With a thriller called “Bullet Head,” it’s about the last thing you’d expect to end the conversation with its writer/director Paul Solet talking about charities that the film has partnered with to raise awareness for rescue animals (more on those below). Then again, anyone familiar with Solet’s work shouldn’t be surprised about such thoughtfulness, especially when he’s somehow managed to once again smuggle in a soul-stirring rumination on regret into a film produced by action film kings Millennium, known far more for producing “The Expendables” and the most recent entries into the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Day of the Dead” series than contemplative dramas. This isn’t to say “Bullet Head” is some quiet chamber piece, despite taking place almost exclusively in a warehouse, but amidst the foot chases and bullets flying as a trio of thieves (Adrien Brody, John Malkovich and Rory Culkin) attempt to elude police after a heist, only to realize they’ve snuck into a makeshift arena for dog fights with an attack dog named DeNiro on the loose, Solet becomes far more interested in what’s been eating at them personally to lead them to such dire straits than if they should succumb to DeNiro’s bite.
Solet has been nursing “Bullet Head” from around the time he made his directorial debut “Grace” nearly a decade ago, and like that tale of a mother who brings her seeming miscarriage to term, he subverts genre conventions to elevate the travails of everyday people to be able to ultimately reach realms of catharsis that can be expressed so vividly through cinema. Through the stories of Gage (Culkin), Walker (Malkovich), Stacy (Brody) and even Blue (Antonio Banderas), the vicious mastermind behind the dog fighting operation, the film shows how they have been dehumanized over the years by others, as well as personal and professional disappointment, making their experience no different than the cruelty that has led DeNiro to become a killer Presa Canario, although their greater wherewithal to pull themselves out of their circumstances lends “Bullet Head” its considerable suspense. The thriller is inventively shot, vacillating between the perspective of DeNiro and the men who run from him, looking back only to acknowledge the painful past that has brought them here, but pulses through the veins like an adrenaline rush as the thieves attempt to make their escape. Shortly before the film hits theaters and VOD this week, Solet spoke about taking his time to bring “Bullet Head” to the big screen, working with such a decorated ensemble of actors and how to get the best performance from a dog.
How did this come about?
I’ve been working on this movie in one form or another for about nine years. It all starts with the way I feel about animals. I’m really a big animal lover, and a dog lover in particular, so I’ve always wanted to make a movie that was a love letter to animals. And then there’s the crime element, which also comes from some of the people that I grew up with. They’re people who, in some cases, made some choices that led them into some tricky spots, so those two things came together pretty organically to form what became “Bullet Head.”
Did it evolve much over the years?
The way that it works for me is you’re always growing yourself, right? So when you put something down, and you pick it up three years later, you’re going to have a different understanding about some of the things there. Your sensibilities will move towards different areas and away from others, so it definitely evolved with me. It was a movie that people always liked. The script had been optioned a number of times over the years and people just hadn’t raised the money until Millennium came onboard. They were really enthusiastic and understood the movie from the beginning, so I had a lot of support there.
Which seems like a surprise, given that typically they make straightforward action films. Then again, they’ve established a pipeline for the level of actors you’re able to get for this, so was that an interesting match?
It is an unusual movie for Millennium to make — it’s smaller and more intimate. But it does have a good deal of action in it and that’s something that they’re just incredible at. Their stunt teams and special effects teams are as good as any in the world and really to their credit, they understood that there was more going on in this movie. From the development team from Beth [Bruckner O’Brien] and Mark [Gill] to Yariv Lerner, who runs Nu Boyana [Studios], they really were supportive. And this is the cast that I wanted. John [Malkovich] was attached to this movie for a couple years and Adrien [Brody], from the beginning, really connected [with me] and really believed in the script. Antonio and Rory as well, so my experience with Millennium was awesome.
There were 12 locations that you shot at to create this one crazy warehouse, but was there a central site you could build around?
I really wanted to make a movie that had a really specific design idea to it. I didn’t want to just put it in an environment that was a throwaway dirty industrial environment because I wanted to make a movie where if you took any frame out of context, you could say, “Oh, this could be a movie about a man in limbo” as opposed to just [being stranded in] a filthy warehouse. In order to achieve that look, it’s challenging from a production standpoint because it means that you have to move the production around in order to shoot it, but the result is really worth it because it’s different than most of the movies that you’ll find in these industrial spaces. The reference was more Bertolucci’s work in “The Conformist” than [other films set in] the junky, trashy, dirty warehouse with no definition to it. It was a lot of work, but we really were moving from place to place.
