For a film about a psychic, you never see all too much coming in “A Crooked Somebody,” which stars “Mad Men” alum Rich Sommer as Michael Vaughn, a wily, purported clairvoyant whose entrepreneurial skills seem stronger than his connection to the dead. Still, he uses both to peddle a book and sell out stops along the highway out in the middle of America, where there aren’t likely too many customers comparing notes about how he put them in touch with their family and friends in the great beyond. His father (Ed Harris), a pastor, can’t stomach what his son is up to, but Michael and his assistant Chelsea (Joanne Froggatt) keep on trucking until he comes across Nathan (Clifton Collins Jr.), a clearly disturbed patron at one of his shows who kidnaps Michael after his guesses at someone he’s trying to connect with actually reveals he’s been involved in a murder. While Nathan can only feel guilt, Michael, always on the make, sees opportunity as he uses the decades’ old crime that once made headlines and his newfound awareness of where the body’s buried to convince Nathan that sunlight is the best disinfectant, using the publicity generated from a new wave of notoriety to help clear his name and perhaps sell a few more copies of “Dialogue with the Departed.”
Yet things hardly go according to plan and even as gifted an improviser as Michael may be, often looking around the room for clues into how to best manipulate a situation, he is bound to find himself tied into knots, sometimes literal ones, as “A Crooked Somebody” wears on, with the darkly amusing potboiler leaving him little wiggle room. But the story concocted by Sommer and Andrew Zilch is awful sly and you can’t help but want to watch Michael attempt to pull himself out of harm’s way time and again, particularly when director Trevor White and an impressive ensemble cast that comes to include Amanda Crew and Amy Madigan take so much delight in putting the screws to him. It’s easy to see why White, a prolific producer in recent years with his company Star Thrower Entertainment behind such films as “The Post” and “Ingrid Goes West,” took time out to get behind the camera and with the film making its way to theaters and VOD, the director and Collins Jr., one of the film’s stars, looked back at the twisty road it took to bring “A Crooked Somebody” to the screen.
Trevor White: Rich Sommer and I had done a movie together called “LBJ” the year prior and Rich had told me at the time, “By the way, I know you develop stuff, and my best friend from college and I have developed a script from an idea I had. I’m not asking you to produce it, but would you just read it and give me notes?” So a month-and-a-half later, the script’s ready, and he asks, “Can I share it with you?” I said, “Of course.” So I’m 20 pages in and this thing is amazing. It was so fun and had interesting character dynamics and was a great mystery, so I called my brother, who’s my producing partner, and said, “Tim, I’m going to keep reading this, but you should start too because I want to finish and have a conversation.” We both read it that night and it had been some years since I had directed, but I was just so in love with this, I called Rich up and said, “I’m going to give you some thoughts, but I’d also like to ask you to consider us producing it with you and possibly for me to direct it.” And the rest is history.
Clifton Collins Jr.: I just got a phone call saying these guys were interested in me playing the character Nathan and at the time, I think I was looking for a studio gig and my manager called me and said, “It’s an indie…” and I said, “Is it a good script?” And when I read it, I’m like “Oooohhhooohhoooh. Let me sit down with this guy and just pick his brain,” so I had a creative meeting with Trevor. I broke down the entire script and I had questions and [some] suggestions and notes, some things like that just to sustain a theme…
Trevor White: We thought the whole movie hinges on this role because without giving away too much, there’s an arc that’s maybe not what you expect and you have to believe that [Nathan] believes what he’s going through, so you needed someone who was not going to try and lean in and make it too farcical or funny, someone who could ground that character and Clifton’s so authentic and real.
Clifton Collins Jr.: Once I saw how collaborative they all were and once they understood what I was saying — they were actually grateful for that, like “How did we miss that?” — I was like, “Let’s do this.” I got to meet Rich. I was a fan of his work. I loved him in “Mad Men.” It’s a buddy picture gone south. [laughs]
Is that a different dynamic having a lead actor in Rich that originated the idea?
Trevor White: It was actually a dream because you were so clear in the intentions the whole way. We were always on the same page about where the character was and where he was going, so it’s just like having a second you on set there to champion the thing and Rich is such a great collaborator.
