The Coen Brothers are so terrific when it comes to writing and directing dark, morbid comedy – I was wondering if there were any other directors or writers you looked to as inspiration when molding the feel of the film?
Daniel Arnold: I know that in the development of the movie, when we were financing, I watched a bunch of Chaplin, because I hadn’t seen much. I fell in love with him, just the physical storytelling and the slapstick but also the heart. I know that Lawrence & Holloman rides that line – it has a deep heart but it has large elements of slapstick, so I can see some Chaplin in this.
Matthew Kowalchuk: We know ‘The Tramp,’ but people don’t talk about how he directed all of his movies… he did the music for them. What I love about Chaplin movies are that so often he gives you a canvas, a frame, and then the scene is painted within it. As much as I’m learning to love camera tricks and a moving camera, within Holloman’s world, it was about finding that canvas and letting the scene breathe in there, not trying to do too much with it.
We also watched a lot of buddy comedies. We wanted to see what they were because we knew we were really turning [the genre] upside down. You have to know where you’re coming from so you can begin that. For me, the staple, the real heart of the buddy comedy kept coming back to The Odd Couple. I couldn’t get that one out of my head, because it’s so accessible and kind of, in a way, dark. It’s mean. I kept coming back to the relationship. It’s about two friends who deeply need each other in a weird, twisted way, and that honesty, that reality has to exist. We can’t fake it. You look at something like The Odd Couple, these completely opposite guys… you believe these guys actually need each other as friends.
That chemistry is very important, and so I was wondering about casting Ben Cotton as Laurence. How did you choose him?
Daniel Arnold: When we were developing the script, we wanted to do apartment readings, not only to get people’s opinions on the script and to hear it out loud… but also to start looking at actors and cast, seeing who might stick with what roles. When we wanted to cast, a girlfriend of mine who I also write with, she suggested [Cotton]. We looked at his reel and some of the shows that he was in, and thought he could be really good. Then we saw him in a movie called Sunflower Hour, where he played a guy who had a puppet on his hand… he was a rogue but he had a movie star kind of feel. He’s very charismatic. When I saw that, I said, Matt, you have to see him in that movie. I think he might be the one.
He came and read it in my apartment. He just seemed very right. He comes from theater originally, but now he does pretty much all film and TV. I think he got an idea of the tone right away, which was important – a slightly over-the-top tone but still keeping it real. These are real guys but in a slightly surreal world.
Matthew Kowalchuk: There’s something very natural about what Ben does as Lawrence that makes it somewhat believable. A lot of actors, to get to that level, really would be forcing it and pushing it. You wouldn’t quite believe it.
Touching on that tone, the story is very savage and macabre. It goes to very dark places we are not suspecting. How do you know how far you can take this material before it seems too outlandish?
Matthew Kowalchuk: To me, it is actually about crossing the line. The most interesting stories take you to a place as an audience where you go one of two places. You either end the scene and go, Wow, where can they possibly go from here? The other is in the middle of a scene, when you’re going, Oh no, they’re not going to do that. In the scene in the bathroom when [Lawrence is] putting acid in his eyes… that whole scene when we’re setting it up, we’re telling the audience what we’re about to do. But, I think when you’re sitting there, you can’t possibly believe we’re going to do it.
If you do a scene like that and you try to surprise the audience, it might be too much. It might cross the actual line. The way we do that is by setting an expectation. It’s hard to talk about, but the stories I’ve always loved, the darker the better, are the ones that take me beyond where I think they’re going to go. It’s about pushing the line a little bit further than it normally is and letting the audience come with you.
Daniel Arnold: One of the things that we very much wrestled with was the set-up and the first act. When we keyed into some of what we called Holloman’s imaginings – he imagines his own funeral and there’s parking tickets on his windshield and nobody notices – there was this sense of how right away, we had to establish this tone that this can be ludicrous. Don’t worry, folks. This can be ludicrous and dark and weird, and we’re going to get there. There were earlier drafts of the script where we didn’t set up that kind of tone, and people [were] just not ready for it.
We did also pull back on some of the bad things that happen to Lawrence, because in the play, you don’t see them, so they’re not as visceral and real. In the movie, you see them happen so they become way more dark. We discovered that when people were reading the movie script, they were going, this is a lot of bad shit to happen to one guy. We had to pull a few things back. He was supposed to fall off his balcony railing. There’s a whole sequel of bad things that haven’t yet happened to Lawrence.
We did a bunch of test screenings to see when and where we were going too far.
Matthew Kowalchuk: In the end, it really just rested on what we thought was the truth of the scene. That’s all you can do: believe in your story and not pull punches.
How did the audience respond at the test screenings?
Matthew Kowalchuk: The biggest thing we learned… in order for people to really understand the journey Holloman’s going on, there has to be a certain amount of meanness coming from Lawrence. Lawrence and Ben are very likable. It’s important that we like him, but if he’s so likable that we don’t understand why Holloman is after him, then it makes no sense. We had to go back into the footage and find all the little moments where [Lawrence] was mean, and just make sure we focused on those, make sure we hold there a little longer and get that it hurts Holloman. The treatment of those moments, we needed to make sure that you left those scenes understanding how much Holloman was hurt.
Matt, as a first-time feature director, what advice do you have for aspiring writers and directors about to embark on their debut project?
Matthew Kowalchuk: I have two opposing pieces of advice. One is be true to your heart, what you think your movie should be. You’re going to have a lot of people giving you advice and you need to remember what you set out to do. The second piece of advice is the opposite: you really need to listen to those people. You need to surround yourself with people that you trust and you want to work with and who are going to give you good advice, and who are there not for their own gain but they support what you’re doing. We were able to make the movie we intended to make, but he had people helping us along.
[Executive producer] Andrew [Currie] actually was my director mentor. In prep, he got me ready for all the shit that I was going to be dealing with, and it allowed me to hit the ground running. It felt like I was making a third feature, not a first. I can count a dozen times through the shoot that I would have made a rookie mistake and it would have hurt the overall film, but I didn’t because of something he had said the month before. It’s important to listen to people that you trust but who are also interested in what you’ve brought to the table.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Matthew and Daniel very much for their time. Be sure to check out Lawrence & Holloman when you get a chance.