Interview by Bears Fonte
Its seems every day more hipsters from Brooklyn invade Austin, but in Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s new action thriller BUSHWICK, Brittany Snow comes out of the subway to find black-clad militia from a seceding Texas invading the hipster neighborhood. Wrestler Dave Bautista plays ex-military now conspiracy theorist and janitor Stupe, who reluctantly takes Snow’s Lucy across the five blocks of the Brooklyn neighborhood to escape.
Two things make this shoot’em up different from most others. First, our leads are not really trying to fight their way through, they are just running, and trying to not die. There is no John Wick gun-fu that stretches the plausibility past Pete’s Dragon. These are two people, one with training, just trying to survive – and, in fact, Stupe gets injured early on and is not operating at 100% for much of the combat. Second, a majority of the film is shot in a series of long takes, with edits hidden as much as possible and time compressed. This heightens the intensity as well as creating some solid technical talking points for a film shot on location and for less than $10 million.
I had a chance to sit down with Milott and Murnion in Park City the day of the film’s world première at Sundance Film Festival.
BEARS: This must be an interesting movie to be releasing into the current political climate. I mean, we were pretty sure how the election was going to end up and the film world premieres the day after Trump’s Inauguration.
Murnion: We filmed this last December and Trump was not even thought of as a real possibility. We were inspired more by a lot of the riots that were going on, like in Baltimore and Ferguson, where that kind of energy explodes from within.
Milott: The day before we were about to do our shoot, we had just finalized the invading soldiers’ outfits and then we turn on the news and it’s in Paris, and these soldiers are walking down the street. It was exactly the way we envisioned it. This very real Western-looking soldier in a Western civilized city. That’s a scene that’s not so far removed from seeing a soldier walk outside your house.
BEARS: Trump wanted to have missile launchers at his Inauguration and march with missile launchers and tanks. Like we live in North Korea. It’s really one of the most amazing and terrifying things about science fiction. It’s that the things we can come up with— we think, “well, this could never happen.”
Murnion: Or at least, “it’ll happen not in my life time.”
Milott: And then two years later, it actually could.
Murnion: We want it to be a fun action film. There is, hopefully, the chance where people might get a little angry, might change their view on things, and make you realize you don’t want to have this division, because this is what could happen if it gets to that level.
Murnion: I think even more now. Trump could piss a lot more people off with what he’s doing, just in a different way than what we think. I think he’s going to do things that people who supported him are not going to like. People who thought he was going to bring certain changes, the changes they aren’t going to want. I think this was started from a what-if situation and we looked into how it could really happen. To make it happen you must have the House ratify it— they wouldn’t ratify that. So if Texas was really willing to do it, they’d have to hire their own mercenary army like Blackwater, and invade some big cities, and force it to happen. The same way we go into other countries and we think that they’ll lay down their arms and welcome us, the same thing happens here. They go into New York and they think, “oh these guys won’t fight back.” And everyone fights back against them.
Milott: But it was that thing when we pitched this idea six years ago and it was like, “that’s crazy. Texas secedes?” And people were kind of like—
Murnion: You’re joking—
Milott: Yeah. Or even after we did COOTIES and we were still trying to get it going, people said, “oh you did a horror comedy, of course you’re going to want to do this farce or satire type of movie.” And it was like, no, this is not going to be like Cooties at all. And now everybody can get on board with it because it is so much more real. You’ve seen Brexit, you’ve seen Calexit.
BEARS: By the way, I fucking love COOTIES. It was my favorite movie at Sundance that year. And then I was desperately waiting for it to be released, and I kept telling people about it.
Murnion: Yeah another year and a half later.
Milott: We were desperate for it to get out too.
Murnion: We had to plan it out. Because of who the character is— Lucy is not trying to fight. We’re not following an action star. Dave is kind of an action star but he’s protecting her. They’re trying to avoid confrontations. But you see things around the periphery. It’s kind of like CHILDREN OF MEN where Clive Owen, he’s doing that last run at the end and he’s not like a guy shooting a gun, trying to kill people, he’s just trying to survive. So you see things off to the side— an explosion over here, and over there. So that’s how we planned this whole thing out was not a full-on action movie but you had these little moments of action.
BEARS: So how do you set up for these long takes? What kind of planning goes into that?