Clifton Collins Jr.: I had to play catch-up, but I played catch-up pretty well on this one, so I was able to talk to him as though I might’ve conceived it as well. [laughs]
Clifton Collins Jr.: But Rich got to hang out with a lot of people that are mentalists and things of that nature, so I’m sure it was fun. That’s the kind of stuff that’s why we do what we do, right? He’s a very friendly, warm-hearted guy, and we laughed a lot together. In between takes, we’re stuck in that car [for a lot of the film] and the cameras are rolling, so they’ve got all this great footage of us talking shit. [laughs] It was pretty funny. I was like, “Dude, you should’ve saved the gag reel for the DVD release.”
There are so many intense scenes between Clifton and Rich, and I’m thinking specifically when the latter is tied to a chair early in the film after Nathan has taken Michael to a shed. Was it difficult to get a camera in there and figuring out the angles on that shot?
Trevor White: Almost everything we did was practical, except for that. We shot on anamorphic on these really old lenses, so a 50mm lens was [really] big and physically we couldn’t put the camera in small places. We had a couple days where we had to and Panavision was generous and they let us day play a couple of their smaller series, but by and large, we couldn’t shoot in an actual shed. Our first instinct was let’s buy a shed, put it out there and let’s shoot in it, but the shed you see in the movie from the exterior is not the shed we shot in. That was built on a stage.
Clifton Collins Jr.: They prepared really well, so when they went into shoot, it was a pretty smooth operation. But those are some heavy scenes, aren’t they? [laughs] I was so close to it, I’m like, “They’re not that heavy.” But no, it is and I had to toy with my dark side. I just had to have him on standby, so there are ways on showing that dark side that are indicative of a certain mindset and it really sets the tone. I told Trevor in the very beginning that I think it’s really important that when this thing happens and [Nathan] starts to suddenly have an outburst or he becomes violent, we should all be afraid of that. We should know that there’s a calm, cool side that we can talk to, but we should also be very, very aware and afraid in case that other side comes out. There’s so many different ways and I’m pretty happy with the choices I made.
Trevor White: We had so many conversations about tone, and the film ended up possibly veering even darker than the script was, but it’s funny because we always referenced other filmmakers. And talked about the Coen Brothers a little bit with this, but not “Fargo” Coen Brothers, but “No Country” Coen Brothers, so visually we tried to achieve, and on a limited budget, mind you, something that had a similar aesthetic. My cinematographer Robert Lam and I made used a lot of short lenses, [with] not a ton of depth of field. All of our closeups were done on short lenses, not long lenses, so it widens out the world and gives you more landscape.
Trevor White: I desperately tried to convince our producing partner, Jason Potash at Storyboard, to do this in Utah [because] we had done a film in Utah previously and I thought the landscape was perfect for this. The script was written for Montana and then for financial reasons, we decided to shoot [in L.A., but] I wasn’t convinced at first it was achievable. Then we went to Santa Clarita and Agua Dolce and I then said, “Okay, this is possible with one exception. We need a couple days at the end of the shoot after we’ve wrapped to take the camera and go on a road trip and take exterior shots of the car moving through these landscapes. If we can do that, I think we can do L.A.” So that’s what we did.
Clifton Collins Jr.: I actually stayed up in that little motel [Nathan stays in for most of the film] because you want to just keep close to that character, but anyone could break into that hotel. You don’t even need a rock to break the windows. You’d push the windows and they’ll break. They’re super thin. So [often for scenes I wasn’t in] I could hear the crew next door shooting, and when they’re like, “You’re wrapped, you can go home,” I was like, “I’m just going to my room.” [laughs]
Since that character is so isolated, I’m wondering if that presents its own challenge because this seems like this performance could be quite lonely at times as you’re reacting only to what’s going on on television.
Clifton Collins Jr.: Not really because I was so deep in the pocket with that character. Any opportunity to reach out externally through TV or phone or any of that is welcomed, but I was deep in. Trevor walked me through the steps of what I was seeing, so that was enough for me. All I needed was just key words and I would go to those places.
Clifton Collins Jr.: There’s a lot of backstory that’s missing, so I tried to come up with some stuff, just so I could [think] “Ok, if I did kill this one person and I used a knife, what kind of knife would it be? Would it be a hunter’s blade? Would it be a serrated blade? Would it be a blade i just got from the kitchen? Is he a hunter when he’s out doing other things?” There are all these questions to ask and it was great just to get Trevor’s brain spinning in that direction. I’m not going to be asking too many questions on set, just because I would’ve done as much homework as possible prior to and on occasion, you might have the new question pop up or the scenario’s changed, so it brings up another situation that you need to get clarity on.
Trevor, since you’ve been on other sets as a producer since you last directed, did you pick anything up from other shoots?
