Sully, former frontman of a prominent Philly punk band, struggles for a new identity after moving into an affordable rental outside of Philadelphia with Karen and their 5-year-old son. Mick, his ex-bandmate, resurfaces with a promise to pay back money owed. In a long night, Sully must negotiate a gauntlet of revenge and deceit in order to get back home.
“Shot on location around Philadelphia, the film has an incredible sense of place and love for the city. Featuring great performances from many of the best actors of current American indie cinema, including Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal, and Joe Swanberg, the film has a punk rock sense of propulsion. It asks tough questions about the ways we choose to live our lives, and intelligently examines the balance between our wildest dreams and our concrete realities.” Philadelphia Film Society
We caught up with ‘DETONATOR‘ Co Writer/Directors Damon Maulucci and Keir Politz in Anticipation of the film’s screenings at the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival, June 1 & 7, 2013.
For More Information and TICKETS to ‘DETONATOR’ at the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival – HERE
What has the reaction to ‘DETONATOR’ been like so far (whether on the festival circuit or elsewhere)?
KEIR POLITZ: First, let me thank you guys for doing what you do. It’s important work. One thing I can say for sure is that those who respond to Detonator respond very strongly. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but those are the type of movies we are interested in making. The audience members that react positively connect with the story in a deep and profound way. They get excited about it.
DAMON MAULUCCI: Yeah, it’s been great. So far we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from audiences and in reviews. It’s interesting; many people have come up and recounted the story back to us. I think that comes from there being a lot going on with our protagonist and a long build up of tension. It’s always reassuring when people relate to the psychology and circumstances underneath the story. Overall, people seem to appreciate the sense of place in Detonator– our Philadelphia. Also, we are proud that there has been such a strong connection to the characters and authentic performances from our actors, particularly our leads, Lawrence Levine and Benjamin Fine. I think it feels like a departure from some of the characters that audiences have seen Lawrence play on screen. He plays, Sully, with a kind of subtle brooding and steady ramp up toward physical action. With Ben, it’s just exciting to watch some people discover him through this extremely palpable depiction of, Mick, a fairly toxic and desperate guy.
Keir: One reaction that stands out in particular was at the Philadelphia Film Festival where we did a work-in-progress, “sneak preview” screening to our hometown crowd. After the Q&A, a well-dressed, older gentleman (who I later came to learn is a man of some consequence in the city) charged up to the front and told us how much he appreciated the film and shared a quick story from his past. He was so determined to remember a film it reminded him of that he just loved… “A young guy gets caught up in some trouble in SOHO in the eighties, money flies out of the cab window, he spends the night trying to get home, and ends up getting dumped in a plaster of Paris cast right in front of his house the next morning.” He was giddy about his forgetfulness, the experience of watching our movie, and piecing the two together from his memory. His reaction was visceral. We had a good laugh and a hearty handshake. Those are the moments long after the joy and agony of the creative process that make it all worth a damn. That is the connection we are looking for as artists and storytellers.
How did the two of you come up with this idea? Why these characters, why this story?
DAMON: Keir had an idea that he made into a treatment about two ex-punks from a formerly prominent band in Philly coming up against an older, dangerous anarchist punk they once knew. Keir and I had been working with one another off and on for close to 10 years. We shared some sensibilities and influenced each other’s work, and at that point, we were talking and giving notes, almost on a daily basis. We had both been around the block with a few projects and we were always waiting for investors or name actors to get back to us and essentially green-light our scripts.
KEIR: As Damon mentioned, I had been kicking around this story for a while and an opportunity arose to get the screenplay in the hands of a notable actor who was interested, but the turn-around had to be quick. Damon and I had already spent so much time over many years talking about our scripts and ideas that it made sense to write it together, and we wrote a first draft in a little over two weeks. When this particular actor became unavailable, we took back the script and re-worked it into something that we could shoot ourselves on a modest, but ambitious scale. Then, a dear old friend, David Jacovini, came on board and made it all happen financially. Dave works in finance, and actually left Wall Street to start his own fund, so he already had the right frame of mind. What he lacked in actual film producing experience, he made up for with sheer ambition and innovative ways of thinking. It was a hell of an experience to see this thing through, a crash course on feature filmmaking for all of us.
