Tuesday, May 30, 2006
2006 SF HOLEHEAD—The Evening Class Interview With The Butcher Brothers
Recently I met with Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores, aka The Butcher Brothers, at what I felt was an appropriate venue—Martha Brothers—to savor a double cappuccino and talk about their current feature, The Hamiltons, scheduled to screen at this year's Holehead on Monday, June 12, 7:00 pm, and Thursday, June 15, 2:30 pm at the Roxie Film Center. The Hamiltons was previously previewed both here on The Evening Class and on Twitch.
Today also marks the dvd release of their previous feature, Lurking In Suburbia, available on Amazon, and I hope to have a review of that up soon as well. But for now, the interview.
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The Evening Class: Yesterday I was at an advance screening of X-Men III at the Metreon and there were four kids next to me in line who I ended up talking to because it was almost a three-hour wait to see the movie. They were talking about how they wanted to make films. This made me think about you two. You guys started out as high school friends in South San Francisco, did you always know that you wanted to make movies? My understanding is that you found a camera at a car accident site and shamelessly took it, but, was that the first time you started thinking about making movies, or had you already been writing together?
Phil: We were both writers in high school and happened to meet each other and realized we both really loved storytelling. We connected over that more than anything else. There was no one else in high school like that [who] were avid, passionate storytellers so Mitch and I worked off each other and started to create stories off each other. Of course, working within our own realms but making these stories together. We continued writing since then. We write independently but we write together a lot too.
EC: Because that's what I first noticed—I'm a writer too, right?—and it's the writing that first struck me in The Hamiltons and that was what made me think that it was through writing that you guys got started.
Mitch: We feel that one of our strong points is the writing because number one, as Phil said, we both are into different things but, since we grew up together, we pull off the same experiences, same kind of neighborhoods, growing up in South City, very blue collar style neighborhood. The things that influence us and the things that we like, the things that made us grow creatively as writers are the same things even though we have different approaches. When you put it together it's not like we need to sit there and argue over things. We have a very nice balance. The writing really works when we write together.
EC: So you had been collaborating on writing even before you picked up that camera?
Phil: It all happened around the same time, to tell you the truth. To answer your question, yeah, I think we both wanted to be filmmakers. It's a little different now than it was when we were growing up in high school. It's not too different, but…. Now, everything's so accessible. Video cameras, editing, it all can be done on the computer, so that when a 12 or 13-year-old kid says he wants to make films, it can actually happen. He can make a great film. But at our age we had crappy VHS/Beta stuff—I don't want to date ourselves—but, for us, to put a film together was a big deal. We ended up making something that got some notoriety, the first stuff that we did won a local Bay Area award.
EC: Which film was that?
Mitch: King's River.
EC: Because I know that you, Phil, had done one called The Little Thing?
Phil: Yeah, just a couple of shorts.
EC: And White Trash also?
Phil: Mitch and I both did White Trash.
EC: The guy down in Montecito that interviewed you two for their local newspaper was saying that "The Butcher Brothers"—the aegis of "The Butcher Brothers"—is to represent your darker side. Because actually, The Hamiltons isn't your first feature together. You've done other features using your individual names.
EC: So what is the concept behind The Butcher Brothers? What are you going to be doing with The Butcher Brothers?
Mitch: It was stuff for our darker side. We want to create something where we go to this place where we can become very different writers. Where Lurking in Suburbia is a very fun, wild film—even though it's very deep; the things they say about Lurking is that it's a wild party movie but with a lot of heart—it's not like Animal House where the climax of the film is this wild thing where they have to take out a parade, or something that's so outrageous. Lurking in Suburbia pulls into the heart and reflects the human side of things. I think we've always had that. I think when we created The Butcher Brothers we wanted to bring that same thing but into a very dark side. It's like the idea of when you go out wearing a mask you feel like a whole different person or if you wear a different outfit you feel you can really hide. I think that's what The Butcher Brothers made for us.
EC: Masks hide and conceal, but they also reveal, and what they reveal is often fascinating. Are you guys going to get schizy now though? You're still going to be doing other projects, right?