Trevor White: Absolutely. Part of the reason why I waited so long to direct again was I was just gleaning so much out of every movie I was a part of as a producer. Each filmmaker that I worked with was very different and approached it very different than how I approached it. I love watching the way Rob Reiner works with actors. There’s nothing like it. He’s just very calm and creates a comforting presence and lets them feel they can take bold choices and from a producing standpoint, sometimes it’s very hard. I’m not actually a producer on “Crooked” because I don’t want to think with that hat when I’m directing because they almost oppose each other. The producer in me doesn’t want to ask for a process trailer for these days. The producer in me wants it to be done with an easy rig and something less extravagant, but the director in me wanted all of that, so I really tried to separate myself on this.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Trevor White: There were several. The hardest was a scene that takes place on a bridge and we had another location in Los Angeles National Park, but days before we were set to shoot there, the wildfires swept through, which meant the lanes were shut down. We were going to have full lane access so we could put a dolly down and shoot it exactly the way we wanted to shoot it, but they wouldn’t let us shoot there any more, so the bridge we ended up getting had much more confined time for us to work with. We didn’t have a lane closure, so we had to be staying on the sidewalk, which instantly cuts out so much flexibility in terms of where you can place a camera and cars were constantly zipping by in a scene which called for no cars to be around, so every time we started shooting, a car would come through and ruin the shot and we’d have to start over. To add insult to injury, we lost the sun halfway through shooting it and when we reversed sides, there was no way it could match, so we went back and reshot the stuff we’d already shot an hour-and-a-half prior.
Clifton Collins Jr.: Honestly, this is probably one of the smoothest indies in regard to flow and issues that we had. But I was simultaneously doing “M.F.A.” with Francesca Eastwood, so I wrapped the one big [violent] scene with Rich, Joe and I at the car, and I had to drive straight to set in Orange County on a Saturday — they wanted me on set at 7 and the drive alone, I think I got wrapped at 6:30 or something, [so I thought] “I can’t go home to shower. My whole freaking head’s [covered in blood],” so [on the M.F.A. set] they’re like, “Well, you can shower in one of the frat houses” because that’s where we were shooting and it’s like, “Alright, I hope I don’t get pulled over with this bloody head.” [laughs] And [for continuity] they had to put a fake beard on me because I had already done a shot with the beard and I felt like I had an Ewok’s ass on my face. If I showed you some pictures, you would be like, “Oh my God.”
Trevor White: Penn is a friend of Rich’s and Penn advised Rich on the idea back in its inception phase, so Rich was really grateful to Penn for all of his advice and involvement, and Dr. Phil is a really good friend of my brother [Tim], so I’ve gotten to know Phil well and the character was written as a made-up daytime TV personality, a la Dr. Phil, but when we read the script, I remember saying to Tim, “Do you think there’s a world where Phil would do this?” And we asked him and “Yeah, of course.” He was so generous and that was really fun. We shot that a couple weeks after we wrapped principal.
The score also adds so much to the film. What was your collaboration with Andrew Hewitt, the composer, like?
Trevor White: Yeah, I think he’s one of the most talented composers out there and the first thing I told Andrew was I want this to feel like a Hitchcock movie — to have that kind of mystery, but also the level of fun. So we talked a lot about the quality of those great Bernard Herrmann scores and when Andrew devised the theme for this movie, I don’t know if you picked up on it, but if you go back and listen to Bernard Herrmann scores and this score, you’ll see the similarities.
I already look forward to going back.
Clifton Collins Jr.: I’ve seen this one four times. I just love it. I love the movie. I don’t see me. I’m watching a movie and I don’t watch a lot of my own films too often, but there’s something really special about indies because everybody really comes together to bring their A-game and bring any other game you might need that the studio can’t afford or the director can’t afford. When the product turns out the way that this one turns out, it’s just a lot of fun to watch [because] you really appreciate all the effort all over again.
What’s it like to have it getting out into the world?
Trevor White: I’m thrilled. I love the movie and I just want people to see it and have a good time. What’s nice about this film is there’s an added pressure when there’s an importance to it and what it’s saying, but this film, although it does have commentary on the way we behave as individuals to each other, it’s not meant to make you sit and think about it for days on end. It’s much more about having an experience and having a fun time.
Clifton Collins Jr: I was really happy with it. When you finally see the final product, you’re like, “Aw, dude, stoked.” Yeah, it’s a good feeling.
“A Crooked Somebody” opens on October 5th in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz 3 and in New York at the Cinema Village. It is also available on demand on DirecTV.