The only thing that comes easy in Matt Ruskin’s narrative debut “Booster” is the way in which the writer/director eases the audience into the mindset of Simon (Nico Stone), a low level thief who is called upon to graduate from misdemeanors to felonies when his brother (Brian McGrail) is cuffed for armed robbery and the only way out would be for Simon to commit more smash-and-grabs to make it look as if it weren’t an isolated incident. While all the lines between right and wrong are gradually blurred for Simon, the Boston neighborhood that groomed him for such a rough-and-tumble lifestyle is portrayed crisply, a break from the grit and choppiness audiences have come to expect with a view of the city’s underbelly onscreen.
Set in an unglamorous world where criminal lairs aren’t filled with guns and money, but Chinese takeout cartons and balled up plastic bags, Ruskin’s character study tells of a young man tied to the past by his brother and a nursing-home-bound grandmother and contemplating the possibility of a life on the straight and narrow. “Booster” plays upon our familiarity with the situation, not from other films we’ve seen, but of places we’ve experienced without knowing the full and potentially illicit activities that lurk just underneath the surface. While in town for the SXSW Film Festival, the writer/director, Stone, who scored a special jury prize for his lead performance despite never having acted before, and Adam DuPaul, a fellow novice and native Bostonian who makes quite an impression as a middle man who gives haircuts, sat down to talk about collaborating on the drama.
How did this film come about?
Matt Ruskin: I spent a couple years writing a larger film and I got tired of waiting around for that movie to get made. I had always wanted to make a movie with Nico, so we started talking about developing a project that we could do more independently and we started shaping the story and collaborated through the writing process and tried to put it together pretty quickly.
Nico Stone: We all have a shared history, so we certainly drew on that and the narrative was sort of made up of various stories — some real, some not — that we grew up hearing about different people.
Adam and Nico, you’ve never actually acted before. Did you have trepidation about appearing in this?
MR: No. [laughs]
Adam DuPaul: Not really. I definitely wanted to, because Nico had messaged me and…
NS: You didn’t answer my first one.
AD: Yeah, I don’t think I answered his first message. [laughs[ I’ve always been kind of a character and people have always said, “you should be a comic” or “you should be an actor,” but I didn’t think I’d ever have any opportunity to do that. I talked about it with my wife and she’s like, “That’s all you want to do anyway, so you might as well do [it].” I was nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to learn the script and things like that, but Matt put me with some people I was comfortable with that I could work on that. All three of us have a history together, co it just fell into place for me and I just really enjoyed it.
NS: We had a shared sense of ownership from day one, long before we started filming. I had no prior experience. Matt had enrolled me in a class just before we started shooting, so I had a bit of a crash course. But beyond that, not at all. That’s something I’ve kind of in the back of my head have always been interested in and I’ve always been interested in film.
The film is structured in an interesting way so the burden isn’t necessarily on Nico to find his character, but rather on the other characters in his life who greatly influence him. Matt, was it a similar process of learning who your central character through the other characters you created?
MR: The goal was to show several different directions in which this kid’s life could go and to really show internally what he’s at odds with. The kid’s desperate for family and that his mother’s passed away, he’s befriended this old man, who’s like a grandfather figure to him, and he’s very loyal to his grandmother. I think the love interest kind of quietly signals to him what a different kind of life could be like for him and then, of course, his brother puts this tremendous weight on him, so it was a way to externalize what was going on internally for him.
Was it intentional to make something sleeker than the crime films typically set in Boston?
MR: We never were going to set out to make an action movie or a crime thriller in that respect. We wanted to try and show the human side of people in these circumstances in the most honest way that we could. Part of that is trying to hone in on the internal struggle that our characters are experience, particularly his character [pointing to NS]. A lot of that is people sitting with their feelings, so we tried to do it in a way that wasn’t too slow.
The important part about the city was Nico and I would just drive around and he had been like cataloguing great locations in his head, so we found places that we wanted to shoot. There were some places I had always wanted to shoot at, so that was actually the really fun part of preparing for the film.
Did your background in documentary influence you in any way? [Ruskin previously made 2006's "The Hip Hop Project."]
MR: I just felt comfortable with picking up a camera and pointing it at somebody and knowing that we could potentially get some good stuff without thousands of rehearsals or a million lights. Most of the time, it was a very traditional narrative film set, but there were times like when [Nico] was selling goods – those are real people in real stores and we kind of went in and asked them if we could do it and then we shot it like a documentary. Those were the instances where that carried over.
What was it like to premiere at SXSW?
NS: It was very anxiety-provoking, but fantastic. I could feel that people were into it, which is obviously a relief.
AD: I wasn’t nervous until I sat down in the theater. That was when I got a little bit nervous at first, but it’s been a great experience.
“Booster” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play the Independent Film Festival Boston between April 25th and May 2nd.