A film as modest and ultimately successful in its goals as the legal case it's based on, "Puncture" was one of the pleasant surprises of this year's Tribeca Film Festival and it's being released this week in theaters. To mark the occasion, here's the interview I did, originally published on IFC.com, with the film's creative team shortly after its premiere.
For those who think Chris Evans' superheroic exploits will be restricted to "Captain America," there's a surprise in store with "Puncture," which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Though it still involves on kind of Blue Shield, the actor plays an even unlikelier champion of the people than the scrawny Steve Rogers as Michael Weiss, a Houston attorney who made it his life's mission to introduce the Safety Point needle, a device that ensured clean needle use in hospitals, much to the chagrin of major medical manufacturers who tried to blackball its inventor from ever reaching the market. Sadly, while Weiss was clearly a gifted lawyer, it was his additional interest in needles for recreational use that kept him from ever seeing the success he deserved with the case.
Yet that's what makes "Puncture" such a great showcase for Evans and a compelling debut from Mark and Adam Kassen, two producers-turned-directors for whom the subject matter struck close to home as the sons of two health care professionals. Although there's no doubt that gives the film an attention to detail that's key, it's how the directing duo balances the demands of a legal thriller with the personal struggle that Weiss goes through as a functioning addict that's most impressive, though they get considerable help from a career-best performance from Evans. While in New York for the festival, the trio talked about bringing such a wonderfully contradictory character to the screen, making a film in the midst of the real-life people involved, and how to make a courtroom thriller interesting in an era after "Law & Order."
How did all you guys get interested in this film?
Mark Kassen: Paul Danzinger [Mike Weiss's legal partner] sent us a story and we thought it was really compelling. We thought if he would trust us and give us some time to get a proper writer on it and make it work, we'd take it over, so we took a big leap of faith with him. We went out to our friend Chris Lopata, who we worked with on a number of projects – we spent about a year working together on the script and kind of getting it right, going down to Houston interviewing people, working with Chris and then when we felt great about it, we went to our mutual agents and they actually had said "this is something Chris Evans would like" and we said, "do you think he would read it?" And they said, "I don't know, maybe." And he did.
Adam Kassen: We had a meeting and as we keep saying, we got him drunk and he came to Houston with us. [laughs]
Chris Evans: That was it.
What did you like about it?
CE: My agents know the type of stuff that I like, the kind of scripts and characters that I dig and they sent this, they said, "you're going to like this" and within the first 10 minutes, I could tell I'm going to like this guy. The script was so good, it was so intimate and I was so shocked no other actor was going to steal this from me and then I met with these guys and you could love a script all you want, but if you don't like [or] have confidence in the directors, you're not going to have a good movie. It's not worth it and it's a waste of time. But I felt extremely confident. I walked out of the meeting like, man, I can't believe this is working out. I've got a great script, a great role, great directors and I didn't have to audition or earn it or fight – this is great.
AK: Well, [Chris] did earn it in his past performances, so we were really excited. When you have a character like that, we were very careful in our selection of casting is that you don't want to have someone who's one note or self-indulgent and to have someone that Chris does is very rare, a dynamic actor who can also have that soul and show that honesty and tragedy and excitement all in one is a rare thing and to have it in Chris, we felt really lucky and fortunate to get him in the role.
You actually dedicate the film to Mike Weiss by using a string of contradictory labels for him like "Lawyer, genius, fool, addict…" Is there any interesting story behind that?
AK: Actually, I think Paul Danzinger wrote those words down.
CE: I loved that you encapsulated that – it was such a great thing to read on that last page. Like what a great encompassing [thing] of who this guy was. It was just unbelievable.
AK: That's actually what inspired us about the story is Paul isn't a screenwriter, he's a lawyer — that's not what he could do, but he wanted to get it in a way we could read it. In that sentence what he was able to do that we picked up is how much this person affected him and all these other people. So of what we kept, that may have been the bulk of it in that ending sentence. It definitely moved us from the beginning. And quite frankly, as we were working on it, the first time I ever saw it with music — I've seen the movie a lot in many pieces and it's very hard to stay emotionally involved in the film that you've taken apart and put together — I still get emotional when those words come up.
