Cut Bank Director Matt Shakman on the Darkly Quirky Crime Drama



First-time filmmakers come from all different places including television and theater, sometimes even having experience in front of the camera before choosing to go behind the scenes and direct. Matt Shakman had all of those things under his belt before deciding to tackle his first feature film as a director, having started out as a child actor in the late ‘80s before directing theater and television. The show he’s become best known for is FX’s comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” of which Shakman has directed 39 of the 114 episodes, almost 33% of the show’s run since 2007. 

Last September, his directorial debut Cut Bank premiered with very little fanfare at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is surprising considering the amazing cast he’s assembled for the dark crime comedy, including John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton, Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Oliver Platt.

Hemsworth plays Dwayne, a young man from the small town of Cut Bank, Montana, who wants nothing more than to get out of there and move to California with his girlfriend Cassandra (Palmer), but his master plan to get a reward for reporting a crime backfires when the town sheriff (Malkovich) and her father (Thornton) start investigating further. And then there’s the town’s oddball resident Derby Milton (Stuhlbarg) whose obsession with a missing package might be related to the crime.

It’s a quirky crime drama with a dark sense of humor not unlike another movie named after a Midwestern town about a kidnapping attempt gone wrong, and if the Coen Brothers’ Fargo was any sort of influence on Shakman’s film, then it was fortuitous that the director was called upon to direct a couple episodes of the FX mini-series “Fargo” shortly after he had completed Cut Bank spoke with Shakman over the phone last week, not just talking about his movie, but also talking about directing “Sunny” and the upcoming pilot he’s directing, “Heroes Reborn,” which brings back some of the characters from the popular NBC superhero show. For some reason, I missed your movie at Toronto last year, although I think there was another movie called “Cut Snake,” so there was some confusion also about those two movies. I really enjoyed it though, so I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about it out of Toronto.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, well, it’s coming out now, so I’m excited about it. It’s been a long journey, but it’s great. I’m really excited that A24 is releasing it. They’re a great company and they have cool taste, so they’ve done a great marketing campaign for it, so I’m really excited.

CS: It’s already on DirecTV now, isn’t it, or is it coming out soon?

Shakman: It is. It’s part of their program, where they did this with The Captive and Enemy and a few of their movies, Life after Beath, where they have a pre-release window through DirecTV, which is their partners. They get 30 days of exclusive with DirecTV on their VOD service, and then it comes out theatrically April 3rd in New York and L.A. and then we start adding cities after that. 

CS: Maybe by the time this goes up, some people will already have seen it on DirecTV, ub it’s a pretty distinctive type of movie, and it’s very, very unique. I was curious how you found the screenplay and decided to make this your first feature. You were directing TV for a long time and theater and doing other things.

Shakman: Definitely. The script came to me from three different people on the same day, so I think it was meant to be. My agent, my manager, and one of the producers on the movie, who I’d worked with on another project that never actually came to fruition, who was a producer on Cut Bank, a guy named Dan Cohen. He had helped develop the script up to that point. The agent, the manager, and Dan all sent me the script and said, “I think this is something you might dig.” I read it right away and I thought it was great. It had just premiered on the Black List as one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, and I thought it was a really, really beautiful script, great language, fantastic combination of genres, a challenge, a thriller, which I love, and a great sense of humor. It’s a black comedy. So yeah, I started working with the writer Roberto, and we developed the script for some time after that, and then started trying to assemble the cast.

CS: Was it always called “Cut Bank” or was it called something different at that point?

Shakman: You know, it’s always been called Cut Bank. Roberto called it that and we never changed it.

CS: Did you have any kind of background with small towns yourself? Are you from one originally?

Shakman: Yeah, I am from a town called Ventura, which doesn’t nearly qualify as a small town in comparison to Cut Bank, which is a town of 3,000, and Ventura, when I was growing up was 10 or 15 times that size. But it did feel like a small town, and I can relate to the idea of a central protagonist who feels stuck in a provincial place and eventually wants to get out of there and follow his dreams to somewhere else. Roberto is from Miami, so he’s from a big county, but I think he had done enough traveling. He was originally born in Colombia, so he had traveled around with his family and eventually settled in Miami, but he had done a lot of wandering. I think both of us had some resonance with that idea.

