LA Film Festival Sun 5.31.2015

How It All Started With a Bad Impression of Martin Sheen—The Story Behind Band of Robbers

Behind every (fill in the blank) great/glorious/funny/scary/sad story told on film is an equally great/glorious/funny/scary (yes, probably sometimes) sad story: the one about how the whole thing went from being an idea in a brain (probably many years ago) to a big screen premiere at a big-time Festival. In this Film/Maker Q/A blog series, our LA Film Fest programmers interview our LA Film Fest filmmakers to discover the stories behind the story.

Los Angeles Film Festival Associate Programmer Steven Jacobson talked with Band of Robbers writer-director-brothers Aaron and Adam Nee about their  film, in which Mark Twain’s young heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn spring vividly back to life, this time as modern-day grown men. When Huck is released from prison he hopes to leave his criminal past behind. But his lifelong friend and corrupt cop, Tom, has other plans, having formed the Band of Robbers, a group of misfits dedicated to locating the hidden treasure that eluded the boys in childhood.

The idea of bringing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn into the modern world as adults is inspired, but also ambitious. How did the concept originate, and did you feel at all daunted by the prospect of re-imagining a world created by one of America’s greatest writers?
Adam: Back when I was just starting out as an actor in New York, I auditioned for a Huck Finn movie that was pretty much the book verbatim, focusing on a 13-year-old Huck and Jim on the raft. I was about ten years too old for the part and approached the character by doing a bad impression of Martin Sheen from Badlands. It was an embarrassing audition. Just blank stares from the room. I walked home laughing at how much of a fool I had made of myself and started thinking about what Twain’s stories would be like if Tom and Huck weren’t teenaged, but adults, closer to my age. That night I re-read Tom’s ‘band of robbers’ speech to the gang in the beginning of the book, imagining him as a grown man and it made me laugh. That’s when the idea started, but we didn’t write it until much later.

Aaron: The fact that we were dealing with material that is near and dear to so many people was at the forefront of many early discussions about how we would approach this screenplay. People have very specific ideas about who Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are and those ideas can vary wildly. Ultimately we knew we had to base this on what inspired us about the books and the characters and not try to contort our adaptation to accommodate everyone else’s interpretations.

Adam: Yeah, really the hardest part of adapting two classic novels into one 90-minute film is letting go of things that are precious to us for the sake of creating a piece that stands on its own as a new work. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are overflowing with great little storylines and anecdotes. We were faced with the daunting challenge of holding onto central ideas from those books while shaping a new story that included those core ideas and more than a few peripheral story elements of Twain’s that we love.

Band of Robbers seems to have a lot to say about childhood. The dreams and fantasies we foster as children never really leave us, even as we become ‘mature’ adults. There’s something strikingly authentic about the way you’ve captured that phenomenon. Do the adventures of Tom, Huck, Becky, and the gang in your film draw on any of your own childhood experiences, as Twain drew on his?
Adam: Absolutely. I think Aaron and I have a Tom and Huck dynamic in a way. I’ve certainly gotten a few fences whitewashed in my time, and Aaron is always wandering around the woods carrying a dead cat.

Aaron: It’s really more about a wart problem than any kind of cat thing.

Adam: He always says that.

Aaron: It’s my pickup line in the woods.

Adam: You know this is a great question though and it’s something I think about a lot. The dreams we have as children continuing to linger through adulthood. It’s something I can definitely relate to.

Aaron: Yes, one of the themes that emerged out of retelling the story of these iconic children now as adults is that of holding your childhood dreams and ambitions in balance with the responsibilities and heightened stakes that come from moving into the adult world. Like Tom and Huck, Adam and I both find ourselves stumbling through that journey of not wanting to let go of childhood aspirations while at the same time—like our Tom and Huck—discovering that adventurism can leave a wake of destruction if you’re not careful. The struggle of holding youthful dreaming with adult responsibility in tension with each other is a big part of what shaped our approach to the characters of adult Tom, Huck and the gang.

You’ve clearly established an effective working relationship: how do you divide up the myriad responsibilities of making a feature film? How do you resolve conflicts? And in scenes where Adam is on screen, do you ever disagree on line readings or interpretations?
Aaron: We worked out most of the kicking and punching as kids. Over the years we’ve developed more sophisticated ways of settling disagreements, like seeing who can throw a brick the furthest or whose spit leaves the biggest mark on the ground.

