Best Southern Film Nominee:
The Dynamiter, Matthew Gordon
As part of our ongoing series spotlighting the nominees for our “Best Southern Film Award” at the Little Rock Film Festival, Levi Agee chats with the Matthew Gordon, who directed The Dynamiter. Be sure to check out Levi’s interview with the co-director of A Sister’s Call, Natalie Elliott’s interviews with the directors of Pilgrim Song and Tchoupitoulas, and Jake Ross’s interview with the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Boom. Some films explode on the screen sending shards and debris flying at your face—films that are so heavy in style and drama that they force you back into your chair. Matthew Gordon’s film The Dynamiter is more of an implosion than an explosion. The whole film’s fuse is being lit, tracing around inside you without you even knowing, and then all the sudden you feel it. It hits you in the gut and it’s subtle and beautiful, a spectacle with which you weren’t expecting to be so taken.
In the first few minutes of the film, Robbie Hendrick and his half brother Fess attack hay bales with sharpened sticks in a sun-baked field in rural Mississippi. Their energy is wild, raw, authentic—familiar to a country boy who grew up playing soldier in muddy creeks with my friends. Robbie has fun with his brother, but everything else in his life outside that relationship hinges on chaos. Living with his nearly vegetative grandmother, Robbie serves as the patriarch of the family although he’s only fourteen. At school he’s caught stealing and made to write an essay over the summer. The rest of the film follows Robbie trying to keep himself from becoming like his deadbeat, criminal older brother Lucas.
The film eases you along with nice vignettes of the summer life of a teenage punk: filing pennies down into dimes to buy Cokes at a gas station vending machine, taking on a group of equally testosterone-laden teens at a birthday party. For all of Robbie’s crimes, it’s still hard to fault him, as he has no real role model. Lucas is as douchebag-y as lazy, condescending older brothers get—but then, where was his role model? You get my point. Despite the film brushing up against dark themes, it doesn’t give you the post-screening depression that many indie dramas tend to give. The film is beautifully shot and the cast of non-professional actors lends realism and emotional poignancy to the film.
I recently asked Gordon about his film’s title, the importance of filming on location in Mississippi, and working with the non-professional cast members.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Your background in documentaries focusing on doctors in the Serbian War is quite different from a narrative set in the American South; what attracted you to this particular story or setting?
MATTHEW GORDON: For me, the great attraction to Mississippi—or any story—lies in the opportunity to examine as closely as possible those people, stories, or environments that fascinate me instinctively. Mississippi has had a strong hold on me for many, many years—from the literature, history, music, and, most recently, work I have done in Memphis and other nearby areas for various documentary projects. We tried to create a character who could inspire and still be very real; true flesh and blood from this very intense background that is the Delta. It was so much fun—and hard work—to be able to be there and work with the real people of the area (all non-actors), and to create the story together using the script as a strong guide.
THE OA: Growing up in the country, as we say here in Arkansas, having a summer job was really important for us young kids; even before knowing how to drive my dad wanted me to have a job. Do you think there's something about having nothing to do in a rural setting and starting trouble?
MG: Yes I do—I think back to my early high school days when I delivered tires for my dad and our family business, and then also cut lawns with my buddies in Baltimore County. It was very rural there and we were often getting into trouble even with a job! It was much worse without one, that’s for sure. So much of this story comes from having a close brother, Casey, and friends that were like brothers to us. Just getting bored and wanting to get into stuff—I guess it’s what boys do everywhere during the summer.
THE OA: One of the biggest charms of the film is the cast, and I assume most of your talent isn’t from Hollywood. Using a non-professional ensemble is a gamble, but like another Southern film, Ballast, or Gus Van Sant's Elephant, I can't imagine the film any other way. Can you talk about casting the film and what effect using unseen talent can have on a film?
