Knockaround Guys : Production Notes

knockaround guys - synopsis headingWriter-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, best friends since they were fourteen, had long wanted to do a film based on the various "sons of wiseguys" they had observed growing up. After the release of the acclaimed hit, Rounders, for which they wrote the original screenplay, they decided to approach the idea. The result was Knockaround Guys (2001), a film about family, friends and, ultimately, freedom.

"The characters in this film have enjoyed privileged childhoods with their father's family business providing for their every want and need," explains David Levien. "Now in their early twenties, they want to make their own way in the world. But they're finding out it's not so easy to escape the shadow of their fathers."

Adds Brian Koppelman: "Their infamous last names are a handicap. When they go in for a job interview people are frightened of them. They don't want to hire them. The mob is in a state of dissolution at this point in this country and it leaves very few options for these young guys. The broader idea is that it applies to young people in general and what choice they're going to make with their lives."

Longtime fans of such classic films as Godfather, The (1972) and Goodfellas (1990), the directors couldn't figure out a fresh way to make a gangster film until they decided to take the guys out of their element. What resulted was a sort of fish out of water story where the boys had to take responsibility for their lives by relating to the rules of the old west.

Once the filmmakers got these New Yorkers into a small town in Montana where no one knew their names, a whole array of story possibilities opened up and the script quickly began to take shape. The final product is, for the filmmakers, a combination of some of their favorite genres.

"In a weird way, this is as much a western as it is a gangster film," Koppelman admits. "I mean, these guys end up in the American West. And there's a long tall sheriff in this small town in Montana with whom they wind up in a showdown. So, it's really a cross-pollenization of genres."

In many ways, the rules of criminal life could be considered the modern-day equivalent of the antiquated laws of the old West. Both center on loners who don't fit into contemporary society and make their own rules of how they're going to live life. Fights are usually over a bag of money in a milieu where everyone's loyalties and honor are constantly being questioned. And almost all of the characters in question eventually live, and die, by the rules of the gun.

It was exactly this cleverness of merging genres that attracted producer Lawrence Bender, known for his work on such "non-mainstream, mainstream" hits as Pulp Fiction (1994), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Reservoir Dogs (1992).

"I liked their different take on the genre," Bender says. "The kids in the film are guys not quite tough enough to make it as the real thing. But their last names plague them so they can't get jobs in the real world. So they kind of get stuck in the middle."

Koppelman and Levien first confronted the term "knockaround guys" after meeting various low-level denizens of the crime world while researching Rounders. During that time, they were involved from preproduction through postproduction and were on set during the entire shoot interacting with actors. But they realized that as great as that experience was, it was unique.

"As writers, we'd only ever be able to get that close again if we took the step to become directors the next time out," says Levien. "And Lawrence Bender is quite simply the best producer for this type of movie. He finds a way to work with the best talent, the best material, gets his movies made and has the ability to generate an incredible amount of enthusiasm in Hollywood."

Bender came aboard at the invitation of the filmmakers after they had sold their script in a bidding war to New Line Cinema, with the caveat they could direct. New Line then gave the project the green light and executive producer Stan Wlodkowski (American Beauty) came onboard on the strength of the story and Levien and Koppelman's shared vision of what they wanted to achieve onscreen.

"After American Beauty, I was looking to be part of another exciting project," says Wlodkowski. "This combined a good story and real characters with directors who have a great vision."

When the casting process began, the filmmakers immediately knew who they wanted to play the pivotal role of Matty's uncle, Teddy Deserve. They had worked with John Malkovich on Rounders (1998) and at the time he told them he wanted to be involved in their next project. After calling Malkovich at his home in Europe, Koppelman and Levien sent him the script and in short time enlisted him for the role.

"I agreed to do it quite quickly and that was that," Malkovich relates. "I liked the screenplay for Rounders very much. And with this, I liked the story and the characters. I think there are also some very funny things in the film. They are very good storytellers, Brian and David. Very simple, very clean. And I also very much wanted to be a part of the first film that they were directing."

The directors knew it would be a challenge to find four young actors who could both convincingly play their individual roles yet also create the impression that they had been longtime friends. In making their decisions, they opted for people who they believed could both lose themselves in their characters and interact well with the other actors in any given situation.

"Auditioning actors and putting together an ensemble cast is a really great process because it's not just about the individual actor, but more about the chemistry between them," Lawrence Bender says. "Each time we added an element, we wondered how the actor would interrelate. We didn't lock anyone in until we had all four actors strongly in our heads."

Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan (1998), HBO's "61") landed the challenging key role of Matty Demaret. The role proved a tricky one because the filmmakers were looking for someone decent and honorable who also yearned to function in a world of roguish characters. Pepper realized early on it was Matty's loyalty to his friends, whom he treated like his brothers, in addition to his loyalty to his father, that kept him going as things in his life progressively went downhill. "Friendship, loyalty and brotherhood are strong themes in the film," says Pepper. "Matty's been friends with these guys since they were kids and they're like the only brothers he has. So even though we're not blood, we'd do anything for each other."

Vin Diesel (XXX (2002), Fast and the Furious, The (2001)), who grew up in Manhattan and had already worked with Pepper on Saving Private Ryan, was cast as Taylor, Matty's toughest friend and closest confidante. Because the character had to be a tortured soul "but with the soul of a warrior," Levien notes, casting the role was difficult. But Diesel's extreme physical presence, combined with his strength and intelligence as an actor, particularly impressed the filmmakers.