Phil: You never know! We have offshoots of The Butcher Brothers too, it depends on the content I think, y'know? The Butcher Brothers is meant to create dark content and to allow us to channel some of the stuff that we didn't want necessarily to put into the other films. It's not that we're not willing to but it's more like we can really go to that dark place.
EC: So you're experimenting a little bit? You're testing the waters so that, if this doesn't work, you don't ruin your names?
Phil: Yes. Exactly. That's kind of the genesis where The Butcher Brothers came from a little bit. We want to do horror but we thought we could use an alter ego so that way we have separation of our different types of [work].
EC: I understand because I do that kind of persona shifting stuff myself. I think a lot of people do.
Mitch: A lot of writers do.
EC: Yeah. The good news being that the experiment appears to have worked! The Hamiltons is a successful fun movie. I wanted to talk a little bit about how you define it. When I was talking to you, Mitch, on the phone, I mentioned to you that for me it kind of came off as a black comedy, that it was funny.
Mitch: A lot of people say that.
EC: It didn't seem like that was what you intended it to be.
Phil: I think it's inherent in our writing. Going back to Lurking, it's a complete comedy so I think we automatically have that in us and we're also dramatic writers as well. I think that—probably not knowing it—we brought that into the story. We wanted to write something that was unique. We didn't want to make a cookie cutter film. There's no reason for us to go into that genre at all. When the idea of The Hamiltons came up, we decided that if we were going to do a horror film, we have to do something completely different, something that we can say, "Look, we like this. You can't compare it to anything else." And I think we've succeeded in doing so.
EC: Unfortunately, no matter what, you're going to be compared to other people. Some of those comparisons include David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which in your instance, I can understand. With Lynch, what I always remember about Blue Velvet is that white picket fence through which you enter the movie and then the camera pans down into the grass to expose the bugs. That was an effective understanding of a darkness that's underlying the veneer of suburbia. Which appears to be something you guys are interested in, if not the darkness, then the depth of appearances.
Phil: [Which is] one of the themes that we work with, not just as The Butcher Brothers but in all of the other stories too. We grew up in South City, which I would say is the New Jersey of the Bay Area, it's real blue collar, real suburban, and growing up in that kind of atmosphere you get this skewed vision of it. I think we brought a little bit of that suburbia to The Hamiltons and wanted to create that American façade. One of the characters tries to make everything normal but everything is not normal. The deeper you go the darker the secrets get.
EC: The truth is suburbia is terrifying! I come from the country and made the transition directly from the country to the city and all the middle region—suburbia—terrifies me. I remember recently being in Mill Valley and sensing violence everywhere. What you're tapping into is a very intriguing reality. Cronenberg, on the other hand, is also dealing with appearances but is using the body as the liminal space so that the horror is within. Are you also playing with that?
Phil: Yeah. You kind of summed it up right there.
EC: Just testing my own instincts. Returning to the Brothers concept of you guys working together, you cast yourself as the McQuade Brothers in Long Cut, one of your earlier pieces.
Phil: Where'd you find that out?
EC: I try to do my research.
Phil: No kidding. That's funny. Yeah. It comes from the high school drama background. That's where Mitch and I met, was in drama actually. It's like any kid emulating the big screen. You want to be that. Sometimes acting is your first desire and then from there you realize acting might not be your niche but storytelling might be, directing might be, and we kind of evolved from that point. So in our first film we had a couple of characters who we loved a lot, these two Latinos, but they're white Latinos, y'know? Guys who grew up in Latino culture and adopted the Latino culture and they were the McQuade Brothers.
EC: Asimilados I call them.
Phil: Okay, asimilados. That's who the McQuade Brothers were. And after we did that, our first experience of acting, we're like, "That's enough! That's enough casting of ourselves." Although we did make a cameo in Lurking.
EC: Why I bring it up is because, again, I'm thinking of these kids I met in line yesterday. Obviously, your friendship has helped you further your individual goals. Is there any advice you would give to young kids like that? You mentioned already that the tools are more accessible but I feel you also represent an inspiring collaborative work ethic.