MG: Using the non-professional cast was the only way we were going to make the film because we felt, as a team, that this was the best choice to tell the story. I agree with you—it could not have been any other way, and so many other great films have done the same. I just can't stand to hear another fake Southern accent in a movie! We met about eight hundred people for all the thirty-five or so roles in the film, and that process was demanding and so exciting. The script was reworked in the process to fit what the actors were able to do and felt more comfortable doing. What stands out to me is how talented the people we just snatched out of the towns nearby were, where we filmed in Glen Allan and Greenville, Mississippi. They were fearless and hungry; they inspired to me to be the same way. Especially Will Ruffin, who plays Robbie.
THE OA: Without giving too much away, I started the film thinking Robbie was a little shit but fell in love with him over the course of the film. I gather in addition to you writing a great character, William Ruffin (who I met at the Little Rock Film Festival) was also a big reason you care for the character so much. What was it like developing the character with William?
MG: William is a dynamo! We met him four days before we began shooting the film—he came to us like an angel falling from the sky. He read the V.O. and after the first sentence I knew he was THE character we had always dreamed Robbie to be. William had very little acting training before the film, but you would never know it. His courage and raw, pure talent overwhelmed everyone, even himself perhaps. We worked without the script for the entire shoot to keep him as natural as possible as he explored his character. He has a very instinctive way of understanding emotions and human interactions, so his goodness radiates through all of his action—even if he is stealing or cursing, as he does in the film at some moments. He worked very hard and embraced the challenge and did it with a natural joy that is his God-given nature. He has a very exciting future ahead of him as an actor, if he wants that. It’s all up to him. We were so lucky to find him.
THE OA: The film has played all over—in and out of the country, including some pretty big festivals like Berlin and Los Angeles. What have you taken away from the festival circuit, and has there been a difference in reactions to the film playing in the North vs. the South and outside the United States?
MG: The experience of different audiences has been a great joy for me and the whole team. The reaction of each region seems to be consistent with how they see the world. In Los Angeles there was a lot of talk about the performances, and comparisons with Stand by Me and River Phoenix. In Berlin the focus was very much on the emotions and the strong brotherly bond, and in the South I can say it was just like having a long conversation about life. Our film has really been embraced by French audiences as well, where we have had a theatrical release—who would have ever guessed?
THE OA: In the film, Robbie is sort of trapped in the middle of two brothers with very different personalities. Did you draw on anything personal from your own family, or base the brothers’ relationship on anything you experienced growing up?
MG: There certainly is a lot of me in Robbie and Fess—and Lucas, too, for that matter. Families are hard sometimes; I wanted to get that across through the eyes of a young boy who desperately needs to become a man in order to protect those he loves most. It is, in many ways, a story of brothers. My brother was my entire world growing up. It is magical and eternal like a good story tries to be.
THE OA: I read that you allowed some improvisation in the film. Given your documentary background, was there anything that surprised you or evolved differently from the way you had planned or scripted the film?
MG: The improv only works in our film because the script was so well-prepared and well-structured. Brad Ingelsby is a fantastic writer and his stamp is everywhere in this film. When you believe in the script and the story, we can all be free to experiment and improvise, knowing where we ultimately want to go. This was the dream for me: to combine the two approaches of classic, scripted filmmaking and more of a documentary style. The goal was always to do what served the story best—that’s what I have learned is the most important job of the director.
THE OA: Can you talk to me about the production aspect of filming on location, and what the town's feedback or reaction to you guys was like? Where did you film? How was filming in the South different from, say, Southern California?
MG: Filming in Mississippi, on location, IS our film. I can’t overstate that enough. This film only exists because the community in Glen Allan and Greenville embraced this project. All locations were donated, all actors worked for free or for very little money. Much of the lodging and meals were provided by people in the community, for rates that were very low by Los Angeles standards. This was, in every way, a family production, and I hope you can feel that in the film. The real people are in there, giving all of themselves, to make the best work we could. I could not be more proud and thankful.
A big thanks goes out to Mike Jones and his family—he plays Cooper, who runs the gas station where Robbie works. He also did fourteen other jobs for the film, including produce. Just answering this question makes me miss it there. I can’t wait to get back for a visit and NOT work all day long every day. Also the Mississippi Film Bureau, which made it a pleasure to work there. Filming in So. Cal. is another universe altogether. All that needs be said.