Some things might surprise you about Brian Goodman’s directorial debut What Doesn’t Kill You, the first one being that it is his first feature film, because it has quite an impressive cast. More surprising may be that much of the story is taken from Goodman’s own past, committing crimes on the streets of Boston and facing an addiction that nearly destroyed his family.
Goodman was working as a character actor for a number of years in Hollywood when he met actor Mark Ruffalo on the set of Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle and that started the ball rolling on his autobiographical tale finally being made with Ruffalo in the lead and with Ethan Hawke playing Brian’s partner in crime Paulie. The two of them commit crime for years before being pinched and sent to jail, but it’s when Brian gets out when he realizes that he needs to clean up his act and make sure never to go back, so that he can be there for his wife and sons.
If seeing movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone got you interested in the criminal element of Boston, then Goodman’s story is the real deal, having spent a lot of time on the streets and in prison before promising never to return. Unlike other crime dramas, it’s also a touching and inspirational tale for anyone who has felt stuck in one aspect of their life and didn’t know how to get out of it.
ComingSoon.net sat down in a far-too-noisy coffee shop to talk with Goodman, and we were pleasantly surprised by how polite and kind and humble Goodman was in person, not at all like the gruff way he’s played as a character by Mark Ruffalo in the film.
ComingSoon.net: I’ve spoken to both Mark Ruffalo and Rod Lurie (the film’s co-producer) and they spoke very highly of you and your movie, which I finally got to see after missing it in Toronto.
Brian Goodman: Oh, you did see it? Thank you for sitting through it.
CS: No, it’s really good. I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn’t like your movie.
Goodman: Is that always the case? I thought some people would come and talk to you
CS: Believe me, if I really, really hated the movie, I would have found some excuse to get out of this, but no, I did like it a lot. And it’s really an impressive achievement for a first movie as well.
Goodman: Oh, thank you.
CS: What years of your life did this story take place during?
Goodman: Because it’s not a documentary and it’s not the life of Mandela, I think 85% of us have a story in their life that can maybe be a film, but I didn’t match the dates and time because all I wanted to do was show a message about a guy who wants to be a father, didn’t really know how, wanted to stop crime, knew nothing else, wanted to turn himself around after getting out of prison. The doors just don’t swing open for you to do that, and you don’t really know where to go to do that. You don’t really know how to begin, you don’t know what to do, because when you get out, you say, “You want to do it, stop doing what you’re doing.” I was robbing drug dealers just to get by and was thinking, “This isn’t a career move, I’m no idiot.” What are you going to eventually do? Here you are going gray and bald, you are still alive, what’s up now? Nobody loves their kids less but no more than I love mine.
CS: So the movie is just made up of elements from your life and certain moments but they’re not shown chronologically exactly as things happened.
Goodman: Well, it’s in the right order. All I did was to show me sleeping in hallways as a kid to give the audience the understanding of what hands these kids were dealt, so we went back in time just to show that I had nowhere to sleep at a certain time in my life, so I had to come out and get lunch, so we just wanted to plant that side to get an idea. Then the little greed and grime that goes along with it was all in order and then getting out of prison, because that’s where my eyes opened up. In the prison visiting room is where my eyes opened up and looked around and you know what scared me about prison? The only thing that scared me about prison is that they were pretending that they wanted to get out. Because they can’t make it. They don’t say it, but they come right back if they can’t make it out there, and I said, “I’m not going to be that guy.” I’m not no genius but I’m bright enough to know that I don’t want to be here.
CS: It’s kind of ironic that your awakening to become a filmmaker happened while you were making a prison movie.
Goodman: Well, it came before that. I have this written on a 37 cent notepad nine years ago out of pure boredom. 1997 was when I got my first audition and the first three auditions I went on I got speaking roles, and that was the sign that maybe ‘Cause I wanted to act since I was a kid because I could never say it. It’s like saying you want to wear tights in Boston, back then. Nowadays, you can say you want to be an actor and I think it’s wide open. Back then, I’m going back thirty years, so when I first got this first screenplay that I was in, and I was looking at it and I was bored. I was a couple years sober and I said, “Maybe I can write something” and that’s how I started it. I never thought I’d be sitting here with you talking about a film I made.
CS: So many people say they’re going to write a movie, but to actually write a script and then get it produced, finished and released is already a huge achievement. That’s already like only one in 500 or 600 movies a year, and if you look at the movies by new filmmakers every year, that’s an even smaller number.
Goodman: Probably 10, huh?
CS: Maybe a little more than that.
Goodman: But no, you’re right, you probably don’t hear about it much.
