Cowriters, codirectors, and brothers Adam and Aaron Nee reimagine Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as adults in this brilliant, imaginative, and hilarious romp. Based entirely on Twain’s novels, with 30 percent of the dialogue plucked from Twain’s pen, the film retains all of Twain’s humor while translating his social commentary into a thoroughly modern context. Adam Nee and Kyle Gallner star as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, respectively, costarring with Melissa Benoist as Becky Thatcher and Stephen Lang as Injun Joe. •Availability: Opens January 15 in cities throughout the US and Canada. Click here for theater listings near you. Also available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and XBox. •Thanks to Nina Baron, PMKBNC, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Adam, according to your bio, you have eight brothers and sisters. All of you were illegally homeschooled, and that’s where you first encountered Twain. First of all, is that true, and can you talk about your first impressions of Twain?
AN: Sometimes I think I’m painting some kind of Norman Rockwell-esque picture that feels like it’s fabricated, but it truly isn’t. Our parents were just great parents, and they were good at sharing great art and great storytelling with us. My dad would read books to us at night—Treasure Island and all kinds of different things—but the most memorable for me was the Mark Twain stories of Tom and Huck. We would sit at his feet on this nasty yellow shag carpet while he read, and he would do all the voices.
DT: With the dialects?
AN: He would do all the dialects. It was so funny, because my dad’s not an actor at all. He’s a really good writer, though he didn’t pursue it, but he was an actor for his kids. It was what instilled that love of Twain, and it became a piece of nostalgia for me, because it was a part of me being a six-, seven-, eight-year-old kid sitting with my brothers and sisters at my dad’s feet.
DT: What was it about Twain’s writing that captured your imagination?
AN: Several things. Part of the magic of Twain is that you feel like you’re reading this fun, silly, funny, almost frivolous thing, but the truth is it has so much substance that’s buried right underneath amazing dialogue and buffoonish characters. It’s like Twain is playing a trick on you. I feel like that’s what gives it this lasting power. Even as a child you realize it’s not frivolous. Even as a child, it has an impact. But some of the stuff is just natural; he set up a world where you have Tom Sawyer, who’s always coming across as the good kid but you know he’s up to stuff—
DT: Like winning the Bible with other people’s tickets—
AN: —and as the good kid sitting there on the shag carpet, I’m daydreaming about being a rapscallion. Someone asked me if I related more to Tom or Huck, and I said, “I must be Tom, because I feel like I want to be Huck.” I feel like that’s what makes somebody a Tom. If you want to be Huckleberry Finn, it means you’re probably a Tom Sawyer.
DT: But Huckleberry Finn wanted to be Tom.
AN: Exactly. That’s the crazy thing about it.
DT: Kyle, what attracted you to the project?
KG: The script was like nothing I had ever read before. The tone was so strange, and the characters were so funny. I thought, ‘How is this ever going to work?’ Then, when I walked into the audition room and heard Adam bring it to life, I thought, ‘Oh, this is the movie they’re going to make.’ It all came together as we started shooting and we got the band of robbers together and I saw Injun Joe for the first time. It was just as fun as I wanted it to be. It was cops and robbers. I had to make a choice between doing this and another movie. I said, “I want to play cops and robbers for a month. I want to run around and be Huck Finn.”
DT: Did you walk into the audition familiar with Twain?
KG: I was not superfamiliar with Twain. I’d seen the movies as a kid growing up, but in terms of really knowing the books, I’d only read one of them when I was really, really young. After I found out I got the part, I thought about reading everything real quick, but I said to myself, ‘I know this is very Twain-esque and I know it has stuff from the book, but rather than confuse myself, I’ll just come in with a fresh view on this and have Adam and Aaron guide the way.’ Rather than letting the books have any influence, I was going to let these guys take the wheel and help me.
AN: That actually helped. A lot of actors who auditioned for Huck were so familiar with Huck that it seemed like they were doing an impression of what they thought we were looking for. Kyle came in and was just very Kyle, and we said, That’s how we see Huck. Kyle was just doing his thing, and it helped tremendously that he wasn’t trying to guess what sort of Huckleberry Finn we were looking for.
KG: That was the other thing: In the film they’re not kids anymore, so how do you see him having grown up? What do you want? Where do you think he’s been the last ten plus years, and what influenced their lives? I really let Aaron and Adam guide everything, and any question I had, they could answer. It helped not being an impression of what I thought this guy should be. We really created a unique voice for these characters.
DT: I read a number of reviews, and I feel like people aren’t necessarily getting the film.
