“I can’t talk… I’m so happy,” said Josh Locy, interrupting himself in the middle of answering a question following the premiere of his debut feature “Hunter Gatherer” at SXSW. Taking a moment to collect himself, you could see it was the first moment he had likely seen the majority of his cast and crew in one place since the film had stopped shooting and realized the totality of what they just accomplished together.
That sense of ecstatic joy pervades “Hunter Gatherer,” which features a radiant and all-too-rare lead performance from Andre Royo (“The Wire”) as Ashley Douglas, a recent parolee who may be well on his way to getting back on the straight and narrow, but hasn’t lost his scheming ways. His hustles have alienated everyone around him, from his mother, who is none too thrilled to put him up after his time in the pen, to his ex Linda, who has moved on to a serious relationship with a more stable garbage collector, yet Ashley knows no other way, figuring if he can raise a little cash through collecting old refrigerators to dispose at a lower cost than the city will, he can win back those he’s lost along the way.
From this relatively slight premise, Locy divines a jubilant portrait of a guy getting his act together and seeing the goodness right in front of him, its outré sense of humor giving away that he was mentored by David Gordon Green, an executive producer on the film. Occasionally dipping into trippy montage (inspired in part by the experimental great Jon Jost) and careful to establish a world familiar but just beyond a specific place or time, “Hunter Gatherer” is a wholly original creation filled with the same irrepressible spirit of its lead character.
The morning after the film’s premiere, Locy and Royo were still beaming and took the time to talk about how they establish the trust to pull something special out of such a wild endeavor, the inspiration for the film and the beauty that can come from limited resources.
The movie ends with “For Eddie,” a nod to great Eddie Rouse, who was in Todd Rohal’s “Rat Pack Rat.” How did he inspire this?
Josh Locy: He was a good friend of mine, and we had our ups and downs, but he was such a special person. He had this optimism and this drive that you don’t see in people, and I admired that, so on that level, that was the embryo of Ashley Douglas. Eddie was great and the world is a sadder place without him.
When that’s the inspiration, how do you make this story yours?
Josh Locy: Part of it, and I hate when people talk about writing like this, but Ashley Douglas revealed himself to me. In this process, you have ideas, new ideas come in, old ones go away and you take away everything that’s not Ashley Douglas from the character, like a sculptor, so I think Ashley became his own thing and just grew and grew, and it was exciting to get to know him like that.
Andre Royo: By the time he got to me, I wasn’t aware about Eddie, so what was there for me was [Josh’s] feeling for him and how he affected him – there’s that charisma, something that drew [Josh] to him, and I wanted Ashley to have that exuberance and that hopefulness that things are going to work out, because I’m going to make them work out.
Josh Locy: Not to be too metaphysical about it, but there’s a connection to the life force that I think we were trying to use.
Andre Royo: Yeah, it’s amazing you can see that type of human connection is so sustaining that it comes through in the art form, and it comes in from just hearing about him, how [Josh] talked about him, so it affected how I wanted to portray Ashley. I think one of my biggest compliments was Josh’s brother came to set and said, “You act just like so and so…”
Josh Locy: Yeah, Ashley’s look – the slicked back hair, the earring, the glasses, was inspired by my uncle, and I didn’t tell my brother that. So when my brother came to set, he said that Andre looked like my uncle, which is crazy, because my uncle’s whiten but he was all there, so it was pretty cool to hear that from an outsider.
Andre, was the guy all on the page for you, or did you have ideas of your own when you read this?
Andre Royo: A lot was on the page, and I feel like the words on the page mean that I have a foundation, but you don’t bring an actor into the words on the page. You hire him to breathe life into what’s on the page, and once Josh and I bonded [and said] let’s trust each other throughout this journey, it created a freedom of expression and it started to come to life. We had certain things like movies that [Josh] watched or we watched together that influenced the tone or style we wanted, and I read a book called “A Confederacy of Dunces” that [Josh] said he enjoyed, and that was a real connection to what I wanted Ashley to be. The words always start it off, but the ability and the trust that allows us to create it as we go along is when the magic happens, hopefully.
Was that trust easy to come by? I imagine since Josh is a first-time director, you could look at this script and all the wonderful little digressions and think to yourself, this could go so horribly wrong if it’s not handled right.
Andre Royo: That’s on both sides. Again, it’s what I love about this type of artistry where this is something that’s really a team effort. I don’t look good unless my costar, the writing, the [cinematographer] is good and when somebody sent me the script and said, “I think you’re going to like this script,” I read it, I said, “I want to meet the director,” and I wrote [Josh] a note saying, “I get this. I love the poetry and the simplicity.”
Josh Locy: Which no one had said up to that point.
Andre Royo: Yeah, and she set it up and said, “The director’s coming.” I’m sitting there waiting and [looking over at Josh] this big, tall Paul Bunyan dude is in front of me. I didn’t expect him. He sat down [and I thought], “Wow, this is going to be incredible.” For him to want to tell a story, and then say that he wants me to tell it with him, I felt as long as we trust each other, nothing bad will come of it.
Josh Locy: There were times, too, in the editing process, where I’m watching 12 takes of a scene, and the first one’s the one we used. He had it right [the first time], but I’m caught up on something that’s weird and doesn’t matter, and he already brought the life and emotion to it. I wasn’t tuned into that station necessarily [on set], but it was cool in editing just to be like, “Man, take one, let’s do that. That’s great.”
Specifically with the montages, but in general, it sounded like trial and error, so what it was like to find that after the fact?
