SXSW 2018: John Hyams Talks All Square

"The more I tried to help him get it made, the more I started really feeling greedy about it and wanted to do it myself."

Photo credit: Mill House Motion Pictures.
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Director John Hyams joined Cultured Vultures in a phone interview to discuss his new film, All Square, set to premiere this weekend at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.

Thanks for joining Cultured Vultures today. How are things treating you?
Things are treating me just well. How are about yourself?

I’m doing well. I’m just counting down until having to pack for SXSW in Austin.
Cool. So you’ll be headed over there?

Yeah.
Oh, great!

All Square is such a different film from the other features you’ve done lately. How did you come across Timothy Brady’s script and what led you to direct the film?
Timothy Brady is a friend of mine for years and I’ve always admired his writing. He’s written some beautiful plays. His focus has always been much more in kind of comedy and comedy TV writing. I’ve always admired the work he did. This was the first feature film screenplay he wrote. He showed it to me and I was just knocked out by the script and loved it. When I first read it, I never really intended to be directing it myself. It’s not the kind of thing that normally came my way but I wanted to help him get it made. The more I tried to help him get it made, the more I started really feeling greedy about it and wanted to do it myself. Like you said, it was so different than anything I’ve done. I wasn’t actually looking to do something different but this particular script just really moved me and I loved the characters. I loved that there was no simple easy solutions and the characters were flawed and that it was about some fairly cynical characters in fairly cynical situations. The movie was not cynical and had a lot of heart. I thought it was a great challenge to do something that I couldn’t really on my normal bag of tricks and really do a movie that predominantly is about people talking to each other without movement and without the normal tension and suspense you can create using a lot of cinematic tools that in this one were not available to me. I loved the challenge of that and most importantly, I loved the idea of doing something with Michael Kelly. As well as being another great friend of mine, I admired his career and really wanted to work with him and other great actors.

I really liked what Michael Kelly brought to the role as Zibs.
Yeah, I agree. I think it was the kind of role on the one hand, the guy is a bit of a malcontent and bit of a grumpy due to put it straight and a guy whose selfish and is a little bit disgruntled in life. I thought that was kind of the perfect type of role that I wanted to see Michael play. He’s so used to, in recent years, playing Doug Stamper, which is this very type of controlled type of character who is really keeping his poker face up the whole time. In this case, this is Michael showing a completely different side of himself and in a way, I think he really took on the idea of not trying to win the audience’s sympathy instantly but rather just really commit to this guy and his worldview, which ran counter to a lot of the other people in the film and a lot of people in general. But underneath it all, we can find some goodness in this guy even if it’s hidden. Michael as a person is quite the opposite. His goodness is obvious and apparent. He wears it on all of his expressions and his attitude. He’s a very warm person. It was fun to hide that under layers of orderly disgruntledness.

Photo credit: Mill House Motion Pictures

Were Michael and Jesse Ray Sheps quick to build chemistry on set?
Yeah, I think he was. The actual thing about it, Michael’s a father and gets along great with kids. That’s a real naturally easy thing for him. We wanted the opposite because he’s playing a character that doesn’t know how to deal with kids. We wanted almost the opposite of chemistry. We wanted there to be a bit of a wall between these characters. You have a guy that doesn’t know what proper boundaries there are with kids. He treats kids as if they are any other person—any adult in fact. He doesn’t really recognize how this kid is looking at him and the kid is taking the things he says to art. In many ways, we had to work on cooling Michael down with Jesse and not let him be too friendly, which is his natural instinct. Once he understood that and any time I had to remind him on set, he quickly was able to snap into the right attitude of being kind of much more Bad Santa with the kid.

How did the rest of the cast come together?
This cast is–a number of these people are very close friends of ours. We’ve known each other a very long time. Tim Brady is a writer. Michael Kelly, Josh Lucas is an old friend of ours. Jay Larson, Andrew Sikking, Craig Walker, Neal Huff—those are all people that we’ve known and are close with. It was an opportunity to bring these talented people that we know together in this film. The other phenomenal actors that we had on board here —Pamela Adlon, Harris Yulin, Isiah Whitlock Jr.— those people came on board either because they loved Tim’s script or they really admired Michael’s work and wanted a chance to work with him. Because there was really no money to be made on this, this was really about people who just wanted to make a good movie. The cast came together very quickly and very naturally. It’s an amazing cast but considering our budget, it’s even more amazing.

How much of a thrill is it to premiere the film at SXSW?
I love SXSW. I have now premiered four features in Austin and this will be my second time at SXSW. Two at Fantastic Fest.  Austin is somewhat of a lucky destination for me. I have family connections there—my brother and nieces live there. I love the town. I love the festival. The last time I was there was 2006 with a documentary feature. I always felt that Austin has a real amazing community of people that love film, starting with the great filmmakers that came from there (Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez) up to part of the film culture that started years ago in many ways with not only Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News but Tim League and the Alamo Drafthouse. I think all those forces have led to and given roots to a deeper appreciation for cinema in Austin, not just highbrow cinema but genre cinema and all the kind of stuff that I love, which doesn’t necessarily fit into one category. It’s a very unpretentious group of film appreciators. It always feels right in line with my take on film and my tastes in cinema. It will be a real thrill to premiere the movie there.

Thanks again for your time and congrats again on the film.
Thank you. Take it easy.

An official selection of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, All Square premieres as part of the Narrative Selection program.

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