Mitch: Oh yeah, it helps. It definitely keeps you on your toes. Especially working outside of Los Angeles, which is a lot harder, you enter your own little vacuum where you're going, "Okay, I think this is great" but who knows how it's going to relate to the real world? When you're collaborating, it's easier because you're bouncing ideas off and you're getting more things coming into it and it really helps. You see them a lot more now. There's a lot more teams of filmmakers. It's definitely a hard thing to do because obviously directing a film, making a film, is definitely a vision. But if you get good enough people who can see that vision at once, it really helps, because—as we all know—making an independent film is probably one of the hardest things to do on the face of the planet. So teams are good as long as you're not resisting. I read up on so many teams and people working together now. You even can see the bigger directors and people that have been in the system for a long time are joining forces, like Clooney and Soderbergh. All of a sudden they're always collaborating on stuff. You start pulling your team together.
Phil: Like Rodriguez and Frank Miller.
Mitch: And Rodriguez and Tarantino. How many things have they done?
EC: And Rodriguez's loyalty to Miller, to actually drop out of the Directors Guild in protest on Miller's behalf, which I found impressive.
Phil: It worked to his benefit.
EC: Long Cut. This early short feature looked interesting. Is it available? These earlier pieces, are they available?
Mitch: They're locked away. We really consider Lurking our first piece. Long Cut, maybe in time perhaps we can do something with it. We consider it more of a thesis film. It really helped us get to where we're at now. I love the film itself.
EC: It looks beautiful.
Mitch: It's beautifully shot and it's very well done and things like that. But it's one of those films where it's our out-of-college film, it's very artistic, and we're really going for just what we wanted, and then you slowly start to realize that, no, there's a whole business and a whole audience that you need to ….
Mitch: Yeah! But it's a beautiful film.
EC: So I don't get to see the McQuade Brothers?
Mitch: In time.
Phil: Maybe for a 20-year retrospective, it might be good.
Mitch: In time.
EC: Okay, okay, then I'll leave you alone about that one. Do you consider The Hamiltons to be a genre mash-up?
Phil: Yeah, a lot of times it's pitched as a coming-of-age horror film, or horror with a heart. There aren't many films like that. Even though you say it's a black comedy, I think it's definitely subjective. We didn't necessarily realize that even as we were writing it because, like I said, we have a dramatic and comedic background so this is our version of a horror film, but we knew we wanted to make a good horror film, something that we would actually like to watch. So it came out to this mash-up, using our backgrounds. We love coming-of-age stories, we love family dramas. But we also love exploitive films too. We kind of put it together. That's kind of what happened I think.
EC: Because some of the criticism I've read is that it isn't enough horror.
Phil: Right, sure. It's not.
EC: But like you, that's what I liked. It wasn't that I necessarily wanted to watch a lot of gore. You handled the gore quickly. Your editing was swiftly paced when it came to the gore.
Mitch: It's funny because some people say that but other people go, "This film really freaked me out. I've been thinking about it for days and days." It sticks in your head. It's not buckets of blood and machetes slashing everybody. The good side of The Hamiltons is that it will get you four days later. It sticks within your head. You get things and symbols that we've put in there that you think, "Oh! I get it now!" and things like that. We're slow—like Novocane—slow but it will get to you in the end.
EC: I'm looking forward to seeing the film again because I think what you're saying is accurate. One of the things that bothered me about The Hamiltons was David cooking for the family. It really bothered me when I thought about it afterwards. And how nobody really seemed to like the food.
Mitch: Right. The first time we ever showed it in Santa Barbara, we won the Gold Vision award….
Mitch: Thank you.
EC: Thirty grand.
Mitch: Thirty grand, you can't go wrong with that. It was for the most unique, groundbreaking vision, things like that.
