AR: To start with Joel, how did you initially get started in the business?
JS: I started out as a writer first, though I always had it in my head I was going to direct. I didn’t live in LA, which was where most movies were being shot back when I was coming up– I’m an SF Bay Area guy, so that made things a little tougher frankly. It was basically just writing a lot of scripts and banging on a lot of doors until persistence and luck met and I managed to get an opportunity to shake loose. My first opportunities, funny enough, given Crown Vic and the things I write and direct now, were in more family friendly films. On one of them in particular, I pitched myself to the producer as a director as well as writer, and came with a bunch of concept art and storyboards, and managed to sell them on what I had planned.
AR: Your latest release is Crown Vic or Bulletproof in the UK, what inspired you to write this story?
JS: Don’t get me started on the title change for the UK! Apparently, some folks seemed to think the title Crown Vic wouldn’t make sense to anyone in the UK, global branding issues and, y’ know, logic aside! Anyway, I’ve sort of spent a lifetime worshiping at the altar of great crime films. Heat, To Live and Die in LA, No Country For Old Men… And I’ve had a longtime fascination with writing Cops. There are very specific rhythms, there’s very specific jargon and shoptalk involved. And the situations they find themselves in, and the stakes of course, which couldn’t be higher. These are people for whom just doing that job day in and day out can inflict a lot of psychological damage. It can change them and usually does and not generally for the better. And the ramifications are just off the charts, not just for them obviously, but for the entirety of the communities in which they serve. We see it every day on the news here in America. The ramifications are just enormous. I don’t recall why exactly, but at some point I just got this bee in my bonnet to do this dialogue exercise- two men driving in a car, talking. Two sides of the same coin, an older man talking to a younger version of himself. And it more or less blossomed from there. The two men became two cops, them driving around became a patrol shift in the Olympic Division of the LAPD. Start peppering in the things and people they might encounter, ratchet up the danger and the stakes… Before too long I had a finished script. Think the first draft only took me 10 days, which is unheard of for me.
AR: The movie really treads into the grey area of Police patrols, did you do much research into the life of officers?
JS: Something I was proud of with this script, and it’s pretty self serving actually if I were to stop and think about it, is that after people first read it, they asked if I had been a cop. I research very heavily, and I like that to show up on the page and then the screen, in the situations and the dialogue. I want to immerse the reader in the world- the radio chatter, the dialogue, where they are. I think it really goes a long way to selling your vision for the story and for giving it some sense of veracity. I’d spoken with a lot of cops over the years, collecting nuggets of information, observing behavior etc. And just trying to pay attention to who these people were, and I can’t stress this enough, what doing this job for a sustained amount of time might have done to them.
AR: The VanZandt character, was he based on anyone in particular?
JS: In a way, he was actually. I knew I wanted this guy to be this ‘roided up, bipolar speed freak and then give him a badge and turn him loose in our main characters’ patrol zone. Basically make him the pit bull loose in the pre-school- you basically have to do something about that! and when I was creating him, I kept coming back to this guy I knew back in Junior High School. When I was describing the character to Josh Hopkins, who would go on to play Jack so well, I told him Jack is the kind of guy people go out of their way to avoid. He’s working out at the gym, there is like this force field around him where everyone stays 50 feet away. And he has no clue what people actually think of him. I looked at him and Stroke, played so wonderfully by David Krumholtz, as this funhouse mirror version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
AR: Crown Vic/Bulletproof was sort of like the series Southland, Splashed with the Series Cops with an End Of Watch Vibe too it, was that what you were going for?
JS: I haven’t seen Southland, though many friends keep telling me to watch it. Having two kids, your TV viewing is often reduced to maybe a sleepy half hour on the couch at the end of the day where you can fool yourself you’d do really well on Jeopardy. As far as Cop shows go, I think Homicide: Life on the Streets was the best I’ve ever seen. And I think the nod to Cops and End of Watch is apt, just given the time spent in a squad car. When I would first tell people about Bulletproof/Crown Vic, I’d tell them it was like American Graffiti, but with more guns and violence. I would always get kind of a blank stare back. But I still stand by that. Driving in a car, late on one very revelatory night, people learning about each other, everyone at these very transitional points in their lives… There’s something about driving around in a car, nowhere specific to go really, that gets people to open up.
AR: Was the movie all shot on location at night?
JS: It was shot entirely on location, all at night (save for one day- the opening bank robbery sequence) in Buffalo, New York. We had done the usual indie film thing– looking at different states that have film tax incentives, and our Producer Anjul Nigam recommended we take a serious look at Buffalo. And interestingly enough, downtown Buffalo really played well as a double for LA. The streets are wide, the buildings are tall, it really had that LA feel. It lacked palm trees of course, but I also realized that the palm trees in LA are so tall that when you drive around at night, the tops of them are above the street lights, so you can’t really see them anyway. Buffalo was fantastic, very film friendly. We actually did one pickup night in LA, just driving around for some LA color as well.
