Exclusive interview: writer/director Brian Petsos talks ‘Big Gold Brick’
After gaining plenty of acclaim and viral attention for his short films, including the Oscar Isaac-starring Ticky Tacky and Lightningface, writer/director Brian Pestos makes the jump to features with Big Gold Brick, which comes to select theaters and VOD tomorrow.
Emory Cohen’s Samuel Liston gets hit by a car driven by Andy Garcia’s Floyd Deveraux, which leads to the unlikely bedfellows striking up a partnership that finds the recuperating victim moving into the family home of the man who put him in hospital, and he ends up becoming Floyd’s biographer for good measure.
From there, a genre-bending caper ensues that incorporates elements of black comedy, crime thriller, heist caper, family drama, and absurdist screwball stylings, marking Petsos out as a distinct, striking, and ambitious talent.
Big Gold Brick also features Megan Fox, Lucy Hale, Shiloh Fernandez, and Moon Knight star Isaac, who additionally executive produces. Ahead of the movie’s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Pestos about the difficulties of making such a unique feature-length debut, his creative process, and much more, which you can check out below.
We’ll start with an obvious question, but an important one. How does it feel to know Big Gold Brick is finally releasing next week, almost three years after you shot?
Brian Petsos: It feels really good. I mean, to put it… there’s a funny little thing called the pandemic that happened, and obviously, a gravely serious thing for the world. But, if I can just get selfish for a second, when you’re a producer, writer, director, and your film isn’t finished yet, the pandemic sort of bifurcated the process for us.
And yeah, it’s… you know, I don’t tend to really… I try to write stuff that will play the same way, a year, five years, 10 years, 20 years later. So to me, there was a sort of evergreen thing that… not that I didn’t care when the film came out, I wanted it to come out as soon as possible, but the pandemic was a serious, serious log on the train tracks.
It’s a movie that pretty much lives or dies on the performances, and Emory is great as Samuel. Was that a difficult role to cast? Because it’s not an easy performance, and there’s a thousand different ways it could have turned out given the twists and turns in the story.
Brian Petsos: You’re 100% right. And I’ll be honest with you, as much as I love Emory, and, you know, I knew Emory’s work prior to Brooklyn, but when I saw Brooklyn, I sort of fell in love with him. And I literally like, once in a while, I’ll run out of the theater after a performance and be like, “Oh my gosh, I’d love to work with this person at some point”. And Emory was one of those people.
And, you know, if you see Emory’s whole body of work… To me, I mean, he would say more often than not, he’s intimidating. He’s scary in some of his stuff. And Emory isn’t that person in real life. It’s a testament to how good of an actor he is. And so when Emery started, when we started hanging out prior to working, Emory’s a blast, he’s hilarious, his sense of humor is incredibly well-developed. His access to humor as a performer is amazing.
And I think some of that he wasn’t even aware of. And, when I think… it was like day two or three, I said to him, I was like, “Man, this is, I mean, you’re making this overtly funnier than I imagined”. And I’m not mad at it at all! And so at that point, I wanted to sort of manipulate the tone as much as I could on the fly. But I just let Emory go crazy. And we we went there. I mean, we have some takes that are absolutely insane. They’re on the floor.
There’s definitely an old school screwball streak running through the movie, but the storytelling is distinctly modern, even post-modern at points. Was that juxtaposition always a key part of your process, or did that come together naturally?
Brian Petsos: You know, man, I don’t want to… I don’t want to sit here and pat myself on the back, but I’m going to tell you. My producing partner will attest. A conundrum for me is, how can I make something old and new at the same time? And a palpable sense of nostalgia is something that I absolutely am seeking. And for me, the touchstones are… some of my favorite films from 30s to 90s probably. The perfume of that is something that I absolutely want to inject.
The postmodern thing you’re referring to, which some people may call punk rock, is, I would probably say, to be pretentious for a second, just me being an artist. Having worked in other mediums prior to cinema, where your point of view is the only thing you have. That is your sword. I think that, hopefully, is what you’re feeling. And that is also deliberate, as much as I can help it.