Mitch: Innovative. A lot of people were stunned because—if it's not a genre festival, if it's a straight out festival, we were competing against some politically-charged films, some big films, and for us to walk away with an award as a horror film, said a lot to us. Our first comparison, the first write-up that we got in the Santa Barbara News Press, they automatically compared us to Scream. The first thing they did was they compared us to Kevin Williamson about redefining the genre, about bringing something new to it and that was what was really exciting. Then we turned around and we won in Malibu as well. One of the things that's really fun about making The Hamiltons is that you're seeing something new. It's a horror film that's out there winning awards at festivals that is competing with straight-out Indie dramas, with a lot of fire behind it. And then they start comparing it to Tobe Hooper and things like that. That was really great. And to be compared to Scream, people are saying we're redefining the genres, very very good, and a lot of horror fans have come up to us and said, "It's so nice to see a fresh view on the genre." Because you get a lot of people who are hardcore horror fans and horror fan directors they love to stick to their thing, but we've seen that a lot. With Phil and I coming in as The Butcher Brothers and making a fresh take, not being horror guys, bringing that in, that's very gratifying.
EC: With the success of it then, I read this rumor that there possibly might be a follow-up, The Thompsons?
Mitch: Well, if there is a follow-up, it would be The Thompsons.
EC: But that's not definite?
Mitch: It all depends.
Phil: No comment. Can't talk about it.
Mitch: It would be fun to work on. We could definitely see a franchise bursting out from the story because there's a lot of more room to grow. A little secret—it's definitely in the back of our minds, it's poking out—I'll say that.
EC: It would be great to see a follow-up.
Phil: Yeah, it'd be a lot of fun.
Mitch: A lot of people want to see it so that's really great.
EC: I want to be in it! [Laughter.] Anyways, comparison-wise, you've also been compared—along with Kevin Williamson and Tobe Hooper—to the Coen Brothers. Do you find that comparison apt? Or relevant? Or do you care?
Mitch: I think they're incredible. For me, being compared to them, is incredible. We grew up loving their work and their stuff is just incredible and so being comedic and dramatic writers too—that's a really big thing for us. And trying to bring their flavor into what we do as well. To me it's an honor being compared to them.
EC: I think that's what satisfies people too, don't you? It's not that we just want to go see a comedy. It's not that we just want to see something serious. It's really the blend that approximates life as we know it?
Phil: Yeah, I think that's the model we use for all our stories. Talking about mash-ups, it's a popular word right now, but, I think film is a mash-up. It combines just those aspects, and the Coen Brothers actually do a good job of that too. Even though they're labeled comedy, some of their stuff is the most serious content you've ever seen.
EC: Very dark, yeah.
Phil: So, yeah, I think we're in the same category. I hope so at least.
EC: Speaking of influences, we've talked about Lynch and Cronenberg who I think are obvious for The Hamiltons, but Truffaut?
Phil: We just threw that in for the coming-of-age films. Though I love Truffaut.
EC: I love Truffaut too.
Mitch: I'm a big Lynch fan; I love Lynch. Phil is a big Lynch fan. To look at him I think he's one of the greatest American directors ever.
Phil: Plus he still tackles—you talk about that grey area between the city and country, suburbia—Lynch always tackles suburbia in his own aspect as well. I think that's a theme you'll keep seeing from The Butcher Brothers.
EC: Because suburbia really is America.
Phil: And it's frightening!
EC: Lynch has a searing edge; it's like he brands your psyche with images.
Phil: More than anyone else can, I agree, definitely. You see things that you don't want to happen.
EC: On your website you offer two visual novels—Mexican Porn and Angel. Is that something you're going to further?
Mitch: Yeah, definitely! We work with a great photographer out of San Francisco, his name is Michael Jang. His stuff's in SFMoma in the permanent collection. He's been around for a great while in San Francisco. Through the years we've collaborated with him, doing a lot of photography work and writing, Phil and I both write for it. Unfortunately, film making just takes up so much of your time. [The visual novels are] like side pockets that we have, we have a bunch of stuff going on constantly, but once a film is greenlit, two years of your life, bye-bye, gone. We rarely get time to even socialize.
EC: Well, what was refreshing about the visual novels was, again, their collaborative spirit.
Phil: It might just be our generation, all us latchkey kids. Mitch and I are only children too. In an odd way it's like ironic I guess two only children come together and work together harmoniously. I think, like you said, there's a lot of brother teams, a lot of people are collaborating because we kind of grew up by ourselves and we want more, we want to reach out. You start to see that materialize.
