Lining the video store that’s a central location in their debut feature and even some of the streets outside in their native Rhode Island, Kevin and Matthew McManus made sure to always have a reminder of their youth nearby with elaborate movie posters that featured their friends who helped them make short films as teenagers. Of course, the faux one-sheets will ring unfamiliar to most audiences who see “Funeral Kings,” but the film itself is still likely to give anyone watching it the same warm and fuzzies as a rare coming-of-age story to forego general nostalgia in favor of nailing the specifics of that uncertain age between losing baby teeth and taking driving lessons.
For a quartet of Catholic School kids, that age can’t pass quickly enough, lusting after R-rated movies, cursing like sailors out of the earshot of their parents and sneaking out of their duties as altar servers on occasion to chow down on Chinese food that tastes all the better knowing it’s being eaten during school hours. However, the McManus brothers know such a time is fleeting and do their best to slow it down in order to savor it, resulting in a film that allows its leads Dylan Hartigan, Alex Maizus, Jordan Puzzo and Charles Kwame Odei to work their considerable charm as the titular young scoundrels who begin to find their way. After delighting many when it premiered earlier this year at SXSW (including myself), “Funeral Kings” is kicking off its theatrical run in Los Angeles and on the eve of its release, the identical twin writer/directors spoke about the inspiration for the story, expanding upon their previous short, the film’s otherworldly soundtrack and what you might be able to expect next in what’s already a very promising career.
How did you get interested in making movies in the first place?
Matthew McManus: We started making movies when we were kids, probably like 7th grade, 6th grade, maybe?
Kevin McManus: Yeah, we were 11 or 12.
MM: Then every weekend with a buddy of ours, Andy Gould, we’d make some kind of movie. We’d use my dad’s old camera and we just kept shooting with it, shooting with it and shooting with it until literally it stopped working. For Christmas, he got us a new camera and it was like…it was on. [laughs]
He also gave you the basis for the story for “Funeral Kings,” right?
MM: Yeah, that’s right. He was an altar boy when he was a kid and went to a Catholic elementary school where they would require a couple of guys to come down and serve funerals. My dad is the sweetest guy on the planet, so he’s a little different than the characters in this movie, but he would go down, serve a funeral and then when the funeral ended, he would have the opportunity to sneak out and usually do something pretty harmless like grab a milkshake or something like that because all the teachers thought he was still serving the funeral.
So we took [that idea] and wanted to use it as a vehicle for [a film about] what it’s like to be 14 years old, exploring what it was like for us and hopefully what it’s like for a lot of guys going through that age period where your body hasn’t caught up to how old you feel and you end up having a lot more bark than you do bite.
From what I understand, the short you first made from that idea now constitutes the end of the film, which is unusual since most adaptations of shorts into features use the short as a jumping off point. What was it like to reverse engineer?
MM: When we did the short, we had this story of these 14-year-old kids [who believe they] keep getting closer and closer to danger until finally they hit a moment that is legitimately dangerous. When that happens, it’s at this moment where they feel they’re at this crossroads where they have to become an adult and when they finally get that danger, they realize this is the point where we have to grow up. That moment at the end of the film is really the same as happened in the short and we realized that was the exact same point we wanted to have in the feature. We really wanted to build to that from the beginning.
To its great benefit, the film also seems to be intentionally timeless. The kids spend a lot of time at their local video store, so it can’t be earlier than the ’80s and there are a few modern markers that sneak in, but for the most part, the time period is kept vague. Was that particularly important to you?
MM: It definitely was. Our whole game plan if we can keep this as timeless as possible, hopefully we could have more people relate to it. The funny thing about the short was we had a lot of guys coming up to us, depending on their age, that would say I really feel this is a movie about the ’70s or the ’80s or the ’60s, all different times that depending on how old they were, though it was generally when they were 14 years old. So we were really glad to capture this moment in time of everyone’s lives as opposed to an actual period and hopefully [it makes the movie] more effective.
One of the markers is the rap score. How did that come about?
MM: We got so lucky with that. Really what we wanted to do with the soundtrack is play the music that’s going on in these kids’ heads when they’re walking around feeling tough, feeling badass. So for our temp music, we did a bunch of gangsta rap and then when we were done, we realized there’s no way we could afford all of this.
One thing led to another and we got connected with an old pal of ours from Emerson [College] and he had this incredible rapper named Jinx and these incredible guys that produced awesome rap beats and they literally wrote the whole soundtrack. It makes [the film] so much more cohesive, having [Jinx] do everything and he just brought such a life to those scenes.
It sounds like rap was good a way into the characters’ heads, but was is difficult to get back into the speech patterns and phrasing of those teenage years while you were writing this?
KM: It’s funny because if I tried to do it now, it’d be a little bit harder. It’s only been a couple years since we actually wrote and directed it and it’s one of those things where we were a little bit closer [to that age] and we were able to have this relationship with the actors where it was more of an older brother-type of thing, so we could just dip into what it was like to be 14 again. But really, we just talked about those old times when we were 14, trying to reacquaint ourselves with how we talked and the things we did. At the end of the day, I just remember how vulgar some of the things we would say because it felt like by saying these things we heard adults say, it made us more mature when it did the exact opposite.
Going forward, what are you interested in as filmmakers?
MM: When we used to make short films, we would make one short and try and mix it up and do something a little bit different on the next one, so the next project that we’re writing right now is a little different than “Funeral Kings.” It has some similarities, but for the most part, it’s pretty different.
KM: Yeah, where we usually fall is somewhere between dark comedy and suspense, so [with] “Funeral Kings,” we leaned a little bit towards the dark comedy sensibilities and this next one leans a little bit more towards suspense. But it’ll definitely feel like our voice. I think it’s going to be a pretty consistent voice throughout all our films.
“Funeral Kings” is now open at the Mann Chinese 6 in Los Angeles.