After being seriously impressed with the trailer (see below) on Twitter, I reached out to production company Mr Pictures for a chance to discuss their latest movie Bullitt County (2018). What follows is a really interesting interview with the film’s writer and director David McCracken, who also plays one of the characters, Keaton. David discusses the challenges of setting the film in the 70s, juggling acting and directing, and why there are so many Batman references in the movie.
FF: What’s Bullitt County (2018) about, and what inspired you to write it in the first place?
DM: Bullitt County (2018) is an action thriller set in the 70s. It’s also told in kind of the manner that 70s films were told in, so it’s kind of got a slow burn at the beginning and then a big explosion of violence that kind of sets off in motion the rest of the movie and informs what you’ve previously known about the characters already. So, it was a throwback movie in a lot of ways, but it’s about 4 friends that are trying to reconnect after 10 years; they’ve gone on the Bluegrass bourbon trail and then they’ve decided to reconnect and relive the good old days, except one of them who is now a recovering alcoholic and another one’s kind of stuck in the past and kind of clueless and greedy. One of the characters is also trying to move on with the past and feels like she’s just here along for the ride. So they’ve all kind of moved on in their own ways, but are also stuck in their own ways. So, 10 years later, in ‘77, they discover that there’s a legend of buried prohibition money in Bullitt County, Kentucky (which is a real place) and then they go searching for that instead and then chaos ensues!
FF: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
DM: I was fully employed as a post production manager so it took longer than normal, I think. From the first idea, probably about a year and a half to two years… I would do it on my lunch breaks and after work and things like that, so it was very piecemeal. It was probably, all told, about two years and then obviously you rewrite when you shoot too.
FF: Why is the film set in 1977 rather than the modern day? Did you find it challenging to recreate the era (as well as some scenes in the 60s)?
DM: The first draft or two was actually set in the modern day and it just felt wrong somehow and I didn’t know really how to put my finger on it but I do know that it was annoying to deal with cell phones when you’re trying to isolate characters. You have to somehow get the cell phones out of the picture… I’d written a lot of versions to get out of that. Then Fargo (Season 2) was airing around the time that I was rewriting and it was set in the 70s and I thought ‘Oh my God, this aesthetic would work perfectly for Bullitt County (2018)’ so, why not, you know? So then, obviously, it’s a production issue of money and that kind of thing. But, luckily, ours was mostly set in small towns and the theme was already being stuck in the past. So we had already started planning on shooting things as if they were older anyway and a lot of it’s in the woods as well, and so it really didn’t affect cost much. It really mostly kept the crew on their toes to make sure that certain things weren’t in the shot, like thermostats or whatever, you know? And then the other part of it was on my part and the actors, just making sure that we didn’t use any kind of modern language.
FF: Did you find it difficult to juggle directing and acting?
DM: Yeah, in some ways it’s challenging and in other ways it’s a little bit freeing because you’re obviously handling a lot of different things all at once. You start feeling a little scatterbrained. But then sometimes it takes you out of your head and then you’ve spent so much time living in this world and writing it and working with the different departments that you just start running on instinct and kind of what feels right, instead of overthinking it. That especially applied to the acting, because, you know, you can start to become too stilted but if you’re not even thinking about it, you’re just memorising the lines five minutes before something, it’s a little more fluid. And for at least for me, and my style of acting, it’s a lot more natural than if I were to constantly run the lines over and over.
FF: It’s interesting how many creatives in the film industry suggest that going by feeling is the best, if you can run things that way… that it often produces the best, most organic kind of results?
DM: Yeah, yeah, because I think a lot of the thinking should come early, you know? The thinking at the script stage and kind of logic of the story. But the hope is that you get all that out of the way so that, yeah, you can just kind of feel your way through it, because otherwise it starts to become a little stilted and, you know, a little too mechanical, if you just feel like you’re going through the motions.
FF: There are some beautiful metaphors such as the broken watch and Gordie’s story about climbing a mountain. Are these a comment on the long-lasting effects of trauma and also on perspective? That we should take a moment to recognise our opportunities and appreciate what’s in front of us, as well as look behind?
DM: Yeah, definitely… The kind of trauma as it relates to addiction and how addiction affects those around you because it is so chaotic. And so a lot of the stuff with the time – like I think most of the clocks actually are set at the same time throughout the movie, just as a kind of Easter Egg… but a lot of that is about kind of being stuck in time, being stuck in the past, and when you try to relive the good old days and repeat things that happened in the past, it’s never quite the same. It’s always different because we’re always changing and so that was where yeah, a lot of it was just trying to kind of infuse the story with that whole nostalgic feel and that nostalgia can be good but also has a dark side in a lot of ways.
FF: What’s the reason behind the Batman references, such as the characters names?
DM: Yeah, well, Batman has always been a character driven completely by his trauma and his being stuck in the past. He’s completely fueled by trying to, essentially, move on from his parents’ death but he’s never able to which is what keeps driving him. So aside from the fact that I just love the character, it really did symbolically make sense and that’s why – like when I mentioned that the clocks being stuck at a time – they’re actually stuck at the time of his parents’ death, which in some versions of Batman he could set that clock in his study and then open to the Bat cave. But it is it is meant to be sort of like a fun little window dressing that does have some meaning to it as well.
FF: Why did the group give their full names to the family in the woods?
DM: A little bit of that is actually a missing scene that we cut due to pacing and time. They were actually having kind of an outdoor dinner, and it was a very affable scene and, basically, you know, the characters are getting a little loose and liquored up and the older folks were very nice to them. So, through telling like stories like ‘Keaton, is that your first name or your last name? Well, my first name is Scott’ kind of stuff like that. Ultimately we were like, well, we’ll just move on from that and, you know, it’s what happens to a lot of things, there’s a really good scene, but ultimately it slowed down the movie.
FF: Did you draw any inspiration from any particular films, writers or directors for the style of the movie?
DM: Yeah, it was definitely a bit of a blender situation… We were definitely looking at a lot of Coen Brothers movies to try to live in some world of dark humour but also, extreme darkness, like Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007) especially. And then, some other movies that were big influences, some of which starred Jack Nicholson: Easy Rider (1969), for the nostalgia and pacing and structure of the movie; the campfire scene especially. The Shining (1980) for a lot of the addiction undertones and that kind of character that just goes unhinged and starts to go after everybody. There’s also a lot of lines that are nods to The Shining (1980) as well.
Also, The Deer Hunter (1978), for a lot of its kind of friendship and nostalgia as well.
FF: If you were only allowed to be a writer, director or actor for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
DM: Gosh, it’s tough. It’s definitely between writing and directing and they both scratch different itches. Writing is the solitary and directing is the collaborative. I will say this: I’m biased right now but having been in writing world for the last 1½ – 2 years I’m ready to start collaborating, you know, further than just like with the preliminary talks with departments. So I’m going to say directing right now. But that could change after I direct the next one and I want to be alone!
FF: What are you working on now/next?
Yeah, it’s actually it’s somewhat similar to Bullitt County (2018) in certain ways. It’s a straight up Gothic horror movie; a ghost story about women in three different generations of major moments in the women’s movement. So actually, one of them is 1977, the same year that Bullitt County (2018) is set. Then it’s 1917, which is the where the woman who becomes a ghost lives. And then we catch up to somewhat of the present day in 2017. And so it’s a very odd, but I think so far pretty scary movie. So we’re just kind of really doing what I hope to be a final rewrite right now, and hopefully start shooting at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.