When Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) and his son Sean (Logan Lerman) are introduced in “End of Sentence,” they couldn’t be any closer in how they feel about their situation, yet couldn’t be any further apart either physically or psychologically when Frank can be seen on the outside grieving his late wife and Sean can be found in prison, serving the final few days of a prison stretch. The latter doesn’t want to see the former when he gets out for reasons that gradually reveal themselves in the feature debut of Elfar Adalsteins, but the two begrudgingly make the trek from Alabama to Ireland to honor the wishes of their matriarch Anna (Andrea Irvine), who wanted her ashes to be scattered across the Atlantic.
As treacly and sentimental as that premise could be in the wrong hands, “End of Sentence” is something else with Adalsteins delicately helming a spry script from Michael Armbruster, which isn’t like any other father/son drama you’ve seen when it’s Sean who has far more confidence and authority than his dad, still despondent after the loss of his wife. However, their spirits can’t help but be lifted by a literal Irish wake, reuniting with Anna’s extended family and potentially finding a new member for their own when Jewel (Sarah Bolger), a young woman catches the eye of Sean at a pub along the way, and when the trio heads across the country to find the lake where Anna will be laid to rest, the path turns into one of acceptance, not only for each other, but of themselves individually when they all have regrets.
Filled with performances from Hawkes, Lerman and Bolger as beautiful as the verdant scenery, “End of Sentence” is now making its way into America after a successful festival run overseas and Adalsteins was gracious enough to speak about constructing an international production, personalizing the story and how even he didn’t know what the ending would be until he got back to the editing room.
How did this come about?
I was introduced to Michael [Armbruster, the screenwriter] by a mutual friend, an Icelandic producer named Eva Maria Daniels, who Mike worked with before, and she said this script might be of interest to you. I read it a couple of times and decided to meet with Michael and as a writer myself, I respect tremendously the position of the writer, but we managed to work on the script until it became personal for both of us. That’s really key for me. I wouldn’t have taken this on if it hadn’t been a personal endeavor. I come from a strange family background and I wanted to look at this from the point of view of the father and the point of view of the son and having three sons myself, it was a personal voyage, so [once] I could find there was a mutual understanding of what the material was asking for, we decided shortly after to embark on this journey together.
You’ve said the initial screenplay was set entirely in the U.S. What made you think of Ireland as a destination?
It was set in the U.S, but I felt it would better serve the story [if] they were fish out of water in a foreign country. I’ve always said that Ireland is a country with a crooked smile — it’s been through an awful lot through the ages, but they still manage to smile and sing and drink and face it with their sarcastic humor. Of course, they’re driving on the wrong side of the road, which in visual terms is a good starting place for them as fish out of water, so Michael and I went there. We did a road trip, in a tiny Japanese rental car and criss-crossed the country and really did the route you see in “End of Sentence.” We did the whole country in about four days.
Did that actually unlock anything in the story?
A few things. The first night we stopped in Galway, a beautiful part of Ireland, we went to this pub for a meal and there was a local three-piece band playing in the corner, and it was just melancholic and lyrical and heartwarming at the same time. We just looked at each other and we knew we were in the right place and that night influenced the way I structured Sarah Bolger’s scene [where she] accidentally starts to participate or join in with the band and performing that song, so the country reorganized a few story elements and brought them to life in a different way.
One of the most interesting elements to me is how the father and son dynamic is different than any other film I’ve seen. Was the son always more confident than the father and did the idea of casting against type appeal to you from the start?
Yes, from the outset, he was always the aggressor and the father was more passive, but then again, it does change later in the story when one is giving up and the other steps in and it’s almost like these two wrongs make a right, or at least they come to an understanding. Of course, John and Logan bring their own colors and expressions of that and bring their subtlety. Logan was drawn to working with John, but liked the challenge of a different character and these elements [combined probably] cemented his decision to do something different and I think he probably went more against type than John did.
And John has played all sorts of roles, and I suppose his most famous roles are thugs, but I loved him in “The Sessions” and in “Low Down,” the film about the jazz pianist Joe Albany, a heroin addict trying to raise his daughter, so I had seen a very human side of John and that is much closer to the person he is. He was on the top of my list and I was just so fortunate that one of the producers had his contacts. Our casting director sent his agent the script and he wanted to meet shortly after, so it hit home with him and it was really great to get the actor that was on the top of your list.
From a production standpoint, was a multinational shoot a challenge?
Yeah, very challenging. We had 26 days to shoot and we hit the ground running, so we had to be really organized in Ireland because we had company moves every other day. By the same token, we were so lucky with the weather. It was beautiful when we needed it to be and when we went inside, it started raining. So you know, there was somebody watching over us in that sense. The key here is organization and planning. I’m a great believer that the more you put into the groundwork, the freer you are to try things on set.
You were actually a producer before becoming a director. Did you actually develop a desire to direct or was it always there.
I snuck in through the back door. Production was my in, but my aim was always to write and direct. My next film that we’re shooting in August here in Iceland is from an adaptation I wrote from a beautiful novel, but production was getting a look, understanding the elements, being on set and then taking these steps through my short films and taking the plunge.
It must’ve helped. I heard there was just three hours to shoot the [crucial] ship scenes in “End of Sentence.”
Yeah, we had an hour actually to drive in and out and three hours to shoot on the ship. It was very challenging, and I don’t really think they knew [on the ship] what was coming with 60 people and extras showing up on set, running around in yellow vests. But we got what we needed. It was in and out, super well-planned by our first AD Gail Munnelly, who was exceptional. All the Irish crew were great and the actors, of course, were wonderful to work with.
Was there something that you may not have anticipated but it ended up in the film and you really like about it now? [Minor spoilers ahead]
Yeah, I’ll tell you a secret. It’s the ending. There is a bit more footage, but that’s where it had to end. In the editing, [I realized] their objective is getting to that lake, so it has to end [there], and I just thought it was the perfect moment to leave them and not push the message too hard because as a director, you’re always treading that path. It’s a balancing act between dramatization and reality. One of my aims with this movie was not to tug too hard on the heartstrings and let the sentiment be in the moment, so I thought the tone was right there.
You were able to travel with this a little before all the craziness happened. What was it like to put this out into the world?
It was tiring. [laugh] But it was really rewarding to screen it in Germany and Japan and getting the same reaction. I think there have been 10 festivals in Japan, Tokyo and from Talinn to Reykjavík and having people coming up to you and [saying] the film really touch their heart is the most fulfilling experience a director can have. You could genuinely feel it that it struck a chord with them because we all have stories in the background. All families are a little bit crooked and bent in the way they’re imperfect, so it was wonderful to travel to all these places and get the reaction. It was probably the biggest reward so far for me as a filmmaker.