At last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, one of the films that really blew us away was Will Canon’s feature film debut Brotherhood, a movie that follows a fraternity’s hazing ritual gone horribly wrong.
It stars Trevor Morgan from Mean Creek as Adam Buckley, a new pledge for Sigma Zeta Chi, a rural fraternity who hazes its pledges by making them hold up local convenient stores, but when one of the pledges is shot in the mock robbery, the fraternity’s leader Frank, played by Jon Foster, must find a way of keeping the shot member alive without the fraternity getting busted for their transgressions. The results make Brotherhood an exciting and tense thriller where the brothers of Sigma Zeta Chi try to follow Frank’s orders to keep what happened a secret, while weighing what they’re told to do against their own moral compasses. Despite the relatively low budget, the film is an impressive debut from Canon, particularly due to the performances he got out of the mostly young male cast and how the relatively simple story plays out in unexpected ways.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with filmmaker Will Canon last week.
ComingSoon.net: I saw the movie at South by Southwest last year, not sure if it was the premiere, but definitely was one of the early screenings and I’m glad it’s coming out finally.
Will Canon: Yeah, thanks so much. Obviously, I’m excited that we did SouthBy and then it’s been a long journey to get the film released.
CS: I know the movie started life as a short film or a short film you previously directed inspired it?
Canon: The backstory basically is that it started out as a short film that I did at NYU and the short was called “Roslyn,” and the short did well on the festival circuit, and it got some awards that sort of opened some doors, and at the time of the short, my writing partner and I really didn’t have any plans to make it a feature. It was sort of a story that we kept coming back to, and then we thought, “We spent a whole month with these guys and had a lot of fun with it, so let’s really flesh these characters out.” That’s kind of the way the short and the feature relate. Basically, the short was the first eight minutes of the feature, so the short was really the way the film starts, and then it goes off in a new direction.
CS: Did you have any thoughts on what might happen after the short ends when you originally made it?
Canon: When I did the short, I hadn’t thought about it at all really. I made it for a junior class at NYU, and when I did the short, the thought was really that it would be contained in that eight minutes and it wasn’t really until a few years later that I started to think about, “Okay, how can I expand this.” I had some ideas about what could make it kind of cool and things that were just sort of interesting to me, so it was really a few years later before the process of starting to expand it.
CS: I think the short was done about ten years ago?
Canon: Yeah, it is, it is.
CS: So when you decided to do a feature, was that just something that came up or had you other ideas for features and that was just one that took off?
Canon: I had other ideas for features, but there was something about the short that kept… the short was just like the little engine that could. It kept getting into different places and different festivals and people were always sort of Emailing about it or calling about it. It was just on the radar a lot, so for whatever reason, I had some ideas and thought it would be fun to expand it. It wasn’t something that I really thought there was enough there to really do it, “Let’s really figure out what this story is.”
CS: Considering you went to NYU, I expect you weren’t in any sort of fraternity like the one we see in the movie?
Canon: No, thankfully I haven’t been through anything that’s nearly as crazy as what the guys in the film have to go through, but I grew up in Texas, so when I went to high school, a lot of my friends when they went to college, they were in fraternities, so once I knew I wanted to do something about an initiation, I started picking their brains and I read everything I could about the psychology of it, the initiations, and then after I graduated, I went and spent some time at a fraternity in Texas and they were doing their initiations and I actually did some videotaping, but they were nice enough to let me hang out and see the early stages of the process.
CS: One of the interesting things about the movie is that it’s never quite clear where it’s taking place. There aren’t any obvious landmarks, so was that something very intentional?
Canon: Yeah, I wanted it to have the feeling that it takes place in the South, but I definitely didn’t want to name a specific school. It kind of bugs me a lot of times in movies when there’s a fake school that clearly doesn’t exist. It takes me out of it because I’m like, “That school doesn’t exist.” (laughs) Yeah, I didn’t want to name a specific place.
CS: What about the casting? It’s really an amazing cast, and I’ve seen the movie twice now and neither time did I recognize Lou Taylor Pucci, even though I’ve seen just about every other movie he’s done. Did you look at every actor around that age who might be able to pass off as a fraternity pledge? How did you find these guys?
Canon: Our casting director was Michelle Morris, who’s fantastic, and the first guy on board was Trevor Morgan. I had seen Trevor in “Mean Creek,” and thought he was fantastic, and in that film, I thought he just had an integrity and an honesty about him and about his performance that was something I really wanted for his character Adam in “Brotherhood.” So he was really the first guy and then Lou Pucci and Trevor were friends, so I started talking to Lou about doing it, and then Lou and Jon (Foster) were friends and that helped with Jon, and then my casting director the whole time had been saying, “You really should check out Jon Foster, he’d really be great for this.” I really knew Jon from when he was younger, so I knew him from “The Door in the Floor,” I didn’t know him as an older guy. Then I saw the movie called “Stay Alive” that he was great in, and I thought he had such a charm and a charisma about him that I thought would be so cool for the character that he plays.
