For the third and final screening of “Brotherhood” at SXSW last year, the young woman who had gotten in line two-and-a-half hours ahead of time confided in me that she had actually attended the previous two screenings and needed to see it again. Her reasoning that she might not ever see it again was understandable, given the crapshoot of indie film distribution and because “Brotherhood” isn’t exactly for those with a weak stomach. However, the film would also be a rare thing to behold, even if it weren’t for limited screenings since director Will Canon’s first feature is the kind of ridiculously fun, down and dirty thriller that few filmmakers are willing to stretch the limits of credibility or good taste to make or are skilled enough to pull off as energetically or confidently as this straightforward nailbiter about a fraternity hazing ritual that spirals out of control.
The less one knows about “Brotherhood” the better, though it is an expansion of Canon’s 2001 short “Roslyn,” which centered on the tête-à-tête between an armed man and a convenience store clerk after a misunderstanding, and develops it out into the story of a group of pledges whose trial by fire leads to some really evil deeds once they make it back to the frat house. There are no real heroes amongst the brothers, only ones who make slightly less disastrous choices involving medical aid, tied-up captives, and the growing number of witnesses, and they are all at the mercy of Frank (Jon Foster), the brother of highest seniority who stops at nothing to prevent anyone from getting the word out about the events of the evening, which gallop along so quickly that Foster commemorated his director’s favorite hand signal – two upright thumbs to mean “keep the energy up” – at the end of shooting.
Although the film never gives a location for its setting, “Brotherhood” was shot in Canon’s hometown of Arlington and as the director explains below, it was largely a labor of love, though that’s a feeling you’ll only get from the craftsmanship of his deranged and darkly humorous film.
You made several shorts after “Roslyn,” the one that served as the inspiration for “Brotherhood” – why did you want to revisit this one in particular for your first feature?
When I first made it, I made it in film school, and I never had any intention of expanding it. I liked what I had done and was really proud of it, but I was still kind of figuring out what my voice was and a lot of it had to do with what style of filmmaker I was going to be. Some of the shorts that I did right after that were pretty different tonally. As rough as “Roslyn” and “Brotherhood” are, the other films I had done are really clean and highly stylized and just completely different. But I think in a lot of ways, the short never really went away. It did really well on the festival circuit, it sold to Showtime and then several years later, I was still getting calls about it and e-mails about it.
My writing partner [Doug Simon] and I would kind of just talk about it every once in a while and throw some ideas back and forth. But we wanted to make sure if we were going to expand it to a feature, we had a story that we were really passionate about. We were able to come up with a few ideas about how to expand it that just got us really excited. And to me, the writing is always the trickiest part. I think if you can come up with ideas early on that really excite you and get you going and writing, you know you’re on the right track.
When you have a film that feels like it has a cascading effect – where one bad decision leads to another – did you feel an obligation to the story during the writing process to constantly top yourself from one scene to the next?
You always have to end stronger than you start with any movie, especially [when] you’ll watch a comedy and the first half is just hilarious then maybe the second half of it, it gets a little more into the plot and they have to resolve the story and the jokes aren’t as good. We wanted to throw down the gauntlet at the beginning. We thought we had an opening that was pretty cool, but just as storytellers, we wanted it to get better as it went along, so it wasn’t just petering out. It was actually accelerating.
You’re roughly a generation removed from the characters onscreen, but the film captures a very particular unhinged, nihilist streak. Was it hard getting back into that mindset and did having younger actors around help you?
I think you’ve got to really listen to your actors, not just in terms of “Hey, I’m the age so the style should be more like this, we should sound more like this…” but really, across the board. If they’re telling you there’s some kind of structural problem with the scene, I really believe in listening to those guys. My writing partner and I, we never really went back and did a pass or anything like that to try to make it sound younger. I’m 32 now, but we shot the film, I was 29. When we started writing it, I was probably 25 or 26, so at the time we were really writing the dialogue, we weren’t really that far removed from being in college.
A lot of that dialogue [for the film’s introductory sequence] is lifted straight from the short, so I kind of felt like we were kind of clued into it from the beginning and before we really started writing, we did a lot of research, just kind of hanging out with people. I went and videotaped a fraternity in Texas as they were taking some of their guys through initiation, so I was just trying to always keep that younger voice in my head. Because we certainly didn’t want to feel like middle-aged writers trying to write for teenagers.
On that note of the research you were doing, I understand you put the actors through actual hazing — were you worried that kind of method stuff could backfire?
Overall, it was very important to me. I felt like a lot of times more typical Hollywood movies are made about this age group they do kind of pull punches and go with a much cleaner PG-13 version of this kind of stuff, so that was important to us that it did have that kind of gritty and kind of unhinged feeling that you’re talking about. In terms of the hazing, it was important that we did give the guys a feeling or an experience or a jolt of what real hazing was like and not PG-13 kind of hazing. But at the same time, you’ve got to make sure that nobody goes overboard. You’ve got to make sure that it’s supervised and nothing gets out of hand or you find yourself in the same position as what you’re making a movie about, which you don’t want to do. But the guys did a good job.
I called up Jon Foster before anybody from Texas came to shoot and just put the idea in his head [of hazing the younger actors] to see what he thought about it. Jon loved the idea and really from that point on, I really wanted him to take ownership of it and make it his own. We called it [the] hazing boot camp. I wasn’t really that involved in it beyond giving him the idea, which made me a little nervous because when I would show up and hang out with [the actors] and see the things Jon and the older brothers were having the pledges do, these are all actors that have just showed up, they don’t really know each other. Some of the guys knew each other – Jon and Trevor [Morgan] and Lou [Taylor Pucci] knew each other, but like a lot of the local guys didn’t know anybody [and] hadn’t done a whole lot of movies. So I was just very nervous that people were going to get upset, but I think everybody liked it and when they talk about it now, I hear them talk about what a great experience it was.
That might also be due to the fact your mother was cooking breakfast for the whole crew and your parents even put some of them up. What was it like to shoot crazy stuff at night and have that experience during the day?
It’s like these different worlds are coming together. We’ve got people from L.A. and people that I’m working with and then it’s my first film, so you want everything to have this completely professional feeling to it and then we’ll all hang out with my mom and she’s telling stories about what I was doing when I was six years old. [laughs] I think in a way, it was bonding and it loosened everybody up. It was one of those movies where it was important to everybody and was such a team effort.
With a film like this where you’re showing a fraternity doing horrible things to both its pledges and others, have you found that while traveling with the film that crowd has embraced it even if they’re not presented in the best light?
We wanted it to feel like a very honest portrayal and not like we’re taking shots at anybody and my hope is that people see the movie as okay, these are people who are in an extreme situation who are letting their behavior get out of hand. There aren’t many people who have been, especially in fraternities, in situations nearly as crazy as this, so I don’t think they see themselves as that because their behavior in real life is so different. But I was always really interested in how this was going to play with young guys that are in fraternities and so far it’s played really well. The film just opened in Dallas last week and we had a bunch of the guys come out from SMU and some other different fraternities and they all seemed to really love the film and I’m proud of that. I’m glad that they do.
What’s up next for you?
The next one right now is looking like a script that my co-writer and I are just finishing up right now. It’s a thriller and it takes place in the financial world, but it’s not as dark and edgy as “Brotherhood.” It’s still going to be a compressed timeframe, all-one-day kind of story.
“Brotherhood” is now open in Dallas and Los Angeles and available on demand before opening in New York on March 11th.