Is Big Gold Brick an idea you’ve been sitting on for a while? Because watching the movie, it doesn’t seem like the sort of story that arrives fully-formed and simply flows onto the page.
Brian Petsos: You’re absolutely right. And that is… You’re speaking to really my process. Yeah, the way I work, I tend to spend about a year or two, doing what I call like world-building. And this is something that is done passively. And by the point that I’ve sort of got all of my characters figured out and my beginning, middle and end figured out, then I start, like, basically outlining.
And the last thing I do is work in Final Draft to develop the actual screenplay. And when I’m in Final Draft, there’s not a lot of going back and touching it, it’s pretty much laying down the lacquer in Final Draft. So yeah, you’re right. It’s a process that kind of happens over a few years. I would say, I finished the screenplay right around the time that we had… Oscar and I had the short film Lightningface, was kind of getting out there.
And so, that was around the time that I finished the screenplay, and the process to raise money and get cast started loosely after that. So yeah, you’re talking about a handful years.
As the writer, director and producer, is Big Gold Brick the total and complete result of your creative vision? Or were there any notable compromises you had to make between page and screen when it got around to the financing and distribution side of things?
Brian Petsos: Absolutely. I mean, I wrote a screenplay that was probably a few more million dollars than we ended up with! I mean, and you know, I’m sure that’s always the case. But I do think we did relatively well, for a first feature on the budget. My job was to try to make it feel a couple times more expensive than it actually was.
And I think on a relative basis, I can’t really complain. But no, there were absolute sacrifices. An example that I’ve referenced before is, you know, stuff like, on the television, in the bar, was initially written to be sort of in the timeline of film. So like, shooting an entire basketball game, obviously, those kinds of things, you’re racking up some expenses there.
So those type of sacrifices, kind of thinking smart, quote-unquote, as a producer. Yeah, all day long, man, all day long. You have to kind of do that.
For a first-time feature filmmaker, how much does it help having Oscar Isaac and Kristen Wiig on board as executive producers? In a lot of cases in the industry it’s more who you know than what you know, so it must have been a bonus to have a couple of big names supporting your film, especially when it comes to such a unique project.
Brian Petsos: You’re absolutely right. Which, I also think, for me, is the exciting thing about it. But yeah, you’re right. I mean, obviously, you know, Oscar, someone who I’ve worked with before, and he’s such an incredible talent, and he’s sort of universally loved and super helpful. He was the first actor attached to the project. That’s a huge help. And it’s a huge qualifier in other people’s eyes. Absolutely.
But I don’t want to say like, “Poor me, Woe is me”. But look, man, it’s still hard as hell. So you know, even with Oscar, it’s really hard making an independent film, and I don’t care who you are. The forces are immeasurable that are against you. Everything is a no, every door is closed, it’s “how do I break through it”, and it’s still constantly… I just finished my next script, and we’re literally starting the process now, and I’m ready to just get my fanny handed to me! I’m ready for it. But yeah, it helps to a degree for sure.
You’ve been a friend and collaborator of Oscar’s for a while. Was his character written like that in the script with the accent and the eccentricities, or was it a case of just letting him do his thing when he turned up on set?
Brian Petsos: First of all, I don’t want to take anything away from Oscar at all, but yes, it was. Pretty much everything was written. You know, Oscar brings a ton to it. But no, I did call for that specific blend of that accent. And, of course, Oscar comes to the table with like, several variations of this very specific accent that I requested.
But yeah, I mean all of the disfiguring, and the braces, and the customized nasal cannula, and all that stuff is in the script. I write a really, really heavy-handed action sequence in my in my film, believe me.
You’ve got a scene-stealing supporting role from Oscar Isaac, and Emory Cohen gives a tour de force performance, but you could make an argument that Andy Garcia is the stealth MVP of Big Gold Brick. It’s not really a character that we see him play all that often, so how was that for you to have an actor like that go all-in on the project?
Brian Petsos: I mean, it’s a gift. I mean, Andy is someone who I’ve admired for so long to such a degree. And I’ve never seen him do anything like this. You know, he’s such a serious, respected performer. He’s such a talent. He’s such a gifted, naturally gifted performer.
