When you hear about a movie that stars Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Josh Lucas (“Glory Road,” “Poseidon”) and fleshes out its ensemble with Morena Baccarin (“V,” “Firefly”), Michael Cudlitz (“Southland”), James Van Der Beek (“Dawson’s Creek”), and half a dozen other faces that are instantly recognizable from television and motion pictures, it’s hard not to get excited when you’re pitched the opportunity to speak with the director (Anders Anderson) and the cinematographer (Andy Steinman).
But what happens if, before you see the film, you read on the website RottenTomatoes.com that it’s actually earning the much dreaded 0% rating on the Tomatometer?
Well, if you’re me, then the first thing you do after that is actually watch the film yourself…and, personally, I liked it.
If I had to guess about the reason “Stolen” has received so many sneering reviews, it’s that it bears striking similarities to a couple of high-rated but critically snubbed police procedurals currently airing on network television. But, hey, I like those shows, and I also like the actors in “Stolen,” so if you’re of the same mindset, then you’ll probably like the film, too.
Still, before I got off the line with Messrs. Anderson and Steinman, I felt obliged to buckle up and ask them what they thought about the film’s Tomatometer rating….and, no, the line didn’t go dead immediately after I asked it.
Bullz-Eye: Hi, guys! Good to talk with you.
Anders Anderson: Hey, Will, how are you doing?
Andy Steinman: Hey, Will, nice to talk with you.
BE: Now, I hope you guys don’t mind if I ask you to identify yourselves before you answer questions, just because your voices sound kind of similar.
AA: Yeah, no problem.
AS: They’re actually quite different, but when you’re around someone that long, they start melding into one.
BE: (Laughs) That’s probably what it is. Well, I guess my first question is to ask how you guys first began your collaboration. Had you been friends prior to this project?
AA: Yeah, we had, but I’ll let Andy tell this tale. He’s told it many times.
AS: Yeah, we first met on a short in Santa Fe, NM, that Anders was acting and…I think you were producing it, too, yeah?
AS: And I was a cinematographer, and I came out there, and we just clicked. Talking to him about whatever we had to do with the camera, talking to him about performance, talking to him about movies that we like, how to make the short the best it could be. We just kind of hit it off on what we wanted to do in our careers when we were done with this short, so we started talking about possibly forming a company and trying to do movies that we wanted to do. And it was just one of those things where we talked to each other and asked, “Well, what do we do next?” And the answer was always, “Well, we’ve got to make a feature.” And so we started talking about, “How do we make a feature? What do we do?” And we just started that process, step by step, of trying to get a movie made: pulling our resources and connections, however little they were, to try and get a feature off the ground. And we became friends all at the same time.
BE: So how did Glenn Taranto’s script cross your path? Did you know him, or was it pitched to you?
AS: We basically contacted everyone we knew. (Laughs) Friends, family, any type of business connection, and asked, “Does anyone know anyone who has a script? Does anyone have a script? We’re looking for material. We’re just looking for something that we can get behind.” And a production company that we’d worked with in the past basically said, “Here, we have a couple of scripts that we like. Why don’t you take a read?” And, lo and behold, Glenn’s script – which was originally called “Box in the Box” – showed up in front of us, and instantly we knew that something was there was that was a great vehicle to get actors, to get performers to be in our first film. Being first-timers, we knew that a lot of this had to be…we knew that we had to get some really good cast behind us to kind of help get the movie out there, and we thought that script would do that. So we just kind of took it and ran with it.
BE: There are a ton of familiar faces in the film, some of which weren’t nearly as familiar when you made the film, I guess.
AA: (Laughs) Definitely.
AS: Yeah, I mean, having access to the talent that we did was such a blessing for us. We were, obviously just so lucky for our first film out. It really started with Josh, who was the first person we got, and it was just such an amazing experience to contact Josh. Really, what it was was that we knew someone who said, “I have Josh’s phone number, and when you’re ready to go, I can basically call Josh for you, but that’s all I can do.” We said, “Okay!” So being the first time filmmakers that we were, and nobody really knew us from anything, we decided that we had to show someone like Josh what we were about, what we wanted the movie to be. In a sense, we knew that we had to prove to people that we could get a movie off the ground, or at least to show them what our vision was. So Anders and I, we sat down at a computer with Final Cut Pro and cut together a bunch of stills, movie clips, soundtracks, we took ideas from painting, and we put together some sort of montage piece that we could then send along with the script to Josh and tell and show him, “This is our vision of what we want to achieve, and this is what we think the movie can be.” And we think that was pretty instrumental in his choice to at least call us back. And once we got him on the phone, we all discussed where the movie would go, how he had an affinity for one of the characters, and how it related to him and one of his family members, and we just hit off. And that really started a process where we could now start talking to other people and start getting other cast members, and it just snowballed from there. It was just fantastic.