CE: Me, too. That's part of the stuff I love about the character is that little final hook. I was like this guy's great. And then we went to Houston and we met with a lot of guys who knew Mike, his family, friends and you start trying to piece together who this guy was and I've never made a movie based on a real person before, so it's strange. You can't start from scratch. There's an existing history here that you have to respect and incorporate into what you're building.
At the premiere, you spoke about how you used some of the paintings from Mike's house as set decoration and without getting supernatural, is there a certain energy you feel as filmmakers when you're surrounded by the real artifacts and people?
MK: I think the energy of the people you surround yourself with affects things in even subtle ways when it hits the screen, even from shooting down in Houston. We thought at one point that we would shoot it in L.A. or maybe somewhere else a little more convenient for people, but by shooting in Houston around real places that Mike was, I think just helps add a layer of authenticity to the film and helps the spirit and energy of it.
AK: And a testament to him and the other people involved in his life, people really came out for the film, both in the city of Houston and everyone within the tentacles of Mike's universe from his family to Paul Danzinger's entire family. [Many of them played] extras and judges that Mike worked with [would] give us their courtrooms and things like that. We're very careful to say this is not a documentary, this is a movie that people will be entertained by hopefully, but the credibility comes in almost in capturing little pieces from those things.
As an actor, does it affect you in a different way?
CE: It's terrifying. It's intimidating. It's not just you on the line. If it doesn't work out or you're not happy with your performance, it's not like well, I'm the only one that has to really deal with the ripple effects. If you don't give a solid performance, you're kind of trashing someone's gift to you. The fact that they gave us the story, you've got to respect that.
MK: Also, Adam and I talked about as we went along of kind of realizing the effect of having these people around potentially in a negative way at a certain point because as an actor, you spend this time working on a character and then letting go hopefully and then you have to be free to let whatever happens happen and so you try not to watch yourself from a third place. If you feel someone's watching you who has opinions about what that might've been, it starts to get in your head and that's a weird thing.
CE: You start to second guess yourself.
AK: Worse than someone like JFK because JFK's an iconic figure and people have an impression of him.
MK: But if it's an intimate person whose brother and father are around and they've had [that] experience, then makes what you're trying to create a very weird thing.
Another thing I'm sure you talked about was not falling into the traps of most legal procedurals and while Mike's unconventional life certainly helped, how much did you want to embrace or avoid the traditional beats of the genre?
AK: A lot of that was at the script stage and then in casting people that we cast so those moments that could slip into those kind of films you're talking about didn't [because] of the performances. We were conscious that we didn't want it to be, though we enjoy the show very much, a "Law and Order" episode. Even the courtroom drama stuff, we showed discovery, which on the face of it is a boring process you don't see, but still in it, there's some technical and interesting stuff and we got such great actors that you still got great character pieces that pushed the film forward, but not in the traditional courtroom sense you would normally get.
MK: For better or worse, we were conscious of the tone of the movie we wanted to make and we kept that in check by asking ourselves throughout the editing process, especially in terms of the suspense – we talked a lot about that – when did it matter and when didn't it? Because suspense is like in a horror movie, it's a trick, so it's a technical thing that you can inject if you want to, but if it isn't really the movie you're making, then it's just like a jerk-off. and we really tried to stay true to what we thought we were doing.
Chris, you play a drug addict in the film, but was finding the subtlety in the courtroom scenes actually harder?
CE: Yeah, courtroom scenes are really tricky because we've all seen those movies with iconic courtroom spiels. The movie starts out with that and it's one of the first ways you get to know the character and you want to make it charismatic and be dynamic for the audience to like the guy right away and there was a version in my head where I got the script, I was like I'm going to play with this and really not go big, but be just different. Then it just felt almost cliché – it felt forced. And I said, we've got plenty of movie to let this guy's levels come out. So I ended up dialing it down a bit and I think it felt more real.
MK: And we cut the line "You can't handle the truth!" [laughs]
"Puncture" opens in New York, Los Angeles and Houston on September 23rd.