Writer-director of The Cooler (2003) and Running Scared (2006), Wayne Kramer has worked exclusively in independent cinema since the early 1990s. Once again, he walks the line between insider and outlier with Pawn Shop Chronicles (2013, renamed Hustlers for the UK release). Speaking with Film International, Kramer reminded us, “Running Scared (2006) also didn’t open very well, although it did find an audience pretty quickly; a lot quicker than this one. I do wish these films would be more successful when they open, but just the fact that somebody one day may see it and recommend it to somebody is the most you can hope for.”
In a compelling and honest conversation Kramer discussed his thoughts on the creative process and his role as a filmmaker, whilst offering a critique of VOD, American independent cinema and film festival politics, along with reflecting on the creative decisions and inspirations behind his latest transgressive comedy.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I was one of those kids who figured out very early on in life what they wanted to do. I was five or six years old when I first realised I loved films and it was then that I started to learn more about what the director did behind the camera. It was a time in my life when I was beginning to see a lot of movies that intrigued me, and I would see very mature movies, despite my younger age. So it just kind of found me, although it was one of those things my parents thought I would grow out of, but I just stuck with it. I never saw myself as someone who had any acting talent though.
When I was young I would go and see a movie, and then come home and do my animated flip book version of it. I used to sell these to my friends at school, and I also wrote little novels, but it was always with the idea that the novel would end up becoming a movie. I would even do little poster art on the cover of the novel like the kind you would see on a James Bond film poster, where it was the version of the novel that would always promote the film.
So there was always a fascination with the business, and growing up in South Africa I didn’t have as much access to film magazines and films themselves as people in the United States or even England. So I would get the foreign film magazines such as Photoplay and Film Review. But film was always a huge interest to me from a young age.
In previous interviews filmmakers have remarked that they are directing as they are writing the film. What are your thoughts on the way the writing of the script informs the direction?
I never thought of myself as either a screenwriter or director, and as a filmmaker I have combined the two. Aside from Pawn Shop Chronicles, which I did not write, I have written all my other films. For me it is like an organic process, and exactly as you said, when I am writing it I am directing it on the page. I’m seeing it visually and that is why it is not as intimate for me to direct someone else’s screenplays. I have to fall in love with the script and make it feel like something I could have written – I have to make it my own. But the writer- director filmmaker is not as rare as they used to be.
My favourite filmmakers are the ones who write their own scripts, and the ones I grew up and had a fascination with were the guys like Brian De Palma, Michael Mann, Roman Polanski as well as Stanley Kubrick, who always had a big hand in writing his scripts. There definitely seems to be a strong command of the medium when the filmmaker has written it, and it is almost like willing it into being in that you get these films made because they are so hard to build from the ground upwards. But when you know it’s your baby and not someone else’s then I think you bleed a little more blood for that process.
Having not written Pawn Shop Chronicles, could you talk us through how that changed the process for you?
Since I come from a writing background I am very respectful of other writers. When I have entertained the idea of directing scripts in the past, if I didn’t love the script, and if I didn’t feel that I could see the movie of that script, then I didn’t want to get involved. I do not want to be in the position of having to rewrite someone’s script to the degree that it’s not theirs anymore. It’s too cold of a process, and there is a slight lack of connection in that it is not your work, and there isn’t the ease of adapting it to the screen.
But at the same time it presents different challenges, such as how do you take someone else’s vision and turn it into and make it your own? On some level it’s a little liberating because you are not as invested in the writing of every scene and every line of dialogue. But at the same time I am not going to suggest a change of a line or to suggest eliminating a scene, unless I think that it is absolutely necessary. So they are different processes, and I still prefer directing my own scripts, which I feel comes straight from my DNA, and which is more organic.
Pawn Shop Chronicles was an interesting exercise, and when I first read Adam Minarovich’s script I really did respond to it. I thought it was a lot of fun, and it was a film I would like to see, but also because it was brought to me by my friend, the late Paul Walker.
So there were a lot of reasons to want to get involved, but I was not actually looking to direct anybody else’s work. It was a timing thing and I said, “Why not? Let me try this.” There have been many filmmakers who are writer-directors that have stepped out of their comfort zone of writing their own scripts to tackle others. So I thought, what have I got to lose?
Was stepping outside of your comfort zone a positive move for you at this point in your career?
I have mixed emotions about it because it is a real low budget film, and it wasn’t marketed or promoted at all in the U.S. So the film, for the most part, was not well received over here at least by the few critics who reviewed it. But then it wasn’t widely reviewed or seen, and to be honest I think most people who know my work are not even aware that I directed this movie – that’s how invisible it was. So it is very hard for me to fairly judge the process when I feel this is a film that has fallen under the radar, versus having received a big thousand plus theatre distribution.
