Creating an independent film that distinguishes itself from the numerous mainstream movies set to be released over the summer can be a difficult task for many filmmakers. Relatively new director Antoni Stutz, who helmed and made his feature film writing debut with the new independent crime romance thriller ‘Rushlights,’ which is now playing in theaters in select markets, including New York and Los Angeles, as well as on VOD, aimed to do just that with the movie. With an experienced cast, the film showcases the lengths people would go to in order to not only protect and provide for themselves, but those they love as well.
‘Rushlights’ follows Sarah (Haley Webb), a seemingly all-American diner waitress in suburban Los Angeles, who agrees to go on a date with one of her regular customers, Billy (Josh Henderson). A week later, after a memorable first night together, Billy receives a frantic phone call from a frightened Sarah, as her roommate has overdosed and is lying dead on their couch. Billy rushes to Sarah’s apartment to help her, and in a panic, he packs a big of what he assumes are her possessions. While on the run, Sarah notices that he packed some of her roommate’s things by accident, among them a letter from a Texas lawyer, Cameron Brogden (Aidan Quinn), informing her that she’s set to inherit her recently deceased uncle’s entire fortune
Since Sarah looks strikingly similar to her roommate, she and Billy decide to head to Texas to collect the inheritance. But once they arrive in the small Texas town, the two quickly create suspicion among the law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Robert Brogden, Jr. (Beau Bridges) and his partner, Earl (Jordan Bridges). Sarah and Billy now have to prove their innocence in what the police believe is murder, as they believe her roommate’s uncle’s death was killed for his money. Sarah also must contend with her next-door neighbor from Los Angeles, Edward Romero (Crispian Belfrage), who was also her roommate’s drug dealer and has learned of her scam. He arrives in Texas to take the inheritance from the two cons, as he feels Sarah must pay off her roommate’s debt to him.
Stutz took the time recently to talk about shooting ‘Rushlights’ over the phone from his office in Los Angeles. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he and his writing partner, Ashley Scott Meyers, were influenced to write the script after reading an article about a similar stunt two teens attempted in Alabama; how writing the screenplay gave him a clear insight into how to proceed with his directorial duties on the set; and how the thriller received a positive response from audiences when it had its U.S. premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival.
Question (Q): You co-wrote the script for the new crime romance thriller, ‘Rushlights,’ with Ashley Scott Meyers. Where did you come up with the idea for the story overall?
Antoni Stutz (AS): Well, the story was inspired by two teenagers who tried to pull a very similar stunt in Alabama. They tried to claim they were someone else, and claim a dead friend’s inheritance. They actually traveled to a small town in Alabama.
We came across a newspaper article that Ashley picked up on and we embellished on it. We ultimately placed the story in Texas. We thought this would be an interesting thriller, not just because they were posing as someone else. That’s stuff I’ve heard of before. The interesting thing for me was primarily the coming-of-age and love story aspect of it, besides what they encountered in the village. It was a whole clash of culture there.
Usually what you have in a neo-noir piece is that the protagonist is usually in their 30s or 40s. I thought what was interesting about the article when I read it, and we started to put this into treatment form, was that they were 19, 20, 21. So all bets were off, because the choices you make at that age are completely different and less calculated than when you’re 30 or 40. Therefore, the script became very unpredictable. The topic of redemption became a subject matter, and created a whole new dynamic when making the protagonist younger.
Q: Besides writing the script, you also directed ‘Rushlights.’ Was it always your intention to helm the film as well while you were writing? Once you began shooting the movie, did you feel that writing the screenplay helped in your directorial duties?
AS: Yes, it was my intention to direct the film while I was writing the script. I hoped writing the script would help me direct the film, simply because I knew it inside out. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite, but it definitely gave me a much clearer vision of what I wanted to do with the film, and what direction I wanted to take it in.
But generally speaking, from strictly a director’s point-of-view, I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that you need to write the script. But I think if you happened to have written the script, you’re certainly very familiar with the material. That can work for or against you (laughs), depending on how it all works out in the end.
Q: Josh Henderson and Haley Webb play the two lead characters in the film, Billy and Sarah. What was the casting process like for the two of them?
AS: It was actually fairly difficult. I auditioned a number of girls and boys to find kids who have the full range that I was looking for. I didn’t want a 30-year-old playing 20. I didn’t want a 20-year-old who has been around the block. But to have actors at that age who have the emotional range I was looking for really proved to be much more difficult than I thought.
But in the end, I was pretty clear when the two of them walked in, after a long audition process, that I was going to offer them the parts. But finding them took a while.
Q: Did you work with Josh and Haley at all to develop their characters before you began shooting the film? Did you have any rehearsal periods before you began shooting?
AS: We did rehearse. We had a table read and a full rehearsal for two-three weeks with the other actors, too. I rehearsed with Beau Bridges and everyone, and it was a fun experience.
