Alex Pettyfer’s compelling directorial debut Back Roads premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a decade after Pettyfer had auditioned for Adrian Lyne’s unsuccessful attempt to bring the same Tawni O’Dell novel to the screen.
Pettyfer’s tenacity as a producer saw the film finally being made with him taking on both directing and lead actor duties. Set in rural Pennsylvania, Pettyfer plays Harley, a young man who is forced to take care of his three younger sisters, including rebellious teenager Amber (Nicola Peltz), when his mother (Juliette Lewis) is sent to prison for killing his abusive father. Things are further complicated when Harley begins a relationship with an older married woman, Callie (Jennifer Morrison).
Back Roads opens at The Roxy Cinema in New York on Thursday 6th December followed by additional US cities on Friday 7th December, along with a same day digital/VOD release.
James Kleinmann: Alex, your character takes so much on his shoulders with raising his siblings, you were taking a lot on board as an actor with this rich, complex character and of course you were directing for the first time. I wondered if that pressure fed into your performance and if you felt a correlation between your character and yourself in making the film?
Alex Pettyfer: It was a lot, but I had great people around me and I think my experience on that side of the fence was that you get this amazing ability to collaborate with everyone and you have such a support system, so I never felt out of my depth. Working with Jennifer Morrison who had directed a film before helped me with my performance. Working with Nicola too, who is a powerhouse in herself in what she came with. I was very nervous about the choices that she wanted to make, but she was ultimately right and you I think that’s an amazing quality to have as a human being, which I didn’t have beforehand, being able to embrace people’s points of view and their creativity. I think as an actor it’s very egotistical in terms of what you think, focusing on your journey and your point of view, but as a filmmaker you’re looking at everyone’s point of view and that was a beautiful experience to learn from.
JK: Were you always going to take on an acting role as well as directing?
AP: I wasn’t going to take on either. I’m producing a film at HBO and that gave me the confidence to produce more. I had always loved Back Roads. I read it when I was about 18 before Adrian Lyne got in touch with me. I loved the script that he and Tawni O’Dell wrote. Ten years ago I auditioned for it and I met Adrian Lyne.
JK: How did you come to direct it now rather than Adrian Lyne all those years ago?
AP: I think the economy changes in film. I think we’ve seen that. We’re in the midst of a magical change where content can find platforms like Netflix and Amazon, with Apple coming soon, which is great for first time filmmakers or people that have a set vision because you have this opportunity. When Adrian was wanting to make the film he wanted a bigger budget for more shooting days and unfortunately the economy changed and I felt very grateful that it fell into my lap. So ten years later I approached one of the producers, who had the rights and told them that I wanted to produce the film, never with the intention of acting in it too, but over the course of time I ended up being in it. I went to two directors and that unfortunately didn’t work out, they both said yes, but for different reasons had to drop out of the film and then I got the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair myself which I feel very humbled by.
JK: Nicola, it’s such layered, rich character to take on. What was the draw for you of playing Amber?
Nicola Peltz: I read the script when I was 12 and I did an audition for Adrian Lyne who I’m a huge fan of and I’ve loved the script since then. I’m always drawn to dark stories and so when I heard that it was coming up again and I was old enough to play Amber, I was so excited. I got to audition for Alex and I really wanted to play Amber because I felt very connected to her. I had an amazing time playing her, building her character and getting to find out what was going on in her head and how hurt she really is and doing the research.
AP: When Nicola was auditioning in LA she said ‘I really love this film, I really want to be part of it’ and then we went through a casting process and she finally looked at me and said ‘so are you just going to offer this to me or what? Because I’ve had enough!’ I looked at her and she looked at me straight in the face and I said ‘yes, I’m going to offer it to you’ and she’s like ‘good’ and she got up she left and I was like ‘that’s Amber!’
NP: I wish I had more of that in me!
JK: Alex mentioned that you brought a lot to the role, can you give us a flavour of your suggestions.
NP: I’m a very opinionated person to begin with, so when I read a script I have my take on it and I need to be able to able to collaborate with the other actor or director. Initially, when you read a script you think of it through your eyes or your mind. So I explained my vision to Alex and how much I wanted to deal with her on the inside and show that behind all the yelling there’s something else going on. As well as having suggestions about how she looked and what she wears, because what a person wears has a lot to do with them as a person and when I got dressed as her and went through hair and make up it just made me feel like a different person and I love that part of acting.
