“Uncle John” Captivates Audiences at SXSW 2015

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    “Uncle John” Captivates Audiences at SXSW 2015

A small Midwestern town is rustled when the disappearance of a local bully born again Christian goes missing; however, the only person who knows anything about this is John, a gentle soul and beloved member of the community. As days past, the brother of the missing man, Danny, suspects that John has had something to do with it, and becomes increasingly threatening towards him.  Meanwhile, his nephew Ben sports a budding relationship with his new co-worker Kate. After a spontaneous trip to visit his old town, Ben and Kate’s storyline crosses with John. This layered drama sucked the SXSW audience in with it’s vulnerable characters, electrifying script, and artistic directing.

Taken at the Alamo Ritz before the premiere. Credit: Emily Reas
Taken at the Alamo Ritz before the premiere.
Credit: Emily Reas

Before the premiere, I had the chance to sit down with director Steven Piet, producer Erik Crary, and actor John Ashton from the film. Steven and Erik, who actually share a production company together, collaborated on the screenplay.

Steven: So we were working in a production company together [Witness] in Chicago, and we worked on a lot of dry advertising work. You know, we always wanted to do a film, and he [Erik] was writing a screenplay on his own time, and I was writing a screenplay on my own time. We looked at his screenplay, and it was a little bit too small for our first feature, and mine was just a little bit too big. So, we just decided to talk it through and came up with “Uncle John,” and wrote it together for the first time which was an amazing experience.

Erik: Towards the end of the film, you know, making the screenplay how it needed to be- it wasn’t like ego plays or anything. We each did a craft, so we each got to say what we wanted to say in our drafts. And then, sort of took everything from that, and then worked on the rest of it together in one more pass.

With the script finalized, they now had to find the actor to be the lead of film. And how they found veteran actor John Ashton was a story all in it’s own.

Steven: They streamed “Beverly Hills Cop” on Netflix. They always put it up there, and I hadn’t watched it in a long time. And, you know, when you’re making a movie, everything around you kind of gets sucked in to your idea. Like possibilities. In this case I was watching John (John Ashton) as Taggart, and I was like, “I’ve

From left to right: John Ashton, Steven Piet, Erik Crary. Credit: Emily Reas
From left to right: John Ashton, Steven Piet, Erik Crary.
Credit: Emily Reas

always loved that guy!” And he just has a great voice and always comes off as down to earth, salt of the earth, kind of guy which would be perfect for Uncle John. So, I made a list of actors, and I gave it to Erik-

Erik: Yeah, from there, we basically wrote really frank emails saying, “We have honestly very little money, but here’s the script. If you like it, we would love to talk.” And that was kind of it. We dug up John’s email somehow directly online. We were able to get the script to him, and from there…I’m going to turn it over to John.

John: Well, I got an email from these guys, and I’ve been looking for that kind of story to do for a long time. I read the first three pages, they sent the script with their email. I called my agent, and said, “This is what I’ve been looking for for the last five years”, you know. I said I’m doing this. This is what I want to do, so I called them, got in touch. We Skyped each other, and I said I’m in!

Having over a hundred credits ranging from film to television to theater, John wasn’t afraid to take on the role of Uncle John.

John: They wanted to fly me into Madison, and I said, “You know what? I’m going to drive.” And I drove my pickup from Colorado to Madison, [Wisconsin]. Three days. Just to get into the character. Chill out. And I got there a couple of days early so I could pick up some of the dialogue of the local people and stuff. And I just wanted to be by myself because Uncle John is a very inward character, you know.

The cast and crew before the premiere. Credit: Emily Reas
The cast and crew before the premiere.
Credit: Emily Reas

Steven: So the character, it’s a very Midwestern thing to do, you know, to be going through something and not want to externalize it.  Just keep it all inside. And, like John said, you know what not to say. Like, what’s going through the character’s head, what he’s feeling, and what’s the weight of the situation. Cause really the whole movie, he has to pretend. He really is acting through the whole film because he doesn’t want it to be known that he killed someone.

John: I think it was the first or second day of shooting actually. I did the scene where I broke down. And, I mean I didn’t do it on purpose, you know. I just happened! The process. And Steven came over and went, “Too much. Too early for that.” [everyone laughs] But I said, “I wasn’t trying to go there, it just happened!”

Steven: And that’s the beautiful thing about his performance is that, that is exactly what we needed. We needed the tears to be right there, but hidden. They were so accessible, that he couldn’t even control it, so that’s why his performance is so great.

This film is filled with fabulous performances by John as well as the other actors in it. With such a clean film, it was surprising how short the production schedule was.

The cast and crew during the Q&A after the film. Credit: Emily Reas
The cast and crew during the Q&A after the film.
Credit: Emily Reas

Steven: It was sixteen days. And we did twelve hour days cause we had SAG rules.

Erik: It was very military, but it worked.

Steven: Yeah, it was military. I mean, my cinematographer was like, you know, you direct like an editor. Cause I was like, I need these lines, this angle, and then we got to move on. You know, we just had to go so fast to make our days.

And it also helped that Erik grew up in Lodi, Wisconsin which was one of the main locations for the film. With family and friends helping out, anything was possible.

Erik: We had beyond support. I mean, we had neighbors, friends, my mom ran catering up there, Steven’s mom in catering in Chicago. The amount of support is ridiculous. They donated cookies and stuff- we were like living on all this stuff for sixteen days.

Myself: The struggle of an Independent Filmmaker, am I right?

John: The funny thing is, we were out having dinner one night, and I said, cause the film’s called “Uncle John”, right? I said to Steven and Erik, “Why don’t we call it like ‘It Happened in Lodi'”, or something really weird, you know? And Steven says, “You’re the only actor I know whose doing the lead character, and the film is named after your character, and you want to change the title of the film!” [everyone laughs]

Steven: It just wasn’t a good title!

Myself: Yeah, that’s what he was trying to say!

Well whether the title was good or not, “Uncle John” was a solid film that will hopefully open doors for all of the cast and crew who were apart of it.

This has been Emily Reas with KTSW 89.9.

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