EC: Speaking of reaching out, who are you imagining as your audience?
Phil: That's interesting, man. I don't know necessarily but I guess, imagining, the people who are going to like The Hamiltons would be an artistic crowd, a little bit of an indie crowd.
Mitch: The horror crowd.
Phil: But at the same time, you get that and then you get these people who want to see a good movie but they want to see something besides someone dying of cancer, something horrible that's really going to bring them down, they want some entertainment too. I think we bring that crowd in but also the horror crowd. We have 16-year-old kids and 80-year-old women coming to our screenings and saying they love it.
EC: The Hamiltons has been picked up by Lions Gate?
EC: Do we know when it's going to be distributed?
Phil: No, no.
Mitch: We're still in negotiations with everything but we're wrapping things up.
EC: As a self-identified gay male I was naturally intrigued by the character of David Hamilton. He struck me as a Clark Kent type with the slicked-back hair and the buttoned-up collar and the almost desperate attempt to be normative, hiding a big secret. It was an intriguing underlayer to then have his evil twin siblings telling him, "You're not that. You're not that no matter how much you pretend you're that." You incorporated several diverse minority representations, people on the fringe. I think that's what's going to be one of the appeals of The Hamiltons. It's going to talk to a lot of people who are marginalized one way or the other.
Phil: Right. I think we're character-heavy. That's one of our strengths. That's what we love about storytelling, are the characters. When you watch our films you'll see that's what stands out the most. Concerning David, I think, since growing up in the Bay Area, a gay person is probably an archetype of the palette that you work with. It's almost indigenous to the work that you do. There's a character in Lurking who's gay too. It's not that all of our films have to have a gay person in them but it's part of our make-up of archetypes.
Mitch: Just growing up in the Bay Area, we're a little bit more familiar with it as well.
EC: Well, it's appreciated.
Mitch: It's our ode to the Bay Area as well. Phil and I are not gay but just growing up here, for us, it's San Francisco, it's the Bay Area, this is like our ode. The other thing with David's character I would say that—I wonder how to say this without giving away the story or anything ….
EC: Be careful!
Mitch: It's also like, as you said, when the twins are saying, "Look, this is what you are." Him just trying to be normal. It's like saying, "Be who you are." There's a duality to it. So with Francis, and David, those characters, really had to face things other than just the horror aspects of it, but also just in general life.
Phil: I think that's kind of the whole thing about our story, the horror is not the thing that they do, the horror is the family, the dysfunction.
EC: And also the layerings. Because some people have double shadows. David's is unique. The others' are unique. They each have their own personal shadow on top of this family shadow. Within the genre of horror, another place where I thought you were skillful, is that David's particular horror is never seen, it's only heard, which just makes the imagination go all over the place. We'll just leave that there. But I just want to say that if you do film The Thompsons and you need a gay victim, I'm happy to be killed off in the first two minutes! [Laughter.]
Phil: We've got plans for David.
EC: Samuel Child, who played David Hamilton, you've worked with him before?
Mitch: He's one of the leads in Lurking In Suburbia as well.
EC: I'm really looking forward to seeing Lurking In Suburbia.
Mitch: Tuesday, May 30, it's coming out on dvd, and you get to see Samuel Child play a completely different character. He plays like a stockbroker wild guy who's gone through two divorces and just wants to have a great time. In Lurking In Suburbia he's happy to be who he is. He says, "I don't want to grow up. I just want to be who I am." I can't say enough about him. You're going to see him. He's on his way. He's done so many independent films. He's well-know in the independent film world. Film Threat has already quoted him as one of the hot up-and-comers. He's just a joy to work with.
EC: Your actors, you started pulling them from people you knew in the Bay Area?
Phil: We ran the regular routes. We have good stories behind all of them really. We became close to a few of the actors in Lurking and we brought them over, crossed over into The Hamiltons, and they knew people who knew people and it became a family of actors and then we talked to a few of them, didn't even audition a few of them because we knew they'd be good for the part.
Mitch: Like Mackenzie Firgens, she's a big Bay Area celebrity.
EC: The goth girl….