JK: And how about for you Jennifer, what drew you to Back Roads and playing Callie?
Jennifer Morrison: There were so many reasons for me to want to do it. I loved the novel, I felt like there were so many rich, deep, dark interesting characters. I had an amazing conversation with Alex early on that gave me absolute confidence that he had a vision for this film. His passion for it was inspiring and I knew that he had this incredible creative team around him. We had this ninety minute Skype call where I feel like we had creatively fallen in love by the end of that conversation and I felt like ‘I have to do this!’ We moved schedules and other projects and I was flying back and forth while I was rehearsing a play. We made the impossible possible basically, just because it felt so right.
In addition to all of that, it was a draw because for so long I’ve played characters that are saving the world! I’ve always had these crazy stakes of like ‘you’re a superhero and you’re saving the world’ or ‘you’re magic’ or ‘you’re a doctor who knows everything!’ I was in these positions for long periods of time so the way people see me and the way people think of me as an actor is like ‘she’s the good girl and she saves everyone!” Or ‘she does the right thing’ and there is something interesting to that, but I don’t think that’s what I‘m best at. I actually think I’m much better at playing that messy, dark, fractured place in someone. I’m more intrigued by it, I’m more inspired by exploring it. So to have that being presented to me as an opportunity, to be able to dive into a character like Callie was so exciting. And the writer Tawni O’Dell was there watching the film last night with us. It’s terrifying when you’ve adapted a novel for the screen to have the novelist there watching it, but the fact that she was so excited by it and wanted to tell everyone that she was excited was wonderful! That felt so good. We didn’t destroy it!
JK: Did you have time to rehearse or discuss the characters at length before the shoot?
JM: A little bit, not a ton. It was nice to be able to talk through stuff, to have a sense of where we were heading energetically in every scene instead of just getting on set and being like ‘ok, well let’s figure this out now.’ We shot in 23 days and there’s always a time crush on films like this and any bit of extra time to prepare I think is helpful, just to know that we’re aiming in the same direction when you get there.
JK: There’s a powerful moment in the film where Juliette Lewis’s character addresses the child abuse that’s occurred in the family and she says something like ‘how do you talk about that? You can’t talk about that.’
JM: It’s so devastating that moment.
JK: When it comes to child abuse and its consequences, I think it’s something that is rarely spoken about. I wondered if you could say something about that aspect of the film and the research that you did.
AP: I think with some of the subject matter that we deal with in the film it has to be handled in a careful way. If you take my character Harley, you can’t draw blood from a stone, you have to take time to understand a human being, to understand their trauma, understand where they’re coming from. It’s a delicate process. While doing press for this film, someone asked if I had ever been in therapy myself and I said ‘no, I’ve never been in therapy. I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have friends and family that I can talk to about stuff.’ What’s amazing about therapy though is that you have someone who’s distanced, detached from what you are attached to and when you have something that is distanced you can have a greater understanding. I think in terms of creating a bigger movement you have to take baby steps and I think with this film even if it raises a tiny bit of awareness that’s all that matters, the tiny bit of awareness that it will bring. You just have to take these baby steps, it can’t be giant leaps, and I hope that we’ve managed to create a little bit of awareness that can maybe help a cause greater than being a creative film.
JM: There’s something really powerful about putting issues like this in a fictional story because it gives people watching an opportunity to experience empathy for the circumstances in a different way. If you’re dealing with someone in real life one on one, you don’t necessarily know their backstory, you don‘t know what they’re going through, you don’t know their side of the story. I really believe that the beginning of change always starts with empathy. When you have a project like Back Roads that really presents all these different perspectives and the domino effect of the abuse in all of these people’s lives and all of the tragedies that unfold because of the abuse, you start to see things from the various characters’ perspectives you go ‘oh shoot, I could have judged that person for doing that, but now I see why.’ You kind of dive inside them in a certain way because you have this fictional platform to be able to present those perspectives. I think that’s a really powerful way of inspiring empathy and awareness and I think that is really the spark that starts to lead us towards change ultimately. I was really moved by that having seen the movie for the first time last night. I thought ‘this is really powerful to be a part of.’
Nicola: That’s honestly my favourite thing about acting. When you meet someone you think you know what’s going on, say they’re rude to you or whatever, but you never really know what’s going on in someone’s head or what happened to them that day or what happened to them growing up. When you get to play a character like all these fractured people, you get to dive into their minds and find empathy with them and find out what’s going on in their heads. And on a film like this you only have two or three takes to do it, so when you have such intense scenes there’s pressure, but I loved that because it made me just go for it. You just have to give it your all and just do it.
