‘The Freshman’ arrives at Rock Steady University, finding the streets empty as the broken down ‘row’ looking nothing like the promotional materials that lead him here. His tricked out bicycle stolen on his first day, The Freshman (Heston Horwin) quickly uncovers a vast cycle-stealing conspiracy along with the help of journalist Piper (Diamond White). As fraternities the Kappas and the High Society fight for control of the campus’s only currency, The Freshman sets out to pit two warring sects against each other, until Piper falls into danger.
A dystopian-comic book analogy that transplants Animal house into some sort of Mad-maxian world, ROCK STEADY ROW bursts with creativity and fresh energy. Trevor Stevens directs a script from Bomani J. Story, but the world is clearly a collaboration years in the making. Bold colors differentiate our villians, as the good vs. evil mentality and the traditional western is given a brash upending in service of style. The film is wears its independent credentials on its sleeves, truly showcasing the skills of the production team and telling a vivid story.
Throughout, audacious acting from Logan Huffman as Kappa frat boy Andrew Palmer and Isaac Alisma as High Society leader Augustus Washington III tug the film back and forth through danger. Of special note is Allie Marie Evans, who plays Yvette, Palmer’s emotionally-abused girlfriend and former friend of Piper. In a cartoon world, she completes the most reaslistic and moving arc.
Not your typical college story by any means, ROCK STEADY ROW surprises with intense ingenuity and keeps a smile on your face with well-devolped humor and brustling action. I had a chance to sit down with Stevens and Story just before the film’s World Premiere at Slamdance.
Stevens: Me and Bomani met a long time ago. We’re celebrating our 10 Years of Working Together. We grew up in the same hometown, Reddings, California, and we both had a love for spaghetti westerns. Actually, I had a love for spaghetti westerns first and he had a love for Kurosawa and we showed each other these films. Between the two, we always wanted to take “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Yojimbo” and combine them into a college setting. Genre-mash it up. Through both of our experiences, we dealt with college firsthand, going through student debt, high tuition, and stolen bikes. Stolen bikes on campus was a thing.
BEARS: Was it a thing? Did you ever have your bike stolen?
Story: Yeah, basically. Half of this story was my first day at SC [USC] when — I went shopping, I got my bike all tricked out with pegs and stuff like that — on my first day, I rode it to class and then I walked outside after my class and it was gone. Someone stole it. Then in my head, it was like, “oh the school’s in on this. They want to take my money!”
Stevens: What was crazy was after this happened, when we started to look at the build of this film, there had been huge email chains sent out, not only to USC, but to the chaplain of the university about stolen bikes. And the funny thing was, there was never a face to this name. We always thought it was funny because you think about how broke college students are anyway, living off ramen. It feels like those villagers from those spaghetti westerns, those fables where they can’t even walk outside without something being stolen from them, or being robbed.
Story: There’s no resources, there’s starving students everywhere.
Sevens: The idea came to be “let’s take our samurai character or gunslinger in Fistful of Dollars and let’s make him a freshman who just came into school and doesn’t understand how it works.”
Stevens: We wanted to do that on purpose. We didn’t want to show cars pulling up and parents dropping off because that would open the world to too many questions. We wanted to focus on this being an analogy. For argument’s sake, let’s say the whole world is just college here. If you were to walk outside of college, there’s nothing there. In those spaghetti westerns, like “Fistful of Dollars,” all you see is the town. You know this gunslinger has come from somewhere, but he has a very mysterious past. All you know is this town is weird.
Story: It’s the same thing in “Yojimbo.” One of the reasons we wanted to stay away from being in class or showing parents was because it’s not the — it’s a part, it’s like the beginning —the meat of the college experience is your independence. It’s the first time you’re out of the house, doing your own thing and stuff is starting to happen to you that you have to deal with on your own.
BEARS: You have to fend for yourself.
Stevens: You also have the cliques that are ready to be satirized. You have the different fraternities and sororities. Neither one of us were a part of Greek life but I did rush for the experience with a couple of my friends my first year over at Chapman. I just remember thinking, “oh my God, this is so crazy.” Going through the process of rushing. It feels like a cult. I’m not knocking fraternities, but the process was so ripe material to twist on its head.
BEARS: You can say that you’re not knocking fraternities, I think the movie pretty much does that.
Stevens: Alright, maybe a little bit. It’s okay. But we wanted to take everything you know about gang life and turn it with fraternities, so instead of two warring gangs, you have two fraternities that will kill each other for power.
BEARS: So you’ve talked about specific films that influenced you. How do you take that inspiration and translate it? What was the process like of saying, “alright, this is going to be this”? The movie that it actually reminded me the most of “Brick,” where you’re taking a classic Noir movie and resetting it in high school.
Story: I’m so happy you said that. That was a huge reference for us. I remember when I first discovered “Brick.” I was like, “oh my God, you can really push movies to their limits.” It was one of the first movies that opened my mind up to what you could do with a genre, what you could do a movie.
Stevens: So we had the noir in high school, what other mashups can you do? Again, loving the spaghetti western, westerns are a little bit done. If they happen now, they’re still great ones but they’ve already kind of circulated. The whole point of a spaghetti western was that it was unique for their time. It wasn’t the fact that it was a western — it happened to be a crossbreed of the two. How do we put something new and spunky into a setting that we feel is old? It’s been done. And with college, you always have the road trip movies, or the very silly movies where girls are flashing their boobs. It’s just very raunchy, teenage comedy. We wanted to take it and give it a more gritty serious vibe.