AN: They either really do, or they really don’t. The New York Times or Paste or Slant write the most beautiful reviews, and I’m so happy that people get it, then the next minute I seem to have offended a reviewer by making this movie. This film is going to split people. It’s not for everybody, because we’re trying to do something that’s very tonally specific, that is unique and fresh and is not your run-of-the-mill movie. I feel that’s what makes it special. There are going to be people who love it the way they love Bottle Rocket, and there will be people who are not in on the joke. That’s just the way it is, and I have to come to terms with that as the filmmaker.
KG: I think people expect something more out of the movie, rather than just being able to sit back and enjoy the fact that it’s a fun movie.
DT: But it’s not just a fun movie.
KG: It’s a smart movie.
DT: That’s the irony of it…they want something more only because they’re not getting what’s actually there. It’s so weird.
KG: It opens with that quote—
AN: “If you try to find meaning in this, you will be punished.”
KG: It’s right there in front of you.
AN: But that’s the beautiful trick of Twain. He’s saying that, but his writing is packed with meaning, though we don’t want you to focus on that. We want you to just take the movie in. What I’m most proud of about this movie is that it has shelf life. You can watch it two, three times, and the third time you say, ‘Gosh, this is Jorge’s story at the end of the day, and we’re just not seeing it from his perspective.’ [Jorge is an illegal immigrant who takes the fall after being inadvertently pulled into Tom’s foolish heist.] This is the story of an immigrant being totally walked all over by these selfish white people who have white people problems and are getting into trouble because of their selfishness—it’s the story of this immigrant who’s being treated like a second-class citizen. Or you can look at it from a different perspective…there are so many different ways to watch this movie, and so many different lines or layers of jokes. We didn’t want it to be a bubble gum movie you watch once and say, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ It is fun…but we were trying to emulate what Twain does so beautifully, where it’s just so layered that it lasts. We aren’t anywhere near Twain’s level of brilliance, but I do feel like we’ve come closer to his tone than any of the other adaptations I’ve seen of Twain.
DT: What amazed me is that you guys were really able to capture the personalities of Huck and Tom. They’re sort of the opposite sides of the same coin. You have this world-weary Huck, who had a really hard life but who is very practical. He knows how to escape from his abusive father, he knows how to survive in the wild with Jim, and you have Tom, who’s this wildly imaginative, fanciful guy, and they have this totally symbiotic relationship. That came out beautifully in the movie. Can you guys talk about that aspect of making the film?
AN: It was one of our biggest fears going in. We knew from the beginning that we wanted the actor who played Huck to be the most sobering character in the film. He was going to be the heart, so we knew we had to cast somebody who could carry the movie and carry the emotional arc of the movie but not make it feel as if you’re watching two different movies. We already had Matthew Gray Gubler and Hannibal Buress attached, so we had two really funny, comedic actors, but we were very concerned about finding an actor who could make this feel grounded but not like you were watching a superintense drama where there was no room for the comedy. That’s why Kyle was such a blessing. He’s very real, very natural.
We knew that if we didn’t get the tone right with Tom, the movie wouldn’t work. We had zero financing, so we were making offers to guys, but nobody took the part. Then financing started coming together, and we heard some really funny actors who would have been really good, but we kept getting passes. People didn’t know us, and I think it was scary because on the page the tone is very strange.
We had the idea ten years ago and of course I had always wanted to do it, but I didn’t even want to have that conversation, because I knew we couldn’t make the movie with me as the lead. When we just weren’t finding the Tom that we had been picturing, I started to feel like maybe I should rethink it. This movie has been such a dream for such a long time that I didn’t want to go out and make a version that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
KG: You would have been so bummed out on set.
AN: Aaron [cowriter and codirector, as well as Adam’s brother] said, “Adam, you’re kidding yourself if you think you don’t want to play this part.” He knew it made sense because I had been living with this voice for so long. I told him the producers would never go for it, but Matthew Gray Gubler, who had come on as a producer, called me and said, “You’re going to regret it if you don’t do it. No one else is going to do this the way you want it to be done.” I’m thinking, ‘I want this movie to get seen, and I don’t know if Adam Nee from Drunk History is going to get the movie seen,’ but when Kyle and Matthew both thought it was an interesting idea, we called up Hannibal Buress’s and Melissa Benoist’s agents and said, “Adam’s going to play Tom. Are these people still in?” When they said yes, I knew it was OK for me to play Tom.
DT: That’s a great story. You guys went into preproduction with no money in the bank. How did that work?