"The great thing about this film is we didn't approach it like an action movie. We approached it more like a character film," Diesel says. "It's very contemporary and it dictates the fashion and the vernacular and the style and mannerisms of the characters. These are the kind of guys that you would see going to a club in Manhattan, but living in Brooklyn. I mean, these guys listen to hip-hop. They're not listening to Frank Sinatra."

For the role of Johnny Marbles the filmmakers chose Seth Green, best known to film audiences for his comedic role of Scott Evil in the three Austin Powers movies. Because you have to believe Marbles is capable enough to actually fly a plane but also someone who is enough of a "screw-up" to make a critical error in judgment, Green's adeptness at both comedy and drama gave his character a unique edge. Notes the actor: "This character is very different from anything I've ever done and the content of the story is different. I'm used to doing movies about space aliens and stuff like that. So all of a sudden we're doing something honorable with real people. It's right away a good, different thing for me." Adds Levien: "The public is familiar with Seth's comic timing but in this role they'll see deeper sides of his acting ability. He brings out a real serious side to his character."

Andrew Davoli takes on his largest role to date as Chris Scarpa, a part that seemed to the filmmakers to be the easiest one to cast because he essentially had to be just a handsome ladies man with a mysterious side. Numerous actors came in to read but none quite got the New York swagger until Davoli. "It's exciting for us to have someone whose career is just beginning because when you've never seen an actor before it gives you the chance to really believe that that's who they are," Koppelman says. As for Davoli, he admits to spending an inordinate amount of time reading books on the mob in preparing to make his role as realistic as possible. "Chris is good with the ladies, wears nice clothes and has lots of money, but he's trying to find his own way, his own footprints, so to speak," Davoli says. "He doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. None of these guys really know what they want to do. We're not our fathers and we don't have the hunger for the street that our fathers had. So we're just trying to pave our own way."

Rounding out the primary cast as Benny Chains was Dennis Hopper, who had a sort of iconic status around the set due to his work in such classic films as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Easy Rider (1969), Hoosiers and Blue Velvet (1986). For Hopper, however, it was simply the script that caused him to sign up. "I think the wonderful thing about this is that it's not caricatures of people," the actor says. "It's more about family, intimate relationships, trust and loyalty. I play so many Mafia types in so many different kinds of movies and most of them are caricatures. But this one is written very well. And I'm sure that's why John Malkovich is doing it also."

Principal photography on Knockaround Guys began near Drumheller, Alberta, the dinosaur fossil capital of Canada and a two-hour drive from Calgary. The nearby small town of Delia doubled as Wibaux, Montana and the badlands outside Drumheller replicated those of Makoshika State Park in Montana. After three weeks, the company flew to Brooklyn and Coney Island for several days of exteriors before heading back to Toronto and environs for the final wrap.

All through the process, David Levien and Brian Koppelman were aware of their unique but not unheard-of status as co-directors. As John Malkovich points out, "The Taviani Brothers do it, Joel and Ethan Coen do it. I mean, it's certainly been done many times," says the actor. "But Brian and David have very clear ideas about what they like to do, what they'd like to see, how they'd like it to look, how they'd like it to sound and how they'd like it to feel. And they're incredibly enthusiastic, which is a wonderful thing. Because a lot of people aren't so enthusiastic."

For their part, the filmmakers treated the collaboration like they do their friendship and writing partnership, working closely together. "We're not like some writing teams who write separate scenes or separate drafts," says Levien. "We work all our stuff through together. So when we came to direct this movie, that's sort of the way we approached it. We don't split up tasks. We take each step and share in the decision-making."

"In a way, we're not the directors," Koppelman adds, "we're just the director."

The week before shooting, the actors began preparing for their roles in a variety of ways. Seth Green was learning how to taxi a small plane down a runway; Barry Pepper was making the transition to a New York Italian; Andrew Davoli finished reading the history of the Mafia and Frank Sinatra's biography; and Vin Diesel studied various combat methods to boost his aggression level.

The crew had their own tasks at hand. Production designer Lester Cohen hoped to visually illustrate the fact that these New York wise guys were being dropped into a world totally foreign to them by showing the city as a darker, wetter kind of place with reflective surfaces and deep colors. The town of Delia (Wibaux) was so high above the prairie, in fact, that it gave the impression of "a deserted island with infinite space yet a sense of entrapment," notes the designer.

Pilot Paul Clark taught Seth Green how to start, pull the throttle, operate the rudder pedals and toe brakes and how to shut his plane down. For safety, Clark tilted back in the seat out of camera sight next to Green, operated the controls and was in full command during the time Green taxied the plane down the runway.

"Of course, I almost wrecked the plane," laughs Green, recalling how he applied the breaks a little too hastily, causing it to fishtail down the runaway. "It's meant to be flown, not driven."

Cinematographer Tom Richmond's challenge was to superimpose a New York feeling on the West and to show how a New Yorker's world could be turned upside down in the badlands of Montana. Describing the film and his hoped for visual style as Scorsese's GoodFellas meets Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Richmond notes the opportunity to shoot in wide-screen format was also an additional draw for him.

Costume designer Beth Pasternak began her research where it all began - the mob-run restaurants of New York. Prior to shooting, the Toronto-based designer spent a week in Brooklyn and the other boroughs where the directors took her to mob-run restaurants where "the bodyguards are waiters and the clients were just released from jail." One particular "client" significantly influenced her "look" for Benny Chains.

"We went right to the source," Pasternak recalls. "Usually the highest ranking bosses wear non-label sweats. They never display their wealth. This is not a movie about slick suits and ties."