Sometimes a misheard lyric, an inaccurate memory, or a misunderstood idiom can lead to some pretty great creative breakthroughs that lead in surprising directions. The title of this week’s wonderful indie dramedy A Bag of Hammers is a case in point. “I’d heard Michael J. Fox say it in an interview in referring to his Parkinson’s in like, ‘Look, we all get a bag of hammers,’” says director Brian Crano. “I’d never realized the meaning of the phrase in the more American idiom of ‘dumb as a bag of hammers.’ I’d never heard that, so I just thought, ‘Oh, like a cross to bear.’ And then as we worked on the script with that title, other people would be like, “You know that means ‘stupid,’ right? And that sort of worked as well!”
The double meaning of the title is illustrative of the film’s funny/sad tone. It’s not uncommon for films to try to capture that dichotomy, but the result is usually the film equivalent of the baseball term “tweener”—a pitch that’s not quite fast enough to be a fastball, but not quite slow enough to be a change-up. Those pitches are, to put it mildly, generally not very successful. But A Bag of Hammers manages to keep its funny parts funny and its sad parts sad, often at the same time—a veritable Reese’s Cup of a film.
The key, says Crano, was acting as if there was no contradiction at all. “Well, I think we achieved that contrast largely by ignoring it,” he says. We were taking a lot of meetings around the time we were developing the movie with people who would tell you, ‘Look. This is the third rail and if you go down this path, you’re going to end up washing out either experience.’ And I’m thinking that in my life, nothing is so binary. Everything is a plural experience. I’m always happy and miserable. So to me, it was kind of like a healthy disregard of this sort of better angels of filmmaking thought. I just don’t buy it. I think the audience is smarter than anybody gives them credit for.
“I don’t remember the last time I went to see a movie,” he continues, “where I didn’t feel like I was ahead of the story, and I think that is the worst experience you can get from a film because you feel like you’re being talked down to. So it was a hugely important thing for me in this movie to feel as though it’s an experience that is full of surprise. That’s almost a mandate: the movie’s gotta be emotionally surprising.”
The film has an all-star cast of indie actors, but one actor was especially important. “To me, having a weapon in your back pocket like Carrie Preston is like a heat-seeking missile for feeling. What she can get out of an audience is like…wow. When you let her rip and you have this devastating, almost sort of documentary-like performance of what it’s like to lose everything after a huge crisis like Katrina or the financial blowup, you need some of that. You need a little bit of punch to make a joke mean more. It makes the joke help make the sad parts mean more.”
Crano’s star Jason Ritter agrees: “You know, Carrie Preston is so great I think. She is such a tragic character. She’s the heart of all of it. She’s the weight of the movie. She sort of anchors the whole thing. And she was so fun and so funny and so light to be around and so sweet then it would start getting ready to shoot and she would just shut off her little internal light. It was kind of amazing. To watch her transform to this woman who is so desperate and selfish and sad that she would abandon her child in that horrible way. But then as soon as the scene was over she’d jump up and be cracking jokes and making all of us laugh.”
But the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Ritter and co-star and co-writer Jake Sandvig. The two play grifter best friends whose favorite scam is posing as valets at funerals, then stealing the cars entrusted to them. In a world where everyone and everything else has let them down, they form a sort of surrogate family. “Essentially these are two guys who saved each other,” says Ritter. “Really, Jake’s character was coming from a really bad situation that he and I kind of split and left Rebecca Hall’s character to deal with. He had an abusive father. You hear less about my character and his past but it sounds like his situation might have even been worse, even crazier. But here’s these two kids who had sort of been damaged by the homes that they had been born into, who really found salvation in each other. I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about this script. I remember feeling like my friends saved me in middle school, just by reassuring me that I was worth hanging around. I think to varying degrees we can save each other, and that is what family is. We became each other’s family.”
The chemistry, Ritter says, was easy to develop: “First of all, Jake is such an easygoing guy to get along with. He’s just a really nice guy. But one of the things that was really important to both Jake and me, and to Brian, was that this friendship really comes across as real. So we did actually spend quite a lot of time hanging out together, sort of getting to know each other’s sense of humor. I think for me at least, one of the hardest things to fake is history. You can’t just show up and be like, ‘We’ve been married 20 years,’ and expect it to be real. You have to kind of make it specific to that person and get into their rhythms and create a relationship together. So Jake and I just hung out and started to get to know each other. Started to make sense to us why we would’ve been friends for so long.”