CS: Once you got involved, were you actually developing the scrip with Roberto for a while as well or you did you just get his script and run with it?

Shakman: Yeah, we focused it quite a bit. A lot of the set pieces and things that are in the current film were developed with Roberto. When I jumped on board, he had already created the basic idea of the town and those characters and what those characters wanted. Then we went in and worked on specific sort of moments in the script.

CS: I was reading about your theater background and also with your TV work, you do a lot of ensemble stuff. What are some of the differences in developing this movie as opposed to those other mediums?

Shakman: It’s a great question. I found doing a film was much more similar to doing a play. I primarily do only new plays now, and I develop the script with the playwright, oftentimes from an early reading to a workshop to a full production. You see the script evolve, and that was very much the relationship with Roberto and working on the script for many years. Then, like a play, you assemble a cast, you build the world, and then you see what happens. There’s opening night and then there’s closing night and everybody goes home. In TV, you are oftentimes joining the train that’s already in motion with a cast that’s already been assembled and it’s your job to deliver the best version of that show that you can and to work with that ensemble. So you’re working with performance, you’re definitely helping the cast and the new characters and designing new worlds that those characters to go to. Movies are much more like in the play or like in the pilot. I’m in the middle of doing a pilot, that new version of “Heroes,” right now, so we’re doing all of those things that you have to do on a movie, of designing the world and casting the characters and all of that.

mattshakmancutbank2CS: You ended up getting an amazing cast for this including Bruce Dern and Malkovich, Billy Bob—they’re ringers whom you can put them in anything and they’ll be great–Oliver Platt, also. And you also have Michael Stuhlbarg, who I didn’t even recognize. I watched the movie and I had to wait until the very end to find out who that character was because it was such a different thing for him. Was that a hard role to cast before you found Stuhlbarg?

Shakman: I adore Michael Stuhlbarg, and I remember seeing him in “The Pillowman” on Broadway, a play by Martin McDonagh. He was just unbelievably good in it–he was nominated for a Tony for it–but it was an exceptional performance. But I’d seen him in that show and he was fantastic and I thought he really stole it from a very starry cast, and my eyes were focused in on him the whole way. Ever since then, I’ve been tracking him, and he showed up in the Coen Brothers’ movie and he’s appeared in many other films and done just a brilliant job in everything. So I was thrilled to be able to get him to come on board and do this part. Then we worked very closely on what this guy would look like. We looked at a lot of reference imagery. We looked at some documentaries about some interesting characters, who really lived in the world, and eventually, developed this character that has incredibly sick, coke bottle glasses and he had to wear contact lenses so that he could actually see correctly through those coke bottle glasses, because they distorted the world so much. (chuckles) Yeah, he was wearing fake teeth and a wig and the stubble and the fake fingernails and the whole thing. It was quite a transformation and he’s a very dedicated actor, a brilliant actor, and I think he went very deep inside that character. Once we called wrap on the final scene of the movie, which he was in, I’ve never seen a guy smile so wide. He really came back from the darkness and there was Michael again. He’s a terrific actor.

CS: Is he very method? Did he stay in character the whole time or even with all that makeup and stuff, is he able to go in and out of it pretty easily?

Shakman: He goes pretty deep. I mean, he’s a lovely man and always a lovely person to collaborate with, but I could definitely see that darkness and who this person was was dominating his psyche during that time, and occasionally, he’d go to dinner on the weekends or something and he would be very nicely cleaned up and he’d still have those terrible yellow nails on, but yeah I think he goes very deep into all of his parts–not so deep that you’re still having a conversation with Michael Stuhlbarg and not having a conversation with Derby Milton. But he is a very dedicated, involved actor.

CS: In some ways, Liam’s also an unconventional choice. He has the looks and build for that role, but you don’t often see him doing smaller indie movies. What made you think of him?