BE: Who was the most surprising person, in your opinion, that you were able to get at the time?
AA: I’ll jump in here, because everything Andy says, I’m, like, “Yep, that’s how the story goes.” (Laughs) I think the most surprising person…well, I think for me the most surprising person was Jon Hamm and his sort of rising stardom. That was something that…you know, the most interesting aspect of it was, like Andy said, our first contact was with Josh Lucas, and obviously Josh, being in “Poseidon,” “Stealth,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” being in these big movies, you’re, like, “Wow, there’s our rock star, our superstar, and I can’t believe we got this guy in this film.” He’s amazing to work with, anyway, because he brings so much passion to a project, no matter what it is, and he understands filmmaking really, really well, as an actor but also just as a storyteller. So Josh was really helpful. But I think the big surprise was that, at this point, Jon Hamm was working on “Mad Men,” and they were just finishing up their first season, and our casting director, Stephanie Corsalini, came to us and said, “Look, you’ve got to meet up with this guy Jon Hamm, I think he’ll be perfect against Josh.” And we were really looking for that guy that was going to be strong against Josh’s character. Even though they don’t share the same time period and stuff, they’re the roles of the two leads, in a sense, and they need to be able to match well and not be overpowered by the other one. And I think what was so great was to first meet Jon Hamm…well, we met him at a Starbucks downstairs from our casting session, and basically we talked to him for about two seconds and were, like, “This is the guy.”
I think the surprise for me was really just finding someone who was a fresh new face in many ways, that really brought something to the table that was exciting for all of us, and then being able to see what he was able to bring to the table with all of his acting chops and everything like that. That was one of the most surprising things, because in a sense, he was really coming to light and coming to the forefront, and we were able to get to him at that point of, like, his rising stardom, which was really, really fun and interesting for us. I think we really enjoyed seeing Jon and his success and everything post-“Stolen.” To me, that’s one of the biggest things. I know another one…and, Andy, you might want to talk about this…but Andy and I always talk about the surprise of James Van Der Beek and the work he was able to pull off. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, Andy…?
AS: Yeah, in particular, with the movies that he’s done in the past, from “Rules of Attraction” to “Varsity Blues,” they’re so different, his roles. So we knew that if we could get a little bit of what he had in “Rules of Attraction,” to get that kind of sinister feeling for that character who spans both time periods, where Jon’s character and Josh’s character do not. He in a sense brought something in between the two, and James went toe to toe with Jon and Josh, in makeup and out of makeup and in different time periods, and he just blew us away. He really did. We knew he was going to be really great, but the subtlety in his performance in playing within the makeup and the subtlety, even, when he’s playing in the 1950s era…it’s something that, when you can see it in the editing room, you’re just, like…I mean, everything he’s bringing absolutely was a surprise. It was fantastic.
AA: Yeah, and, y’know, something we haven’t talked about really much…and, as you can tell when we start talking about our actors, we loved everybody on the show, basically… (Laughs) …but other actors that stand out a lot – and, unfortunately, for consideration of the project as a whole, we had to sort of leave a little bit of their performances on the cutting room floor – were our kids. We had Jimmy Bennett, who played John Wakefield. You had Christian Bender, who played one of his brothers, and you had another kid named Graham Phillips. Graham Phillips was a huge surprise to us. He played Mark Wakefield, the oldest brother of the 1950s kids. There were a few scenes where we were really playing with the relationship between Josh and the older brother, in the sense of passing on this responsibility. I remember there was this one scene which was a very, very emotional scene where Josh and Graham are talking to each other, and Graham breaks down crying and everything, and Graham nailed the complexity of this scene of a kid who’s in a period of transition, his teenage years, and having to take on this responsibility. Andy, I don’t know if you remember the tractor scene…
AS: (Scoffs at the suggestion that the might’ve forgotten it)
AA: …where it was so well performed, and yet the hardest part was that we had to cut it down so much, because we had to keep the story moving in the direction it was going. And, yet, it was this moment where you’re, like, “God, I wish that we could keep this, and it really is a shame that we can’t,” because the performances from Graham were just beautiful. You see a lot of Jimmy Bennett, and he did such a wonderful job, but the big surprise was the depth that Graham brought to his character. Not being able to use that was really a shame, and it was hard for Andy and I when we were first looking at that and knew that we kind of had to move past that scene and keep the story moving. So I think our kids were a big surprise, too, because it’s not easy. You only get four or five hours a day with the kids, and they came in and just were absolutely fantastic. So I think that was another big surprise, how good they were.
