Miles Warren on Not Pulling Any Punches in “Bruiser”

There was always going to be a lot to unpack in “Bruiser,” even more so for its director Miles Warren than an audience when he set about making a short version of a story he always envisioned as a feature to prove himself. Incidentally, it had been short clips that inspired him to embark on telling the story of a young man named Darious in the first place, curious about the brutal allure of fight videos that would rack up clicks on Worldstar Hip Hop with all the simultaneous repulsion and attraction of looking at the aftermath of a car accident. With co-writer Ben Medina, he conceived of both a reaction and an interrogation, personifying those competing impulses as actively vying for the attention of the 15-year-old Darious in the form of his father Malcolm (eventually played in the feature by Shamier Anderson), a disciplinarian who encourages his kid towards the straight and narrow that led him to become a car salesman, and Porter (Trevante Rhodes), an intriguingly enigmatic riverboat dweller whose home reflects a life free of commitments of any kind. When trying to condense the idea down to a short, Warren faced the same conundrum as his main protagonist – he thought he’d only have room for one of them.

“It was basically like a practice run,” Warren says of the short, which took off on the festival circuit a lot like one of those Worldstar clips in spite of being only a fraction of what he knew he was capable of. “For example, the weight bar scene [in which Darious struggles to balance a dumbbell that’s just beyond his strength], there was a way to practice how to shoot some of these scenes and we did some things in terms of the way we did sound design and the way the bar moves which were really cool and I thought we can improve on them for the feature.”

Even in truncated form, “Bruiser” is extraordinary, brilliantly attuned to the unspoken impact that an evening out at the bowling alley that turns towards violence has on Darious and when it sharpened Warren’s already keen instincts, the feature, which has been turning heads on the fall festival circuit with stops at the Toronto Film Fest and AFI Fest, is a true powerhouse, following Darious (Jalyn Hall) home for the summer from private school and deprived of all the friends he’s made there while feeling stuck under his father’s roof, gravitates towards the magnetic and macho Porter, who would like to be part of his life in return, having once been connected to his mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) before she ended up with Malcolm. An inevitable collision course is set up for Porter and Malcolm to take pole position as the man Darious looks up to, but Warren takes the most interesting path there, sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of both as influences and observing in what ways they rub off on Darious, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

If Warren sought to replicate the simultaneous excitement and queasiness of watching a fight, “Bruiser” comes through in spades, as elegant and pleasing to the eye as those practicing the sweet science with the utmost efficiency when the cast circles each other with the swagger of prizefighters and cinematographer Justin Derry’s fiery compositions cut across the screen as though they were embers of a flame. While “Bruiser” will eventually make its way to Hulu, after the Onyx Collective picked the film up out of TIFF, Warren’s fierce feature debut is blazing into theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week and the director spoke about the reverse engineering that went into getting the film off the ground when he had a fully formed idea that he needed to give a taste of to potential producers, how the film’s visual style lent itself to generating strong performances and how he was careful not to tip his hand as to who one should side with.

This has such a striking visual style, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of the performances, which I imagine was tough to pull off. Was it something you felt you could develop on the short?

The visual style was something that I learned would work for the feature, so doing it there, I think we improved on it. I started writing the feature first with my writing partner Ben Medina back when I was in college, like six years ago, and then once I graduated, as a proof of concept, I decided to distill the themes and the ideas down into a short film as a proof of concept and the [visual] style of the feature certainly is very minimalist, which I think helps with performance because for the long dialogue scenes, I would just put the camera down and let them act. I very rarely changed angles, so the style lent itself to giving the actors a lot of freedom because I was not doing a lot of complicated inserts or coverage. I was just putting the cameras down and letting them go as far into the scene as they possibly could. That’s what helped get some of the interesting performance stuff where it was like the cinematic language was so minimalist in a way I could focus on the characters and these movements.

What sold you on these four wonderful actors?

It started with Trevante Rhodes. “Moonlight” is obviously one of the most seminal films of the last decade, right? So Trevante was always first on my list of people to play Porter, and that was a no-brainer once he was interested. He read the script and was supportive, so that’s kind of how this whole process started. Then Shamir is someone I’d admired. He was in a really interesting Netflix film I liked and when I met with him, he reminded me so much of Malcolm. He’s like a businessman and an actor, doing all these things and he’s a mover and a shaker. I really saw a tiny bit of Malcolm’s tenacity and drive in Shamir and he kept coming back to me and he had some amazing ideas about the character, so that was how I got Shamir.

Jalyn [Hall] was someone who came later in the process, and what I liked about Jalyn was how incredibly professional and smart he was. I talked to a lot of 13-, 14-year-olds about this movie and not a lot of them really understood it, but Jalyn was like, “Oh, I get it. It’s not about which father this kid is going to pick, but how they affect him.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, that is what it is.” [laughs] And we rehearsed with him a lot, mostly over Zoom just because of COVID, but he kept blowing me away. He’s very charming and confident too and Darious wasn’t necessarily written that way, but as I was talking to [Jalyn] more, I’m like, “Imagine this kid feeling frustrated and then meeting Porter and being able to be cool and confident with Porter, but not with Malcolm,” and he was bigger than I thought Darious was supposed to be, so Jalyn just started to excite me in all these interesting ways and then slowly Darious became Jalyn as opposed to the other way around.

Then Shinelle [Azoroh] just wowed me with her absolute genuineness. There are some things she does with her face as an actor that I love and she would just pull me in. I think her as Monica is just such a foil to the two men and I really liked how genuine and maybe even a little soft-spoken she could be, but then strong at other times, so that’s what really drew me to her. Having her round out this cast was what really tied it together.

