“Judging by my physique, I’m glad brains can triumph over brawn,” says Jonathan Sobol, who would never be mistaken for a bodybuilder yet sports a trim physique and dons a sleek suit the day I met him out at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills that would suggest he’d fit in nicely to the world of con artists and globe-trotting art thieves he has created in his second feature “The Art of the Steal.”
Boasting a cast that includes Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel and Terrence Stamp, the film follows a group of grifters, led by Russell’s part-time stuntman Crunch Calhoun, who look to score a rare Gutenberg publication, though hardly the one the legendary printing press inventor is known for. Rather than run away from comparisons to glitzy cinematic predecessors, Sobol embraces the notion of being a poor man’s “Ocean’s Eleven” in a literal way, making his crew working class and hungrier for the heist, resorting to scrappy methodology to pull one over on an international authorities and art experts around the globe.
As a writer/director, Sobol is just as wily as his antiheroes, keeping things funny and fast-paced, while owing no small debt to the strong ensemble of tough-talking personalities he’s assembled. Yet his own unique voice rises above, one cultivated by a childhood spent in the neither here nor there of Niagara Falls, and while in Los Angeles, he spoke about how he first fell in thieves, traveling to Romania for a motorcycle chase where all bets were off, and making the most of the iconic actors he casts.
There’s a great sequence in the film about the theft of the Mona Lisa, I understand might’ve been what inspired the film as a whole.
The theft of the Mona Lisa is a true story and what I love about the theft is the level of complexity that’s in the historical truth. I’ve always been in love with heist movies, con movies and stings and this root story had exactly that. So it was great to know where you wanted your movie to end before you even start. Whenever you’re putting together the puzzle piece of a movie, to know the solution is paramount, so it was fun. It was the first time I’ve ever written a script backward where you know the ending and you roll from there.
Since this has been in the works for a while, you obviously must get to a place where the logic of the heist in your own head was sound, but I would guess throughout the process, people try to chip away at it. Was it difficult to hold onto?
Yeah, “What about this? What about this? One of the chief responsibilities in writing and directing a film of this nature is making sure that the logic is sound. You can’t cheat the audience, you can’t lie to them. If you do, it’s unfair. It’s not playing by the rules. So because the process does take a long time, once you have things ironed out and things change and you have to move stuff around and new ideas come to the forefront, it’s very important but difficult to make sure that you have logical integrity. Kurt [Russell] is actually phenomenal for keeping track of those things. The man has a mind like a machine, so luckily when you have partners and collaborators who are also watching out for the integrity of the script and of the story, it just makes it a lot easier because it’s easy to go off the rails for sure.
Like your last film “A Beginners Guide to Endings,” this features a cast of men with big personalities. Is there something you like about that dynamic?
I am fascinated by those tropes of masculinity and brotherhood and loyalty and fraternity. Obviously, they’re archetypes and in many ways, they’re all meditations on our own relationships on our fathers, if you want to get all Jungian about the whole thing. But I’m fascinated by those relationships.
Does iconography play into who you want to cast? They all have a history before you meet them onscreen.
Absolutely, and Kurt Russell is a prime example of that. He represents a lot of the attributes that a Crunch Calhoun needs – A certain blue collar yet huckster-like quality, a bravado, a swagger, an identity. A huge part of filmmaking is casting and a huge part of casting is understanding the preconceived elements that all the talent bring with them and to understand them, to tweak them. Some people do it to great effect and play very much against them is part of the fun. It’s a part of the palette. You know, a film is not a self-contained idea or a whole, much the same way a meal isn’t just your main course. It’s what else is around. It’s the ambiance. It’s how you got to the restaurant. And our shared history of who Terrence Stamp is, for example, colors his character the second you see him. It can’t not help but do that and you have to consider those things.
One of the things I love about the film is how the goal of the heist is a Gutenberg, just not a Gutenberg Bible. Did that guide you in many of your decisions about the film that this wasn’t the A-Team?
Exactly. It’s actually probably the C or D. It’s much like Evel Knievel would get the Las Vegas shows, Sparky Spengler would get like the Atlantic City shows, Crunch Calhoun…well, he’s in Niagara Falls or Myrtle Beach. I’m not saying that these are third- tier places, but in the pantheon of things, they’re outsiders at their game. I think we’re able to play against it. There’s a sequence in which Crunch Calhoun outlines the most ludicrous plan involving explosives and fireworks and the usual overly complicated grand tropes that an A-squad could pull off and then how that’s not our guys. Ultimately, it’s not even about the mechanics of a heist, it’s about the sting of it all and the underlying human motivations and the complexities that are laid behind the scenes to pull of what some of our characters pull off.
Do you find yourself working the angles as much as the characters do in visual terms?
It’s something that we always had to keep track of – what bits and pieces do we need to reveal and what we need to reveal when we reveal it. We had 25 days to shoot this with no overtime, so the visual plan had to be in place. There’s always play, but what you see and where you see and how you see it has to be well thought out ahead of times because there’s no time for too much play on the day.
I’ve actually heard you shot the scene at Canadian border patrol while it was operational.
Yeah, we shot our border patrol scene with Jay Baruchel smuggling Matt and Kurt’s characters in a trunk at an actual border station with some very, very unhappy border security trying to herd our crew into the tiniest corner. We’re talking an international border crossing here. [laughs] It was a fun, tense day.
Any more so than when you shot the motorcycle chases through the subways?
We actually filmed the subway/motorcycle stuff in Romania and I was surprised with what we were allowed to attempt. There’s a good side and a bad side to being a wild west frontier like Romania is for filmmaking. It scared me. The stunt guys were game for it and they were pushing to do even riskier, crazier things and I was worried about their safety, much like a den mother. It was really weird.
And you shot in Canada in the dead of winter.
It’s true, but they all of the cast were brave and there was a lot of camaraderie and one-upmanship on set. So it was fun. There was a little bit of swagger and bravado through the whole shoot and it was just a lot of fun to make it with these guys. I think it shows in the film that it was a good time.
You actually started as a visual artist, but clearly enjoy storytelling. Is that how you gravitated towards…
…the world of art theft? I think absolutely, I was very ill-suited to the world of visual arts. But at the same time, I love to paint. What really kind of intrigued me about the world of art theft is a disconnect between the types of guys who steal, and let’s be honest, they’re mostly guys who steal valuable works of art and the high falutin’ nature of aesthetic treasures. This is kind of like high art and low men and I think there’s a lot of fun in that. That was kind of the impetus behind it. Not so much loving art, which I do, but I love the dichotomy between high art and low crooks.