CS: Was it hard figuring out which actor which would play which role or did you know that once you got Trevor, the others would fit into place fairly easily?
Canon: Well, you know, I think it’s tricky, because we looked at a lot of people. We had people audition in L.A. and then we shot the film in Texas, so we had people from all over Texas come in and Louisiana. Once people came in the room, you kind of started to figure out… it’s a fairly big cast and a lot of the roles are similar because it’s a fraternity in terms of the age and that kind of thing. You’re looking at a lot of people and considering them for different things as well, but once they started coming in, they fell into place. You start figuring out, “Okay, this guy will be good for him, this guy will be good for this one.”
CS: The movie has a really strong premise where things go wrong, something we often seen handled more comedically in films, and it seems like a premise that could easily be used for a studio film, so did you ever consider pitching this to a studio or did you always want to make it independently?
Canon: Well, we definitely looked at taking it more like kind of a traditional Hollywood route, and at one point, the film was set up at a much bigger production company to be done, then there are things in the movie that were very important to me. I wanted it to be very edgy, I wanted it to be very gritty, and those are the things that the minute we started talking to more traditional places, those are things they had problems with. The situation where we originally had it set up, we were able to get out of that situation and do it independently, which I think was extremely important because I think for me, it allowed me to make exactly the movie I wanted to make.
CS: I didn’t stay for the Q ‘n’ A at South by SouthWest, but I’m curious to what the reaction has been like. Did a lot of people feel like things could actually happen, maybe not to this extreme, but or are people doubtful something like this could happen?
Canon: You know, it’s interesting, because you get both. I think the people who have been in fraternities come out very strongly that the things in the film actually happen, and even worse things happen that we couldn’t even put in the film. It’s funny, because a lot of times, if there’s people who weren’t in fraternities or older people, they’ll be like, “Oh, that stuff doesn’t really happen. Is it really that extreme?” It’s interesting, too, because even some of the older guys who have been in fraternities will say, “Even in my day, it was this bad, things were going on like this.” We were at the Palm Springs Film Festival, and there was a guy who came up to me, he was probably 70 years old and he was talking about his fraternity experiences, and I couldn’t believe what he was talking about.
CS: Just today or yesterday, a press release went out saying that “Brotherhood” would be On-Demand as well as theatrical, and I wondered what you thought of that. Are you a fan of this new form of distribution and how movies are getting out to people?
Canon: I am, yeah. Personally I’m a big fan of it. I think it’s cool, because it gives people all across the country the ability to see the film so if it’s not in their city when it opens. Some cities it might never come to, if it’s just a smaller place, so for me, I think it’s cool, because it gives everybody the ability to see it.
CS: So you’re not a purist who feels that the movie has to be seen on the big screen in a theater?
Canon: In perfect world, I would love for everybody to be able to see it in a theater, but I think with independent film especially, it’s so hard to do that because it’s such a big cost involved in releasing a film. A film like “Brotherhood,” it’s never going to be released the way “Spider-Man” would be released. I think the VOD thing with just the realities of the way films are released, I think it makes a lot of sense for independent films especially, so I’m happy with it.
CS: It’s been roughly a year since the movie debuted at SXSW, so what have you been working on since then? Do you have other things you’ve been working up for another feature?
Canon: I do, I do. I’m actually about to finish a script that I wrote with Doug Simon, who I wrote “Brotherhood” with. It’s a thriller that takes place in the financial world, and so we’re finishing that up right now and then there’s a handful of other projects that I’m also working on that I’ve become involved in since South by Southwest.
CS: Have people in the industry shown interest in having you bring your directing style to their existing scripts?
Canon: Yeah, I have. It’s interesting because since it premiered at SouthBy, that’s when the film got out there and people started seeing it, so yeah, certainly in the industry, people have been responding very positively to it for sure.
CS: Do you think you’ll work with some of the same actors you did in “Brotherhood” because you got such great performances out of them?
Canon: I definitely want to. I love those guys, and I loved the job that they did and I just thought they knocked the socks off of those roles, and I’d love to work with those guys again, they’re great!
Brotherhood opens at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, February 18 (with cast and crew in attendance on Friday and Saturday) as well as being available On Demand, then it opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 on February 25.