AN: Holy cow. Three weeks into preproduction, we went into the line producer’s office, and he asked, “Is this really a movie, or have I been working for free?” You could just see it in his eyes. But our main investor told us to just keep going, and that gave me the confidence to go ahead. Then one week into shooting, the producers called me into a meeting at lunch and said, “We need more money, who’s willing to bring it in?”
It was crazy. I feel like making a movie, making a small movie especially, is always an insane experience and is always so vulnerable. You’re always on the brink of failure, and that’s kind of the amazing rogue nature of it that’s so exciting. You’re doing this crazy thing that shouldn’t work, and the fact that the movie even gets shot is mind-blowing. When it turns out good, that’s just gravy.
DT: Many people describe The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as children’s books. I have to confess that I absolutely did not get into them as a kid, but your movie got me into Twain as an adult.
AN: That’s an amazing compliment.
DT: So I’ve been reading them recently, and I’m stunned by the pertinence of their social commentary. Turning Jim into an illegal alien and Injun Joe into a white guy who relates to Indian culture—was it a cerebral process for you, or was it instinctive? Talk about how much of the script is Twain’s, and what your writing process was.
AN: It was such a long journey, because the idea came a long time ago. One of the things that really helped the project—a lot of this tribute goes to Aaron—is when I started to let it be its own thing a little bit more. I was so worked up about it being a one hundred percent adaptation [of Twain], almost word for word, but making them grown-ups. There’s a lot we ended up losing, like the feuding families from the Huckleberry Finn book. The duke and the king were going to be two of the main characters in the movie; Jim was going to be a black man who was wrongfully accused of a crime and had just gotten out of prison and was roped in with Tom and Huck. He was going to take the fall, showing the difficulty of being a black man and someone who has been punished for a crime he didn’t commit. But honestly, the idea of trying to modernize slavery was daunting, and I also felt like there is no modern-day slavery to illustrate how dark and awful that was, so we started to think of it in terms of what is a second-class citizen today? What is a good example of somebody who is not treated as an equal? Living in California, you experience the plight of the immigrant so much that that became an exciting story to tell as well. I would say the movie is 30 percent verbatim dialogue out of the books, and every single scene is out of the books. Even the pawnshop robbery is pulled from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where they go around and raid picnics, and it’s all a failure—
DT: The Sunday school picnics!
AN: The pawnshop is a very exaggerated adaptation of the band of robbers being a failure. We take off and go from there, and just do Tom Sawyer, the Injun Joe story line, the treasure story line, and the Becky stuff. It’s all based on the books. We’ve talked to some Twain scholars, and they’re so excited about it, and that’s so exciting for me, because people who really know the books see it all and love it, and people who aren’t familiar with the books at all can enjoy it as its own thing. That’s what I hoped would happen.
KG: It doesn’t really exclude anybody.
DT: How do you want people to view the film?
AN: Often. I just want this movie to find those kids and grown-ups who are hungry for it. This is a rare movie, and there’s going to be a lot of people who won’t like it, and that’s fine with me, as long as it goes to the people who hunger for it. I always imagined our target audience was going to be for the eighteen-to-thirty-four male demo, but when I was in Wichita, Kansas, I met a sixty-three-year-old female psychologist who said it was her favorite movie she’s ever seen.
KG: It’s my little sister’s favorite movie.
AN: Because of the Twain of it all, I feel like this movie has so much more reach than I even understood myself as the writer.
DT: I was wondering how you feel about the constant comparison to Bottle Rocket?
AN: I feel the Wes Anderson comparison is really lazy, because I feel it’s, Oh, who else does weird tonal stuff? Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. I love those guys, but we didn’t set out to emulate them. The movies that we talked about when we were making this one were Boogie Nights and Dog Day Afternoon, because Dog Day Afternoon has crazy characters who say and do absurd things, and the whole reason for the heist is so crazy and wild, but it feels very grounded and real. Boogie Nights is also so funny and weird, and John C. Reilly and Mark Wahlberg are doing the music video and talking about how much they can bench-press and it’s so silly, and then William H. Macy kills himself, and Don Cheadle witnesses a murder in a doughnut shop, and you’re like, This is the same movie, and I’m OK with that. That tonal balance is admirable to me, and that’s what we were shooting for. I feel like those are bigger influences for us. Wes Anderson was a huge influence on me—I saw Bottle Rocket and Rushmore when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I thought, ‘I’m so glad this guy came along’—but we were never trying to make a Wes Anderson movie. I think there are definitely similarities and I’m glad if there are, but when Band of Robbers is compared to Bottle Rocket, it’s because that’s the first thing that pops into someone’s head.
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