Matt Shakman has had quite the journey through show business so far. He started off as a child actor doing commercials, and he played the role of Graham “J.R.” Lubbock, Jr. in “Just the Ten of Us,” a spin-off of “Growing Pains.” From there he went to Yale University where he studied theater, and while there he directed several plays. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he founded the Black Dahlia Theatre which American Theatre Magazine later called one of “a dozen young American companies you need to know.” Eventually, this led to him directing television for such shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mad Men” and “Fargo.” Now, he makes his feature film directorial debut with the thriller “Cut Bank,” a film noir along the lines of “Blood Simple.”
“Cut Bank” stars Liam Hemsworth as Dwayne McLaren, a former high school football star who is desperate to escape his hometown of Cut Bank, Montana. Then one day, while filming a video for his girlfriend, he witnesses the town’s mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) being shot to death. From there a scheme is uncovered where some people look to get rich very quickly, but it all comes to spiral out of control in horrendous ways. The movie also stars John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg.
I got to speak with Shakman over the phone about “Cut Bank,” and he discussed what it was like working with actors like Malkovich, Thornton and Stuhlbarg, how he managed to shoot the movie on 35mm film, and he spoke of how he went from being a child actor to a theater and television director and now a film director.
Ben Kenber: I read you approached this movie as a play more than anything else.
Matt Shakman: Yeah, I tried to cast actors who I’ve always admired and put together kind of like a rep company. In a way, I could imagine doing the movie again and everybody switching parts. They’re all so great and talented and versatile. So yeah, I definitely considered it like I was casting a play.
BK: Of all the actors you cast in this movie, John Malkovich was the first one you went to. What made you start with him?
MS: I’ve been a fan of John Malkovich onstage and onscreen, and he’s a personal hero of mine because he founded Steppenwolf. I’m a theater guy and I founded a small theater in Los Angeles, and I look up to Steppenwolf and the guys who started that. I just thought, here’s a guy who is from Southern Illinois who sort of felt like he knew this world, and yet we haven’t seen him play this small-town guy in a really long time maybe since “Places in the Heart,” and he’s brilliant in that movie. He’s come around to do great but larger than life characters in so many films. So we reached out to him and he really responded to it and he had personal experience with the town of Cut Bank. He actually worked there one summer putting himself through college. He worked on the trail crew at Glacier National Park and knew the town of Cut Bank very well, so he had a strong personal connection to it. He did a beautiful job playing a guy who really feels sort of overwhelmed by his own decency which feels really believable in that small-town world.
BK: Watching “Cut Bank” brings to mind other movies like “Blood Simple” or “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” When it came to making this movie, were there any clichés or cinematic tropes you were looking to avoid?
MS: You mentioned some films that I love, “Blood Simple” being one in particular. I think that blend of dark comedy and thriller stakes is something to aspire to, and we tried to do our best in that same kind of world. Also “The Last Picture Show;” the idea of the small town and the guy who wants to get out of it, that’s always been a big inspiration for me. A lot of 70’s crime thrillers were inspirations as well. We went and shot 2 perf, 35mm to give it an extra grainy look so we could evoke some of the Sergio Leone films of the 70’s as well. So, those were just some of the inspirations.
BK: I love that you got to film this movie in 35mm. Was it hard to get the opportunity to shoot in that format?
MS: Definitely. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to pay for it. The cost of doing film had gone up so much because the labs were shutting down everywhere, and you couldn’t get the same deals that you would get before. Kodak was really cutting the price on film to try and keep people shooting film, but we were just on the other side of that curve where they realized uh-oh, nobody’s shooting film anymore so we need to get whatever we can get out of the people who will be using our stock. I love it. I wish I could always shoot on film. It’s really just a much better way to do it.
BK: That’s what I have been hearing from a lot of filmmakers. There are still a lot of things you can capture on film you can’t on digital film.
