After a weekend of partying with stolen money, three Texas teens (Jeremy Allen White, Logan Huffman, and Mackenzie Davis) find themselves indebted to a sociopathic criminal named Giff (Mark Pellegrino, in a breakout performance). To pay their debt, Giff forces the teens to steal from his boss, a money-laundering gangster named Big Red (William Devane). Things go from bad to worse when betrayal, distrust, and corruption complicate an already dangerous plan. This stylish and emotional crime thriller is the stunning directorial debut of Simon and Zeke Hawkins.
Coinciding with the Theatrical and Video on Demand release of ‘Bad Turn Worse,’ David Teich sat down with the film’s writers/directors, Simon & Zeke Hawkins, with an extended conversation on the brothers specific approach to independent film production. Throughout the lively conversation, many aspects of the film’s lifespan up to this point were discussed. From Screenwriting, Producing to sharing Directing responsibilities, no stone is left unturned. ‘Bad Turn Worse‘ is NOW AVAILABLE on iTunes Movies and everywhere VOD can be found.
Find Screening Information about ‘Bad Turn Worse’ via GoWatchit.com – HERE
How did you guys start working together?
Zeke Hawkins: We started working together because we didn’t have anyone else to work with. [Laughs]. When I was in college and Simon was in high school, our parents bought us a video camera. And there was no one else, so circumstance dictated that we figure out how to work together.
What’s your collaborative process like? Are there aspects of a production that one of you tends to focus on more than the other?
Zeke: During production, we try to talk about everything beforehand, and we can easily trust each other’s taste, because it’s pretty similar. I probably end up doing a little bit more of the busy talking, just towing the boat along. And I think that frees up Simon to come up with some outside-the-box creative ideas…And when we’re editing, Simon’s the one actually manning the computer, doing the physical cutting of the movie. But for the most part there’s really no formal delineation of anything.
Simon Hawkins: And we try to talk to each other after each take, even if it’s just to say, “That was good,” or we have a quick note for each other. We communicate really quickly by ourselves, and then we go talk to everybody on set.
Do you find that you bring out the best in each other?
Simon: When you’re making a movie, every single external factor is pushing you towards mediocrity, to settle for the second best location, or to settle for a take that’s not so great, because time is going by. Zeke and I are both people pleasers. We want everybody to be happy. But one really positive way we complement each other is that we force each other to keep pushing for the best possible stuff, rather than giving in to the external factors of the day. So when things are not going so well—
Zeke: –and one person’s like, “Well I guess we can move on, even though nothing feels right”—the other person will go, “No, let’s keep going on this one.” And that’s also true in the editing process. Sometimes a scene’s not totally working, but you want to move on, and then the other person says, “No, maybe we need to stay here for a while.”
What drew you to the project? Do you both have a particular fondness for this kind of neo-noirish genre?
Simon: The energy of Dutch Southern’s script made me want to go back and read a lot of Jim Thompson books, and inspired both of us to get into that genre. But it wasn’t necessarily the other way around, where we grew up loving that genre.
Zeke: Yeah, it was less the genre and more the project. First and foremost, we knew the producers beforehand, and we were really excited to work with Brian Udovich and Justin Duprie. Then they showed us the script, which was super fun to read. Dutch has a real talent for writing dialogue. And [Brian and Justin] said we’d be shooting in Justin’s hometown in South Texas, and we thought the idea of going to shoot in Texas was really exciting. And they also told us they were self-financing—the money was already there, and no matter what, the film was happening in five months. It’s so hard for first-time filmmakers to get a project off the ground. And the fact that this was guaranteed to happen was incredibly exciting.
What, in particular, struck you about the script’s dialogue?
Zeke: It was partly the rhythm of it. Writing dialogue is a lot like writing music. And I think certain people have that God-given talent, and some people don’t. Dutch clearly does. Writing dialogue isn’t our strongest talent, but the script was already there. And we knew that we’d be able to complement it with our own strengths.
The dialogue, and the film in general, employ both humor and deadly-serious suspense. Is that a challenging balancing act?
Zeke: One thing Dutch has a talent for—and this is something that’s really hard to do in both writing and in acting—is finding beat changes and tonal changes within scenes. A character can go from being vulnerable to attacking, or from making a joke to doing something serious. Very often in scripts, beat changes feel clunky and fake, but Dutch can do it naturally. That’s huge factor in being a good writer: The ability to naturally flow from thing to thing.
Even if those beat changes that you’re talking about are working well in the script, is it possible to mess it up when you translate it to the screen as directors? What are some of the stylistic techniques you used to preserve what was in the script?
Zeke: To answer the first part of your question, it is always possible to mess anything up.
Zeke: More than anything else, our strategy is to trust what we have—to trust the script and the actors. We’re not going to micromanage and say, “Okay, this is the shot where you say this one line, and this is the shot where you say that line.” We prefer to let things flow. Yes, we infuse a shooting philosophy that goes with the beat changes of the script, but more than anything else, we create parameters for the art to live in, rather than trying to control it.
What are some of the challenges involved in getting audiences to invest in characters who do horrible things?