Josh Locy: It was fun. Throughout the entire process, we questioned whether it would even be part of the film, but I believed in the power that we could do it right – if we could get pieces – that we could make it work and the audience could connect emotionally with it. When you shoot on film, you have to wait to get the footage and you’re not watching it, so we did a run and when we processed the first run, which is three or four of these pieces, we got them back, and it was just a magical moment. [I thought] This is going to work. This is going to be in the movie, and I remember going in the edit room and watching the first assembly, and when the heads came together, I was like, this is it. We did something special.
Was there a particular crazy day of shooting on this?
Josh Locy: When your light source is the sun, the thing is that it goes away quickly. [laughs] It’s just going. You watch it, and it goes from here to here in one shot, so there was one day, when we were shooting when [Ashley] gives the stereo to [his ex-girlfriend] Linda. He’s walking down the street, and that was a hard thing to execute because the sun was falling so fast. It created a beautiful scene, and I’m kind of glad [the sun] was falling, but that was one, even after we finished, I was like, “Well, we’re going to reshoot that.” The editor didn’t start until the end of the shooting, but when he went in and did an assembly of that scene, it was all there. Somehow, we had the pieces needed in the scene.
Andre Royo: I had [some] meltdowns dealing with obstacles. There’s limits. We’ve got to finish it. We got to get it done. For me, independent films, you don’t have a lot of money to lock down locations and we had every sound imaginable come up – airplanes, ice cream truck, helicopters. When you’re doing a shoot on location, [with] no money, you really can’t tell the ice cream truck, “Yo, don’t come down the block.” They’re like “No, we’re coming down the block. We’re making our money too.”
Just dealing with that makes you really embrace what independent filmmaking is all about, [which is] let’s deal with it. Whatever comes our way, we’ll find a way to fix it because we got to get this story done, and that just fuels everybody to bring their A game and be present at all times. On big budget joints, you can walk over and be like, “I’m going to be in my trailer. I need time to zone out.” Here, there is no real trailer and you want to be around as much as possible when you can to help get the story done. That’s exciting.
Andre, were you expecting to do so much manual labor on this? You’re carrying ladders and refrigerators.
Andre Royo: Hell yeah, I read the script. [laughs] That’s the only way I can really drop into the character – this is what he does, and I try to do a little workout beforehand, preparation. I lift my refrigerator at home every once in awhile to see if I can handle it. But it’s fun because you know it’s part of a bigger vision. We’re telling a truth of this story that you love doing it. The harder it is or the more challenging it is, we always said that at the end of the day, we’ll be better artists after this experience.
Josh Locy: That’s like the stereo [Ashley buys to give to his ex]. I thought we need a big, unwieldy stereo that’s hard to carry, and after a little bit, [Ashley]’s like, this is too much. It’s taped up. He’s like, “I can do it.” We saw those problems that we invented, but it’s a point of saying, we push ourselves, and we try to make it. The wisdom and the learning curve is when to push it and when is it important enough to push on? If that stereo is being unwieldy, is that worth it? Can’t I just give you a boombox? There’s stuff in the movie that was the easier version of it, because it was more efficient and wasn’t worth [the hassle], but mostly there’s stuff that is the harder [option] that we went with, and we owned.
You could tell – there’s a great scene in the film where you go to a place called Santa’s house, which appears to be a very elaborate set with a poker game going on and wedding photos being taken in a studio, and it’s one fluid take where you only see so much, leaving the rest to the imagination. How did that make it into the film?
Josh Locy: This movie, in its early, early stages, was a drug movie, and the characters were addicted to drugs the whole movie. I made a sweeping move early on to get rid of all that stuff. It wasn’t important to me, but I had these scenes like the Santa scene in the script and I loved the scene. It started out as a stereotypical crack house, but I was like, well, what if this place isn’t a crack house now? What is it? I was talking to some buddies, and one of them who was on set every day, said, “What if it’s a photo studio?” It was like the worst idea ever.
Andre Royo: “I like it!” [laughs]
Josh Locy: It actually connected emotionally with [something that happens in the film] later, and we tried to make it a part of what was going on, but I just liked the idea that this woman takes pictures of everything.
Andre Royo: It works really well. It’s like a business.
In general, this looks like a slight variation on reality, which is amazing because it was shot in Los Angeles, which I’ve never see this way on film. Was it a natural decision to film there?
Josh Locy: When you’re making these films, you consider all options because you just want to go with what’s going to be the cheapest and most efficient way to do it. We thought about Detroit. We thought about Fresno. We thought about New Orleans.
Andre Royo: Tennessee.
Josh Locy: We thought about Chattanooga. Everything was on the table at a certain point, but at the end of the day, I’d been in L.A. for 12 years and I have networks of people who would do things for me who I’ve done stuff for, and to me, that was worth having the people who I love and trust on board.
That was more important than a tax credit to me, so we ended up shooting in LA, but that comes with its own set of problems. All the locations have been used, and you’ve seen everything before, so we went out of our way to find locations and find places that are unshot – and those happen to be cheaper, so it just worked out. We worked really hard to find a colorful world in South Central and to find life in the structures there.
What was the premiere like for you?
Andre Royo: It’s nerve-racking. I always sit in that little corner seat, so I can bounce. I don’t like looking at myself, and I don’t like wondering, is it being received well? But with this film, it was different because we talked about it, and I wanted to enjoy an awkward silence of hearing people trying to process what they’re watching. I found that exciting, because I’m looking around, seeing people look and wonder but still be engaged, and you can feel – it’s almost the closest you get to [live] theater, where you can feel the audience going with you. We might have lost one or two, but they all were like, this is something new I did not expect, but I’m enjoying it, and that’s the magic moment.
Josh Locy: This woman I was sitting next to should be who every director sits next to at their films, because she was so emotionally invested in what was going on. And she was audible about her investment. There’s things [in the film] that I’ve only connected with, maybe, during the writing of a scene or the shooting or the editing, but then to have her connect everything on key is as important as filmmaking experience.