Bad auditions usually are an end rather than a start, but in an irony that surely Mark Twain would appreciate, it was a dreadful tryout for Huck Finn that led Adam Nee to make “Band of Robbers.”
“It was this adaptation that was very close to the book [“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”], so I was a 21-year-old man auditioning to play a 13-year-old kid on the raft with Jim,” Nee laughs now about one of his first auditions after moving to New York to pursue acting. “At that time, I also happened to be really obsessed with Martin Sheen’s performance in ‘Badlands,’ so I went into this audition doing Kit Carruthers’ accent [while playing a] 13-year-old Huckleberry Finn. It was the worst.”
Yet there was something about imagining Huck as an adult that stuck with Nee, who enlisted his brother Aaron to flesh out the idea that one of literature’s most enduring youngster this side of Peter Pan and his pal Tom Sawyer were forced to finally grow up. That relatively simple conceit gives way to an unexpected poignance to go along with an appropriately rambunctious adventure for the two to go on in “Band of Robbers,” which reimagines Huck (Kyle Gallner) as a recent parolee looking to live on the right side of the law and Tom (Adam Nee) as a cop itching to break it. With a motley group of friends (including Hannibal Burress and Matthew Gray Gubler), the two stage a heist of a pawn shop to recover a treasure they coveted as kids, but when nothing goes according to plan, Tom and Huck wind up rethinking their relationship as much as their scheming.
Though the young men onscreen have trouble running from their problems, “Band of Robbers” does have that invigorating feeling that someone’s getting away with something as the Nees, who are thick as thieves and share a mischievous streak a mile wide, capture the twang of Twain’s text and turn it into folklore all their own. The writing/directing duo envision the Inland Empire as being every bit as mysterious as the Mississippi Delta and populating it with colorful characters with timeless charm, played by actors such as Melissa Benoist and Stephen Lang, who clearly relish the opportunity to put their spin on Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe, respectively. On the eve of the film’s release, both brothers took the time to talk about how they embraced the challenge of finding a new story to tell in the collected tales that had already been told about Tom and Huck, how the two divvied up directing duties on the set, and that time a crashed cop car almost ended the film.
Because this really does touch on all of the Tom and Huck adventures, how did this grow from an idea about Huck to covering the entire story?
Aaron Nee: With great difficulty. That was maybe the biggest challenge of the entire project.
Adam Nee: It was great, but it was incredibly challenging. We revered the work of Twain so much, and we wanted this to really feel like an adaptation of both Tom and Huck combined. That was a painstaking process, but it was so fun to see it come alive, especially once we had a cast and we were on set.
Aaron Nee: Part of the reason [it was so hard] was we had the idea 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that we said, “We’re going to write this as a feature.” It was briefly explored as a TV series because of how many stories there were. Deciding what that core story would be — because there isn’t room in a 90-minute movie to just be as sprawling as those books are — [was difficult]. Once we focused on Tom and Huck coming to this point where they have to move on from their childhood, but they’re going to go after that childhood ambition one last time, and disaster grows out of this, it came into focus because it really is time [for the two of them] to grow up.
Was it fun to find how you could play with updating the story, like Huck speaking Spanish or referencing the past like the conversation about riding sidesaddle?
Aaron Nee: In making those decisions, [we had to figure out] to what degree we’re going to try and make feel like what we’ve seen exactly as it plays out in the books, and to what degree it’s going to be something new, like the Jorge character. That came early on that we were not going to let ourselves get [lost] in our head about, “Oh, that’s not how it happens in the book.” So you’ve got a character like Jim [in the books] who’s being treated like a second-class citizen who gets swept up in Tom and Huck’s misadventures and there’s your core, but now let’s let that breathe in the world that we’ve created. What makes sense in that world? That’s how you get those details that break from the book, like it being a pawnshop robbery instead of [Tom and Huck] trying to rob a bunch of picnicking passersby.
Adam Nee: Yeah, it was very important that it stays very true and honors Twain, but stands alone, so if you don’t know Twain at all, you’ll still enjoy the movie.
Was that tricky to convey visually as well? While there are certain markers that it’s modern, you never can really place it in a specific time.
Adam Nee: What we wanted very much was for, not only the characters, but the world to also seem like it’s in a state of arrested development. Even though it’s a modern day adaptation, it feels very much like ’80s or a time from our youth.
Aaron Nee: When these characters would have been kids, you feel like it never grew up past that. Also, it was important that even though we were modernizing it, it still had a feeling of nostalgia. By keeping everything a little bit older than 2016, there’s still something nostalgic about it.
Adam Nee: Even wardrobe-wise, we wanted everybody to look like their mom dressed them as a nine-year-old.
It was surprising to learn Adam wasn’t actually supposed to play Tom at first. How did you decide to play the role?