It’s not a major point in either or the short or the feature, but I know it changed locations from New Jersey to Alabama. Did it actually have an effect on the narrative of the film?

What really happened was we realized we had to shoot the short in New Jersey because the idea was always, this kind of southern gothic coming-of-age tale that was like “Mud” meets “Moonlight” and with the short, it was like, “How do we get these same things? Because in New Jersey we’re not really going to find a road in the middle of nowhere where we can stage a fight sequence, but there’s all bowling alleys in New Jersey, so we just found ways to stage things differently that were still interesting.

And because we shot the short in New Jersey and the feature in Alabama, there are these two distinct almost multiverse pieces where they’re not really exactly the same. There’s different people, but they’re saying the same things in these two different settings and that’s what I really like about it. They can work in tandem [with] the short film being in the winter in New Jersey, very dark very simple, and then the feature being during the summer in the south with a houseboat on a river. But it’s the same thing.

Porter has such a distinctive look, was Trevante involved at all in figuring it out?

No, Trevante helped with a lot of the wardrobe stuff in terms of choosing fun, detailed outfits, but Porter was always supposed to have the tattoos and the dreads. Okay, Porter was never really supposed to be that ripped, but I think Tre was just coming off of the Mike Tyson show. [laughs] So he was just a unit and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in terms of the wardrobe, a lot of that was from me and I would have the costume designer pick a lot of interesting options and then Tre would say which ones he liked and which ones he didn’t and we’d all come to an agreement on that.

What was the day of shooting at the fair like? It was such a brilliant way to get at all these various emotions that are going on for Darious as Malcolm and Porter finally meet, but there’s so much going on in general.

Yeah, that was an incredible day. We shot it towards the end of the shoot, so I was a little exhausted, but I was like, “Okay, it’s day 19 out of 20. I’ve pulled off some sequences,” so I was coming in confident and it was genuinely a lot of fun. The first day we shot the Ferris wheel stuff, and then walking around, and then playing games. And the second day we just shot the dialogue and the confrontation, and we were really worried about [that] because we were shooting at night and we had a minor — Jalyn couldn’t be on set too late. So we had to shoot around him and get his reactions to the punch before we shot the punch, and then quickly turn around so that Tre could act with him and get Tre’s dialogue and we were worried that maybe Tre would have to act to Jalyn not being there, but I really didn’t want to do that.

Once we were actually doing it, it was a lot of fun and we were all confident in what the characters were and we controlled the fair. It was a low budget film, but it was one of the bougiest things we [did] was put all our money into building and controlling this fair. That’s why it was only 20 days of a shoot because it all went into the fair. [laughs] Once we started shooting the dialogue between Porter and Darious, it was just a medium single on both of them and then a closeup single on both of them. And then kept it very simple and let the two actors kind of go. And I would say action and then just keep going, and sometimes they’d miss lines and we’d just keep going and sometimes they’d maybe invent a little look here or there and we’d work it in. It was an 11-page dialogue scene, which I had never done before, so it was pretty crazy. We would double back, go back a little bit and start again and I’d just keep rolling because we were shooting digital, so I got kind of lazy and I was just like, “Let’s just keep rolling,” which is probably a bad habit, but it was just a lot of playing and having fun, which on a shoot this small, it was rare.

For some reason, everything worked out where I could just discover the scene with them and let Tre do things, and let the Jalyn react. And obviously the punch scene, we had Porter being slapped by Malcolm, so that slap was real. The punch was obviously fake, so you can’t shoot that too many times. Probably did that five times. And I would tell Shamier, “Give Trevante a little more of a slap. I think it needs to be bigger.” And then Tre was like, “Okay, we can only do one more. I’m done getting slapped.” [laughs] So it was just trying to find things on that day because I was a little more confident in the characters in the movie by that point, but it was a fun scene to shoot for sure.

You really can see the good and bad in both Porter and Malcolm, which was likely there from the earliest drafts of the script, but was it tough to be fair to both of them by the time you were editing this?

Yeah, it was the trickiest in the writing process, but then it became tricky again in editing [where] probably our biggest anxiety was people would be like, “Alright, well I’m Team Malcolm,” with no one being on Team Porter because we made him not charming enough to people or then we’d make Porter really charming and they’d be like, “okay, I’m Team Porter now. Malcolm’s an asshole.” And we were trying to get it as even as possible where you could get people on both sides. I think most people are still a little more Team Porter, but there are also a lot of people that are Team Malcolm, and then there are people [who think] it’s even. And I think they’re all right. At the end of the day, it comes down to the viewer and where they’re at in life. I’ve had a lot of people who see the rigidity and the specific controlling nature of Malcolm [and thinking], “That’s good for Darious. That kind of routine.” And I’ve seen people who are more chill being like, “Oh no, Porter is the cool one,” so depending on who people are when they watch this movie, that’s who they just tend to be drawn towards.

But we tried our best to make Malcolm as real a person as possible, and obviously he has the upper hand because he is the person in Darious’s life who has given Darious his life, and Porter is this cool guy who’s coming in but doesn’t have a leg to stand on, so you need to make him more likable so that it’s more realistic that he could potentially work his way into their lives. It’s definitely a tricky balance. And I do like when some people are like, “I hated Malcolm, he’s the worst” or “Porter’s full of shit.” I’m like, “Yeah, cool, that’s great.” [laughs]

“Bruiser” is now streaming on Hulu.

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