To me, that’s part of the problem. I run up against that a lot with actors. No one wants to look bad. No one wants to show vulnerability. Everyone wants to be the hero.
There are many reasons why someone might turn to a life of crime. Maybe it’s circumstantial. Perhaps they’re a bit villainous with little rhyme or reason for their destructive behavior. Writer-director John Swab’s Run with the Hunted is the story of a kid who falls prey to a life of pickpocketing, to becoming a career criminal. As you can imagine, things don’t turn out very well.
Oscar (Mitchell Paulsen) and Loux (Madilyn Kellam) are inseparable friends, devoted to each other in co-dependent ways far beyond their teenage years. To save Loux from her father’s sexual abuse, Oscar makes a fateful decision to save her in a heroic act of self-sacrifice. Then he runs from home to a city a hundred miles away, where he meets a girl named Peaches (Kylie Rogers) and finds shelter amongst her “family of broken toys,” runaways with uncertain futures just like him. This band of misfits live under the clutches of a pseudo-father figure, Sway (Mark Boone Junior), and under the thumb of a ruthless crime boss, Birdie (Ron Perlman), who are incubating them to work their way up to bigger crimes once they’ve outgrown their street hustling. Flash forward to fifteen years later, the seeds planted in the kids’ adolescence bear fruit as Oscar (now played by Michael C. Pitt) takes armed robbery assignments, at the same time grooming a new generation of crooked thieves. Meanwhile, moving to the same city to start a new life is Loux (now played by Sam Quartin), who has taken a job working for a local private eye. Her ulterior motive is clear: She’s looking for Oscar, the long-missing savior from her traumatic childhood.
Swab’s films are self-admittedly based on themes from his personal life. At fifteen years old, the Tulsa native ran away from home and lived on the streets amongst criminals. He became addicted to crack and heroin. “Where I am from, middle or ‘lost’ America, opportunities to leave or achieve beyond what is available are very limited,” he confesses. “I wrote this based on themes from my own life: Abuse, running away, and being taken in by people who were born without a chance, thus resorting to extremes to survive. There are also themes regarding choices and how one decision can sometimes lead us very far away from who we really are.” Swab is now five years sober and lives in upstate New York with his wife, Quartin, one of the film’s leads.
As for Pitt—brooding, sensitive, conflicted, unpredictable, angel-faced, talented from the gut, suspicious of fame—his versatility is boundless and he’s armed with a dizzying body of work to back up the claim. He has long turned heads with always compelling characterizations. The actor shed his clothes as a cherubic exchange student testing his sexual boundaries in Bernardo Bertolucci’s cult classic The Dreamers, and his sanity as a reimagined, self-combusting Kurt Cobain in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. He embraced the weird pomp and goth rock star in John Cameron Mitchell’s transgender musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the homicidal maniac who takes a family hostage in Michael Haneke’s remake of his own movie, Funny Games; the mobster protégé in HBO’s heavyweight boxset drama Boardwalk Empire; the atheistic molecular biologist in Mike Cahill’s provocative sci-fi drama I Origins; and the cybernetically enhanced antagonist in Rupert Sanders’ anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell. Most of all, he has excelled at playing the lost boys, as it were: Wasted, blown-out, emotionally unhinged motley crew of young men. And therein lies the payoff: When played well, these are the ones we remember.
Next up for Pitt is a film he stars in, co-wrote and produced, based on the underground classic memoir You Can’t Win by Jack Black. Directed by Rob Devor, the film will tell the story of a transient, Victorian-era hobo criminal.
Run with the Hunted hits On Demand on June 26th.
At the Rome International Film Festival last year, you revealed to the audience that you like to go by directors and potential co-stars when choosing projects because scripts can be rather deceiving. That is to say, a good script doesn’t necessarily translate into a great film. What clinched it for you with Run with the Hunted? Did you need to meet John [Swab] first?
Yes. We met one of the few times I was in Los Angeles. We had a really good talk, and I could tell he understood that, you know? It’s a very difficult thing in cinema—the script and the movie. There’s a script and then it gets rewritten when you shoot the film and then it gets rewritten when you edit the film. So I guess you could say there are three stages. I’ve learned from great directors. I’ve been mentored by some great directors. I’ve been able to witness their successes and I’ve learned a lot from them. I think certainly on a small film, or a smaller film like this, what’s most important is, to me, in my opinion, will a director adjust and get the performance that’s happening as opposed to holding onto something that was written in the script? I noticed that about John pretty quickly and that made it very appealing.
This is certainly something you’ve discussed before: Filmmakers not having a preciousness about what’s been written down is good. Also, this notion that when you make a film you’re actually making three movies.
