It had been a story long passed around Jay Martin’s family that one of his relatives had committed a bank robbery in the 1940s, the kicker being that the bank belonged to another family member. If Martin shares anything in common with this member of the blood line, it’s an ability to expertly case a joint as the former storyboard artist-turned-director exhibits a remarkable eye for composition. But in making “7 Minutes,” he was looking for something more in trying to understand the desperation that would drive someone to such lengths.
In the process of drawing on the past, Martin’s created a distinctly modern heist flick, crackling with energy derived from a clever structure in which its central trio of high school friends (Luke Mitchell, Zane Holtz and Jason Ritter) are in the midst of knocking over the small savings and loan in their hometown in order to escape it while the circumstances that led them there are revealed piecemeal as their robbery appears to be falling apart too. With both the titular amount of time and the likes of Kris Kristofferson working against them, the gang has trouble keeping it together, but Martin does not as a filmmaker, creating a propulsive thriller that shows the number of lives touched by a single crime and never lets up on the action.
During its premiere at the Austin Film Festival, Martin and two of his stars, Mitchell and Holtz, spoke about how they might as well have robbed a bank for all the meticulous planning that went into making “7 Minutes,” how they achieved a kinetic shooting style and how the Aussie Mitchell learned American football the hard way.
How did this come about?
Jay Martin: I had been directing these videos, and I wanted to do a feature, something that was small enough where I could get it financed and get it made, so I wrote the script with the intention of it being a small indie, and took it to [“Mean Creek” director] Jacob Estes, who said, “This is something that Rick [Rosenthal] at Whitewater would be into for sure.” Rick liked it and we spent the summer working together to get the script where it ended up. It was great, because we all had the same idea about where we wanted the movie to go, so the movie is the movie we set out to make.
How did these guys get involved?
Jay Martin: I met [Luke] in a coffee shop. He had just literally landed from Australia, and you were auditioning, but you hadn’t booked that pilot yet, had you?
Luke Mitchell: No, I was just about to book “Tomorrow People”, but I had only been in L.A. for a few weeks, and got sent an e-mail saying, “Hey, want to read this script, and meet with this director?” Obviously, I really liked the script, and we chatted for an hour over coffee. Then, for some reason, he tested me out on my American accent in the meeting, in the coffee shop! I was like, “Man! What are you doing?” But he had to know that I could play the all-American, so I had to ad-lib on the spot.
Jay Martin: You didn’t think you were going to be asked to do an American accent?
Luke Mitchell: No!
Jay Martin: It can’t be a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, you can’t just be …
Luke Mitchell: Hey, I loved those movies growing up!
Jay Martin: That would be awesome! You’re just like, “This guy’s Australian!”
Zane Holtz: I think Luke had already been cast [when I got the script], but the casting director Eyde Belasco put me in a movie previously, so when this script came around, I got the opportunity to read it and thought it was great. Jay had a really cool visual aid that [showed] what he hoped it would look like as you were reading it. He has a background in storyboarding, so he had storyboarded the whole film and I felt confident going into it that visually, he had a strong choice of what he wanted to do and I had an opportunity to play a fun, cool character, so I went with it.
Because of the structure of the film, each character gets their own introduction, which I’m sure the actors appreciated. Do you think that came from your background in music videos to have these little vignettes with their backstory throughout the film?
Jay Martin: Definitely. If not in the front of my brain, definitely deep down because that’s my style of making things.
Zane Holtz: If you edited the movie and had it play completely linear, then maybe it wouldn’t have [the same energy]. I don’t even think a lot of those little vignettes or mini-movies would even make sense if you weren’t able to use them in that structure because even though we are using flashbacks, you are constantly being informed and discovering things about the character as the movie goes on. That definitely made [reading the script] interesting because the typical heist movie is like guys meet, they have a plan, do a set up, and in the third act, they rob the place and you see them either dying or going off into the sunset with their money. We have those elements, but we also get to see what happened before any of that happened after the heist is already done. It’s fun.
Was it fun to film the heist scene? That seems to be the kind of set piece you get into the movie business to make.