BE: You’ve got a lot of TV series who cover the same kind of ground as “Stolen.” When you approached this material, did you do so with a particular eye toward trying to make it stand out cinematically?
AA: Yeah, we definitely did. I’ll give my own opinion…because I’m sure Andy has his, too…but that was one of the biggest things we were looking at. Our first thing about the script that we really liked and that we really wanted to push was, “Look, this is not ‘Cold Case.’ This is not what you see on TV. We need to bring much more of the cinematic elements to this story, and we also have to…” We knew that we were playing within the mystery / thriller genre, but we also saw such a deep story of drama between all of our characters, especially the story of two fathers who lose their sons. Our big thing was trying to infuse as much dramas possible and get away from any sort of “Cold Case” stuff. For one, we didn’t really have the budget to deal with it, but for another, it wasn’t really that important to the story in the sense that it’s much more about the emotional ride of the characters, not about finding evidence and how they process that evidence. It wasn’t this flashy sort of film that we were trying to make. We were trying to make it much more of a character arc and tell deeper stories. So it was a tough balance trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we give people a little bit of ‘Cold Case,’ so that they can buy it and at least go, ‘Okay, cool, I understand that,’ yet at the same time move on to, ‘Look, we’re trying to tell a story much more cinematically in the sense of character arcs and character direction’?” I think that was something that we really worked hard at, and I’m pretty proud of that balance that we found. Andy, what are your thoughts?
AS: Yeah, it was always our goal, from the very beginning, to acknowledge the issues and similarities to something like “Cold Case” but say, “This is a movie, this isn’t a TV show, so what do we have to do to show that it’s a movie? What do we have to bring to it?” And we talked about transitions, and we obviously talked about performances, with sound effects, dealing with the composer, and all of the things that we could bring to it in addition to what the story really was. To get into those arcs, to get into those characters that you don’t have the opportunity to see in a TV show. Because in a TV show, you have characters that people already know, and then you bring in different clues and different little mysteries for that hour. For us, we had characters that you don’t know, and you don’t really care about the clues as much. You care about the characters, and that’s what we wanted in this feature. And we’re definitely proud that we went into that direction. I mean, it was our first time out and with a low budget, so that was how we had to go. But we’re happy with the results.
BE: Now, Andy, you’ve worked as director of photography and camera operator on quite a few other films. Is there anything on your resume that you think really stands out that you think people might not have seen? Because I know that, for the most part, they’re kind of smaller films.
AS: Gosh, there are so many, it’s just hard to remember. (Thinks about it for a moment) That’s a great question. People have seen some of the second-unit work I did on the original “Saw,” but…y’know, I don’t remember! I’ve worked on this movie for so long, to be honest, that I’m kind of hard pressed to come up with something from all of the movies that I’d done before this one. I mean, this one…it pretty much changed the game doing this one.
BE: Well, of course, IMDB is always accurate, as you know…
AS: (Laughs) …and not at all easy to change things.
BE: Well, sure. But they’ve currently got you guys attached to the same two projects, “The Last Territory” and “The Rise and Fall of Gabriel Pine,” so I figured I’d ask you about the status of those.
AS: The status of those is that they’re still in development. We actually have four other projects that we think are pushing further along than those two.
AS: We optioned a book called “Dickfish,” by R.S. Moore, which we’re looking to pitch into a series, and we’re going to do the pitch really soon here. We’re just finishing up the treatment, the pitch book, as of right now. And we have another original series that we’re working on that we’re going to pitch, and a feature that we optioned called “Immunity,” which is a suspense thriller, and then we have the big sci-fi action tentpole film that we’re working on… (Laughs) …that we’re trying to get to a studio. So those are the four that we’re really working on now. We like the idea of splitting between doing a series and doing features. We want to start venturing into that world.