You really do make it look so dynamic with the camerawork, so how did you figure out how this film would move?
I have an incredible director of photography named Zoran Popovic, who I don’t work without. He really is my partner in crime and we’d been talking about how to shoot this movie for years. So by the time we get there, it really is a matter of taking those ideas and making them work within the spaces that the production can provide. One of the things I loved doing on this movie with Zoran and the camera department was to create the point of view of the animal – of [the dog] DeNiro and that’s a really proprietary process. The lenses that we used and the lens system that was created to represent the dog’s point of view was built by a great lens tech who has years and years of experience, so those lenses weren’t rented. They were created for the film.
As for the rest, my philosophy about camerawork is that it really needs to come from the story. [This film is] a lot in the space of lucid movement, so there’s a lot of steadicam work and there’s work on a technocrane, which I was just thrilled to be able to use, and some wirecam work, but the point was to allow the camera to move with the characters and with the animals in a way that was informed by the story.
I assume you left it to professionals, but you’ve said you worked once as a dog trainer. Did that knowledge come in handy?
I did work briefly as a dog trainer in my twenties, but nothing like the kind of work that the trainers in this movie did. What it did for me is it allowed me to understand pretty intimately what you can ask a dog to do and what you can’t, which is really helpful from a writing and logistical standpoint. For instance, a dog will run, a dog will jump, a dog will bark and if you want to get into more nuanced behaviors, you need a real specialist and we had one. The lead trainer on the movie is a man named Jon Van Dyke, who’s worked for 30 years in the business. It was important for me to have a trainer who was really compassionate and believed in the message of the movie, which is very much a love letter to animals and to dogs in particular. And this really spoke to Jon. The type of training that he does is something that people sometimes refer to as touch training, which is much more intimate character work. There is no kind of shortcut or trick. John works with the animal actor to create a character as a partnership, so he lives with the dog. They spend 24 hours together and they become best friends. And that’s what he did here.
Was there a story behind the dog being named DeNiro?
Yeah, the movie was originally named “DeNiro” actually and “DeNiro” brings to mind, for me, the idea of craft. There’s a working man’s kind of zen about Robert DeNiro that I felt was applicable to this animal, at least how he would’ve been named by Antonio Banderas’ character Blue, who for all the horrible, deplorable, repugnant shit that he does is a guy who if you asked him what he was doing, he would tell you he was a craftsman.
The man himself wasn’t there, but what was it like working with actors of that caliber on this?
If you look at behind-the-scenes stills or footage from this film, most of the time, I have a huge smile on my face and that’s because getting to work with any one of these actors would be a dream come true, but getting to work with all of them together is just unbelievable. It’s hard to articulate how different it is when you’re surrounded by so much craft and creativity in a single cast. These guys were all so generous and believed in this project so much that I really did feel like I had partners in every one of them. They really worked their asses off and they were really committed as I was to making something great.
They all are different [with] different approaches to their craft, but to get to watch them work with each other, in some cases for the first time…John and Adrien had never worked with each other before and Rory had never worked with these guys before and they had been in the same circles, [they] all had a lot of mutual respect, so it was like getting to watch them just have fun with each other. It was really special [and created] an electric environment. The schedule was ambitious. It was very, very fast, because these are really busy guys and they’re working a lot, so to make that match, we had a smaller amount of prep time and a shorter shoot schedule, but we overcame that just with passion, footwork and commitment.
Was there something that came as a surprise in making this that you were happy made the final cut?
There are always moments of magic, but they’re small brushstrokes generally. This movie had been with me for a really long time and we were really faithful to the script. The awesome thing is when you’re working with actors and a crew of this caliber, you would be foolish not to invite their ideas and input as partners and allow that stuff to bubble up. There are contributions from cast and crew, from Adrien and John and Antonio and Rory to my assistant Jordan throughout the movie. I really try and keep the air open for that stuff and the best idea wins. I don’t know if I can call attention to one moment or beat or scene, but [while] I think a filmmaker’s fingerprints are going to end up on anything, it’s really a fundamentally collaborative medium.
“Bullet Head” opens on December 8th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and in New York at the Village East. It is also available on demand. Additionally, the film has partnered with the Long Island-based New York Bully Crew Pitbull Dog and Puppy Rescue, to raise awareness of their work saving abused and abandoned bully breed dogs and placing them in safe and loving permanent homes, and the Los Angeles-based Pawsitive Change, which matches dogs awaiting death at kill shelters with inmates inside California State Prisons, teaching the inmates to train the dogs for Canine Good Citizen Certification while working toward vocational accreditation as trainers themselves.