You first meet John (Michael Kelly) breaking into a house in “All Square” to take someone’s dog, but somehow you have the sense that he may take care of it better than its owner, who like everyone else in Dundalk owes him money. So unwelcome in town that the local bar asks him to leave after he’s the one getting punched in the face since every other patron has welched on their bets, John needs to get a new revenue stream since collecting on his old one has become such a chore. He sees an opportunity when he makes friends with Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), the 12-year-old son of an old high school classmate (Pamela Adlon) who is a benchwarmer for the local Little League squad, and as he rides the pine himself watching his games, he gets to thinking of all the parents who might want to make the games a little more interesting if they put some money into it.
While it’s a pleasure to constantly see the wheels turning in John’s head, with the “House of Cards” star Kelly giving a thunderous turn as the beleaguered bookie, it’s a real privilege to see director John Hyams work all the angles in bringing the film to the screen. A departure for the consummate craftsman behind the surprisingly strong recent entries in the “Universal Soldier” series, “Regeneration” and “Day of Reckoning,” the director brings a strong eye to complement Tim Brady’s great ear for dialogue in “All Square,” a delightful character study of someone that’s rough around the edges, ultimately worn down to the point of revealing his heart. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s anything treacly about the comedy in which parents take advantage of insider info on their own kids’ health or knowing how their neighbors’ divorce might affect their son’s pitching on the weekend as they place wagers with John, whose own risk involves becoming too close with Brian while showing less interest in his mother, all the while evading the watchful eye of the league commissioner (Josh Lucas) who suspects something’s up.
Hyams makes the Baltimore burbs as dynamic a locale as you’d expect to see in one of his action pictures, filling the bars and the ballparks with action that John wants all in on, but “All Square” itself is a bit of a throwback with its knockabout charm and the sweet relationship between John and Brian at its center, requiring a filmmaker as emotionally attuned as technically skilled. After the film’s premiere at SXSW earlier this year, “All Square” arrives in theaters and VOD as something you might want to watch in between playoff games, or perhaps even instead of them, and Hyams spoke about how he seized the opportunity to do something different, making the most of the resources the production had, and getting the fun he was having behind the camera up on the screen.
How did this come your way?
Tim Brady, the writer, and Michael Kelly, the star of the film, are good friends of mine and Tim had written the script and Michael and I were very excited about it and our first inclination was to get it into the hands of some people to help Tim get it made, but very quickly we felt like this would be a great opportunity for all of us to do something. We had a little window in the summer of 2017 to potentially [come together], so very quickly, we said, “Let’s try and raise some money and do this on an indie budget.” Michael got in touch with Yeardley Smith, who was a fan of his and she has a production company Paper Clip with Ben Cornwell, and they ended up reading the script and put up half the money and Tim Brady’s friend Jordan Foley has a company called Mill House, with Jonathan Rosenthal, our other producer, and they very quickly got on board and within a couple months, we were out in Baltimore prepping the movie.
Was there anything significant about that Dundalk setting and going out to Baltimore?
The script was initially written in Tim Brady’s hometown, which is outside of Wilmington, Delaware, so we knew we wanted something in the Northeast where it borders on the South, and Michael was working in Baltimore on “House of Cards,” so we made a decision very early on, let’s work in Baltimore with a lot of people from the “House of Cards” crew because when you’re doing movies at this kind of budget, you need people who have a personal connection to the material or the [other] people [working on it]. If you’re just getting a crew for hire, and they’re getting paid these rates, it’s just not going to work out quite the same way, so there were some more tax friendly states and cities to work in, but we felt it was much better to have a crew that we knew. We pulled in a lot of great people from Baltimore and I brought in my longtime [cinematographer] Yaron Levy, so it was all people with personal connections.
Once we decided on Baltimore, we wanted to find one particular town and park ourselves there. The first thing we needed was a ball field, so we when we first arrived, it was just looking at every Little League field within a 20-30 mile radius of Baltimore, and then the number one thing that was on Tim and my minds was those brick rowhouses. One of the beautiful things about Dundalk was not only did it have two fantastic bars that we knew would be great settings for some of our bar scenes – one of those bars happened to be literally a block away from the Little League field – but what was great about the Dundalk field is that it literally butt right up against those rowhouses so that if you look through the pitcher’s mound to the backstop, it was this beautiful view of those streets that came right up to the field, so you could really feel the town even when you were on the field.
The other reason [Dundalk was appealing] was we had a lot of extras in this film and no money to pay for them, so we really needed to get some Little League kids and coaches and fans onboard with the movie and at Dundalk, they really did. We met certain folks there that were involved in the Little League and who were really gung ho about it and on those baseball days, we didn’t exactly know how many kids and families and fans and coaches would show up, but before you knew it, we’d have a hundred extras and wardrobe would just be putting Little League uniforms on these kids and these guys were the grey team and these guys were the orange team. It was an incredible logistical [conundrum], but it was also a situation where you have this whole town behind us making this movie and that was really one of the true joys of this.
One of the things that I loved is that while I would call this a comedy, you don’t cut corners as far as the camerawork – did you approach shooting this any differently from your action work?
