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SXSW Interview: “The Overbrook Brothers” Director John Bryant

SXSW Interview: "The Overbrook Brothers" Director John Bryant

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

“The Overbrook Brothers”
Director: John Bryant. Writer: John Bryant and Jason Foxworth
Jason brings his girlfriend home for Christmas… and bad things happen. Cast: Nathan Harlan, Mark Reeb, Laurel Whitsett, Steve Zissis, John Jones [Courtesy of SXSW]

“The Overbrook Brothers” will screen in the Narrative Features Competition.

Please introduce yourself…

My name is John Bryant. I was born and raised in Austin, TX and graduated from the University of Texas. I’ve lived for short stints in Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Dallas. But, for one reason or another, I kept returning to Austin. It’s a great city. I have a brother, a step-sister, and I live with my girlfriend and two dogs. Hmmm … what else? I’m a Libra, believe in Karma, and I’m addicted to fantasy football.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

As a kid, I’d recruit my friends and we’d make little movies in Jr. High and High School. It was always something I loved and wanted to do. In college I focused on screenwriting . . . and, after college, like many other bright-eyed, ambitious twenty-three year olds, I moved to LA with dreams of becoming a successful screenwriter. And, to make a long depressing story short: I failed. Miserably.

In hindsight, that failure was a great learning experience — it taught me a really simple but important lesson: that I needed to improve my craft. And you improve by practicing and doing — not by waiting for someone else to give you permission. You make mistakes, learn from them, and hopefully get better at what you do.

So, I decided to start shooting my own short films. After learning some hard-knock lessons and going into massive credit card debt, I finally had some success. I had two short films play at Sundance and across the world in 2005 and 2006. In 2007 I produced the film “Baghead” — directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, both really good friends and mentors to me since college. That film premiered and was sold at Sundance in 2008. And, with a lot of work and hustling, I had the opportunity to direct my first feature that same year, “The Overbrook Brothers.”

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

“The Overbrook Brothers” is really an amalgamation of ideas. It’s a story about two brothers who find out they’re adopted and they go on a cross-country road trip in search of their biological parents.

Jason Foxworth (my co-writer) and I both have older brothers who tortured us relentlessly while growing up. They really enjoyed inflicting pain upon us — physically, mentally . . . emotionally. And, I think, deep down, we kind of liked it. It made us feel “special.” Like it was some sort of weird sadomasochistic relationship. I could be wrong though. I’m not sure. Maybe I suffer from some hybrid version of Stockholm syndrome where I feel a strange affection and love for those who’ve abused me.

Anyway, one day Jason and I were trading funny stories about our families and our brothers — just utterly ridiculous stuff we’d gone through. And, at some point, it just seemed like it would be a good idea to write a story about super competitive brothers who are always at “war” with each other. Sibling rivalry on steroids. So that was partly what inspired this story.

The other part, and what’s really the narrative crux of the story, was inspired by my girlfriend’s search for her biological parents a few years ago. She was adopted, her records were sealed, and she had always been curious about her biological parents. Finally, after some initial hesitation, she decided “to go looking” for them. And she ran into a lot of roadblocks and dead-ends during her search. It was really frustrating and disappointing — and strangely enough, it kind of inspired me. For whatever reason, it just seemed like these two ideas should be married together. That these two ideas had had some common ground thematically, and would be a good framework for a story.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

We did a lot of improv. A lot of handheld camera work. And, in general, we “brought the camera to the actors.” I think we only had one or two marks we laid down for the actors to hit during the entire shoot. Our mantra was, “the unexpected is good.” That was the ethic we took during the entire shoot.

The idea behind all of this was simple: trying to keep the story feeling real, so that even when a lot of crazy/ridiculous shit goes down in the story, it still feels somewhat plausible. And, hopefully, makes the funny stuff even funnier because it feels like the events are unfolding in the moment.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Well, not sure if this is “development” or “production” . . . But, shooting a feature where 1/3rd of the movie takes place inside a moving car and trying to make it interesting. That’s a huge challenge. Shooting inside a car SUCKS. It’s a technical nightmare. It makes everything 2 or 3 times more difficult. Maybe 4 times more difficult.

I think it was Garry Marshall who said, “shooting inside cars is the root canal of filmmaking.” I now understand why he feels that way.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I think there’s one true way to determine if you’re a “successful” filmmaker — that is, if you make a film that grosses over 425 million at the box office. At that point, I think you can consider yourself successful. So, I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of ever being called “a success.”

Seriously, though, I’ll be happy if I can continue to make movies that can reach an audience. The real “goal” is to keep working, keep taking chances, and hopefully create something that’s memorable. If I get to a point where I can have health insurance and I’m making movies, I’ll consider myself “successful.” Right now, I’m half way there.

What are your future projects?

I have a few projects I’ve written that I’d like to direct, but I just need to find the right home for them. That, and I’m working on a few new scripts — both comedies.

I’d also like to record a music album — even though I’m not a musician. I can beat-box. I’ve got about 1/2 the songs worked out — perhaps the stupidest, most annoying songs ever created, but they make me laugh.

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