It’s a pairing we don’t often see in mainstream cinema—two men who are, for all intents and purposes, married (albeit in a non-romantic way). For Crano, that was deliberate. “These relationships happen and they’re real and they’ve certainly happened to me a number of times. I’m an only child, so I have a couple people in my life who are basically family. And you just kind of go after what those relationships are and try to get them right on the page. You know, you can be as nasty as possible. You can be meaner to those people than you can to anybody else and then seconds later, something real happens and it’s back to being a brother. Again, filmmakers sometimes act like all of our relationships are really simple and simplistic and built on 30-60-90-page structure. That’s not real. We wanted to make their relationship as beautiful and as intricate and caring as any kind of love story because it is a love story, ultimately.”
The emotional climax of the film springs from the surrogate family reaching out to a third member. It’s best not to spoil that scene with details, but suffice to say, it calls on Ritter to tap into some deep emotional reserves. “Well you know, that’s the hardest thing in the whole world to have to tell someone who doesn’t know,” says Ritter, thoughtfully. “I’ve had to do that a couple times in real life. I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news. It’s just impossible. You want to get out of it any way you can. You know Chandler Canterbury is a very special kind of child actor, because a lot of child actors are very performative and they like to show what they’re doing. He’s a very internal, sort of grounded actor. And he was just sitting there completely open. He wasn’t playing the end of the scene that he was going to find out this horrible news. He was just listening. And it just sort of broke my heart, looking at that face. Imagining that I was going to have to tell him. That monologue was one of the real draws for this script to me. I thought Brian and Jake, whoever did the heavy lifting in writing that monologue, it just really struck me in the script. I just remember showing up for work that day and thinking I hope I live up to the script’s writing.”
Ritter needn’t have worried; he nails the scene. Crano agrees: “Well obviously, when you’re doing the titular scene of the movie, the pressure is on. And so for me, it’s on him as much as it is on the text. But for me, it was just about trying to create an atmosphere where Jason felt as comfortable as possible to do what I knew he was capable of doing. I think he has a tremendously deep emotional well and when he goes down to the bottom of it, it’s really affecting and touching. That was the only scene in the film that did not change a word from the first draft of the script until the cut of the film. So what was written originally was the impulse, which is the heart of the movie, right? And it never changed. And Jason delivered it in a way that brought it to life. It’s a real killer scene and a real heartbreaker, just how honest it is. So for me, it was just about going, ‘Let’s keep the cameras still. Let’s not be fancy. Let’s cut as little as possible.’”
Crano’s philosophy is to simply get out of the story’s way. “It’s a performance movie,” he says, “so when you get those big moments, I kind of just want to let the actors do it and sort of remove myself from the process as much as possible. The more and more I’m thinking about my job, in a ‘This is your life, what are you doing?’ type way, the more I think, I’m facilitating them. I’m putting a camera on them. I want to expose what they’re doing. I want to let them do it.”
Next up, Crano will bring that directing philosophy to a new project called Retrace Your Steps. “It’s a movie I wrote by myself,” he says. “It’s about a father and son coming back together at a moment of crisis for the family, and it kind of unearths all of the baggage that drove them apart. It’s set in the Canadian woods, and it has 12 songs in it that are sung and played by the characters. So it’s a very musical movie, in this sort of Chekhovian winter play tone. I’m working with some great people on it and great producers and that’s really exciting.”
And as for Ritter? He follows up last week’s A Bag of Hammers premiere with the opening of another film this week. “A Perfect Family is another independent film that I made last year,” he says. “Essentially Kathleen Turner’s character is up for the Catholic Woman of the Year award. And there’s a home visit and meanwhile her family is kind of falling apart. Her relationship with her husband is strained. My character, I’m her son, just left his wife for the local manicurist. My sister, played by Emily Deschanel, is just coming out of the closet and having a child with her long-time partner. And any one of these things is not ideal for the home visit, because she feels she has to have this picture-perfect Catholic family and right now we’re anything but. So it’s basically a family trying to find some kind of middle ground. We’re just not seeing eye-to-eye. It’s a really nice film. I feel like it walks a fine line because at the same time that we feel she’s being really sort of judgmental of our life choices, we’re also not being very accepting of hers. It’s a beautiful sort of acknowledgement that we can all be friends even if we have different ideas on how to live.”