DAMON: Yeah, I remember standing on the sidewalk pacing back and forth discussing how Keir and I could get the script down in two weeks. Right then and there we decided to officially work together and met over video chat and Skype all day, every day for those two weeks. We managed to get out a pretty good draft and a year later we had become very attached to the material. The characters in the film found a voice through our talking and writing together. Certainly they are some kind of composite of people that we both knew and cared about, as well as parts of us. Ultimately, of course, we passed them over to the actors and they made it all real.
You’ve assembled a great cast. Lawrence Michael Levine, in particular, is significant exposure on the indie circuit lately, with movies like ‘Molly’s Theory of Relativity’, and you mention that Robert Longstreet broke the Sundance record for a male actor by appearing in four separate features. How did you get the cast on board, and what was it like working with them?
DAMON: Once we decided on the scope of this film and that we were going to make it, by hook or by crook with our own resources, we stopped using that lottery ticket mentality that some other thing or some other person we haven’t met is going to come and make things happen for us. We were confident in our script and materials and we lifted our heads and recognized we are fortunate to know talented actors and filmmakers who have the chops to pull this off. Both Keir and I know Lawrence through Columbia film school and have been friends for years. We were speaking to him about the script and getting notes. It was a great way to begin because we all care about each other’s work.
KEIR: I directed Larry in a short film that I shot back in grad school. Though the film turned out to be more of a learning exercise, I really saw something in his performance. He’s easy-going, but has an intensity lingering just beneath the surface that, if given the opportunity to emerge, can be explosive and raw and honest. I think Larry is an amazing actor and I expect to see even bigger and better things from him on screen, things that might blow our minds. Larry also helped with casting, specifically, his wife Sophia, Robert Longstreet and Joe Swanberg, who were both a blast to have on the set and great to work with in their roles. I can’t say much more about Ben Fine, other than I think this is the beginning of an exciting film career, and I hope he lives to enjoy it.
DAMON: And we were all there to serve the story. Oftentimes, their questions or suggestions allowed us to go deeper and add more layers to the story. A guy like Longstreet comes in with his skills and amazing spirit and is a champion of independent film. He knows how to effortlessly lift the set and take everyone to a higher level. Can’t beat that.
KEIR: We also held casting calls that introduced us to the wonderful Dawn Hall who gave a stellar performance as Karen, and Chris Lamothe, the little boy who played Albert. Chris had never acted, but he was incredibly comfortable and patient on set and on camera. And he’s an intelligent kid. He reacted well and seemed to genuinely understand what we were trying to do. I had a lot of fun with Chris, and his parents, Rich and Monica, are wonderful people, which is a big deal when working with children. Fittingly, Dawn also took a bit of a motherly role with Chris both on and off camera.
Why did you make the main characters ex musicians? Have either of you ever been musicians? What impact did the punk artist Jack Talcum (the film’s composer), have on the film?
DAMON: I know Keir has a strong relationship with punk music. I was exposed to the music at an early age and the brash and raw energy of it always stayed with me. As a kid in the 80’s, it felt like one of the first recognitions and response to some of the family dysfunction and institutional hypocrisies I was experiencing. I idealized aspects of the scenes but still have a deep appreciation for the performers who need to shout out and be heard while trying to live their principals.
KEIR: I love certain punk music. I also loathe some. The Clash, among other bands, definitely changed my point of view when I was younger. My introduction to it came somewhere in those heady times when I was realizing that many of things I was taught in my childhood by people in positions of authority out in the world, were dead wrong. Punk struck a chord at the time when I was searching and therefore, susceptible. Then, I had a radio show in undergrad, and I did play music and attempt to make a few bands work. It’s hard and humbling to put yourself out in that way. Fortunately, I reached a point early on when I realized that I just didn’t have it. I could perform well enough, but I lacked in the material department, my songs weren’t so good, and I just wasn’t passionate about it. My friend Dave Marchione, who has a song in the film (the guitar store scene), has been playing music around Seattle since he was in high school. He’s honestly one of the most talented musicians and songwriters I have ever known, but he could never quite make that leap into the limelight, which seems to be necessary to keep going strong in that world. I still hope he will get his shot to be heard by larger audiences. I actually know a lot of musicians who are a little older now, and man, it is a lifestyle that truly accentuates aging… you get “old” very quickly and at a relatively young age. You can write and make movies into your 90s (wishful thinking?), but in punk or rock or pop music, your window of relevancy passes before you ever have a chance to acknowledge it. Then before you know it you are working in sales, playing Wednesday nights with your buddies at the local pub, and dreaming about the old days. If it’s the music you love, this is actually a real, sustainable life that can be very fulfilling, if you let it. One thing I greatly admire about Joe Jack Talcum is that his music evolved gracefully as he got older. He still plays with the Dead Milkmen. They are actually putting out great new material. But his solo work is very spare and personal and tender and amazing.