Jay Martin: Yeah, it was really fun to shoot the heist, but it’s one of those things that looks like it’s way more fun than it is because getting all that action is really meticulous. It’s actually tedious. There’s a scene where [Kevin Gage’s character] Tuckey’s shooting up the place, and Luke’s diving over, and Zane’s shooting, and it’s like “boom, boom, boom” [on the screen] But when we were shooting that, it was like, “Okay, [Luke]’s going to be here, the camera’s here with Plexiglass in front of it, we’ve got to take the gun apart and put it back together…” That was a day. It took eight hours to shoot what happens in about 10 seconds of the movie.
Luke Mitchell: Especially when we were confined to the one room, which was a really cool element, but added to the difficulty level. It had to be perfect. It was fun and exciting but it was exhausting. We were fortunate enough to be able to shoot it in sequence just to help out with special effects and all of that kind of stuff. But it was exhilarating too.
Zane Holtz: Any time you get to shoot something that you regularly wouldn’t be able to do in your normal life without going to jail, it’s fun.
You were in there with Kevin Gage, who was in the mother of all heist films, “Heat.” Did that give it something extra?
Luke Mitchell: It was fantastic because Kevin Gage just has a presence about him. He’s a lovely man, but can be extremely menacing in his demeanor and everything about him can come across as very aggressive, so for us to be working off him, I think, our legitimate fear came through. We didn’t really have to act much. It was just like, “Holy shit, that’s Kevin Gage, he’s pointing a shot gun at me, this is scary.”
Beyond the heist, the film is very carefully composed and there seems to be a huge amount of set-ups. Is that difficult on a lower-budget production?
Jay Martin: To do a movie with this many locations and this much action in the time allotted, everything had to be planned out to a T. So Noah [Rosenthal], the cinematographer and I would sit down and plan every shot, so when we’d shoot on our days, we were able to go through it and hit it as efficiently as possible. We also had it planned out to use different [shooting] styles in the flashbacks — that backstory moments – the camera was always either locked down or on a dolly and very controlled, then in the heist stuff, we used a more fluid camera style. Noah [Rosenthal], our cinematographer, was also the camera operator – he used the Easyrig, which gives you a handheld [quality], but with fluidity, and some steadicams in shooting the heist stuff, so it had a more immediate and frenetic feel, then the flashbacks are supposed to feel like each person’s perspective and their account of the events.
Luke Mitchell: Noah is really talented and he did a great job with making the film look as beautiful as it does.
Zane Holtz: We had at least three cameras going, which helped because obviously there’s some chaos that ensues in the film. If we only had one or two cameras, it would have taken much longer to capture it or we just wouldn’t had gotten that right footage. There’s also a really cool recurring [camera] setup in the film where it’s meant to be going back to us being on the football team and we’re in a huddle, so they set up a camera on a dolly track that was basically a complete circle and the camera would go around the dolly track and catch us the three of us as we’re standing around in a group talking and it’s constantly moving. That was a really unique element that Noah and Jay came up with.
Was there a particularly crazy day on set?
Jay Martin: Was there one that wasn’t?
Zane Holtz: Car stuff is always challenging logistically [because] getting the cars on the road, it takes a long time for them to set up the rigs and then do another set up on the passenger side or the driver’s side, and having them block off streets with cops.
Luke Mitchell: I’m also going to throw the football sequence in there because that was a full night shoot and I had to do a lot of running in full football attire and actually hit guys.
Zane Holtz: He’s Australian and they don’t have football.
Luke Mitchell: Yeah, it was my first time on an American football field. We had the actual local teams from the high schools up there to play against and I had this running sequence where I had to hit guys and they try to tackle me and dodge and weave. It was probably only 20 meters to run — you guys don’t use meters [laughs], but I had to do it over and over and over again. It had to be fast and on a certain line, but I couldn’t look at the line because the camera’s there, so that sequence was just exhausting. By the end of the night, I’d lost my voice. It was like five in the morning when we finished.
Jay Martin: The challenging stuff was getting the stunt stuff right. But with casting, we were really fortunate that everyone fell into place, and it wasn’t like the scenes weren’t coming together because of anything [other than] the action stuff, and the time that it takes to shoot that. For doing an independent movie, with the kind of scope and the amount of location work that we had, that made it crazy. But it was a lot of planning, and we used the whole buffalo. Being able to shoot in that town of Everett [Washington], and the people being so supportive, it was extremely helpful. We would go into locations, and people would be, “C’mon, let’s just shoot here,” and we’d be like, “Thank you!” The town was super supportive, so it was amazing.