BE: And as my last one… (Takes a deep breath) …I really enjoyed the film – I’m a parent, so it was easy for me to get caught up in it – but I’m just curious: I went to RottenTomatoes.com and, uh, it has a ridiculously low rating. Are you shocked, or do you feel like this one of those films that’s kind of critic-proof?
AS: You know, Andy and I, from the very beginning, have kind of been… (Considers his choice of phrase) We have been a little shocked with how people have reviewed this movie, because either people really love it or they expected more from the film, and…for us, we always look at the movie as having this wonderful energy about it and a blessing-or-curse sort of thing that goes along with it, and I think a lot of it comes from people’s expectations when they see the cast. They go, “Wow, what a phenomenal cast! And really interesting subject matter, too…? This movie should be this, this, and this!” And, yet, people should remember that they’re looking at a low-budget film. That’s not an excuse in the sense of the filmmaking. I mean, we’re extremely proud of the movie and think it’s actually exactly the film that we were looking to make. But we’re wondering, like, “What were your expectations coming in? Were you expecting to see a ‘Bourne Supremacy’ meets ‘Changeling’ or something?” (Laughs) Like, the expectations are, I think, very surprising when people write a review for the film more in the negative light, because it’s kind of, like, “Well, I don’t know what kind of movie you were trying to watch.” But, again, like you had brought up before, it’s almost like they wanted to see a “Cold Case” and ended up getting a “Sweet Hereafter” or something like that. And it’s, like, “Well, that’s not what…” I mean, the movie’s much more along the lines of…we don’t care about the evidence. The evidence is important, but what’s really important in driving the story are these two fathers who lose their children.
So, y’know, I think it’s more of an expectations issue, because when we go film festivals and people sit down and watch the movie, just your regular general audience members, they absolutely love the film. And they see it the same way we look at it. And by watching it, I think, as a movie and not trying to watch it as a critic who is looking for a certain thing…I think that’s where a lot of the criticism falls into this more negative light: because they’re looking at it from a different perspective and not actually watching it as a story but as something to critically take apart. And we’re kind of, like, “Well, that’s not what this movie is about.” You know? I don’t know how to describe it any better. I don’t know, Andy, if you have any other thoughts, but the thing for us is that, at first, it’s kind of, like, “Okay, well, wow, that’s kind of shocking to us,” but the great thing is that the people who see it at a film festival or go to the movies and actually see it or whatever, we’ve gotten nothing but people really loving the movie. And we go, “Well, that’s cool, because that’s who we make the movie for.” We make it for the general audience member. We didn’t make this movie to become critically acclaimed and get 5 stars from some high-end critic. So to us, that’s sort of the feeling, and that’s the way that we look at it. Again, it’s just something we found pretty interesting, but the great thing is that people who watch it as an audience member absolutely love the movie, and that’s what important to us. Andy, I don’t know if you want to add anything.
AS: Yeah! (Laughs) I mean, we spent our energy working on doing the stuff that we can control, and to the extent that we could control the movie, we’re quite proud of it. We can’t control critics. Just as much as one critic might dislike it, three more actually like it. You bring up one critic that might not like it, and you can come up with one who does. So we’re, like, “Okay, cool, I’m glad so-and-so liked it. Oh, so-and-so didn’t like it? Whatever.” (Laughs) You know? We can only stand by it and be proud of the work that we did. And, yeah, it’s sometimes surprising who liked it and sometimes surprising who didn’t like it, so we just kind of take it with a grain of salt, move on to our next project, and be proud and stand behind this one.
AA: Yeah, and the good thing is that people are very split: they either really liked it or they didn’t at all. And we’re, like, “Hey, that’s great, because at least we know where we stand.” It’s not a film that sort of gets squashed in the middle somewhere. So that’s a really nice thing: the movie at least has some sort of stance on something where people can kind of go, “I really liked this,” or, “I didn’t.” And that’s interesting. I’d like to explore that further as an artist, to kind of know what people really thought, but you’ll never be able to get that. But at the same time, it is nice to know that this is this sort of polarization of the film, which is pretty interesting to us as artists. We just like that people do enjoy it.
BE: And just in closing, not to belabor the comparison, but you’d be hard pressed to find a TV critic who admits to liking “Cold Case,” and yet it’s in its seventh season.
AA: Exactly! (Laughs) That is absolutely a valid point!
(NOTE: This trailer has been on YouTube for so long that it dates back to when it was still called “Stolen Lives,” but it is indeed the same film, as you can clearly see.)