Shakman: I met him when he first got to L.A. I think he had just done a Nicholas Sparks movie, where he met Miley Cyrus, and he had come to LA and done that movie and was kind of figuring out what would be next. We got along great, and I was still working on trying to get Cut Bank put together at that time. He read it and really liked it. Then, a few years later, when I was looking to cast that part and we were ready to go, I reached out to him again. He’s from an island off of Melbourne in Australia and grew up in a much smaller place than where I grew up or where Roberto grew up, so he responded to the small town idea, the isolated idea, and following your dreams. He went from a very, very small place to become a very, very big star, and I think he responded to that and understood it on a really good level.

mattshakmancutbank3CS: Teresa’s the same because I’ve interviewed her a bunch of times and maybe it was the accent, but I didn’t realize it was her, maybe because she’s playing a younger character, but it’s funny that they’re both from Australia but they were able to get that small town American accent, which made them harder to be recognized.

Shakman: They have great American accents. I don’t know how all those brilliant Australian actors do it, but it seems like they show up here with a brilliant American accent, and I don’t know why. But, we had two great dialogue coaches, one in Canada and one in the U.S. Our one in the U.S. was Elizabeth Himmelstein, she had done Fargo and a lot of other great movies. She’s an excellent dialect coach and she worked with Teresa and Liam and a few of the others in the cast to help them find that small town Montana accent. 

CS: I’m guessing you’ve already heard the “Fargo” comparisons, because it’s based in a small Midwestern town with a dark sense of humor, so it’s interesting that you then directed the FX series, also with Billy Bob Thornton.

Shakman: Yeah, I did. I had worked with Billy Bob and Oliver Platt on a movie that no doubt owes a debt of gratitude to the Coen Brothers for sure, and went off and did this reimagining of “Fargo” on television for FX. We used the same mail truck that Bruce Dern drives around in my movie. I showed up. I did the final two episodes of “Fargo,” and they had already picked the mail truck, and I couldn’t believe it. It was the exact same one. Yeah, it’s crazy. We shot “Fargo” in Calgary and we shot my film in Edmonton, which is only a few hours North, so a lot of the crew members were the same and it just felt like coming back for old home week. I mean, we definitely are inspired by the Coen Brothers, as everybody who makes a movie is. I think that any small town crime thriller will definitely compared to Fargo because it’s the best of the small town crime thrillers, but really, the homage that we were looking at, if we were going to pick a Coen Brothers movie would more be Blood Simple–the comedy’s still there, but it’s a darker comedy. Then also The Last Picture Show, that kind of small town kid wanting to get out of town idea as well, so we definitely bow down before our elders and all of the great stuff that they’ve done.

CS: The “Fargo” thing is interesting, because I’m a huge fan of the original movie, but after watching the miniseries, I kind of went back to the original movie and realized I didn’t like it nearly as much as the show. It was kind of crazy.

Shakman: Wow, that’s funny. I haven’t watched the original movie since doing “Fargo,” but maybe I’ll go back and check it out. It’s definitely a different experience, so yeah, that’s good to hear. I’ll let Noah know that. I’m sure he’ll be really happy to hear that.

CS: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you and what really got me curious about your movie was because of your connections to “Sunny,” which I watch avidly, as do all its fans I imagine. It’s such a strange show, and you’ve directed so many episodes of it, and you keep coming back and doing more. What’s that experience like? It seems like a well-oiled machine at this point, but you have to get some of scripts and think “What the hell are they thinking?”

Shakman: (laughs) It’s been a great pleasure and has defined most of my adult life, having bene on that show for all these years. I’ve done some crazy stuff on that show, and we continue to try to surprise ourselves. This year, we did a show where Charlie is trying to get the bar ready for a health inspection, that was a great challenge. We’ve been talking about doing a “Family Feud” parody for years, and they finally did that this year. So every year, there’s a kind of sit-down idea of, “Okay, well, what can we do this year that we’ve never done before?” It’s tough to do because going all the way back to a show that I directed there including “The Nightman Cometh,” which is a musical that we then took on the road later, a 1776 show in period and you name it. We’ve done sort of all sorts of crazy stuff, but it’s a great group of incredibly talented people. Yeah, it is a well-oiled machine, but it’s the funnest job in the world and the biggest challenge there is to find usable takes where the cameramen aren’t laughing and the camera’s not bouncing up and down. That’s our biggest challenge now. But those guys are brilliant and it’s a pleasure to be affiliated with them for all these years.