Adam Nee: It’s something that I dreamed of doing but never thought could happen in this setting because we knew we needed a very recognizable actor to get the movie financed. We made offers to big actors for Tom Sawyer before we had financing, and couldn’t get anybody on board because it is very tricky to get anybody on board in an unfinanced movie. Then when we did start putting together money for the film, we were having auditions and we saw a lot of great guys, but it just wasn’t quite working the way that we pictured it. It took Aaron and Matthew Gray Gubler and Kyle Gallner even, to nudge me in that direction and it was a big surprise to me that I ended up doing it. The investors and the producers were very supportive, and it happened, but it was a last-minute thing.
Aaron Nee: Matthew and I knew that Adam could do the part, but we were looking at the hard realities of film that you need to put a recognizable face on a poster. In the end, Adam had developed the voice of Tom Sawyer so clearly, not only as a writer but just as an actor, and he understood what we were trying to do with this character really better than anybody else just coming into it cold. So it became a decision of, “Are we going to try to make this the most marketable movie possible?” or “Are we going to try to make it the closest to what we want it to be?”
Was it an interesting experience directing-wise to have one of you actually inside the scene and another behind the camera?
Aaron Nee: Early on, I kept standing there with the actors, and we realized, “This doesn’t work,” so I went and got behind the camera. [laughs]
Adam Nee: Kyle Gallner [has said something] I thought was really interesting and flattering, which was that because his costar was in the scene with him directing, and then you have the other director is watching the big picture the whole time, he felt very safe. Certainly on projects we’ve done, we’ll just both be directing behind the camera, and then there are other projects we’ve done where I’ve been in it, so the way we work together is a fluid process, but for the actors, I think it does end up being a positive.
It also seems like part of the appeal for them might’ve been that you were actively casting type for most of the roles.
Adam Nee: That’s the most exciting thing to us. Even though the movie’s very elevated, we wanted it to feel like the weirdo real-life version of this, so the guys who are going to try to pull off a robbery will look more like [Matthew Gray] Gubler and Hannibal [Burress], or Injun Joe would be this very strange character who has been going after this treasure his whole life, but we didn’t want big, archetypal characters.
Aaron Nee: It’s a great way, too, to get talented people on your small project because you give them an opportunity to be a different character than they usually play. That was a real attraction to some of the great talent that we got to work with is that they got to disappear into a role.
Adam Nee: Yeah, we were very blessed with a lot of the supporting roles like Cooper Huckabee as Muff Potter or Beth Grant as the Widow Douglas or Lee Garlington as Lt. Polly, Eric Olsen as Sid Sawyer – we were just so lucky to get those actors to do those parts for us because they just make the world so rich.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Aaron Nee: Every day was pretty crazy because we were trying to do more than we had the days or money for, but probably the most head-scratching, how-did-we-get-here day was actually the final day of shooting. It was a pick-up day that we had to push real hard to do because we had already started cutting the movie. There was some stuff that we wanted with police cars for the hotel shoot-out sequence that there just wasn’t the time and money to get [during the initial production]. So we had to pull together some extra money so we could go out and shoot this stuff in the police car. We couldn’t believe that we got this opportunity and we got everybody out to Barstow and we got the police car for a shot that we had 10 minutes where the light was going to be right. We were waiting for the sun to get just in the right place, and our producer, John Will comes over and says, “Let’s just do a quick rehearsal [before] so there’s the time to fix anything if something’s wrong.” In that rehearsal, the police car that this whole shoot was built around drives straight into a guard rail and it totaled.
Adam Nee: And this is with a super-talented precision stunt driver who did all of our driving for the movie. But the throttle got stuck in this car and the first thing we do is crash a car and that’s our reshoot day. The police in Barstow, who were doing traffic control for us, looked at us like we must be insane people. It was wild, but we did end up salvaging the day. Our [cinematographer Noah Rosenthal] is really fast and sharp, and we started doing Poor Man’s Process stuff.
Aaron Nee: The day became a testament to what a great team of people we had. That’s the kind of thing that could have derailed the whole day but instead everybody put their head together, and we figured out how we could still get the shots that we needed. We still got a lot of police car footage that you’ll watch the movie and not realize that our car couldn’t drive.
On your first film “The Last Romantic,” you had to do a lot of different jobs without much help. Was it interesting to hand some of those duties off?
Adam Nee: On our first movie, we had good producers, but that wasn’t their first job. It was a $20,000 budget movie. This movie, we had an amazing team. Starting with our producer John Will, who changed everything, going to our production designer [Rodrigo Cabral], our DP, our makeup and hair team – everybody involved in this movie was so good. We couldn’t have asked for a better crew to pull this movie off and we did every one of those jobs on our first movie.
Aaron Nee: Our philosophy as directors is, “Hire the right people, and then give them space to do what they’re good at.” So we were really careful about the team that we put together, and it paid off. Everybody was under a lot of pressure all the way to the last day, but it was a fun set to be on and an exceptionally enjoyable shooting process.
“Band of Robbers” opens in limited release on January 15th. A full list of theaters is here. It will also be available on demand and on iTunes.