It’s a tough one, but there’s a project I’m attached to direct – an adaptation of a novel that I did not write the first draft of the screenplay for. This was a situation where I had read the novel; I came on board and when I read the screenplay there seemed to be so many missed opportunities from the actual novel. With this in mind I thought to myself, let me tackle this – let me do my own version of it whilst still retaining some of what the original screenwriter had done, because some of it was pretty good. Hopefully we’ll make the movie this year, but in that case even though the original story didn’t originate with me, I felt that I had injected at least fifty percent of my DNA into the project.
So that is a very different situation to Pawn Shop Chronicles and I feel I’m actually running and making the film more with my voice. I liked the author’s [Adam’s] voice, and the challenge for me was to see how well I could execute that as the movie which I saw in my mind.
But as I said before, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to judge that process from the journey of making the film, because we never had enough money, which meant that it was a huge challenge every day to even make it. Then through reasons that were beyond my control it never really found its way into the marketplace in a meaningful way, or at least for me.
One of the inevitable uncertainties in film is whether you will be successful in finding an audience. It is impossible to know the fate of a film, especially when one considers the genuinely great films that play at festivals only to never to receive distribution.
Yeah and more so these days because distribution is so contracted now. Compare that to five or ten years ago, when if you had a movie with the cast that Pawn Shop Chronicles has, then even if the movie didn’t turn out well, you would still get a decent release in the United States which would see you play in a thousand plus theatres.
But especially with the arrival of VOD (Video on Demand) here in the U.S. the whole business has changed. What happens now is the movies get scheduled simultaneously for a VOD release along with a few limited theatres, but there is never any marketing involved. I do believe that when the audience realises they can see the movie in their home at the same time, then it takes something unique away from their desire to see the movie immediately. It is possible that they think the movie didn’t turn out so well or it’s a smaller movie that they can wait to see on Netflix. The marketing is not just thrown behind the film unless it is a theatrical release, and the kinds of movies that have been shown in theatres in the United States are typically the big budget comic book style, the more bloated kinds of films.
There are not a lot of screens being offered to indie films, and typically the few indie films that do get releases – usually there cannot be more than ten a year – have to be anointed through Sundance or Cannes or some such festival. So it is very difficult for even good films to find their audience today, especially if they are low budget, and the distributor is not prepared to spend probably more money than the film was made for to market it.
The quandary with films being anointed by festivals is that they have a certain subjective viewpoint of which is determined by the kinds of films they like and the kind they do not like. Independent cinema is a great playground for actors to push their onscreen identity in new directions, and it also affords filmmakers the opportunity to push at the boundaries. Taking this into account independent cinema is a vital part of the art form, and it should be nurtured and not undermined by prejudicial politics or bureaucracy.
Well, I have always been an independent filmmaker, and I have never worked in the studio system. I have had my movies released by companies such as New Line and Weinstein, but which are not really big studios, and those films were always independently made. I can only talk about the United States, but the independent filmmaking voice is being completely eroded out here. The movies that you could at one time get a budget of $15-20 million for, today they expect you to make it for $5 million. Yet they expect the same degree of quality that the $15-20 million movie would have had, which is impossible because you cannot achieve the same production value.
The model of film has become polarised as to what is ‘independent’ – $1 million dollar horror movie, a found footage type thing or the very chamber Sundance piece for a $1 million or even $100 million films? The whole middle ground of the $20-25 million movie has been completely removed from the equation except in rare cases of independently financed movies with big stars.
So film festivals do give audiences opportunities to find these films, but as you say each film festival has a certain image that they are trying to convey with the movies that they programme. There is almost a degree of snobbery that goes along with that where a movie like Pawn Shop Chronicles does not fit into a Sundance Festival or even a Toronto, but maybe if the name of the filmmaker was Quentin Tarantino.
Pawn Shop Chronicles is a very transgressive and edgy film, but it is also has a commercial sensibility with the humour and the violence. Ironically, it should be the kind of movie that gets programmed for the midnight slots at festivals, but I find there is a certain prejudice with film festivals as to who is in the movie. If it is a Paul Walker movie, then a lot of them do not want to program it. But then it is not like every movie you make is going to have William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell or the kind of actors that are respected at the festival level. But it doesn’t mean that a film with Paul Walker shouldn’t be able to find a slot.