Damon, I read you saying that the film was very personal to you and Keir. I’d be curious to hear more about that from both of you. I know you mentioned Keir having a son (which brings up parallels to Sully), but are there other reasons the film felt personal? In what ways do you relate to your main characters, Sully and Mick, who have really seen their artistic dreams evaporate?
DAMON: My father is a musician and growing up I watched him deal with the ups and downs of that industry and how he altered his personal view of success. There are so many ways that I feel connected to both Sully and Mick. I’ve been on both ends of calling someone out and holding them to the ideals and principles that they once spouted off. I have always tended to make my friends like family and tend to have intense, emotive and, basically, brotherly relationships with my male friends. So, I can certainly relate to the competition and emotions of the Sully, Mick and Dutch triangle. It is true that Keir and I were writing this script before and after his first son was born. I have always grappled with the idea of having a family while trying to maintain some sort of creative lifestyle. I’m happy to report that I will now actually share that struggle with Keir, as I have a little one on the way this fall. To be clear, the baby is not with Keir, but with my long-term girlfriend JB 🙂
KEIR: My son, Lorenzo, is actually almost 3 now, and I have a 9-month-old daughter, Stella Jo, so I am deep in that world, and I would not want it to be any other way. I am very excited for Damon to get to experience this. I do differ from Sully in that I am very happily married to my best friend, Anne. I know I am fortunate to have a very supportive wife, and not in the pep talk sort of way, but in that she understands what I am trying to do with my time in this world. We share values and have similar expectations for our lives. We enjoy simple things. She’s not crossing her fingers and waiting for my career to take off, she is just happy that we are both passionate about the work we are doing and we both put family first. That’s all I ever wanted. That said, it is often humbling to find yourself drifting into your late 30s and still trying to do something so impractical, like make art, music, films, whatever. It can seem absurd, especially coming from a place like the neighborhood where I grew up in Philadelphia. There, something like art is a pipe dream at best, something that makes you shine as a kid, but you outgrow for a sport and eventually a job. I regularly have these moments when I call everything I am doing into question, but I always return to that simple fact that, even if I tried, I can’t not do this in some form, even if it is a version of Wednesday nights at the local taproom. I need to follow my bliss for no other reason than to be grounded, so that I am able to be a decent husband and the best possible father to these kids.
An interesting trick the movie pulled, at least on me, was that it got me to think, “Oh, I’ve seen this movie before.” Then very suddenly (and jarringly), I realized I was wrong. In the first act and even the beginning of the second, it seems like the film is going to be a traditional drama, and then it suddenly becomes a thriller with the introduction of Robert Longstreet’s scary-as-hell character. Usually rapid shifts like this don’t work this late into a film, but here it is effective. Both of you wrote and directed the film, and you both teach screenwriting, so I am sure you are aware how you have broken some traditional rules. What made you decide to wait this long into the movie to bring it into this other gear? Were you always confident in your decision?
KEIR: We are drawn to naturalistic stories that have a heightened sense of urgency. I personally tend to enjoy simple character-driven stories that begin with a rather quiet and ordinary problem and build to a breaking point where things spiral completely out of control. I think we waited until that point in the film to implement a shift because we wanted to evoke your very reaction to the experience of watching this film. There is also an absurdity to the predicament that these characters put themselves in. Sully is in his mid-30s and he’s chasing this guy around town for something that, after a little consideration, could have easily been avoided. So for those viewers that get it, we’d like to give them the chance to swim through the drama and lose themselves in the comedy a little before we shove them into the physical danger. And I just love the idea of seemingly everyday choices leading to business casual getting ripped and minivan windows being shattered with elbows in the wee hours of the morning.