Story: We wanted to give you a college movie that you’ve never seen before. When you think college, we wanted to make sure that you would never think this is a college movie you’d see.
BEARS: Tell me a little bit about the design of the movie because you have really big, bold comic book colors.
Stevens: We had a couple of options when we’re looking at location and we could either go more the “Brick” route, where it was more realistic. The details were more in the characters and so forth, but we went the opposite direction and went full blown with this dystopian universe. John Carpenter was a huge reference. His movies, especially escape from New York — the color palette, the style, that kind of the outrageous universe — how they made the entire state of New York a prison. We wanted to do something like that. We wanted to have a very abstract universe that the second you’re in it, you’re like, “okay.”
Stevens: I think tone was the hardest part for us because obviously, in doing this, it is satirizing college. There’s a lot of comedy in that, a lot of dark comedy. But at the same time, this is also an action film. We have a part where someone gets a pencil to the neck and dies a gruesome death. But the next beat, we have a hop, skip, and a joke. Balancing that tone was definitely the hardest part in the writing process, for sure.
Story: Yeah, I was writing it and I was laughing. I didn’t know if anybody else was going to laugh.
BEARS: What was the first scene that you thought of that basically didn’t change? That you were like, “this is how the movie is going to play out.”
Story: Basically, the very first scene for me. When he gets his bike stolen, that was the most crystalized version that didn’t change. That scene was in my head. This is how he gets his bike stolen. This is how we introduce the villain. This is how we introduce the girl. That never changed, from the first draft, all the way to the time they shot it.
Stevens: One of our favorite openings for “Fistful,” is when you see the main character walking through town and realizing how messed up this town is. You just see all these villagers — who you never see again, by the way, for the rest of the movie — just looking out and closing the windows shut and that’s the last you see of them. You realize no one walks out in this town. We wanted to give that same vibe. We did it creatively but it was also in terms of micro-budget, we wanted the universe to feel desolate. We wanted to feel like no one walks around, people run to class, they’ll ride a bike to class. Otherwise, they stay indoors, and they don’t go anywhere. That was the main idea. Setting it up in that universe, giving that feel as he’s walking through and setting up our villain was probably one of the fun-est scenes to shoot.
BEARS: So the end of the movie has a really nice turn where it gets a little more serious and it gets to be a little more ‘about something’ other than just the college life. It’s nicely planted earlier. Can you talk about working that transition and making sure you prepared the audience for that? Making sure the movie still felt the same but you’re able to say something a little bit stronger?
Stevens: It was a very delicate balance.
Story: It was very important when we first started out, when I was writing the script, there were things in my head that I wanted to make sure to try to accomplish in the movie. When I was in college, I had a great time, but there were other people — some of my friends — experienced things that tainted their college experience. For me, to shy away from that, is doing their experience a disservice. I not only wanted to try to touch on them, but I also wanted to be inclusive. I wanted to include their voices and their stories.
Stevens: First off, we liked the idea starting off in a universe where the sororities had been completely banned, making this a very misogynist world and in the end, they come back and take over. We really liked that. Both in “Yojimbo” and “Fistful of Dollars,” our hero does something a little shady and gets reprimanded for it, and comes back and saves the day. Alright. But this maiden character that he saves in both those films is just kind of there and flees. So, we wanted the maiden to come back and kick ass. They’re the ones who should be getting revenge. They’re the ones who has to deal with shit. The real truth is that these are the people who have been here before, that have been dealing with it longer, so we wanted them to have the final, last glory.
Story: Piper was a really important character to me. I wanted to put something in that my sisters could see. Someone who is really smart. Someone who, technically speaking for me, actually saved the day. She got all the girls together and executed the master plan of action to actually accomplish everything. To get them up there, it was mission accomplished for me.
BEARS: Last question I was going to ask you about was our hero’s almost like — superpower/weapon that he has which was his tape cassette deck. That’s so out there and you also don’t really explain it in the film which I sort of loved. Talk about when that developed in the script and you were like, “what if this happened?” Whether or not that broke your rules and how you made that work in this universe.
Story: Do we want to give out too much information?
Stevens: So the idea is this, in “Yojimbo,” San Jo has this sword. Clint Eastwood in “Fistful of Dollars” has the gun. So we need to give our guy his own thing and a lot of it was hand-to-hand combat, but, at the same time, it needed to be something motivated. So we always had he goes into his own world for fighting with the headphones and music. Something about each tape cassette had its own power, right? Those were actually sections we inserted where each cassette had its own name. There’s a combat mix, there’s sweet revenge. There’s one that, as you said, has a secret weapon. The idea was to use these cartridges like they were pieces of ammunition. Really treat the Walkman like a loaded gun. We even have that hip shot, like in the Leone films, where we try to sell that as the weapon. We knew it was very far-fetched. There are a lot of things that are very far-fetched, but in terms of that, that was something I guess was a little bit selfishly on our end, we were having a lot of fun with it. There’s not, necessarily, an emotional attachment to the tape. It’s just like “Yojimbo” with the sword. There’s no emotional attachment there, but it is his weapon of choice. That’s the thing that sets him apart from the others in terms of how he can kickass and take on three guys at a time.
Story: That was also a good callback for us to combine “Yojimbo” and “A Fistful of Dollars.” In the end, he uses the knife to stop the guy with the gun. We wanted to pay homage to the masters.
ROCK STEADY ROW is being released by GUNPOWDER & SKY and should play a number of festivals (if there is any justice in this land) before its release possibly in late spring or summer.