MS: Yeah, there’s a mystery to film that I think is important, and we were shooting a lot of days here where film has a real advantage. The argument can be made that when you should at night, having something like an Alexa can bring certain advantages in terms of less light needed and more range. But I still think that nothing really touches film.
BK: Among the performances in “Cut Bank,” one which stands out in particular is Michael Stuhlbarg’s as Derby Milton. He had the lead role in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but he’s almost completely unrecognizable here. How did you go about directing him?
MS: Michael’s a genius and a total chameleon, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw him in “The Pillowman” (a play by Martin McDonough) on Broadway. He stole the show there and I think he’s been stealing every show everywhere he does ever since, so I was so thrilled when he agreed to come on board and be a part of “Cut Bank.” I sent him a bunch of references and pictures I had, one of which was a Chuck Close painting, which we both really liked a lot. He sent me a few references as well which inspired him, and we built this guy together through lots of phone conversations and exchanging images. Eventually we came up with what Derby looks like now which involved all sorts of trickery from wigs and fake teeth and contact lenses and coke bottle glasses and fingernails and all that. But he’s a great actor and he’s very thoughtful. He’s very smart and he goes deep into the character, and I thought he did a beautiful job.
BK: Yes, this is a character that could have easily been turned into a stereotype, but Stuhlbarg gives Derby a uniqueness I don’t seen many other actors giving the character.
MS: Definitely. Derby is a really fascinating guy even though he is the antagonist of the film. He’s probably the most reasonable person in the movie and what he ends up doing and the body count that follows him really is unnecessary if people were as reasonable to him as he is to them.
BK: It’s great how you made the town look vast, but at the same time anybody who has lived in a small town like Cut Bank can definitely relate to it feeling like a prison and wanting to break free of it.
MS: Exactly. That kind of modern western feeling of being trapped in this little frontier town with the gates of the port closed, and the idea that anything beyond those gates is terrifying is best to be ignored is what the town has to confront. By the end they are able to turn around and head into an uncertain future, but the whole experience of the film is opening up that town.
BK: What were the biggest challenges of making “Cut Bank?” It takes place in what is said to be one of the coldest places in America, but you actually filmed it in a time of year when it was exceedingly warm.
MS: We shot in Canada and Alberta and in the town of Edmonton, and that’s very close to Calgary where I shot “Fargo.” I’ve been there when it was the coldest part of the year at minus 40, and I’ve been there when it was the hottest day on record, so I’ve seen the full cycle from super cold to super-hot and it has its challenges. Certainly, there are some scenes in the movie, especially in the junkyard trailer where Bruce Dern is, where we were shooting in the middle of really, really hot summer days in a metal tin can covered in black fabric to make it look like it was nighttime. Everybody was sweating. It was pouring off of them. It was miserable and I felt terrible, and you can still see in a couple of shots in the movie how red everybody’s face is when they are in that junkyard trailer. So it did have its challenges like no air-conditioning, and you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the best you can despite the elements. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
BK: I got a kick out of Bruce Dern’s character here. He’s been around for a long time, but his career has gone up another notch thanks to his work in “Nebraska.” What did Bruce bring to this movie that wasn’t in the script?
MS: He’s a live wire (laughs). I loved Bruce Dern. He’s incredibly alive as a performer. He describes what he’s doing as dancing in a way, and I think he absolutely is truly that, a dancer. He’s playing with it almost like jazz as he goes and that’s wonderful. He’s never going to do the same thing twice. He does throw in some bits of improv as he goes, and a lot of wonderful things ended up in the film that were all of his own devising. He’s a bit of a mercurial, charismatic guy and he has the best stories in the world. He remembers everything that has ever happened in an illustrious way, and it’s incredible to hear. He tells stories about everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg, etc. He’s in one of my favorites also from the 70’s with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” It’s a pleasure to get to work with somebody who’s a legend like that.
BK: Billy Bob Thornton also stars in the movie, and he’s played a lot of unforgettable small-town characters. What would you say he brought to this movie that wasn’t in the script?