Q: Speaking of Beau Bridges, ‘Rushlights’ also features an impressive supporting cast, including, Aidan Quinn, Jordan Bridges and Lorna Raver. Was it always your intention to have a strong cast overall, and what was the process of signing the rest of the cast like?
AS: Well, this is where I really think Valerie McCaffrey, the casting director, came in quite strongly. She had a lot of great suggestions. When you have a large ensemble piece like this, if you’re not careful in that area, it shows pretty quickly. To have a strong supporting cast was paramount. The whole thing comes across as being seamless. So I expected from those actors just as much from my leads. But it wasn’t too directorial-it was more of a collaboration.
But those guys were great. Jordan had a thought on how he wanted to play the supporting character of the deputy, and we flushed it out. We worked on it together, and it was a great process. I really enjoyed working with the actors.
Q: Despite their best intentions, many of the characters are flawed and make unethical decisions that are meant to benefit themselves. What does having so many amoral characters add to the plot, and do you think their actions are indicative of modern society?
AS: That’s a great question. That was a question that came up during the formulating of the script. We spoke of how close to reality we should stick to while filming. We asked, what do ordinary people do in extraordinary circumstances? That’s usually a great thing for unpredictability. You don’t know who’s going to be the anti-hero, and who’s going to fall for the temptation. You very quickly enter into a grey zone.
Given that we have so many male characters in this film, Haley Webb’s character is in many ways morally and ethically the strongest character in the film. She starts off as the weakest, as she just got out of rehab and is trying to put her life back together.
Then this crisis happens and she’s led to this town. Everything that possibly could go wrong does go wrong. Then she makes a clear decision and follows down that path to recovery, including having that belief in Billy. By the end, she’s the strongest character. That was interesting to me-the one who started off as the “weakest,” becomes the strongest. The femme fatale is sort of reversed; Josh basically begins playing that part.
Q: Besides writing and directing ‘Rushlights,’ you also produced the film. Did also working as a producer influence the way you helmed the movie at all?
AS: Sometimes. You’re certainly aware of the financial construct and responsibilities. But I also had to surround myself with producers, so that during the shoot itself, I could really focus on the directing, and not be crunching numbers at night.
But in the preparation of the film, there’s no doubt. Of course it has influence. You have a different perspective on the execution of the film. But I don’t think in my particular case there were any compromises. I pretty much brought it in on time and budget.
Q: ‘Rushlights’ is set to play in a limited theatrical release, as well as on VOD. Are you a fan of watching films On Demand, and do you think VOD is the future of viewing movies?
AS: I prefer going to the theater. I think our industry is going through a tremendous transition, due to what’s technologically doable. Nobody really knows what the outcome will be. It’s very expensive to put a small film, or even a medium-sized film, or any kind of film into the theaters these days. For independent films to compete with the big tentpoles and franchises of the studios is almost impossible.
VOD, in terms of revenue, has not really replaced DVD, so independent filmmaking is tough today. I take my hat off to anyone can take a film off the ground. I think having finished this, and having brought this to a conclusion, has humbled me in many ways. It’s a very difficult, humbling process.
Q: Speaking of having that smaller budget, did making the film independently pose any particular challenges while you were shooting?
AS: We had great line producing on the film. Pat Chapman, our line producer, did a fantastic job making sure the company was moving, because we had tremendous amounts of locations. There was also a very specific look to the film. So that was really a question of organization.
But I got very lucky, having a great production team overall, who was very dedicated. Without that, it would have been impossible to shoot the film in the amount of time I shot it for, with the quality I was looking for. That was a great process, and I got lucky with the crew, and that’s really half the battle.
You can plan for everything and everything goes wrong. You cannot plan, and for some reason, everything goes right that day. You try to keep the risks somewhat under control. But there is a tremendous amount of dynamics involved in filmmaking. But you have to embrace it; the more you try to control it, the difficult it becomes.
Q: The film is set in Texas, and had its U.S. premiere at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. What kind of feedback did you receive from audiences there?
AS: That was a great experience. I had no idea what to expect in Dallas. I didn’t know how the natives would embrace a story about their own state. But we had a full house at the premiere with a long Q&A. I was very nicely and positively surprised at the quality of questions the audience was asking. They were really into it; they loved Beau, and it was great.
When you have a house with 400 seats that’s full, and you still have 230 sitting afterwards, that was really nice. James Faust, the director of the festival, gave us a great reception. Considering how many volunteers are there and the tight budget, they did a great job.
We went to quite a few festivals, and I have to say, that was one of the best experiences overall, without a doubt. Everyone who came to the festival said the same thing.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether directing, writing or producing, that you can discuss?
AS: Yes, several. But the number one thing right now is that this film comes to a successful conclusion. There’s lots of work left to be done.
But I’m in development for two projects. One’s a finished script, and the other’s still being written, and both are thrillers. We’ll see how quickly I can manage to get them off the ground. In the indie world, you wear a lot of hats and it wears you out. But I’m looking forward to making another film, and we’ll see where that one takes me.