CS Interview: Writer, Director & Star Clark Duke Talks Arkansas

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CS Interview: Writer/Director/Star Clark Duke Talks Arkansas

Clark Duke is set to release his directorial debut Arkansas and decided to take time out of his busy schedule to discuss the film with ComingSoon.net. Starring Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, and Duke. Arkansas was initially slated for a theatrical release on May 1, but is now available on Apple, Amazon, On Demand, Blu-ray, and on DVD. Click here to rent or purchase Arkansas on Digital HD!

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Based on John Brandon’s best-selling book of the same name, Arkansas weaves together three decades of Deep South drug trafficking to explore the cycle of violence that turns young men into criminals, and old men into legends.

Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke) live by the orders of an Arkansas-based drug kingpin named Frog (Vince Vaughn), whom they’ve never met. Posing as junior park rangers by day, they operate as low-level drug couriers by night under the watchful eye of Frog’s proxies (John Malkovich and Vivica A. Fox). However, after one too many inept decisions, Kyle and Swin find themselves directly in Frog’s crosshairs, who mistakenly sees them as a threat to his empire.

Written by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong in his feature screenwriting debut, the film stars Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games franchise, Independence Day: Resurgence), Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine franchise, Kick-Ass franchise), Michael Kenneth Williams (12 Years a SlaveBoardwalk Empire), Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day franchise, Kill Bill franchise), Eden Brolin (YellowstoneBeyond), Chandler Duke (Veronica MarsWhere’s This Party?) with Academy Award nominee John Malkovich (In The Line of FireThe New Pope), and Vince Vaughn (Brawl In Cell Block 99Wedding Crashers).

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ComingSoon: You made your directorial debut with this film. What sparked the itch to tackle something as rich as Arkansas?

Clark Duke: I’ve always wanted to direct. That’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 12 years old. That’s what I went to school for and really what I thought my career as an adult would be — writing and directing.

As for the why of it, I read the book about 10 years ago. Really loved the book. And also, I’m from Arkansas and my grandfather was this mafia character I’d always wanted to write something about. The book scratched a lot of different itches for me, thematically and personally. And the dialogue was so good.

CS: You also wrote the screenplay as well (with Andrew Boonkrong). How difficult was it to adapt such a complex novel?

Duke: Adaptations are tricky. I’ve done another adaptation since then — another book adaptation. The structure is more the thing. The dialogue is one of the easier things to import over [laughs]. Figuring out the structure was the trickiest part, because the dialogue was how I initially knew there was a movie there. I was like, actors are gonna wanna say this stuff — myself included.

The structure was the trickiest part, because in the novel all of the Frog chapters are told in second person, which you don’t see very often. You know, You open the door, you go in the house, you pick up the shovel. The reader doesn’t find out that Frog and Pawn Shop guy are the same person until Kyle does basically at the end. You can’t do that in a movie obviously, so that was the biggest thing. Just figuring out the mechanics of that and the non-linear structure of it. The book has more detail — it’s got Swin’s and Kyle’s childhood in it. It’s got backstory and it’s got a whole other character that had to be cut out for time and became and amalgam of other characters. The same issues anyone has adapting a book to a movie. But once I figured out the five-act structure for the movie everything kind of fell into place from there.

CS: There are shades of the Cohen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, among others, in the film. Was that a deliberate choice or something that just came naturally due to the nature of the story?

Duke: It’s not conscious. I’m sure it’s just baked into me because those guys you named off — Tarantino, and the Cohen brothers — that’s just sort of, well, I’ll be 35 the day the movie comes out next week. But those mid-90s Mirimax-era guys, that’s what made me want to be a director. And that’s sort of my bedrock foundation of movie watching. Movies from that period, you know, Casino, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Fargo — those are the movies that are so steeped in my subconscious that I couldn’t get them out even if I wanted to. But there are a lot of other movies I was pulling from mentally too. Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, was a big one I had in my head when we were doing the screenplay for this. Once Upon a Time in the West was probably the one I had most in my head while we were shooting and making the movie. That’s what me and the DP kept coming back to tonally and visually. I always saw [Arkansas] as a western. Structurally, and thematically, and the relationship between Kyle, Swin and Johnna, it always reminded me a lot of Thieves Like Us, like I said, but it also reminded me a lot of Once Upon a Time in the West. It reminded me of that even when I read it. So, that was kind of my true north that I kept coming back to.