JK: We never see the father in a flashback, just a photograph. How intentional was that to keep him out of the film, I imagine you were guided by the novel too.
JM: He’s absent for the characters, so you’re putting the audience in the same position. I felt that with novel, the sense you’re very aware of the father’s absence, his presence is there by not being there. I think that there’s something really powerful about him being excluded in the film as well, because that really makes the audience feel even more connected to the characters because his absence is what’s put all this in motion in the first place.
JK: Alex, there must have been a lot of similar decisions for you in terms of elements to leave out, for the audience to imagine.
AP: Yes, for instance the scene with me and Nicola, the day after, when we wake up together. I could have easily put in an abstract sex scene, but I didn’t want to take away from her performance. We actually shot something that suggested them being together, but when I put that in the film and watched it as a whole your mind is still thinking ‘what was that? They had sex?’ It’s a distraction and your focus on Nicola’s performance wouldn’t be as intense as it is when we took that out. That intensity of focusing on characters goes away. I could have made a two and half hour movie, but I made an hour and 49 minute movie because I didn’t need those extra twenty minutes of justification. I think the story is rich enough and I think the father figure is a higher being and a higher message and the exposition of talking about him is not just talking about a character, it’s talking about something that is painful, that connects everyone.
There are a lot creative choices, like unfortunately there was an actor who played Callie’s husband who was in the film and I felt the need to cut the character in order to less complicate our understanding of the dynamic between Callie and Harley. There was already enough richness between our characters. It created an ominous, dreamlike sensation between these two characters. What you have to understand is that from a sexual and just a relationship and connecting point of view when you first meet these characters, is that they already know each other. She has this disfigurement in her emotional life, she’s a hurt woman and you can tell that in the first scene. That’s hard to do in a film because you’re not breaking down anything, you’re going straight to a point where she’s trying to hide, I think that’s quite magical how Jen played that. And from Harley’s point of view, his journey of being a broken man and when he runs to Callie’s house, not to justify anything, but he’s searching for grounding. When we have sex, yes we have this ethereal kind of out-of-body experience after we’ve climaxed, but as we’re actually having sex there’s something very grounding in that reality, there’s something quite connecting and he’s looking for love, looking for connection. You can’t help who you fall in love with, you can’t help the sensations that you feel and they’re immediate and you either act on them or you don’t, they happen or they don’t happen and so for me that was his grounding.
JK: Alex, could you talk a bit about your vision for the look of the film. One really striking scene that I loved was when the two girls are looking out of the window at the boyfriend leaving and it’s so beautifully framed. I know you had a great cinematographer on board, Jarin Blaschke who worked on The Witch.
AP: In that scene that’s my brother, the boyfriend leaving! He couldn’t make it to the world premiere though, even though he thinks he’s the star!
JM: Well, his ass was very well lit! You lit that ass like I’ve never seen! (Laughter)
AP: (Laughs) You’ve got to support the arse, brother!
AP: I always came from the instinct of wanting to do long takes. One of my favourite openings to a film is the original Funny Games. Michael Haneke does these amazing scenes where you’re watching and no one is in the frame. When I watched that film as a young man I was so immersed in it, I was trying to find what was going on. It was a rarity for me watching films, especially European films, where actors would leave the frame and you were just left with the aesthetic of wherever you are at.
Jarin, our cinematographer, I have to give him full credit, I love the man! We had talked very deeply about the psyche of the characters and wanting to remove them, to distance them, and doing that by shooting them through glass or having objects in the way. So you’re distancing yourself from the character, but by distancing yourself you become more intuitive about what they’re doing, so you are having a reaction to them personally instead of having a reaction to what is going on and so that’s really down to Jarin, and how he positioned the camera behind glass.
Back Roads opens in New York at The Roxy Cinema on Thursday 6th December and at the following US theatres on Friday 7th December Monica Film Center, Los Angeles; Tower City Cinema, Cleveland; Plaza Theater, Atlanta; Facets Theater, Chicago; Barnstorm, The Villages, FL; Icon Cinema, Colorado Springs; Emagine Lakeville, Minneapolis; Galazy Highland, Austin and Cherry Hill 24, Philadelphia. Back Roads is also available in the US on digital and VOD from Friday 7th December.