Brandon Harris, Redlegs
For his micro-budget debut feature Redlegs, which resides comfortably alongside work by Aaron Katz (Quiet City) or Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) both tonally and dramatically, Filmmaker magazine contributing editor Brandon Harris (with whom I share this column) returned to his hometown of Cincinnati with three actors and a tiny crew hoping to dramatize the moment when childhood camaraderie dissolves in the face of adult realities and overdue reckonings. Very loosely modeled after John Cassavetes’ Husbands, the film trails three young men — brooding ex-actor Marco (Nathan Ramos), sensitive Willie (Evan Louison), and aggressively obnoxious parking-lot owner Aaron (Andrew Katz) — over the course of a long, aimless weekend as they bitch, argue, get high, and wander through town. Having been reunited after the murder of Ricky, a close friend whose absence overshadows their low-key collegial misadventures, the argumentative trio cope by revisiting some of their old stomping grounds and try, with varying degrees of failure, to revive some of their former rapport. Shot by indie actress-turned-cinematographer Miranda Rhyne, Redlegs makes the most of its urban Midwest setting, especially with a gallery of nighttime sequences that brings one character’s anguish and secret guilt into clearer focus.
Harris spoke with Filmmaker about his native city, the joys and perils of being both a critic and filmmaker, and why there’s more to micro-budget cinema than meets the eye. Redlegs opens Friday at reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn.
Filmmaker: To paraphrase a question asked by one of the characters in Redlegs, what do you love about Cincinnati?
Harris: The place has a peculiar pull on people. It’s a hilly city rich with a lot of very interesting history. And it’s a city of neighborhoods, where people are from the west side of town or the east side, and consider themselves to be from those neighborhoods more so than they think of themselves as “from Cincinnati.” It’s also the picture of contemporary suburban sprawl. In 1970, there were 1.3 million people in the Greater Cincinnati area, which is about where they are now, but they take up ten times the amount of space. All of those things factor into the way it’s perceived by people who know enough to care. As far as why I love Cincinnati, sometimes I don’t. [Laughs] It’s an interesting and dynamic place at times, and a very troubling place at other times.
Filmmaker: A newscaster in Redlegs refers to the area where Ricky is mugged and murdered as a “troubled neighborhood.”
Harris: Right. Over-the-Rhine is the neighborhood where Ricky is killed. And that area has changed so much since we started making the film. It’s the site of one of the most significant urban gentrification projects in the country. A series of nonprofits have popped up there, financed by corporations like Kroger and Procter & Gamble, that are basically buying up buildings, then converting and selling them. That was important to us in telling the story, to find a way to dramatize that in a way that seems universal and yet didn’t lose its specificity.
Filmmaker: How did you develop the script for the film and then execute character ideas in collaboration with your actors?
Harris: The script was written by me pretty quickly, over twelve or thirteen days, in May 2010. At that point, it was more a film about revenge—it had a genre quality to it. All three of the leads went to the same university I did, SUNY Purchase, at the Film Conservatory. I reached out to them and they all responded to it. And I knew they’d all want to bring their own [material] to it. Naturally, I wanted to find ways to take what I had written and make it alive in ways I couldn’t foresee, knowing the peculiar and derisive energy they’d have toward each other. I brought them to Ohio and we learned what it was like to have a boyhood in Cincinnati – playing disc golf, going to baseball games and bars, and learning about the geography of the city, what it’s like to come from particular places within it. Even if that stuff didn’t end up in the script, I think it fed into how we improvised certain scenes.
Filmmaker: Would you say Redlegs morphed into an experiment in group dynamics? How would you describe that transformation?
Harris: I think it’s about the end of a certain kind of American boyhood. You have no real reason to hang out with people when you’re a kid, but you do anyway. You get together after school, you bike somewhere, you blow up a frog or throw a football… Then you reach a certain age and adult responsibilities become so important in how we construct our identity. What this film became about for all of us – though I think other significant matters are lurking on the periphery – was the end of a group relationship. And it’s only under duress that the reasons why that’s happening are explored by the people it’s happening to. What we had to do was fight to make the movie both fair and tough toward all three of these individuals.
Filmmaker: When it came time for you to establish those personalities so you could have drama in the dynamic between them, was that something you first discovered on you own or did it happen collectively?
Harris: A lot of those [character] details were scripted ideas. More so what developed [collectively] was the internal dynamics of the relationship between Marco, Willie, and Aaron. In terms of crafting performances, that was key. But even as we shot the film, things would occur to us that later became integral. I can’t stress enough how much discovery comes from the act of shooting, at least if you’re open to it. So it wasn’t storyboarded or planned, in that sense—it was much more intuitive in the way we went about making it.
