My Brother Jack, written and directed by Stephen Dest, revolves around the lives of two brothers as they attempt to cope with a tragedy from their youth that continues to affect their present lives. If you’re a New Englander, and also happen to be a fan of the theatre, you may be familiar with Dest through his work in a variety of stage productions with roles varying from writer and director to stage actor.
In My Brother Jack, Dest uses his gift as a storyteller to create a multi-layered narrative – one that embodies classic film drama intertwined with elements of mystery and the psychological thriller. The film won numerous awards during it’s recent festival run including BEST FILMMAKER (Philadelphia Independent Film Festival), BEST PICTURE & BEST DIRECTOR (New England Underground Film Festival) BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY (Napa Valley Film Festival).
In preparation for a special theatrical screening this Thursday, July 7 at The Wilton Public Theater in Wilton, Connecticut, we sat down with Dest to talk about his experiences as a writer and filmmaker, what it’s like transitioning from the theatre stage to the big screen, and filmmaking on a budget. We caught up with Dest just as he was taking a break from the set of his latest directorial project, the musical production of Once Upon a Mattress.
GST: I’m obsessed with musicals – It’s always interesting to see writers and directors working in a variety of storytelling mediums, and I imagine it’s quite a shift going from a film like My Brother Jack to musical theatre. What is it like transitioning from theatre to filmmaking, and how does that affect your writing process?
SD: I got my start in theatre, and I did some stage work as an actor in New York, but always was directing, always writing. When I write something I never know if it should be a play, or a film, or just a short story even – or most the time maybe it just needs to be thrown away *laughs* – but if I don’t throw it away then I look at it after I write it a couple of times and sort of adapt my own drafts. Lately it’s been more film than anything else, that seems to be the canvas these days – writing a story for film changes the language, it changes the page, it changes the kind of actors you look for – so I’m getting better now when I start writing something to think about what it should be after first draft instead of maybe waiting until the third draft to decide *laughs*.
GST: How did you decide on this particular story as your feature length narrative debut?
SD: I wanted to step away from Blind – (Dest’s first narrative film project, a story he originally produced as a One Act Play and then adapted into a short film) – which was based on a true story about me and my father, but that itch was still there to sort of follow that character as he gets a little older, I think that kind of triggered the idea of writing My Brother Jack, but going in a little bit of a different direction and bringing in more of the fictional aspects like with the “who done it” mystery.
At first, I just really tried to focus on the relationship between the two brothers, and the idea of someone else raising you other than your biological parents, and then kind of built off of it from there with the murder mystery. Obviously if someone is going to be murdered then the question becomes who did it, and once I started down the “who done it” scenario it became kind of unavoidable to include that element – that can get kind of complicated as far as making a film because you don’t want to make it too obvious or give it away, you want to have an element of surprise – but it’s really fun from a writing standpoint because now you’re playing detective.
GST: There’s a lot of interesting things happening in the film. The underlying familial drama between the two brothers is intriguing on it’s own, but on top of that you’ve included narrative devices like flashbacks and metaphysical, dreamlike states that contribute to both the visual aspect of the story as well as the larger narrative – talk about your decision to include these narrative layers and how you brought them together to create this story.
SD: I shot Blink on 8mm because I wanted it to feel like a home movie, and in the original draft of this film all of the flashback scenes were going to be done on 8mm, but then my DP said he could capture that same look without having to use the 8mm, and I think it really worked. It resonates with the audience I think. Especially when you have something with children and family – I think it lends itself to it, we all kind of relate to it, we’ve all been there – especially during the holidays.
It was fun to play around with different styles. To be honest with you, because I hired a lighting designer to light the whole film, I didn’t have to spend as much time making adjustments in post production, so we were able to spend a little more time on those parts.
GST: What about the dream scenes and their interpretations, is that just something you’re interested in or was there a specific reason you decided to include that element?
