From the GATW Archives: SXSW 2011 Interview: A BAG OF HAMMERS co-writer/director Brian Crano

Brian Crano’s first feature A BAG OF HAMMERS premiered just a few weeks ago in Austin at the SXSW Film Festival, where I saw it and instantly fell in love (with the film, not Crano - sorry, dude, that just might be too creepy). A BAG OF HAMMERS follows two misfit best friends, Ben and Allan (played by Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig, respectively), who get by doing no good. They’re thrown a bag of hammers when they take a mother and fatherless boy under their wings.

I unsuccessfully tried to interview Crano in person at the festival, but my schedule kept train-wrecking so he was nice enough to pass along his email for us to conduct an interview that way. After the break is our conversation about the film, which I believe you will find very fascinating, especially if you’re a young filmmaker hungry for originality and exposure. Enjoy!

A BAG OF HAMMERS is your first feature. The film deals with serious tones but in a lighthearted and comical way. Where did the idea of this film first come from?

In the most simplistic terms from a desire to make a buddy comedy. At the time we wrote the script, pre- Apatow rightly turning into the Sun, pre- Wedding Crashers, there was a kind of buddy comedy drought. I wanted to use the central relationship in the film — two best friends — as a metaphor for alternative families and the tropes of a buddy comedy seemed like the perfect fit. The idea was to start the film true to that style, broad comedy - light on consequence and kind of lure the audience into a false sense of security about what they are watching. Then when the plot turns and the rug is pulled out from the two lead characters to do the same thing to the viewer, so the tone and seriousness of the film is suddenly asking a lot more of them emotionally than what they might have bargained for. This was very deliberate, as I really believe that form and content should marry, so I want the audience to be on the same ride as the characters. It’s fun for me to have seen this play out for the first time with an audience at SXSW. It was a big experiment that seemed to work really well, there were a lot of laughs and a lot of sniffles in all the right places. I never want watching the film or anything I do to be a passive experience. I want the audience to have no sense of where the story is leading them and really fight to preserve some sense of genuine surprise, which is such a rare, rare thing to feel when you go to a film, the economics of which dictate that they must branded and advertised within an inch of its life just to get you to the theatre.

You’ve worked with Rebecca Hall three times now [first two have been Crano’s shorts, RUBBERHEART and OFFICIAL SELECTION, respectively]. What is it about her that makes you want to keep casting her in your films?

I met Rebecca in the early 2000s when I cast her in a workshop of a play that I wrote, 12th PREMISE. And it turns out, without knowing it at the time, I had cast my favorite actress and one of my best friends. We approach work in the same way, I think. Rebecca wants to be challenged. She works hard, is rigorous in her approach but has a really good time on set. She’s always treading new ground. And she’s never a pain in the ass. When you work with Rebecca, it’s like one less thing you have to worry about because she will reliably do something brilliant, much better than whatever you had in mind. I will keep offering her work forever and hope very much she keeps saying yes.

I have not seen your shorts, but I have seen A BAG OF HAMMERS and it’s obvious you have an eye for finding actors who mesh well together on screen. What’s your casting process like and how do you know when you’ve found the right people?

Casting is really a fun process. So I like to take my time withit. With BAG we knew that the chemistry between the two leads was critical to the film’s success. I wanted to meet a lot of people, to just talk withthem first, get a sense of who they were, how they like to work and what they thought about the film. Then if they seemed like they would fit in, we would have them come back in and read. This took a few months but was worth it because you end up discovering people like Jason Ritter, who I hadn’t thought of for the role and ended up being perfect; or Carrie Preston whose audition was so strong it changed my perception of the character. I come out of theatre background where the idea of repertory company is really prevalent and it appeals to me greatly. There are about ten or twelve actors that no matter what I’m doing, I’m always looking for a way to cast with them.

You wear many hats in all your films (writer, director, producer) - do you want to keep this trend going or would you like to eventually just write or direct?

I think that I’ll keep it up. I really enjoy the various stages of the process, and they all interrelate, so why not? I’ll keep directing what I write, but I’d like to produce for others as well. Rebecca has a movie that she’s working on that I would like to work on as a producer. And I am attached to direct a film that I didn’t write, at the moment, which is really exciting. It’s a very different process being not emotionally attached to any particular part about the script, having no baggage or whatever. It’s been really cool starting this process. But ultimately, it’s so appealing to have an idea and see it through from the writing process through completion I think I’ll keep doing it all.

A BAG OF HAMMERS deals with young adults who unconsciously refuse to grow up. Being 28, I relate to it because there are times when it hits me that I’m almost 30 and still don’t have it all together, so I often call my sweet mother to see if she’s proud of what I’ve down with my life so far. With that awkward introduction to my personal life, does any of this story come from your personal experiences?

I think the part of the story that relates to my personal experience the most is about the desire to have a family and the knowledge that that family isn’t going to be made up of a husband, a wife, 2.3 kids and a dog. In another way, the film is about people who have had bad things happen to them and still have to move forward. That is close to my experience, my mother was very sick for a while and the weight of that stays with you and changes you, whatever you are doing. But I’m a total momma’s boy and definitely seek approval constantly, so you are not alone.

What’s it like having your feature premiere at a very prestigious and popular film festival like SXSW?

It was really very special. It took six years to make this film and throughout that process you are really formulating the A side of a conversation. South By gave us a huge platform to hear the B side of that conversation and let us engage with a big broad audience. It was honestly the festival where we wanted to launch the film because, having been there in the past, the energy and spirit of the festival was right for this kind of movie. And the whole SXSW team was so great to us and the response to the movie down there was so strong — it was a dream.

A BAG OF HAMMERS is on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you think this has helped market the film?

Well it certainly makes us more accessible. People have written us little questions or notes, and we’ve been invited to screen at other festivals via these mediums so that is helpful. It’s also a useful way for us to feedback, watching Twitter after screenings was kind of a group pastime. And the obvious things like sharing reviews and press stuff with people who are keeping an eye on @abagofhammers or (shameless plug).

What’s next for A BAG OF HAMMERS?

We’re screening at Nashville Film Festival and Newport Beach Film Festival and we’ve been asked to screen at a few others. And we’re in the process of selling the film, which is a nice thing.