Filmmaker: There’s often a sense of exhilaration first-time feature filmmakers feel when they’re on the set. But what are the frustrations of having to learn things as you do them, and having to accept the outcome of decisions that you make?
Harris: Those frustrations are not just limited to first-time filmmakers. Certainly if you’re more experienced, you have more control. Redlegs was a micro-budget project, and we were pulling out every favor you could [ask for]. Often you’re rushing and doing things quicker than you’d like to. But I anticipated all that, and I think we wrote something that we felt we could do without asking permission. When you’re working on a film like this, it helps to have a close working relationship with the actors and have them be very invested because no one’s getting paid a lot of money. You’re not sleeping much, there’s not a lot of leisure time, etc. So I feel lucky that I had those relationships beforehand. Without that frustration, no filmmaker would ever get better, probably.
Filmmaker: Your d.p., Miranda Rhyne, did a great job shooting the film – the night scenes in particular were impressive, and put me in mind of Cold Weather.
Harris: This is the first time Miranda and I worked together in this capacity. She actually made a small name for herself as an actress in the ’90s – she starred in Rebecca Miller’s film Angela and had small roles in other indies, like Walking and Talking. She went to film school with me and appeared in a number of my student short films, and increasingly began to work as a cinematographer. We became good friends, and she seemed like a good fit for this project. I felt like it was such a masculine story that it would be nice to have a woman’s perspective – I felt that very consciously. Also, Miranda has a similar set of aesthetic preoccupations and tastes as me. We watched a lot of stuff together, though I don’t think it’s necessarily apparent in the film: Richard Lester’s work, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, and some of the more lyrical scenes in Morvern Callar were all touchstones. We wanted to have the ability to move the camera in a handheld fashion at times but still have an elegance to it. Olivier Assayas was very important to us. I think Miranda operated all but one shot in the film. She was a workhorse.
Filmmaker: There’s a backyard wake scene where the three protagonists and another bearded young white guy are holding court, while other characters – all black, mostly women and children – are literally sitting in the background or on the edges. And their black friend Ricky, whose death they’re mourning, is obviously completely absent. What was behind that choice?
Harris: In some sense, I thought of the film as being about three non-black people who have to deal with the death of a black person, which only one of them knows is tied into the ugly racial history of the city. It’s a very loaded circumstance, and for these three young men, the [awareness] of their black friend’s daily existence as an African American is probably little to none. So I did decide to relegate Ricky’s world to the periphery. Because the film is really about these three individuals and their interconnection.
Filmmaker: The title of the film, “redlegs,” is a nickname for the Cincinnati Reds, but it also refers to a group of poor white indentured servants and former slaves who settled in the Caribbean.
Harris: Yes. I can’t claim that it means anything significant in the context of the film, although when we decided the call the film “redlegs,” that was absolutely in our minds.
Filmmaker: Since you do both, what productive tension is there between writing criticism and filmmaking?
Harris: Well, I certainly see a lot of films I find truly inspirational, that make me remember why I loved movies in the first place and why I’d want to make them myself. And then I see a lot that don’t [laughs], that suggest that film is a limited medium or used broadly in a way I find uninteresting. But I do think there is some kind of productive tension. I look at the careers of a lot of long-form storytellers in other mediums, especially the novel. You see people who both write criticism and engage in a world of literature beyond their own work, and then also make significant work unto themselves. I don’t think you see that as much in the film world. Perhaps it’s the collaborative nature of it, or the way people are pushed toward specialization at the institutional academic level. I’m terribly interested in doing any number of things, within and outside of cinema. I do like the idea of being [versatile], but it can be a little confusing because people do want to pigeonhole you. I don’t think I would have had the perspective on directing – or maybe even the hubris to go make a film — had I not spent a lot of time talking to people who do it well.
Filmmaker: What does your gut tell you can be achieved only by working on a smaller scale, with limited resources and a tight-knit group of collaborators? What do you think can come out of that process, under those kinds of constraints, that doesn’t come out of industrially produced cinema?
Harris: I would agree that some things are achievable only in micro-budget work, but I think it’s relatively intangible. I don’t know if you could put together a list of films made for $150,000 and string together qualities they all have that large-budget work doesn’t. There’s no way to evaluate that. But when you don’t have the overwhelming need to think about creating something that can easily be commodified, there’s a tremendous freedom in that. Not having many resources emboldened us to do things I probably wouldn’t have done on a film that cost 20 times as much — whether it be locations that we “stole,” or any number of laws that were broken — because there would have been people telling me not to. [laughs] At one point, we were breaking four laws simultaneously while filming one of those car scenes. I got something out of a performer that I don’t think I’d have gotten out of a more scripted, time-friendly shooting environment. That sort of magical accident is really special, and even big-time directors chase and fetishize those moments. You can’t fake it — and you can’t cheat to get there.