Michele Civetta (Agony) directed and co-wrote the gritty, edge-of-your-seat crime thriller, The Gateway. I got to speak with Michele about the many layers to his new film as well as working with Bruce Dern.
The Gateway stars an ensemble cast of Shea Whigham (American Hustle), Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse), Taryn Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”), Mark Boone Junior (Donnybrook), Taegen Burns (Dumplin’), with Frank Grillo (The Grey) and Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight).
Synopsis: Whigham is Parker, a down-on-his-luck social worker who finds himself in over his head when he tries to protect his client from her recently paroled husband. Can Parker save the family from the violent threat of the maniacal drug dealer and his crew, desperate to reclaim their priceless stash?
How did you get involved with this project?
Michele: I have grown up with a friend, who actually ended up producing the movie, and he built a bit of a film fund over the years and has produced a bunch of great projects. He called me one day and said, ‘look, I’ve got a script that I think is quite good, but it definitely needs to really be rebooted. It needs to be kind of gutted a bit but I do feel like it’s something that we could go shoot.’ It was one of those rare examples for me. It was all basically ready to go, what we had to do to get it to that place. So, I think the overall process took about three months of rewriting the thing from page one to actually being on the ground, starting to do location scouting.
Why is it titled The Gateway?
Michele: So the original script I inherited took place in Chicago and it was taking place in Chi-town, which obviously has its fair share of criminal issues and I basically decided to transpose the story to St. Louis although I’ve only been there once, because it became a metaphor for me. St Louis was known as the Gateway City with the arches and because it was a point of commerce and transport, kind of more in the gilded industrial era between east and west. And in our times, it’s become actually a big drug corridor, so it has all the fallout from that in terms of violence and crimes in the streets. It kind of felt like it was a crossroads, the tapestry of what I wanted to kind of uncover in this kind of story in terms of all these different elements meeting in one place.
There are quite a few films that have come out recently that have this drug element to them. Did that make you nervous at all to add on to that?
Michele: I have a real dear friend, he made a movie called Crisis, which is all about fentanyl addiction and stuff, Nick Jerecki, and he’s certainly set out to uncover the more complicated elements of drug trafficking, how that works, the Big Pharma kind of iteration of how it’s routing the streets. I consider the drugs to be one facet of the story. I mean, it’s certainly, if you want to call it this, like the MacGuffin that sets off the whole ride, but it really just kind of fuels you to understand the tapestry of different people being affected by all these issues… It’s at the forefront of so many generations of what occurs in America, you know, like coming back from Vietnam. It definitely set a precedent in terms of what occurred in the 70s or the 80s with “Freeway” Rick Ross and the crack epidemic, that’s where it gets complicated because it’s socio-political, and it’s got a much bigger hand than just the fall out on the streets.
Parker is such an interesting character.
Michele: Yeah, he’s a complex character. We tried to get him to live and breathe and he’s complex because he exists in this realm of a kind of morality that is not defined as a good guy or a bad guy. It’s certainly more of a throwback to kind of what you’d expect as an antihero, I guess in the 70s. But with that said, I think what allows him and what Shea did so brilliantly in this film is his humanity. Nobody actually inherently is entirely bad or do they believe they’re bad; they’re operating in their own version of a world where they believe they’re making the right decisions. And I think that’s where you find a window into not only a character but also in watching the movie, it’s those paradoxes that I think are compelling.
I just thought it was so interesting that he’s doing all of this good for this family, but he himself is battling addiction as well. It was just another layer on all of this.
Michele: You hit the nail on the head. The motto that Shea came up with from the getgo, and it was the window into this character, and I think it’s so simple but so brilliant is: he can’t take care of himself, but he takes care of others. And that’s all you need to really dig into to understand what his conflict is.
I love it when there are layers to things and then when you start unpacking them, it just makes you appreciate the entire product so much more.
Michele: Yeah, I don’t like things in a nice, neat, clean bow. I don’t think life is that way so, I think it would be, at least on my behalf with a story like this, kind of a failure if it finishes and it’s resolved for you. For me, the most exciting takeaway is complexity, like you have to actually say, ‘well what was the point of that?’ or like it comes fuel for thought and hopefully conversation and debate. I don’t think life is neat and clean.
I was reading your director’s note and it’s that you were a big fan of Bruce Dern. What was it like working with him?
Michele: I mean, you kind of pinch yourself along the way, I’m truly a huge, huge fan. I just love The King of Marvin Gardens, The Driver, Coming Home and for me, he’s really one of the greatest actors of all time. I wrote his part with him in mind but I also, for whatever reason, could hear his voice in my head so I was teasing Bruce when we were working together, I was like, ‘I feel like you’re like my spirit animal.’ He’s like, one of the most poetic, intellectual, but also visceral people I’ve ever met. I think he brings a real unique fusion to what he does. There’s an intensity but also an anachronistic kind of punk rock element, you know, from that generation that he’s not afraid to create disorder in finding truth and reality and what gets said on screen. He asked me only one thing when we started, he said, ‘All I ask is, when I go into it, I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do, but I have to go do it. And then from there we can adjust.’ What that means is it’s not necessarily going to be the way it’s written on the page and it creates an imbalance because you can’t be over rehearsed, you have to actually all of a sudden be willing to get real and it’s not the easiest working method for all parties involved. But what it does do is it raises the stakes to a level of dynamism. I think Bruce is just electrifying on screen the watch.
After you wrote this part with him in mind, how did it actually happen that he was in your movie?
Michele: I wrote a letter and we sent the script to his agent and manager. Ultimately he read it, responded and then he and I sat down to talk about it before he signed on. We actually sat down at a coffee shop for about four hours in the valley, just talking about life and talking about who we are and all that kind of stuff. It was interesting because Bruce is a huge runner, he was a triathlete and he’s won tons of marathons, but he basically broke his hip, probably about six months prior, so it became a workaround because he hadn’t fully recuperated. It obviously changed the scope of what his character was capable of doing, but I think it worked out quite well.
What was it like working with the cast as a whole?
Michele: Every actor comes into a project with a very different set of reference points and how they prepare for their work. I always feel like I’m juggling, almost like the way a psychiatrist would with a bunch of different problematic kids or something. You want to bring out the best in them but you have to somehow get everyone to behave along the way. It was amazing because you watched relationships develop throughout the course of the film that were in sync with what had to occur on screen and Olivia was so generous with her time with Teagan Burns, who plays her daughter. I think there’s a sort of wisdom in what someone like Olivia was able to create in just fostering a reality out of her own experience in her life and applying it on set and to just working with everyone. That goes for Marc Boone Jr, who’s actually very good friends with Shea and I think that they had a rapport in real life that just really allowed what they create on screens to have a fusion that just feels relaxed, easy and honest.
What would you say was your favorite scene to shoot and then what would you say was the most challenging?
Michele: There’s a dramatic scene in the film between Zach Avery, who plays Mike, the husband who returns from jail, and Olivia and Shea. It’s the first time they encounter and it was a very heavy scene, dramatically. And to understand the calibration of tonality, I won’t say it took a lot of takes so much as it was a lot of just really trying to understand where all those pieces were supposed to lie. And dramas are always the trickiest because you can see it on paper one way and then as you start plugging in the different elements, you have to constantly be aware and recalibrate how does this fit into this puzzle piece in this longer story. That was challenging and some of the technical stuff gets a little bit trickier like all the guns going off… It was certainly very challenging for my cinematographer, Bryan Newman, and the stunt coordinator, Curtis Lyons, to keep everyone safe and also achieve what we were aiming for with all that stuff.