CS: But you already had something written by the time you met Mark and Rod while working on “The Last Castle” so at that point, did you try to pitch something to them?
Goodman: Well, I used to tell Mark Frydman (the main producer on the film) all the time that I got this nice little story, we should tell it. I never claimed to live the life of Mandela and I never thought mine was the most original story that can be told. I thought it was very universal. I thought the inner city world it touched on can be identified with and I said, “There’s a nice little story we should tell,” so Mark Frydman read it and we started rolling in the right way. I could have made it twice in Canada five or six years ago, and said “no” and I could have made it with who I felt was the wrong director and I said “no” so I just held on and held on. Me and Donnie were supposed to play the two leads and we met with incredible directors, but if you don’t really get the smell of that world, you don’t get it. The one guy I did feel would be good at it, they would only give us enough money to shoot it in Canada, and I wanted to shoot it where you could smell Boston.
CS: Some of those aerial shots of Boston, you couldn’t do those anywhere else. I’m from Framingham originally, lived there when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time in the Boston area around that same time.
Goodman: So you know? But yeah, we’re all from the same state, so you can smell when you’re in the right place.
CS: Oh, yeah, absolutely, it’s definitely something you can’t fake. So basically you’d been working on getting the movie made for a long time and was Donnie Wahlberg (the film’s co-writer who plays a small role) someone you knew from Boston?
Goodman: Donnie I met when I first got out in a high stakes card game. I met Donnie when I first got out of prison years ago, and we became acquaintances for a while and then we just evolved into where and I don’t use this word lightly but we developed into very close friends.
CS: Was Donnie already into acting himself at that point?
Goodman: He was just starting out, ’cause the first audition I went on, I ended up being in the same movie he was already in called “Southie.” I had known him but I never even talked to him about the audition or nothing. Just went in on a fluke on a local hire audition thing and I ended up getting a speaking part, and then when I moved to L.A., that’s when we became close friends.
CS: When did you decide you were going to play Pat? Did you eventually realize you couldn’t play yourself and decided you could do that instead?
Goodman: Well, I wanted James Caan. He was the guy who made me want to be an actor thirty years ago, probably with “Brian’s Song,” 35 years ago that one. I saw that and that was the one, and he’s actually become a friend of mine.
CS: So you auditioned him and he just wasn’t good enough, so you decided to play the part yourself?
Goodman: (laughs) No, what happened was that a movie’s a go when you have the one or two names you had so rightfully so, the financiers, they don’t want to have to pay that extra money when the movie’s already moving with talent. What Jimmy brought to the movie for me was a childhood dream. What he brought to them was what Jimmy Caan brings, but when they’re looking at the paper and saying, “We already have a movie that’s going, why are we going to pay an extra ” We can’t work that out and Jimmy was willing to bend for me as much as he could, but there is a living behind this, so the role was still open
CS: Maybe there’s another movie you can write for him to be in.
Goodman: Oh, I will. Someday hopefully we’ll make that happen.
CS: Neither Mark nor Ethan are from Boston, both of them having been in New York for some time after coming from other places. I know you met Mark while making “The Last Castle” so did he help bring Ethan on board?
Goodman: The material is what really grabbed Ethan, but it wouldn’t have happened hadn’t Mark and Ethan had an admiration for each other and they’d been looking for something to do together, so to avoid the whole agent stuff, Mark had bumped into him at a party and said, “Look, there’s this piece I want to send your way.” I think he actually wrote it on his hand, “Real Men Cry.” Ethan read it and two days later, I was on a plane flying here to meet him.
CS: Did you and Donnie have any concern about casting New York guys to play the roles?
Goodman: No, I wanted the challenge. I really wanted the challenge. I wanted to be able to be afraid, I wanted to be ignited by fear to make it even more interesting. If I went after Donnie’s brother Mark or somebody from the neighborhood that would be so on the nose, I felt that would make it less of a challenge. I wanted to get somebody where I knew I could give an opportunity to Mark and show what he was made of, because I think sometimes, all actors are victims of material. We never get the role or something to bite into, and this one here, I knew he could Mark’s a solid, solid actor. And Ethan Hawke, I didn’t see anybody else after I knew I wasn’t playing that role, and he was better than I would have been. I liked him for it. I hopefully was going to play that role at one point but when I started to realize it’s not going to happen, I was going to go a different route, Ethan was the first one I had prayed and hoped for.
CS: Even though “The Departed” has a lot of Boston actors, something about it just doesn’t feel like Boston. “Mystic River” had the same problem.