Mitch: Yeah, the goth girl! She got her start in Groove, which was a big Bay Area film.
EC: And she was in Rent too.
Mitch: Yeah, she was in Rent too. With her, we knew we wanted to work with her and, again, going back to our Bay Area ties just felt great. A lot of the actors did come up from L.A. but we really liked the idea that she was here, that she was a celebrity here. We also have Brittany Daniel in the film too who's been in Joe Dirt, That 70's Show and Dawson's Creek.
EC: Going back to appearances and playing with appearances, the movie looks good partly because everyone looks good in this movie. You have lovely young actresses and handsome young actors and, when I was looking at the trailer for Lurking, it seems to be the same there. Are you conscious of the goodlooking part of this?
Phil: That's kind of strange. It's not like we can necessarily answer the question by saying we just hire models. I think we want characters who reflect the characters we see in our heads. Obviously it helps the film. But it's not like we're necessarily going after actors who are just goodlooking….
EC: Then I have a chance!! [Laughter.]
Phil: It's characters who are real. Actually, it seems like a lot of the time we go for people who are—usually it's never based on looks, it's based on talent.
Mitch: Very much, yes. Talent always comes first.
Phil: Yeah, and then the looks are important but it's more about the film characters in your head.
Mitch: And also getting the three brothers to look alike, that was a big thing. A lot of that, we had restrictions on that as well. We had to make sure that they looked like brothers. And I think the other thing is that their being a goodlooking family made it even a little bit more scary. It's not only Joseph McKelheer, who was just incredible in the film. Some of our female audiences will come up and say, "Oh my god, he's so scary, but I'd still hang out with him." I think you wrote something about that.
EC: I've been there, done that!! [Laughter.] One thing I like to enquire when film makers are relatively new to the festival circuit is what their experience of the circuit has been. You're wrapping it up for The Hamiltons here in San Francisco at Hole in the Head….
Mitch: Yeah, back home.
EC: How has this festival run been?
Phil: It's been great! It's everything you could want really. I think it's a pleasure to travel with your film and introduce it to new audiences. What's great about The Hamiltons—as you've surmised—is it's a different breed of film. People recognize that. And people really want to see that. They want something new. We've been given such good energy from people. We weren't expecting an 80-year-old woman to love the film who comes up to us to say, "I want my husband to see this film."
Mitch: It was a very fast run. Our first premiere was in February and we're finishing our run in June. It was a very fast run, and we did a lot, and the film just kind of took off. But every single festival that we went to was just great. At our first showing of the film, so many people were turned away at the door just to see the first screening. We had no idea. We showed up. We had no idea what the reception of the film was going to be or how people were going to take it, if people were even going to like it. Just the first minute of it, when we saw the lines around the block, people were walking in, the stars of the film were walking in, and after them they closed off the rope, they said, "We can't even take it." They had to bump our film up and brought the film back to show it because it was in such demand. All of a sudden we're just going from festival to festival to festival and we're winning the awards. At the end of the day you feel very satisfied, you go, "Look, this is our first attempt at horror and we did good."
EC: I know Bruce Fletcher is impressed with the film and excited about screening it at this year's Hole in the Head. Did he approach you or did you submit?
Mitch: I think he approached us. Ever since Santa Barbara people have been calling asking for the film; we haven't really done much.
Phil: It helps winning an award at your first screening ever.
Mitch: The other thing too with Bruce Fletcher and the Hole in the Head, it's incredible just to be back home in San Francisco and to end the run here.
Phil: It couldn't be a better place. It's the perfect festival for this film.
Mitch: Just to be back home. We love San Francisco.
EC: And you'll be at the screenings I imagine for Q&A?
Mitch: Yeah, we'll be there. I think Cory Knauf will be there, who plays Francis.
Phil: Mackenzie will probably be there too.
EC: Great! Maybe I'll get a chance to talk to them both?
Mitch: That would be great. That would be awesome.
Phil: They'd probably love it. They're both very well-spoken.
EC: Well, I want to thank you two for taking the time to talk with me and, again, congratulations on The Hamiltons.
Mitch/Phil: Thank you!