Murnion: We had these maps of setting out a street, of how the camera was going to go, where the people were going to stand and we’d do a lot of rehearsals. We did a week and a half of rehearsals on location with the actors and our camera crew. Then we did only eighteen days of shooting. It was a tradeoff. We thought it would be better to have a time where we weren’t under pressure to have to get it that day and give up a few days of shooting to be able to plan that out.
Milott: By the time we came together, it was amazing. Usually I think we end up finishing relatively on time.
Murnion: Yeah we didn’t go late and we went eighteen days and it was right in the middle of winter in December.
Milott: That was the one benefit of global warming. We got to film a film in December without any snow. Just trying to look on the bright side here. We were thinking continuity— parts where it’s raining in one part of the shot and you swipe by a tree with an invisible cut and it’s not raining, on the other side of that tree. It’s supposed to be a continuous shot and hopefully nobody notices.
Murnion: Well now they will. Jeez.
Milott: But if it had snowed, you couldn’t go from one side of the tree. And all of a sudden there’s a foot of snow.
Murnion: A bunch. We would do it in small increments. We have a nice long take where we come out of the subway and go around— it’s about a two block take and that was our biggest one.
Milott: When you’re watching, you gotta decide who you feel the most sorry for: the cameraman, running and hold a movie and a mini Alexa and a lens and all this equipment, the sound guy, or the actress who gets swapped out for a stunt woman, has to fall on the floor and get up and go— all in one continuous take.
BEARS: I love that it it’s a series of long takes, but not just one single long take. There are some traditional edits in there.
Murnion: There are about nine or ten hard cuts. The cuts helped us give us some time. Another thing was introducing a character because when we see Dave for the first time. And then a change in location. There’s one part where we go up to the top of a school and we didn’t want to have to follow the person all the way down to the street again so we cut down to the street. We didn’t want it to feel like VICTORIA. Have you seen Victoria?
BEARS: YES! And when they go up the stairs, you’re like, “I really don’t need to see all this.”
Murnion: So we didn’t want it to feel like you’re doing all of this because of the one take.
BEARS: You’re stuck in the theme.
Murnion: We wanted it to feel authentic but we didn’t want to beholden to that form.
Milott: There’s parts where they are going up stairs and we hope we did it in a way that builds tension. And maybe they’re just going up stairs and nothing is actually happening in that moment, you’re hearing stuff in the distance, and they don’t know what they’re about to get into so it’s building towards something, and not being, “oh jeez they’re just going up the stairs.”
Murnion: Which happens a lot in VICTORIA. They’re traveling around— there are some of the most amazing sequences in there, but I wish they did a few cuts. But maybe it wouldn’t have been as well-known without them.
BEARS: Probably not.
Murnion: We feel like this film is more like Gravity where you feel like it’s almost one take, but yet when you actually watch it, there are a bunch of cuts. It helps you get around things so it helps you to feel like you’re not stuck in something.
BEARS: Or like in Birdman, I was distracted by their desire to not cut. Especially because it’s a comedy and comedy is so much about reaction. The camera kept being on the person talking and I’m like, “well . . . and want to see the other person.” But you have to pick when its one take. So how did you decide how to move the camera inside the shot?
Murnion: We watched a lot of Soderburgh. The big thing with him is that he won’t move the camera unless there’s motivation for it. He’ll wait to move the camera when the character moves across the screen, then he’ll follow them. It’s like this dance he does with two characters and its beautiful. And you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. And we use a lot of that for influence.
Milott: We tried to set a specific rule for us in terms of camera movement where if you’re going to have one take you could easily have the camera just floating around and it’s hitting everything you want. We tried, we didn’t stick with it 100%. For the most part, we’re following action. So if an actor goes to there, we follow that.
Murnion: I think Britany did one where it had some long takes in it. But nothing like this. She had done some plays too. Dave had not done anything like that. And he was worried, going in. He had done these amazing supporting roles and hadn’t done anything in terms of roles this big. But he nailed it. He knew all the dialogue. Was in the character the whole time. And he blew us away.
BEARS: It was probably good he was nervous about it.
Murnion: Yeah it focused him. It made him get down: “I’m gonna beat this. I’m gonna make this happen.” I think he’s someone who’s beat everything in life. I think it was maybe a little bit of the wrestling helped. There would be these long takes of him, and we’d yell “action” and you can’t cut inside some of these wrestling scenes.
Milott: And that was one of the things we only did one take of, was a stunt piece. He was like, “we’re going to do this on the first take.” And it was like BAM.
BUSHWICK world-premiered at Sundance 2017.