Goodman: I agree. But you’re right, it has nothing to do with writing it or living it or making it. I agree with that statement. As an audience, I agree with that. I don’t know what “The Departed” was, it was almost like “Who gives a sh*t?” I wasn’t a big fan of it. I’m a fan of all the actors in it but I didn’t really care about the story, who the rat in the crew is, who gives a f*ck? It’s frustrating. The fact of the matter is Jack Nicholson wouldn’t have lasted. There’s no guys I know who act like he acts in that world who wouldn’t get killed. He was an ***hole. He asked that girl right off the bat, “Did you get your period yet?” I would have killed that motherf**ker, know what I mean? He’s just playing this far out nut, he was like a jerk-off.
CS: Were you able to get some of the local people to come in and be extras in your movie?
Goodman: Oh, yeah, yeah, you have to. Me and you don’t have the thickest Boston accents. Sometimes it stays, sometimes it comes, but even back then, I would be willing to say that you would detect mine, but you know and I know we’ve heard thicker. So me personally, as an audience, I don’t like you know, Matt Damon’s from Boston. He brutalized the accent, just probably because he’s been away for a while, so I didn’t want to watch that for two hours. Who wants to film that? So I figured if you get Ethan and Mark who are very subtle actors and smart guys to just lay it in there a little bit, right? Now you get the regular dayplayers that are local hires and have them do maybe a little piece of it, and it smells nice and flows in, but you’re not having someone with a substantial role (He does an insanely exaggerated accent) for two hours. To answer your question, yeah, the local guys did get in. You know my son was in the movie. He played a big role. You know where Mark and Ethan met the kid up in the Heights and he says “You’re making a lot of money ”? That was my older son playing Jay, that’s right. He just made an audition for that. He was the one who said to me what that kid said on the street, remember the kid who played him? He was playing my son and he said “Stop drinking, don’t leave me.” He said those exact words 14 years ago. He’s older now and he played Jay and the youngest baby played the city worker. Remember he comes up and is changing the trash and said “Hey, Brian”? That was my baby. Didn’t they do a nice job?
CS: You talked about taking very specific points in your life. One thing that was interesting was that Mark didn’t depict you as a good person
he almost hits his wife and he’s really tough with her. How hard is it for you to recreate those parts of your life and watch that again?
Goodman: It’s painful and humiliating but that’s what I wanted to tell, because you know what? It was real. I came home and there was a guy knocking on my door wanting to shut my gas off. I mean nobody loves their kids any less than me. Do you know how humiliating that was? F*ckin’, it was crazy, but here’s the thing. I made a lot of money running around the streets. I didn’t want to write about that, everybody glamorizes that world. I wanted to show that I cared, and it was hurtful and painful to know that they wanted to shut the gas off on my own kids’ roof. Can you imagine how that felt when the lady called me up and said the tuition’s due?
CS: I’d just think that whenever someone is telling their own life story, they’d try to embellish it and make themselves look better, but you kept a lot of the stuff that’s true and hard.
Goodman: You know why? Because I’m not ashamed of myself and I know had the circumstances been different, and I wasn’t an alcoholic it’s not excuse. It’s the reason why your life gets out of control. It’s the reason why you can’t put it in perspective. It’s because you’re a sick person. When you’re an alcoholic and an addict and you can’t think straight, it’s real. It’s just tough to sympathize because everyone’s lying to you, you’re lying to everybody and you’re hurting everybody around you, so it’s a tough disease to sympathize with. The reality is to answer your question, it was tough to shoot. It was very rewarding and very appealing and very painful. It was a ride that I’ll never forget.
CS: It’s safe to assume most of the other characters in the movie were based on actual people, right?
Goodman: I’ll tell you something funny. This is how real I got. Want to know how real I got with this movie? Remember when we were robbing the steroid guy? You see the bald kid who was there? He was really there on the day we did it. I called him up and said, “You want to be in the movie?” You want to know how real it was? Remember when they were robbing the cigarette truck? The owner of the store with the white jacket when they come out (who yells) “You little bastards”? They owned the store that we were robbing 20 something years ago; we put THEM in the movie! We couldn’t get any more real, and I can give you ten more of those scenarios, because I just wanted that smell. The housing project where he was smoking the coke, that was the building next to the building where I was smoking the cocaine. The hallway that he slept in was one building over from the rooftop that I was sleeping in 34 years ago in 1975.
CS: What about the character you played, was there a real Pat Kelley?