But, you know, I think when Andy sort of brought a lot of himself into Floyd, it became such a magical thing. And I just really loved him in this. Yeah, there were moments where my DP and I were like, “Wow, that’s that’s why this guy has an Oscar nomination. He’s incredible. Really incredible.
A black comedy, crime caper, with a hint of family drama, a little absurdity, and even elements that are fantastical veering on the supernatural doesn’t sound like an easy pitch to make, did you ever find yourself having to pull back at all during the writing process so that things didn’t get too crazy?
Brian Petsos: My rule for me is to never pull back. But budgetarily? Yes, the sequence in the grocery store, there is some stuff that we just had to cut, even though there’s quite a bit still in there. But you know, it’s small concessions like that.
But in terms of just like, creatively? No, I refuse to censor myself in that way. Not for this film. In this film, I really try to let the film sort of dictate what it wants from me. And this film had to be this way, the film that I just finished writing is a little more straight ahead. But that’s because that film needs to be that way. But this one sort of had to be the way it was.
And, you know, the rule system was given to me by me, but I obeyed it. So yeah, to answer your question: no. I try not to pull back.
So is it a case of ‘you only get to make your feature directing debut once, this has to be 100% me on every level’, because you never get that opportunity again?
Brian Petsos: That’s exactly what it was. And it’s funny, I was so adamant about this, talking to my producing partner in the early stages that I know we’re gonna probably get kicked in the privates a couple times here, but like, “you just stick with me. we have to make this movie the way that the script is indicating it needs to be”. And we did that.
And I agree, you really need to plant your flag early, in my opinion. And you know, other people have asked me like, “Why?”, you know? “You could have done something easier, like a horror film or something that’s just, you know, easily packaged and carted off and sold”. But there’s no option in my mind to do something like that. This was the only option.
Big Gold Brick has been described as the Coen brothers by way of Charlie Kaufman, is that a sentiment you’d agree with?
Brian Petsos: I mean, look; I understand that it’s… everyone wants to hear something being pitched in a manner similar to that. And so I will take those comparisons, and I will say thank you for those comparisons. But I will tell you, what touched me was about halfway through shooting, Andy Garcia started calling it ‘Petsosian’. And I said, “Thank you, Andy. Wouldn’t that be a day, man?”.
So, you know, It’s funny, because when my friends read my stuff, they’re like, “Man, this is so you”. And I realize you don’t… the broader public isn’t going to look at it that way until they do, whenever that is, so it’s much easier for someone to latch on to something else. But for me to tell you that Charlie Kaufman and the Coen brothers are like my biggest influences, and I’m just trying to make stuff like them, would be disingenuous.
But I love Charlie’s stuff, I love the Coen Brothers stuff, as well as a ton of other people’s stuff. So, you know, it’s, uh… I’ll take it. That’s great company.
How would you describe Big Gold Brick in your own words? Because if someone asked me to sum up the movie, I’d definitely have to think very carefully before giving an answer.
Brian Petsos: Yeah, for sure. Look, I guess my first question to you would be, “Why do I have to sum it up in one sentence?”. That’s the question I would ask you, but if you told me I had to, I would. And our logline is what I did. Which, if you’ve read the logline, that is a one kind of long sentence that to me describes enough of the film for other people to latch on to.
But I mean, how do you condense two hours worth of a lot of stuff into a sentence? It’s very hard to do. I think when people ask me what it’s about, if I can sort of sober up and say what it’s about. I’ve always said that I think it’s about faith and family. And I don’t mean faith in a religious way. I mean, finding the ability to believe in anything. And then the family thing to me is crucial, and like finding your family, creating your family.
And you know that having that familial bond with even one person, which I think is really what happens with these two guys by the end.
If ‘Petsosian’ is good enough for Andy Garcia, then it’s definitely good enough for me!
Brian Petsos: I appreciate that. If I’ve done my job, man, next week, you’ll still be thinking about it. So let’s see.
That concludes our interview with Brian Petsos. Big Gold Brick is available on-demand and in select theaters from tomorrow, February 25, and make sure to check out our review of the movie here.