SD: That’s a bit of a combination. Yeah, I mean definitely. I dream a lot, I’ve read about interpretations of dreams and all that, but a friend of mine – he’s also a producer, writer, and actor – he suffers from sleep paralysis, so a lot of the details came from our writing session. It’s funny too, because I’ve had some screenings where there were psychologists in the audience, and they’ve been really great about coming up and saying like, “oh you nailed it” – so I think having a friend who went through that definitely helped make it feel authentic.
GST: I thought of the movie Memento a lot when I was watching this film, was that an influence as well?
SD: Absolutely, and I love Memento – I still cant figure it out even though I’ve watched it 20 times *laughs* – But yeah, I think the puzzle component that comes from either flashbacks, or some kind of element like that is the same. I remember when I first saw Memento I was like, I’ve never seen anything like that – Pulp Fiction too. Films like Memento and Pulp Fiction opened up a whole new way of storytelling that backward, forward shifting of scenes that keeps audience on their toes.
GST: When you’re dealing with a complex narrative like this I assume you try to stay pretty close to the script – did anything change as you were filming?
SD: Not too much changed. I mean I spent a lot of time writing that script, so it wasn’t really an improvised cast. They could have been, but it was a little risky to play around too much. I actually started in improv, so it can be hard not to improvise, but I tried to really stay close to the script. I wasn’t able to spend weeks in rehearsals directing the actors, but I spent a lot of one on one time with each of actors over the phone – all these actors were like hey can I call you and can we track our characters and I recommend that to anybody.
It’s amazing what just a 20 minute conversation with an actor can do on both ends, because they give you ideas too. It’s not just about this is what I want – its like well, lets talk about it.
GST: What made you decide to shoot in Connecticut?
SD: Connecticut has it’s certain style – you can’t really put your finger on it exactly, you just know it’s not New York – there’s a smaller artsy community within New Haven, and I wanted to focus on that world with these characters. It’s a walking community – I did actually shoot the detective in his car and when we went to post it just didn’t feel right. The one thing I had to dance around a little was that New Haven is the city where Yale is, so it’s sort of hard to avoid the academic aspect of the community – there’s a hint of it in the film with the uncle being an art professor – but overall I wanted to focus on the charm of the smaller community.
I’m influenced by Woody Allen and Spike Lee as far as contemporary filmmakers go and in their films the city really becomes like another character – that’s what those guys do really well – so I tried to do that here.
GST: Speaking of the art community. Works by artists within that community are incorporated into the film. Did you know these artists before, or did you ask them to be involved because you were a fan of their work?
SD: It’s funny, I would say the artists are friends of mine now, but a lot of people assume I knew them before, but I really didn’t. The paintings in the film are by Larry Morelli, and I was inspired by his paintings a long time ago. I actually purchased one of his paintings that sits in my writing room– so his works were kind of always there staring at me during the writing process, and I thought if I ever get this story finished I want to incorporate them in somehow.
Originally, Jack was going to be a painter, but when I wrote those scenes I always said “Jack doing work” – so I knew I wanted him to be an artist, but I thought maybe something a little more industrial, a little more mechanical – and I’ll be honest with you I knew about Steampunk, but I certainly wasn’t up to speed on found objects. Then I read an article in this magazine about an artist named Silas Finch – who was actually based out of Cape Cod – and it was one of those situations where I read the article and then kind of forgot about it. Then during a party for our Kickstarter campaign for the film another artist came up to me and said you should look up this guy Silas Finch’s work, so I went to his website and I wrote him asking him to be a part of the film.
It was great because it was like having another set designer with us while we were filming. He was there everyday and he taught us how to do certain things, and that’s how we built things, and that was huge. His actual studio is where they did the filming of those studio scenes – it was amazing – the DP would walk in and just be like – yep this is good.
This award-winning film marks Stephen Dest’s narrative feature directorial debut –his previous work was the short film Blind, selected to screen during the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Dest will schedule additional theatrical screenings of My Brother Jack for the fall before releasing the film on VOD later in the year, so be on the lookout for the film in your city.
Dest is also currently working on his next feature-length film project, I am Shakespeare, about a young actor living a dual life as an actor working with Shakespeare in the Park while simultaneously running with a notorious gang within the inner city.