Goodman: There was a guy I liked called Hobart Willis, he used to pay Whitey. Whitey used to run everything around there. I never had anything to do with it, but Hobart Willis was the guy that kind of liked me a little bit because I was an aggressive kid and we made some money with him. The only thing I’ll be honest with you that I did and I feel about it, but I had to because producers have notes, but I was able to stick to 85% of the truth, which was more at the home and getting out. That little greed I created between Pat and them? That was embellished a little bit because Hobart wasn’t cheap and wasn’t as greedy as I made Pat, but I had to create a little bit of drama and tension in there. That’s not bad considering that when they used to give you true story, when Hollywood gets done with it, you’re lucky to have 20% of it. I didn’t have to lose anything that was substantial which made me feel like I was cheating. It wasn’t Eagle purposes to keep it true, it’s because the story worked, it’s truthful. Sometimes you’re enhanced by staying honest, sometimes you’re restricted by staying honest. When you got a script, you can do whatever you want, the sky’s the limit, so I was able to have enough stuff to keep it moving and hopefully keep people interested for 110 pages by sticking with the truth.
CS: I wanted to ask about the title because I remember Mark talking about it as “Real Men Cry” last year at Toronto, and it has changed. It’s not like the cliché of using a line from the movie or anything like that, so I was curious about the change, because “Real Men Cry” is a very powerful title.
Goodman: See, you’re man enough to be able to say that.
CS: But I can also see how that might turn off someone who might want to see it.
Goodman: Well, that’s why we’re here with “What Doesn’t Kill You” because the marketing people get involved and they just felt that the percentage of people that would maybe respond or not respond to that title. I always felt that the title would get a lot of women’s curiosity and the trailer would get the men’s, but you can’t count on that is what the marketing people tell me so they come up with a list of different choices and ideas and we wrapped around this one, “What Doesn’t Kill You.” I think for a lot of people, it’s a little more universal. Anybody’s lived through something that’s made them stronger. But I always grew up with that thing “I’ll give you something to cry about” and “Are you a baby? Stop crying” so I remember just falling out with sobriety and realized it’s okay to cry.
CS: I assume your family and some of the others involved with it have seen the movie, so what was their reaction seeing this chapter of your life put on screen?
Goodman: Well, they loved it. They were moved by the story and they get the piece of the movie like I have a brother in real life and I didn’t put him in the movie, and I didn’t put everybody in the movie because it’s not a documentary. It’s not about Brian. I was just able to use true factual events to tell a piece of my story, and it’s only the piece about wanting to get out and be a Dad and not knowing how, wanting to stop crime and knowing nothing else. I’d need a mini-series to take you on the ride that went with the 25 years of what I took my life on.
CS: But it must have difficult for your wife to watch it again and exposing what happened between you two to the world. Did she like Amanda Peet’s portrayal of her?
Goodman: Yeah, she does. She came to the set and she’s an inner city girl and I’m not too cool to be starstruck, but she was happy to be able to hug Mark and Ethan and say “hello,” she was thrilled. We were together since we were kids, so we’re still friends, so she’s happy for me and happy for anything that might be good for my sons.
CS: I imagine just writing the movie must have been cathartic so do you feel that you’ve found some closure on that chapter of your life having made this movie?
Goodman: You know what? I do. I have more healing. I don’t know if closure is it because I never lived in closure, but the reality is that I have a better view and understanding of it. Closure, I don’t have any reason to close the door because I like to keep remembering where I’m from, who I am, but a better view of it. Not closure though, because I don’t ever look for closure.
CS: Where do you go from here? Do you have any other stories from your life you might want to direct?
Goodman: No, no more about me. Believe me when I tell you, if you ever choose to do a story on your life or anybody does, be prepared to be sick of yourself. (laughs)
CS: Are you looking at directing other scripts?
Goodman: Yeah, I’m going to write a couple more and I got a couple fun ideas that could be interesting. A lot of guys who come up in the street, that’s all they know and that’s all they care about. I’m very curious. I like to hear about the guys that went to school and did the right thing, that’s interesting to me. I’m a people watcher. I’m always interested in other people’s lives because I’m not just in that one-dimensional world.
CS: So you’re thinking more about writing stuff to direct rather than trying to find scripts.
Goodman: No, no, I’m going to be open for both. I’m looking right now. If I see something that grabs me that I can feel I can do it justice. One of the strengths I feel that I want to use as a director, it’s been something I’ve been able to give myself a little credit for as an audience, is I can catch people acting. I think solid acting is to not get caught acting, so as a director, if I read a script that I feel I can tell a good story with or whatever the case may be without letting anybody get caught acting, it’s going to interest me. I’m reading right now, and with my new laptop, I’m starting to write a few ideas I have. Who knows? We have a couple goals in life, but isn’t it interesting that we don’t know what’s going to happen?
It turns out that Brian Goodman will be directing a movie called The Fallen with Samuel L. Jackson about a Boston firefighter, but until then, his debut What Doesn’t Kill You opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, December 12.