Simon: This is something we were hyperaware of when we were casting the character of B.J. in particular. Here’s a guy who does some pretty shitty things, but we knew that viewers still needed to root for him and care for him. That’s why it was so exciting when we found Logan Huffman: When he walked into a room he felt dangerous, and he made us feel uncomfortable. But at the same time, we had the feeling that he was vulnerable, and we empathized with him, even when he said or did bad things. And I think it’s crucial to find the humanity in your characters.
Even absent the performance, the character must have seemed sympathetic on the page. Being trapped in a small town, while your girlfriend and your best friend develop romantic feelings and prepare to go off to college and leave you behind—that would lead a lot of people to act out.
Simon: Yeah, it’s not just the feeling of being trapped, it’s the romantic element. Most people have been dumped at some point. People know what it feels like to be left behind. And there’s anger and resentment that comes with that. And the love triangle element immediately infuses a kind of drama in the movie, a sense of longing and wanting, where no one has what they want. So immediately the story has a place to go. In the opening scene in the diner, we were trying to show a real spark and connection between [Jeremy Allen White’s] Bobby and [Mackenzie Davis’s] Sue. When you’re watching, you’re thinking, “This is great. These two people get along.” Then B.J. shows up, and you realize she’s actually with him. And the audience has something to root for—that Bobby and Sue, these two people who have this real connection, can be together in some way.
Zeke: And I think the love triangle creates another element: It establishes this idea that there’s always something under the surface with each character that they’re not necessarily saying out loud.
How would you describe your visual approach to filming?
Zeke: First and foremost, we were going for that late ‘70s, early ‘80s filmic look—similar to movies like ‘Sugarland Express,’ or ‘At Close Range,’ or ‘Badlands.’ We were shooting at a 2.35 aspect ratio. And we were going with a color palette that was really dictated by the locations where we were shooting. When we first went down there, everywhere we looked there was rich brown soil that went for miles, the barns were often a teal color, and there was an overbearing son. So our starting color palette was rich brown, teal, and yellow. We played with wide-angle close-ups. And we got this idea from the movie ‘Milk’ to give a lot of visual headroom to the Bobby character: When he’s under pressure, it feels like the world is bearing down on him.
Did you have any familiarity with the area before you took on the project?
Simon: No. Zeke and I had been to Texas before, but mostly Austin, and a little bit of ‘Friday Night Lights’ West Texas country. We had never been to this particular town, or to this sort of farming environment. So when we first signed on to the project, maybe four or five months before we shot the movie, we went down there to see all the locations. And we spent a weekend there. That was the first time we had eyes on the town. But we knew that most audience members weren’t going to be familiar with this world. And I think we wanted to come into it with a fresh perspective that most people seeing the movie would relate to.
Zeke: And there were two things that really struck us when we first got there: First, it’s just so flat, and you can see forever. That really infuses this sense that you’re out on your own. There’s a real melancholy to the world. And the other thing that really struck us was that there were gigantic, scary windmills just everywhere. That had such an impact on us. We had never been around something like that before.
Simon: Visually, the windmills were one of my favorite things about this world. When it was daytime and we were shooting outside, or even inside with windows in the shot, you could pretty much always see a windmill in the background. And it just provided this menacing feeling that something much, much larger was there. And even when we were shooting night exteriors, you would see the red blinking lights of the windmills.
Zeke: Yeah, even when you couldn’t see the windmills themselves, you were always aware of their presence…Going down there to see the locations really helped us. It allowed us to mold the script to this world that we now had a relationship to.
In what ways did you mold the script to the locations?
Zeke: Just in practical ways. For instance, when we saw the physical layout of the cotton gin where we’d be shooting, it completely changed our ideas of how one might go about a heist there. So in a situation like that, all the dialogue gets moved around and changed based on the practicalities of the physical place you’re using.
When you changed dialogue, did you collaborate with Dutch Southern?
Simon: Dutch was back in L.A., but sometimes we would work on specific scenes with him. For instance, there’s a scene at the end of the movie, up in the rafters of the cotton gin, where [Mark Pellegrino’s] Giff gives a speech where he’s putting down Bobby. When we were climbing around up in the rafters, it gave us some ideas. So we got in contact with Dutch and said, “It would be great if Giff said something right here.” And then he’d work on a couple drafts. That was our process with Dutch. We would work on very specific moments like that. There was a constant back-and-forth.
What’s fascinating to you about the idea of relatively innocent people being sucked into violent and immoral scenarios? Is that more interesting to you than the idea of centering a film on characters who are hard-and-fast criminals to begin with?
Zeke: Sometimes in movies, the plot is like, “This career thief is the protagonist. Let’s all root for him.”
Simon: Or often it’s an assassin.
Zeke: Yeah, or an assassin. And the movie tries to convince you that he’s actually an assassin with a heart of gold. And I’m like, “What a horrible person. I’m not rooting for an assassin!” Movies are often not honest about the real factors that go into having a chosen profession. There are certain jobs you can’t have without being a shitty person.
Zeke: So when a movie says, “Here’s a person who does horrible things, but he’s a good guy deep down,” that really bothers me. It’s dishonest. In this movie, we’re trying to find a way into interesting, criminal scenarios, with people who got to this place in a believable way. We wanted them to be human beings. When you’re dealing with someone who’s just a scumbag, that’s not nearly as intriguing.
— Interview conducted and edited by David Teich