One of the things we first focused on was let’s not shoot it like a comedy. This wasn’t Judd Apatow-style where you are going to run long takes and have actors improvise. This is very scripted and Tim’s script and dialogue have a certain meter and rhythm that was really important to me to honor that. Like any movie, there were a few things that you keep in mind that define the visual approach, but what was important was that I didn’t let the directorial hand be too obtrusive or get in the way of what was happening. The special effects in this movie was just some brilliant actors and a fantastic script and it was really my job to stay out of their way because you can just point a camera at Michael Kelly or Pam Adlon or Harris Yulin [who plays John’s father] and the real restraint comes in not cutting too quickly or not trying to craft their performance, but really just trying to capture it.
I was thinking a lot about directors like Michael Ritchie or Hal Ashby, who were able to really beautifully combine comedy with drama with tragedy at times and even broad comedy or elements of surrealism, and [it became a question of] how do we bring together something that is at one level highly comedic and create some situations that border on the outrageous, but also have some dramatic character moments, and how do you unify all those things in one movie so that it doesn’t feel uneven? A lot of that came from the visual approach and also the score – I wanted a score that was somewhat timeless and melodic, not very contemporary and not too hip, and it was a bit of a balancing act, but I feel the combination of these elements ultimately came together in a way that I’m proud of.
It was intriguing to see that you have four composers credited for the score and it has a lot of diverse sounds, from baseball-inspired organ music to percussion. Did you find specialists for the different types of music?
Michael Krassner is a longtime composer of mine – he did the “Universal Soldier” movies and so many documentaries I’ve done – and he’s very versatile, but he’s not a traditional composer in the sense that he sits down and writes music to picture. What’s most special about working with Michael is that he has no ego about it and his real talent is in curating musicians. [Often] it’s a very organic process where he puts people together and we’ve done long improvisations and then taken moments of those improvisations and we’ve added overdubs. [For “All Square,”] we really needed some composed pieces and I was thinking about “The Third Man” and the zither, so Michael found a number of different [musicians] and they created the bulk of the kind of guitar-based waltz music. By that same token, we also felt we wanted something that was pure percussion that provide pace and tension at times, but not overplay it, so he brought in percussionists to do all that percussion work, which we ended up using quite a bit of. So Michael likes to share credit with these musicians he brings in and all those people that are listed wrote compositions for the film, and it was really Michael’s job to curate them and curate the pieces.
John’s voiceover also really sets the tone for the film and it doesn’t feel like it was added on in post-production, but integral from the start. Was that something you had a strong idea of during the production so it might’ve lessened the narrative burden during the shoot?
It was an idea that was always there, but we didn’t actually script it too specifically until post. We always knew the pieces where we wanted voiceover and early on, we felt that it was important for a story where you have this anti-hero protagonist and you’re not sure if he’s just a bad guy – kind of a bum who’s breaking into houses and gambling – or is he a truly terrible, malevolent guy? There’s a whole range that it could be and we felt if we root you immediately in his subjective point of view, you have an understanding of who he is in his worldview without having to do it in an overly expositional way. It allowed us to lean away from expositional dialogue, and let the dialogue be much more character-driven. And then it let him put a positive spin on some things that you may be questioning as a viewer – I love that juxtaposition.
The second reason [for the voiceover] is that our inciting incident, if you will, really comes in quite late in the movie – it takes a good 30-40 minutes to get to that point, and I didn’t want to rush through the opening act of the movie because those character interactions and meeting the town with this character. That was important and a lot of movies that I love, certainly the movies that influenced this, didn’t follow the Syd Field textbook structure and I felt like the way Tim had written it, we wanted to live in that. So the voiceover could clue you in – and this is a technique I’ve used in documentaries in the past where if you let the audience know right at the beginning that something is going to happen and you don’t necessarily know what it is, but something very simple [like the line of dialogue in “All Square” where he says], “It was all going really well and then it all went to shit” – that tells you alright, this is going to go somewhere and now we can sit back and go along for the ride because we know a thing is going to happen. That’s all an audience really needs to know, but sometimes when the audience doesn’t have that, they’re not sure if a thing is going to happen or if this is just going to be a character pastiche, so for various structural and tonal reasons, we had a very good feeling that how the voiceover would play, but we certainly went through many incarnations of what that voiceover was. We wrote it and rewrote it and would test it out – Michael would record it on an iPhone and send it to us and we’d lay it into an edit. We’d work with the themes and we just kept going with it and continued to rewrite it straight into the sound mix.
Since this was a different kind of film for you tonally, has it been a different experience, either in making it or seeing the reaction to it?
It was a real joy. When I was doing it, it was really kind of dawning on me that “Wow, nobody gets killed on this movie. That’s kind of nice.” [laughs] Then at a certain point, it actually made me feel nervous, which was good, because when you’re doing genre stuff, you can always rely on a piece of action or something that is frightening in a way where you know you can grab the audience’s attention. In this, we didn’t have that and I thought it was really important as a storyteller to not have that in my bag here and maybe to remind myself of how much I may have leaned on that. I still love genre filmmaking and I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half doing heavy genre stuff, but I’d like to think that the experience of doing “All Square” has helped make me a better storyteller, even in genre pieces [by] not going for cheap thrills, but earning them in a different way. The reality is there’s nothing more important than the casting of your film. It’s the actors and the story and whatever you’re doing from a technical standpoint is only just to serve that. The whole Robert Altman concept that 90% of directing is casting is true, and this was a great experience for me and I certainly would love to do it again.
“All Square” is now open in Los Angeles at the Rolling Hills 20 and is on demand and on iTunes.