CS: Interesting. So, speaking of these characters, when did you decided you were going to play Swin?

Duke: Well, I wrote [that character] for myself. But to be honest, even my own reps and the producers didn’t want me to play it. I think they were scared the directing and acting was going to be too much. The producers and financers probably just wanted a bigger named actor. I just reached a point where I was basically like, fuck all you guys. This is my part. I wrote this for myself. Nobody else is ever going to write me a part this good. And I’m really glad I did it in hindsight. I think I would’ve been absolutely sick if I saw somebody else in the movie.

CS: Does that apply to the character’s wardrobe? Was that you or was that something that was in the book?

Duke: None of that was really in the book for the character. I invented that stuff. I kind of had the look in mind in terms of the wardrobe because I knew that — it was sort of in my head that Swin has probably read Elmore Leonard books and is picturing Florida gangsters and Russian gangsters. There’s this weird subconscious thing where he loves pro wrestling, which plays into that style. Even the smoking is something he’s take up to seem tough — like, Swin in his head is acting in a gangster movie. I grew the mustache and put my hair up because, you know, I’m very specific looking and I’ve looked the same in a lot of movies and stuff I’ve done over the last 10 years or whatever. I wanted to be as unrecognizable as I could partially so I wouldn’t be as distracting to the audience. I didn’t want to carry the connotation of, like, here’s this comedy actor in this movie. But also, for me, the wardrobe and character and very nature of it helped me compartmentalize and sort of become that guy quickly when I had to jump back and forth from acting and directing when someone would ask if the dolly track was okay. And then you’ve got to go into character and being a different guy.

CS: Did you feel like you struck gold with this amazing cast — Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Vivica A. Fox?

Duke: I still cant believe the cast is as good as it is to be totally honest. I guess it means the script must have been good, because that’s the only way you get people like this. Nobody got rich on this or anything [laughs]. Everybody did the movie because they wanted to. I did have Liam in mind for a long time. And Liam was the first to come on board. He’s the reason we have a movie because once we had Liam we could get other actors. Vince I just loved for Frog because he does a real interesting thing to the audience in that somebody who is lest charismatic and less likeable and less funny, or someone who is a more traditional heavy, I’m not sure if you’d be rooting for Frog at the end of the movie as much as you are. I like that dynamic. There’s part of you that, because it’s Vince Vaughn, you’re hoping he makes it out of this thing. That’s amazing and that’s something that only casting does. That’s not on the page. And I think Vince is really good in the film. I think it’s one of his most fun performances in a very long time.

CS: How much direction was needed on your part for a cast like this?

Duke: Well, to be honest, when you’re dealing with guys like John Malkovich and Vince Vaughn — these are guys that have done between them like hundreds of movies [laughs]. Honestly, it makes your job a lot easier. I might have given John Malkovich two or three notes the entire film. He just doesn’t need once. He’s like the greatest living actor. Most of the work I did with everybody was mostly just conversations beforehand, you know, talking about the character. There’s always technical stuff — I need you to favor more this side, or something. And you’re always going to give notes just so you have different options. But truthfully, having actors that good makes your life so much easier. It makes your days faster and easier because you’re not spending so much time with them. They’re just there.

CS: Ok, so what’s next after Arkansas?

Duke: It was a great experience. Directing is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve got two or three scripts ready to go. I don’t have anything set up yet because of this bizarre time period we’re all experiencing together. But hopefully by the end of the year we can get something set up. But I certainly want to keep directing.