In reference to the cast, both Elijah Wood and Paul Walker in Pawn Shop Chronicles are attempting to distance themselves from certain roles they have been associated with. Actors can fit into a multitude of onscreen identities across their careers, and especially for Paul Walker to be playing a crazy meth head that offers us a different look to what we are accustomed to, is a fitting way to remember him.
It had been a pet project of Paul’s for about two years, and we’d been trying to put some projects together. There was one in particular that we were unable to get the right amount of financing for. But we wanted to do another movie together and so one day Paul showed me the script and he told me it was financed, and asked what I thought of it? We used to share the same taste in dark transgressive material, and he had a pretty good idea that I was going to respond to it.
But he had been playing with that character for a long time, and so by the time I came to the project he already had a good idea of how he wanted to play Raw Dog, the crazy meth head. He brought great ideas to it, and because he was such a handsome leading man he relished the idea of losing himself in an unshaven, twitchy performance, which was almost unrecognisable. I think actors who traditionally play strong leading men and who have very good looks are the most likely to try and ugly it up, especially when you are hanging out privately or in public. They almost go out of their way to dress themselves down.
There is sort of a complex about being singled out for being too good looking, and throughout the history of film perhaps actors like the Cary Grants and the Roger Moores who have been very good looking and had shots taken against their acting ability. I don’t know whether it was resentment on the part of the critics or the public that if they were that good looking then it meant they couldn’t be great actors or movie stars – particularly movie stars. But certain actors have always tried to play against type like that.
Elijah Wood has always had a strong fascination with horror and fantasy films, and it was only a short role for him which he did over three or four days. When the opportunity was presented to him he was intrigued by it, and I think he may even have read the script a few years before. When his name was suggested to me for that particular character I thought he was perfect. He had to work with very difficult prosthetics for most of his performance, but he was wonderful about it, and he was just a pleasure to work with.
For the most part in the film we were casting actors to play against type or if they had played within the same type before to put a different spin on it, like Matt Dillon for example. I hadn’t seen him play somebody has deranged as that before, although he has played humour before now, which was one of the things that attracted me to him for the role. I needed someone who could play the subtle black humour of the character who in terms of personality change goes from zero to a hundred within a couple of minutes. But when casting the movie it was always either this feels right or it doesn’t, and in that case you just have to go with your gut instinct on these things.
Speaking with Gareth Evans for VHS2 (2013) the question of why the film anthology is such a good fit for horror arose. But whilst it is most closely associated with the horror genre a film such as Pawn Shop Chronicles and the construction of these three individual stories shows that the anthology can exist outside of horror, despite its deep roots within the genre.
The anthology genre is a tricky one to do, especially when you get into editing because you start to question whether the pacing in one story is better than in the other. The producer’s mind-set was to reedit the movie to tell it chronologically, which I was dead set against. I felt that it was about the one story from the perspective of the second story in which there is a sight overlap, and then the final story then brings it together. I just thought there was so much that would be lost by trying to go beat by beat chronologically. It may have seemed that the pacing would have been sped up because you are not staying with one story for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, but thankfully when we tested it my version happened to test stronger. So the producers relented and I was able to do the cut that represents the screenplay.
When you start to do crime or macabre crime movies in the anthology format the first thing that everyone does is say, “Oh, that’s Pulp Fiction (1994).” I didn’t realise how debilitating that would be in terms of the perception of the film, and I am adamant that from our perspective we did not have Pulp Fiction on our minds at all. There were elements as you mentioned such as the horror movie, and the Creepshow (1982) elements were intriguing to me as well as elements from other movies that I thought Adam might have tapped into – Prime Cut (1972) with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, and also the wackiness of the early Coen Brothers movies like Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski (1998). So it was a case of where did all this Pulp Fiction adulation come from in terms of the people who were writing about the film? Other than one major scene in Pulp Fiction that takes place in the pawn shop, and the fact that one of our characters offhandedly refers to that scene at the very beginning of the film – a line I should have cut – it is not Pulp Fiction.
I like interesting structures to stories, but now it is almost as though you are not permitted to do a non-linear structure in a crime film any longer, because as far as the critics are concerned, it is owned by Tarantino.
Howard Hawks frequently discussed borrowing from oneself as well as from other filmmakers. Stories are universal and filmmakers are well within their rights to contribute their version of a particular story. The idea of ownership only serves to undermine storytelling and the creative process.