CS: Knowing your background in theater, it would seem like such a departure to end up directing “Sunny.” Don’t get me wrong because I enjoy the show, but there’s definitely a low-brow aspect to it, which you would not expect a theater director to be involved in. So how did you first work with them?

Shakman: But they’re all theater guys, like to some degree, Rob, less so, but Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day. Glenn went to Juilliard, Charlie did lots of theater. Danny DeVito, obviously started in the theater. Kaitlin Olson went to Groundlings, so she has a background in performance, too. That’s what I think makes it so great, is the show appears really low-brow, but it’s got a lot of really sophisticated satire. For instance, in “The Nightman Cometh,” which is about putting on musicals, I think one of the great studies of the dysfunctional nature of putting on a play, and as a process I think we all would recognize if you’ve done a play, what it’s like to navigate that kind of terrain and negotiate with people to try to get your vision across. Also, satire, everything from technology and social media and politics and you name it, healthcare. So there is definitely something to be said about the world that we’re living in, even though it’s coming in the form of something that appears to be pretty low-brow.

CS: “Heroes Reborn” is also an interesting decision. I remember talking to Tim Kring about it before even the first show aired, and they kind of had a cult fanbase but then disappeared. Is this new miniseries going to be something which people don’t have to watch any of the old shows and be on board? What’s the take?

Shakman: Very good question. You could absolutely come to this show completely new, without having watched any of the previous show. You can also have been an ardent fan of the previous show and come and find things in there that you will respond to. There will be Easter eggs and just little sort of thinky tidbits and nods to the old show, much like the “Fargo” miniseries. You don’t have to be a student of the Coen Brothers to appreciate that miniseries, but if you are a big fan, you’ll notice a million Easter eggs and homage to other Coen Brothers movies, not just Fargo, but everything, so we’re definitely trying to do that. We’re trying to create an entry point here for “Heroes Reborn,” where anyone can start watching now, but it will also be something that the fans from before will really respond to. 

CS: I’m really excited to see what you do with “Heroes Reborn,” because I watched the first couple of seasons, and I think I kind of got lost somewhere along the ways and never caught up. I felt bad about that, so hopefully this gives me another chance to check it out.

Shakman: Yeah, you’re not alone. You know, I think that Tim even felt that way, that the first season and the first couple of seasons… and then they hit the writer’s strike and they were churning out more episodes than they wanted to, but what the network wanted. It was tough to keep that complicated mythology going in some of the episodes. So here we are, we’re doing a 13-episode season. It’s all intricately-planned out and it’s going to be really something, I think.

CS: Have you started shooting it yet? Whereabouts are you in production?
Shakman: Yeah, we’ve done a little bit of shooting already and then we’re still in prep. We did some sort of complicated pre-shooting stuff, and then we really, really start in on this on April 6th. It’s going to be really fun. It’s big. It’s going to be really ambitious.

CS: So they let you wait until after your movie comes out so you can get all your promotion out of the way and after it comes out, you have to go back to work on that?

Shakman: Yeah, I don’t think they were considering the movie much there. (laughs) They’ve got their own machine going, so I’m taking my time away from the other stuff. 

CS: Listen, it’s great talking to you. I hope people check out your movie, if they haven’t already on DirecTV, hopefully they’ll get out to the theaters. Just watching that cast interact with each other is just a joy.

Shakman: It was my joy, too, to watch them do it on the set, so I’m glad. I hope people find it, and thank you for your interest and I really appreciate it. 

Cut Bank opens in select cities on Friday, April 3 following its run on DirecTV.

(Photo Credit: SIPA/