How We Got Away With It is a drama/thriller told through the eyes of a young man who responds violently to an unexpected tragedy. So much for the logline. What we set out to accomplish was a demonstration that over time repressing destructive, complex secrets will eventually drive the choices we feel compelled to make. What these characters knew and when they knew it, what they did or did not do about it, and why they do what they do now, are not presented simplistically. Their truth is in their actions, their behavior- not necessarily in their conversations.
It was McCaleb Burnett (“Mac” to his friends) who first approached me about getting involved with this project. He and his co-writer, Jeff Barry, had already been through a couple disappointing fits and starts. My first screenplay, The Hard Easy, also a “crime film,” had been made with a great cast (Bruce Dern, Vera Farmiga, Henry Thomas, Peter Weller) so it seemed natural for them to approach me about their next step. As Mac and I were living in LA at the time, and Jeff was living in NYC, Mac and I got to work on a rewrite. I felt we needed to delve into a deeper emotional thrust than what was in the earlier draft, and I also saw an opportunity for a structure that could support a mystery-thriller-noir, if you will. In time, Mac and I were both living back in NYC, and all three of us got to work on finalizing the screenplay. What we wound up with was essentially a “coup,” driven by revenge and murder that are driven by secrets and denial. We focused on behavior and subtext rather than overt dialogue. It was ambitious, to say the least.
Then I had to come up with a way to shoot the story that would also serve our very limited budget. I had the pleasure of seeing Mean Streets at the NY DGA followed by a Q&A with the director, Martin Scorsese. Someone asked him if he’d used a visual template for his low budget film. He mentioned Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. I made sure to watch them, asap. What struck me about both those films was the eye-level camera, which served to subtly bring the viewer, almost voyeuristically, close to the characters and events. Other films started to come to mind, mostly the European crime thrillers of the 1960’s & ‘70’s, and specifically those by Jean Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic). Much of Melville’s visual style was similar: eye-level and straightforward. Whether that was for budgetary reasons or not was irrelevant. I could take that for inspiration, but not break the bank with a lot of unnecessary, time-consuming camera movement. I had my template.
Jeff came through with family help up in his hometown of Rochester, NY; free lodging for the cast in a family cabin, and the local La Quinta Inn for the crew and myself (the free breakfast was a huge draw). Jeff’s maternal grandfather granted us use of his house as our main location. Jeff’s father (Jeff Sr.) is a restaurateur and he supplied those locations, and generously fed the entire company at cost. Some of the cast was in place (McCaleb and Jeff always intended to portray "Henry" and "Will", respectively) since early on they wrote some of the roles with these actors in mind; Jacob H Knoll ("Ronnie") and Luke Roberston ("Dallas"). Cassie Freeman ("Anne") was an acquaintance of Jeff’s from Yale and was well known for her work in Kinyarwanda, and with Chris Rock (I Think I Love My Wife) and Spike Lee (Inside Man). Happily, Mikal Evans ("Leigh"), Brianne Moncrief ("Elizabeth") and Richard Bekins ("Walter") all agreed to audition and were cast immediately. Line Producer Roweena Mackay came through Jeff and UPM/1stAD Jennifer Blood I knew as a Stage Manager from my time as an actor on As the World Turns. Director of Photography Michael Belcher was recommended by a friend of Jeff’s, and Michael assembled a first rate team of young, energetic and dedicated technical artists. Everyone was willing to leave home for a few weeks for virtually no pay on this risky project. We could not have done it without all of them and their selfless, dedicated work.