When Logan Huffman first started flipping through the pages of the script for “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” he knew there would be an issue, not necessarily with the character he’d be reading for — B.J., an unrepentant dirtbag whose theft of some petty cash leads to big problems for his college-bound best friend Bobby (Jeremy Allan White) and his best gal Sue (Mackenzie Davis) — but with the reading itself.
“I’m dyslexic, so I remember seeing all the pages and I was like man, this is going to be hard to do and get it done,” recalls Huffman, seeing scenes that would run for pages. “But then when I started reading the dialogue, everything started making sense to the way I thought. It was easy to memorize because the words were so good.”
Indeed, the dialogue in Dutch Southern’s screenplay for “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is so crackling and sharp that the words constantly threaten to cut deeper than the main villains do in the South Texas-set noir. Yet co-directors Zeke and Simon Hawkins hardly skimp on the suspense, pulling off something far more impressive than the ill-considered heist at the center of the film in untangling a web of lies, deceit and jealousy between the trio of soon-to-be high school grads who become indebted to a local crime boss after B.J. steals from the wrong person’s safe.
With more than a dash of the crime novelist Jim Thompson (who’s namechecked within the first five minutes), the film delivers on its pulpy promise as B.J., Bobby and Sue attempt to unburden themselves of small-time thugs such as the charismatic and unscrupulous Grif (Mark Pellegrino) and an enigmatic kingpin named Big Red (William Devane). But the characters’ youth is what makes “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” a unique proposition as the headstrong teens get in over their head, already desperate to leave their tiny Texas town, even if they didn’t have guns pointed at them, to have a future.
However, the future surely holds great things for all involved in “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” boasting breakout, nuanced performances from its three stars and assured direction from the Hawkins brothers, who I was fortunate enough to speak to recently about how the film came together, the value of reshoots, the liberating nature of long scenes and learning how to be Texan.
How did you guys get interested in this?
Zeke Hawkins: I think we fell in love with the three lead characters – B.J., Bobby and Sue. They had real meat to them and then we were so excited to go make a movie in South Texas, to get out of L.A. and go do something somewhere else and explore.
Simon Hawkins: And the dialogue in the script was so snappy and fun, and it was just such a fun read to get through it that I think we felt really good. It was also interesting that the three lead characters are all teenagers and the material is very, very dramatic and yet the script was fun to read because the dialogue is fun and you don’t necessarily realize how dramatic the scenes are actually going to be [or] how dangerous. Once we got down [to Texas] and started rehearsing and got on set, everybody was like, “Oh, wait a second…” We have a scene like the “what’s your price?” scene [in which Bobby is forced to get out of a no-win situation], that scene can’t be funny. It’s so intense.
All three of you aren’t from the area, so was there a South Texas boot camp you had to go through?
ZH: We tried to do something for Jeremy and Logan where they were out shooting guns, working on the farm a little bit. One of our producers Justin [Duprie] is a fourth or fifth generation cotton farmer, so we had his aunts and uncles and grandparents involved in the movie helping out. They were always working with the actors just to get them comfortable in that setting.
Logan Huffman: The moment I heard the voice [of Brett, a local man who appears in the film to pick up a phone], I knew I could go as far as I wanted with the dialect. All of us just got into this whole mentality. I’m from Indiana, Jeremy’s from New York and Mackenzie’s from Vancouver, so we’re all from different places, but once when we went [to South Texas], the Dupries were so open and welcome that we felt Texan the whole entire time, so it was very easy to slip into that mentality.
I loved the description of your character last night of the Don Knotts meets Robert Mitchum.
LH: Absolutely. That’s what I wanted to do. I’m a big, big Robert Mitchum fan and it was funny, the first time I auditioned I mentioned “Night of the Hunter.”
ZH: And we had been thinking that exact thing and then he mentioned that in his audition. It was serendipitous.
Since you knew you’d be using Justin’s family’s cotton gin, did you physically build the film around that?
ZH: We had a bunch of locations and also when we got down there…with the exception of the Cotton Gin, most of the locations were not set. It was more they had all their friends, basically all the people they knew in the area and we just went and saw everything, every possible property and then we were able to mold things around that and see what we have access to, see what’s going on in the script and then sort of get it all to work together.