Yes. But it’s not that I don’t respect the script. I don’t want to come off as, “Everything should just be left in the air.” I was trained in the theatre and that script you don’t change. In movies, very often the script is constantly being changed, often by the writer. I love learning the lines that are there if they give them to me. [laughs] But if it’s constantly changing, then no, I don’t think you should be precious about it. It should either not change at all or this is a collaborative art form so you can’t change it and then expect no one else to adjust. It’s just kind of my philosophy. Look—I love following a script. With someone like Michael Haneke, who’s an incredible filmmaker, there were no changes to his script, which is fine. I love working that way as well. I mean, it’s great to be able to have the time to memorize lines and to work on it. But I think it’s a mistake if you don’t give actors the proper amount of time to prepare. If you’re constantly changing your script, you should be open to [actors’] opinions on what they know how to do in that short amount of time. On Run with the Hunted, we did a rewrite on a lot of the script a couple days before and it was all great stuff, and [John] was open to doing that. To me, that’s very wise. With where cinema is going, I think it’s very wise for a young director to be open to that.
Run with the Hunted is clearly a deeply personal one for John. You could say that all movies are personal to filmmakers to varying degrees, but it feels absolutely true here given that it was so much informed by his trials and tribulations. When you stepped into this role, was John a source of inspiration for the character or do you look at Oscar as entirely fictional?
You know, I think something that was very smart that John did was that it was the essence of the film that represented his past. I think that’s very wise for a young director because it’s not so easy nowadays. I don’t think it was ever easy, but things need to change, cast members change, actors change, you have limitations with funding. The more agile you can be in that situation without losing the essence of what you’re trying to say is I think the smartest thing you can do as a young director. I mean, I could see it very clearly with a lot of the directors I’ve worked with. With Martin Scorsese, for instance, if something wasn’t working he just changed it right away. He didn’t hold onto something that wasn’t working. To John’s credit, he was able to do that while keeping the essence of his vision if that makes sense.
On a small budget where you have a limited amount of time and you have lots of people working, the worst thing you can do is hold onto an idea that’s just not working. The clock’s ticking. So to be able to keep your vision and to adjust to the situation is wise. That’s something I do look for in a director when I can’t see ten movies of their work and they haven’t made it yet, you know?
You’ve worked with all kinds of directors in your career. You bring up people like Haneke and Scorsese. Do you normally board a project with a preferred way of working and hope the filmmaker lets you do that, or do you more often adapt to their way of doing things?
I think it’s a little bit of both. But I think it’s smart to adapt first, you know? I think it’s important to be open. With the two filmmakers you just mentioned, they work in different ways. [Bernardo] Bertolucci works a different way from Gus Van Sant. So absolutely—you can’t just work one way. You need to adjust to how that director works. Hopefully they see that and are open to what you know works with you. It’s a give and take. You both have to make adjustments. I maybe found that out the hard way… Well, not necessarily the hard way, but I found that out by learning how to make films. You have to be open to working in a different way than you may be used to.
Both you and John have previously, not to mention separately, said that you don’t judge Oscar as being good or bad. Oscar is simply a product of his environment. What befalls him just so happens to be what he was dealt in life. You also rightfully say that, given his tough situation, you can either “lie down or stand up.” Not judging their characters is something actors often talk about. Just how much truth is in that for you? If you started judging Oscar for his mistakes, is he no longer playable? What’s at stake?
I mean, that’s sort of how I was trained within my craft. If you judge the character, then it’s a manipulative performance. You’re manipulating the performance and the character because of your own opinions. It shouldn’t be about your opinions. It should be about the character. The audience is supposed to make their own assessment of that. The best way that you can cleanly present that to them so they can come up with that conclusion is to play that character honestly and to not necessarily put your own opinions into the portrayal—liking this character or not liking this character. To me, that’s part of the problem. I run up against that a lot with actors. No one wants to look bad. No one wants to show vulnerability. Everyone wants to be the hero. Well, number one, what’s a hero? [laughs] Number two, you’re putting your own opinions into something by judging your character. A lot of the time I see it as missed opportunities for other actors because what they could be doing is something that would be brilliant, and instead it’s a watered down version of however they view the character.
Run with the Hunted has so much to do with this idea of creating a family out of—making do with—what’s around you. Is there a parallel to be made with film families on set? Actors were once described to me as islands. The water is just passing you by with each production. You form these transient relationships for the most part and you don’t really get to hook into anybody for real.
Oh absolutely! It’s definitely the circus, you know? [laughs] There are so many different people. There are so many different ages. I mean, everyone is completely different. But you have a common cause: The show. You need to put up the tent, get the elephants inside, start juggling fire, and then you move on to the next town. So yeah, I would definitely agree with that. When it’s done well is when, in my opinion, there is a sense of family. It’s truly a collaborative art form. It might be the most collaborative art form… Well, I don’t know about that, but you don’t make a film alone. You don’t do it alone. There’s many, many, many people that make a film, and they’re all important. And there are long hours. Whenever it’s going well, I feel a sense of family.
You’ve gone on the record to say that you love independent film because it’s a smaller family, and that you have more jobs to do as you’re “moving together.” What are some extra things you’re saddled with on an indie production that you maybe aren’t on a larger picture?
Whatever needs to be done to get the film done in the best way, you know? You’re working under a lot of restrictions. You have financial restrictions, which means time basically. It’s a smaller production so it’s very good if everyone rows the boat. If everyone’s doing that, then it’s a really beautiful thing and it also gets done the best way. Saying, “It’s not in my job title,” is not necessarily gonna move the film forward and, you know, make it great.