I always attribute it to a lack of knowledge of film history that certain people have. I feel if they were more educated in the movies that came before Pulp Fiction, then they would see what the influences were. I’m not looking to the Tarantino’s of my generation for inspiration. Both Tarantino and I grew up watching similar movies, and so our inspiration comes from those same movies. If there is any similarity in our voices it is because we both like Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone or Lucio Fulci, for example. The movies we watched when we were younger are infused in our influences and have become a part of our sensibility. I’m not resentful of Quentin’s success; I think he’s brilliant. But the marketplace or the people who write about film need to open up their assessment of filmmakers working in the genre and understand… Every film from The Cooler to Running Scared someone at some point said, “Oh this is Tarantinoesque” and I’m thinking, where? I don’t see it but someone is seeing something and so I have to accept that.
Cinema is built on a little gamesmanship between the filmmaker and the audience. It is one of the great unsung collaborative relationships. In Pawn Shop Chronicles you frequently reference the Spaghetti Westerns through the use of the 2.35:1 ratio. For those who have knowledge of film history, they will be aware of cinemas past that you are trying to connect with. But on the subject of genre, it has always blurred the boundaries and by incorporating a comic book aesthetic alongside the Western you yourself are manipulating genre.
Yeah, there was definitely the intent, though it wasn’t written into Adam’s script in any way. I just felt that the whole film has a tongue-in-cheek approach to its storytelling, and it’s not to be taken seriously in any way. The movie is kind of a goof, but within the more farcical aspects you can have a certain subtext that is having fun with the genre, whilst also playing up aspects of the sort of stereotypes in a film universe like this.
So in each of the chapters where the aspect ratio goes to 2.35 it’s in a moment that evokes a Spaghetti Western type sequence. The most obvious one is when the man turns up played by Thomas Jane, and he’s obviously dressed like a cowboy, and we have a Spaghetti Western score playing. Then in the second story The Ring when Matt Dillon confronts Michael Cudlitz on the porch of his house it becomes a Western type standoff where the 2:35 ratio frames them in the extreme left and right of the frame, which is another Sergio Leone touch. Then in the third chapter where Brendan Fraser’s Elvis impersonator arrives in front of the barbershop it is reminiscent of the stranger arriving into town, and all that is missing is tumbleweed. I thought that was another perfect moment to evoke a Spaghetti Western along with the eerie town’s people that you see in a million movies like Children of the Corn (1984) or The Village of the Damned (1960, 1995), for example. But again, it was having some cheeky fun with it.
One of the fun things about doing this movie was it was a synthesis of so many genres, and so it doesn’t belong to just one genre. The opening story is manic as if the Roadrunner (1949) cartoon came to life but with meth addicts. The second story is like an exploitation revenge story, whilst the third is a sold your soul to the devil that has subtle crossroads, mythical aspects of Satan, Elvis and all iconic Deep South imagery. Blended all on top of that is the imagery we put throughout the movie of hell, Satan and purgatory seen on the names of the stores or the name of the diner where little satanic symbols are carved into the table surfaces in the Barbecue Pit, which was actually called Lou’s Barbecue Pit after Lucifer. But it was a case of let’s do this and let’s do that – let’s just make it creepy and put a lot of fun stuff in there for astute audiences who are looking a little deeper than just to the surface of the movie.
It is a pity that it ends by being thought of as a film inspired by Tarantino, when the entire film is in fact inspired by cinema – the history of cinema with the amusing references and actors onscreen who want to push themselves to explore and expand their onscreen identities. It also comes from a filmmaker and creative team who love storytelling and the exploration of stories that infuses it with energy.
Well, thank you for recognising those aspects. A movie like Pawn Shop with its extreme moments of violence and sexuality that takes you up to the line of what you would say is an exploitation film – maybe it even crosses that line at times. But the intent whether the audiences got it or not was to do it with a twisted sense of humour. It wasn’t done to offend anyone or gross somebody out unless it was with a wink.
The second story in particular gets very intense, and yet I find it to be the funniest section of the film because it is so absurd. But if you don’t pick up on the mischievousness of that second story where the filmmaker is saying, “Let’s go for it…” It was written that way by Adam, but to put it onscreen in that way… I remember the one producer asking me, “Are you really going to do it like that?” I said, “That’s why I wanted to do the script because those things are in there.” It is very transgressive but I think if people are not laughing at the movie then they are not really connecting with it or I haven’t done a good enough job in connecting them to it in the way that it is done. But for the little amount of budget we had, every day we killed ourselves to put the style and production value on screen that is not typical of a movie of this budget.
Wayne Kramer’s Hustlers, starring Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser and Elijah Wood, is available now on UK Blu-ray & DVD, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.