You said at the Toronto premiere Mackenzie couldn’t attend the screening because her appendix burst and Dutch Southern sent her a gift basket of all the novels Sue would read (some Agatha Christie, apparently). It seems like these characters were deeply thought through before we meet, so I’m wondering whether with B.J., who would seem to offer nothing to Sue at this point, there was an idea of why they were still together?
LH: I just got out of a three-year relationship myself, so I think you start off as something and then slowly it turns into this — I need this person here, you need me. They were already destined not to be together. B.J. knew it was going to be over. But it started out something very different. I probably took her virginity when she was 14 and we’ve probably been dating since freshman year. That’s the way I set it up. We’ve been together for three years, she loved nobody else and I was able to be this strong man to her.
ZH: Yeah, this relationship has gone through a major arc, but you’re only there for the destructive end of it. You’re not there for when B.J. was charismatic and probably one of the coolest guys in school. You’re there for it’s getting ugly and it’s getting ugly fast.
Colin Geddes [the TIFF programmer] mentioned in his introduction that there were different cuts of the film that he saw over the past year. What was the process like of figuring out what story you had?
ZH: One of the things that was the most exciting about this movie, but also was the most daunting was when we got hired, the whole point was we’re doing this no matter what. We’re shooting in four or five months. That was amazing, but it also gave us very little time to work with the script and work with the limitations we were going to have. So we were down there, we were shooting and we knew that 90% of the movie was amazing, but we knew it was not totally there. Through the editing process, that’s when we really could take our time, take a breath, take a step back and look at the scenes that we really need to bring this all together.
SH: There was the one scene, the sheriff’s scene, which we always intended to get an actor from L.A. for a one-day part, so that meant that we were always going to have this little reshoot window in Los Angeles. That allowed us to pick a few pieces around that to compliment what we were thinking about with the ending.
ZH: The one thing I learned as a filmmaker on this was how valuable reshoots are. In the past, I always had imagined them as getting a couple inserts, but that’s a real chance to put your movie together and really do new things.
LH: I really wanted that too, just to hang out with them one last time. But the good part is the one scene we did do reshoots on that I was in was just the [opening] Whataburger scene, and I got to be light and play more. There was an original scene where I roll up in a truck like a tiger and they were outside of a Whataburger and I ran into them, but I played it too mean. It wasn’t what we needed at the beginning of the movie. [Looking at Zeke and Simon] You guys knew always where the tone needed to be.
Was it interesting to surround the younger actors with veterans such as Mark Pellegrino, William Devane and Jon Gries, who played the sheriff in the aforementioned pickup scene?
LH: Mark [Pellegrino] was unbelievable. I always look at film sets as college for me. I never got a chance to go, but if I watch other actors and can study them, I learn a lot. The coolest thing Mark taught me was never be afraid to touch your face. I would watch him in these takes and I was enthralled by everybody, but he was just so easy to be [around as] a father figure because he was just so good and demanding in his presence. It made me think of Montgomery Clift and “Judgment at Nuremberg” [LH fondles his chin and cheek], but never be afraid to touch your face.
ZH: We were really lucky to have Mark. I had worked with him when I was an assistant on the movie “Capote,” and he plays a small part, but he was amazing so we always had it in our head that this guy would be so good in this part.
How did William Devane come about?
SH: It was just the quality. Brian really liked “Rolling Thunder,” I loved him from “Marathon Man.” I always thought there was this special quality and there has to be somebody that shows up at the end and has a certain authority to him. Not that many people have it.
ZH: And not a superficial authority like he’s a really big guy or has a really big scar. Just the real presence of somebody who runs the show.
Was it daunting to do such dialogue-heavy scenes?
LH: It was scary, but at this point, I was on a TV show and I was completely disenchanted, so thank God for these guys because they had patience with me. They let me play and I always felt that Simon, you were always watching everything and I always felt safe you were going to get everything you needed and Zeke, you were always there to make us feel comfortable. The only reason actors can go through long scenes like that is when they don’t have to think about the overarching things because the directors are watching it for you. All you have to do is pretend to be inside that moment.
ZH: The other thing with longer scenes is that there’s nowhere to hide. The work actually has to be good. When you have three or four pages of dialogue that are just people talking, there’s nothing you can do except put the camera there and let the performance happen. If you can’t cut around it, you can’t do anything. So we just had to make it good and there’s something comforting about [knowing] we’re not going to try to hide anything and race through stuff. It’s nice to work that way.