Matt could communicate what he needed to with us and get his point across without us being trained and not really having done this before. But you know, because we’ve had such a history, it didn’t really take that long. I mean it took a little while but not that long to figure it out.
LL: And as for Kristin Dougherty, was she also a first-time actor? How did you find her?
MR: She’s trained, she’s done some theater although I think this is her first feature film. I called some friends that are involved in a theater company and they highly recommended Kristin.
LL: Are there other non-actors in the film? How did you go about choosing how to fill roles with actors vs. non-actors?
MR: All the peripheral characters are real people, non-actors. Other than that, obviously there’s Seymour Cassell. And then Simon’s brother was played by a local Boston actor and the woman that plays his girlfriend is an experienced actor but pretty much everybody else, they’re all just local Boston people that we just thought would be right for the parts.
LL: Speaking of Seymour Cassell, how did you connect with him and what was it like to work with him?
MR: He’s incredible. A friend of mine made a film with him a couple of years ago so he got him the script. Turns out that Seymour had been stationed on a destroyer just off the coast of Boston in the early ’50’s so he had all these crazy stories about Boston.
NS: He took us to Chelsea too, the exact neighborhood we were filming.
MR: So he loved the script. He loved Boston and he wanted to come and do it. And he was great to work with….Nico can probably tell you about doing scenes with him.
NS: Ha ha, yeah. He’s an intense guy and I was completely intimidated by him, obviously. You know, he showed up and I was terrified! But he made me comfortable right away…you know the first scene we were shooting definitely got scratched because he was just fucking with me the whole time, just to get me to loosen up. You know what I mean? But it worked. It worked great and we were friendly with each other immediately and just joking the whole time so we were able to have a great chemistry.
LL: I was thinking that it would probably also be a little daunting to make a Boston crime drama because it’s a genre that’s been done, while maybe not endlessly, it’s been done both really well, Eddie Coyle, for instance and not so well, as in maybe The Town. Is that something you spent time thinking about, the pressures or expectations that go along with a film in this genre?
MR: Honestly, I know there’s that whole expectation you get for that genre, but I would say without regard for that… this is where we’re from, this is the world that we know and we really wanted to capture it. But I think those other movies have very little to do with what we tried to capture. Very little. Our approach was really just to try to stay authentic to the real world, real people, trying to show the human side of all of this and the setting is just the cover.
LL: Probably even more so because of the silence of the film, I was struck by the visual aspects of the film, particularly the closing scene. I’d read that you asked the cinematographer to watch Gomorah. Were there any other films that visually influenced you?
MR: Probably several. A movie like A Prophet is something that we admire. You know, I wouldn’t even come close in comparing my film to those films but we definitely studied them because they’re so incredibly effective visually.
LL: How did you find the cinematographer, Tim Gillis, who I think did an amazing job?
MR: He gaffed for a friend of mine who is a cinematographer and he’d been shooting a fair amount and he really wanted to do a feature and everything just seemed right: a great guy, a great sensibility and a great temperament. So we couldn’t have been happier. Incredibly talented and a great temperament to be around and to work with.
LL: I know you’ve done documentaries prior to this. How would you compare this experienced with that of making a documentary? In what ways is it different?
MR: To be totally honest, going into this I was like “I’ve been making films for twelve years. I know exactly what I’m doing.” It’s so completely different. I thought I knew way more than I actually did going into it. There’s definitely some things that carried over, like I felt confident on how to just grab some things on the fly. I mean, I spent years just pointing a camera at people and following them around and when you do that, good things can happen. So I feel more comfortable doing that.
NS: And there’s a lot of that in the film, it’s important to say.
MR: Yeah, we definitely did that from time to time. Like when he’s stealing all those goods, we just walked up ten minutes before we shot and went in those stores, or the day before, and said “Hey, can we come in and shoot some footage?” and those were all the real people who worked in those stores. And then I think the other big piece of it is that I edited all the documentaries that I’d done and I edited this film as well and I think I probably approached the edit more so like a documentary editor, in that I was totally willing to discard the script, just trying to write whatever we could with the footage we had at the end of the shoot.
LL: How long was the shooting process?
MR: We shot for four weeks.
LL: And as far as writing, directing and editing, how was it for you wearing all those hats?
MR: The editing was the roughest. I love the collaboration, working with a great crew and I think I missed that on the editing.
LL: What’s next for you?
MR: I definitely want to make another movie with these guys and I have a couple of other projects, all narrative stuff, that I’ve developed and I’m just trying to figure out what to script next.
LL: And you guys?
NS: I definitely want to keep going, if it’s possible.
AD: Yeah, me too. I mean it was such a great process and everybody was so great to work with…I don’t want to say it was easy to do to the point where it wasn’t work because we did work hard…but there was some joking around and camaraderie and such that made it so much easier to be there. You could talk to anyone on the crew and they made me feel comfortable because I really didn’t know what to expect coming in to this. But I definitely want to do more of this because it was such a great experience.
LL: And as for the future of the film itself, more festivals?
MR: Yeah, we’re starting to look at more festivals and South by Southwest is sort of our coming out to distributors and we’re just trying to see what our options are.
LL: And how has your experience at South by Southwest been?
MR: It’s been an awesome experience. First time at the festival and first time in Austin and we’re loving it.