AR: Was it challenging shooting a movie at night in the city?
JS: It was challenging in some ways, in others it was probably easier frankly. We were basically out there sundown to sun up, so you don’t have to deal with that much traffic, and don’t have to deal with too many people being out and about. It was summertime, so the weather was great (the occasional massive cloudburst notwithstanding), though shooting a movie at night during the summer solstice, when there are only about 7 hours of profound darkness during which to shoot was pretty tough. But hey, when you’re doing an Indie, you shoot when the money comes through. This project went through a few different iterations over the years, but one thing I fought for every time was to shoot the driving interiors out on the street instead of in a studio with green screen or LED projectors. And fortunately our Producers Anjul and Gregg Bello backed me up on this. Given how much time we spend in the car, it was vital that we were actually out on the street, wheels on pavement. A short driving sequence in a studio can be fine and usually prudent, but in our case it was half the movie– I needed the relationship between camera, car and street. The way the light moves in the background, the way the tires rumble on the pavement.
AR: Thomas Jane was awesome, how did you get him on board the movie?
JS: Yeah Thomas really was fantastic. Such a great actor. Originally, this movie was going to star Alec Baldwin. And after a few years of stops and starts, and cast comings and goings, we were finally ready to go but lost our actor playing the younger partner very late in the game. Alec had a baby coming and a few other big life things and we had a deadline with the financing and the schedule just stopped working for us. But we were lucky to have Alec stay on as a producer, and he has really fought tooth and nail for this film, and for me. Thomas Jane was one of the first actors that came to my mind. I’ve been a fan for a long time, back to Todd Parker in Boogie Nights, and he’s got this wonderful scene among so many amazing little pieces in The Thin Red Line. Alec, Anjul and Gregg agreed, we had Thomas read the script and I sat down with him in his kitchen while we had tea and he smoked cigars and we just talked about the character and the script. Thomas checks any ego at the door, puts his head down and works hard. And he’s just so damn interesting. I found myself saying this one thing a lot to him after a take: “That’s how I heard it when I wrote it.” It’s a real gift as a writer to find someone who does your dialogue like that.
AR: I loved how there wasn’t really any large action set pieces, but the violence we saw or heard left a lasting image, was that what you were intending? If so you succeeded!
JS: I kept telling everyone when we were doing this– there’s no action in this movie, just frightening bursts of violence. Because that’s how it happens in real life. It’s loud, and frightening, and disorienting. I didn’t want to do anything over the top, I wanted everything to feel real, visceral. We obviously have a few things that are a bit heightened in this, but it was important to me that we kept it feeling close to the ground. Cops don’t jump cars off bridges and run through a flock of doves firing a gun in each hand. They have foot pursuits. High speed auto pursuits. They put hands on people and have hands put on them. It’s low to the ground, visceral.
AR: A shot that has stuck in my head was when Thomas Jane and Luke Kleintank are pursuing a suspect who jumps into a garden and once they get into the garden, we only hear what’s happening with shots of the neighbourhood being lit up by the police car lights. What was the inspiration behind the shot?
JS: In the earliest iteration of this movie, I had resolved that the camera was never going to leave the car. Ever. They’d get out of the car but they’d stay close, and we’d see everything that happened from the POV of the car. That changed obviously, though there’s still an element of that in the film. This scene was a holdover from that– I liked the idea of just seeing the light of the flashers bouncing off the surrounding houses while we heard this struggle happening off screen. We already had a foot pursuit earlier in the film and I didn’t want to go back to that well already. Something about it feels a little chaotic to me as well; we hear the scuffling, the struggle, the shouting, and we are left to wonder what the hell is going on. I also liked that the shot- looking out the front of the car, the POV- is how we generally see that stuff in real life. We see dash cam video, the hood stretched out in front of us, and we see these cops run past as they jump out of the car in a foot pursuit. And we hear the shouting and scuffling offscreen.
AR: Crown Vic/Bulletproof would make an awesome series, don’t you think?
AR:I happen to think you are right! I think it would make a great series, expanding on the world we see in this movie. Other cops in the same division out at night as well. These are very human stories happening out there every night and they never end. I’m very open to it.
AR: Do you plan to sequel or expand the universe?
JS: I do have a few sequel ideas in my back pocket actually. I’d be incredibly excited to revisit this world, and have some things I think people would really be excited about. Maybe even different cities, different eras. We’ll have to see what’s in the cards…
AR: What is next for you after Crown Vic/Bulletproof?
JS: The Old West. Alec and I resolved to do something together after he was unable to star in Crown Vic/Bulletproof, and we developed a Western called “Rust” together. We’re both very excited about it and think it will really resonate with people- I think you kind of just generally know when you’ve got something. The plan is to shoot that after the first of the year. Aside from that, I’m in the middle of another script, a crime thriller I’m hoping to get up and running after Rust.
AR: Thank you for your time Joel!
JS:Thanks so much! Hope you all enjoy the movie.
Bulletproof/ Crown Vic Is Available To Purchase Now