MS: He really does understand this world. He’s from a small southern town which is such a different thing from the prairie town in the film, but it has the same kind of heartbeat. Billy Bob, like Malkovich, is just one of my heroes. He’s a great writer and a great director and a great actor, and I had the pleasure of working with him on “Fargo” as well. He’s just an incredibly good person and very smart, and whenever he had notes we would talk about the script and you knew you were getting notes from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He always had tremendous things to say and just made everything better.
BK: There is a scene between Liam Hemsworth and Oliver Platt where Liam looks at Oliver and realizes that this is the person he will become like if he throws all his moral values to the wind. Would you say that’s the case?
MS: Yeah, he’s very interested to know what’s the big city is like, and here in the person of Oliver Platt is the big city. I love Oliver Platt. He’s great and he brings this incredible urbanity and charm and intelligence to it. But yeah, he represents the big outside world in all the positives and all the negatives.
BK: James Newton Howard scored this film. How did you manage to get him on board?
MS: Through his generosity. He does these just giant movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Maleficent,” and then “Nightcrawler” which is a smaller movie but certainly a big profile film. Getting him to come and do our tiny little film was entirely because he is just a lovely, generous person. I reached out to him, we had a mutual friend in common, and sent him the script and made my pitch about what the film would be about, and he really liked it and wanted to come on board. He devoted tons of time and energy to it, as much energy as he puts into his other big films, and he really cared and did a lovely job.
BK: “Cut Bank” is being distributed by A24 Films which has become a great company for independent films to get behind. What did A24 bring to this project that other distribution companies might not have brought to it?
MS: God bless A24. Their taste is great and eclectic. They are picking up movies that are very different from each other, but are all really worthy. I was so thrilled when they wanted to release “Cut Bank.” They’re a great group of people who really care. They are very supportive of the movie. They have devoted a lot of energy and great taste to their marketing and ad campaign with the artwork they are doing. They have left no small detail unnoticed. They are really on the ball and I’m really thrilled to be a part of a company that has released everything from “Under the Skin,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Spring Breakers” and “A Most Violent Year.” It’s a really great roster of movies and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
BK: How much time did you have to shoot “Cut Bank” in?
MS: 27 days for “Cut Bank,” which is fast for a movie that is 93 minutes long, so we were jamming and going quickly. I thought this would be a little more luxurious compared to my TV days as TV is famous for being quick, and I was wrong. Doing an independent film is actually faster than doing TV. We were out there shooting outside of Edmonton and small towns. We were building our entire world from the ground up and going into practical locations which added extra challenges, so time was not a commodity we had a lot of. We had to hustle and go as fast as we could to try and get it all done in time. There was a lot of different locations, there was a lot of night work, and we were shooting at the time of year when the night is the shortest. We only had about four hours of darkness every night so we had to be really careful about how we structured everything, and we ended up shooting all night long in order to have the time to shoot all the night stuff.
BK: Does working that fast help you creatively?
MS: It can. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true that when you’re forced to compromise, you sometimes end up with a solution which is better than what you were trying to accomplish to begin with. Everybody bonds together and tries to get everything done. You’ve got a short amount of time so everybody knows it’s game time, and that brings out the best in everybody.
BK: You started out as a child actor. How would you say you evolved from being a child actor to a director?
MS: It was definitely part of my life when I was young, and I had some experience being on the other side of the camera and understood about hitting marks and what the actor’s process was like. But then I left that behind and went off to school and had a normal experience in college and did a lot of theater and found my way to theater directing. My path was more direct from theater to directing plays to directing television and to directing film than really from the acting experience, but I’m really grateful to have had that background and the experience of being an actor because it helps. When speaking to actors, I understand what they are going through and what their process is like.
I want to thank Matt Shakman for taking the time to talk with me about “Cut Bank” and his career. “Cut Bank” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.