DAMON: This story was always designed to draw out Sully’s inner turmoil until it is fully rendered, externalized and physically threatens the world he inhabits. I’m so pleased you feel this happens in a way that feels like a realistic thriller. We started with a framework and had the overall intentions of taking the audience on a ride over one crazy night between two old friends. For me, a lot of writing this script was about making inner demons real and ratcheting the tension into the tangible stakes that remain germane to the story and the world. And as Keir mentioned, we gravitate towards a naturalistic approach in how our characters behave and unfold. The film’s tone and structure stem from our way of exploring the character’s need to deal with the angst that comes with changing one’s self identity– accepting responsibility for his actions and being part of, and taking care of, a family.
KEIR: And Damon and I speak endlessly about structure, how a story is working and what it’s doing to a viewer, how it could work more economically and affectively, so I think we are always conscious about testing the limitations of that textbook form or formula so prevalent here in the U.S. And I always want to be breaking the rules. I would rather crash and burn in an effort to subvert the system, than play it safe with convention or models that have been proven by market research people to “test well” with audiences. That’s death to us. Damon and I are very driven by the thrill of creative risk, calculated risk, but risk nonetheless. I have noticed recently that people working in film in some capacity are completely obsessed with “the shifting paradigm” of the business. They love to talk about this, and so desperately want a mouthpiece of the system to tell them what they must do in a few simple steps to have “success,” similar to the “how to” books on screenwriting. More than ever, there seems to be an endless stream of “visionaries” talking about the future of making money in movies, and let’s be honest, that’s really what the conversation is about… money, what sells, how to sell, finding that sweet spot, running the tap dry, and moving on. Yeah, there is the reality of the business of it all and we all need to pay rent and support livelihoods, but are the people talking, writing, reading and tweeting about the state of the film business and those trying to get on board with the latest trend, ever really the people doing the necessary, personal work? Taking the real risks? In my view, this process should always be about seeing just how far you can lean off the ledge. Money, and the act of creating solely with the idea of making money in mind, consistently eviscerates art. If anything, money and the conventions put in place to ensure it, whether in story structure or business models, these are all our mortal enemies. We must know them intimately, only to battle them. Screw with them. Make them our servants, or at least make them unable to pin us down to a board. To me, this is a far more healthy relationship with capitalism or any sort of marketplace. Artists, musicians, filmmakers from history who have had any traction in their work, have always done this in some way, sometimes it lead to their own personal destruction, but I guess that’s the real challenge we face, and I guess this is a lot of what Detonator is about. The lesson I take from it is one of the better lessons we should be teaching our kids, and happens to be a thread in punk music, that, as human beings, we should always be questioning the establishments, great and small, that we have created, and all-too-often the hard truth is that our heroes (our Micks, our Dutches) are frauds at best. At worst, they have become monsters. But in their quiet moments, they are always nothing more than human, and hopefully, at some point, like Sully, they might try to do their very best with what they have to offer to the world. As filmmakers, that’s really all we are trying to do, tell stories and continue to make films that come from a good place, a place of integrity. Fortunately, between the two of us, we have half a dozen projects on deck and ready to go.
– Interview Conducted by David Teich
About the Directors
Damon Maulucci completed his MFA at Columbia University. He recently served as a producer on the feature documentary, PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE, an official selection of the 2011 Toronto Int’l and SXSW Film Festivals. Damon has written several screenplays including, THIS THING ON?, contending finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. His short films, BAD LIGHT, and, LITTLE MAN, have screened at festivals across the U.S. and abroad. Damon has taught screenwriting, film production, and media studies for Hofsra University and St. Francis College. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, and serves as a Visiting Professor for the Film and Television Master’s Program at Sacred Heart University.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Keir Politz completed an MFA at Columbia University where he was a recipient of the John and Jane Smith Fellowship for excellence in screenwriting and one of five film department fellowships. His short film, A PIECE OF AMERICA, won the Audience Choice award at the 2007 Columbia University Film Festival and was selected as one of only four U.S. films to be screened at the prestigious 2008 Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in France. Keir teaches screenwriting at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Cinema Studies and Temple University, and is currently working on his second feature.