Adam: I think the differences in our personalities compliment each other. The things I lack are usually Aaron’s strengths and vice versa. As far as conflict goes, we spend a lot of time in pre-production making sure we are on the same page so that any questions we get asked will have the same answer, regardless if it’s Aaron answering or me. If there is something that we’re deadlocked on, one of us will inevitably say ‘it’s your call’ to the other and then we move on. And if I’m on camera and Aaron has a note or idea, I’m happy. Actors want to be directed, even if they are also directing.

What are your comedic influences, and/or your influences in general? What do you think is the “perfect comedy,” if one exists, and what makes it so?
Adam: I think Boogie Nights is the perfect comedy. It seems like a lot of current comedies are mostly concerned with ‘set pieces’–big, shocking, laugh-out-loud moments. An entire script will be built around a handful of set pieces without taking the time to get you invested in the reality of the characters. What makes Boogie Nights so incredible to me is the amazing balance of real life, big time stakes and high drama with the funniest moments you’ll see in a film. And the moments become so much funnier because PT has invested a lot of thought and time into grounding the characters and the world. All of my favorite comedies are dramas: The Graduate, Badlands, Boogie Nights, Dog Day Afternoon, Buffalo 66, Being John Malkovich, even Rushmore.

Aaron: Yeah, my favorite comedies are those that sit near the edge of the comedy classification. I like a good drama that finds comedic moments in that dramatic story.

I found the film laugh-out-loud hilarious, but I really felt for the characters, and the proceedings are imbued with a disarming sweetness. How do you maintain the laughs while telling a dramatic story that an audience will care about?
Adam: Oh thank you, that’s really nice. I guess it goes back to the previous answer. We weren’t really setting out to make a comedy, but a very funny drama.

Aaron: I’m really glad to hear that you were able to connect with the characters. It was very important to us, as we developed this movie, that we not let our characters slide into caricatures whom we laugh at, but don’t feel for. We wanted them to remain people who have hopes and dreams that we can connect to and care about. We like to talk about this movie as a kind of love story between two best friends who really relied on each other over the years, but are at a crossroads in life that could mean the end of that childhood friendship. All of the comedy and adventure then grows out of that core story, and hopefully enhances that love story, without obscuring it.

What do you think Mark Twain would have made of Band of Robbers, and are there any major elements from his stories that you omitted or altered because cultural sensibilities have changed? (I’m thinking especially of your clever reworking of Injun Joe.)
Adam: Mark actually really loved the movie. There was a night when it was still winter where I was working late in our office in the old brick building over the coffee shops of York Blvd. and I was watching the cut. I got that sort of cold feeling in my spine that you get when there are ghosts around, and I turned to see Mark Twain himself sitting on an exercise ball in the office, watching the movie over my shoulder. I opened my mouth to say something but he shut me up by pointing at the screen in that ‘I’m watching this—keep it down’ kind of way, so I swiveled my gaze back to the movie and we watched the whole thing together in silence. When it was finished, I saw he was shaking his head and seemed tearful. I got nervous but then he spoke, slowly, in a deep whisper that sounded more like a steam ship than a man, and he said, ‘Thank you.’ Then he recommended a few edits, and I tried them but they didn’t work too good, and I thought they were a little dated.

Aaron: I wasn’t there for that. I just hope Hal Holbrook and Val Kilmer like it.

Adam: In regards to omissions, there was certainly a lot left behind that we initially intended to use. Two storylines I was certain I wanted in the movie were the feuding families and the Duke and the King adventures from Huck. But in the end, they’re merely alluded to. There just wasn’t space. We knew we had to focus the story and pare down to make it work as a film. I was sad to let those elements go, but it helped tremendously in honing in on the fun, coming-of-age element with this group of men in a state of arrested development.

Aaron: I hope that we have stayed true to the ways that Twain critiqued social ills by making the very same characters that we relate to and love the mouthpieces of and perpetrators of backwards and prejudiced mentalities. It is easy to make your hero denounce things that you don’t like and make your villains espouse the sentiments you disapprove of. It is quite another challenge to make your heroes also be the ones who are racists, corrupt and self centered. If we pulled that kind of story off even half as well as Twain did, I’m happy.

Band of Robbers is playing in the Festival’s Zeitgeist section on Saturday, June 13 at 7:15 pm. The film is currently in rush line.


Steven Jacobson / Los Angeles Film Festival Associate Programmer Steven directed the dance movie Center Stage: Turn It Up and was Second Unit Director on the hit musical Dreamgirls. A graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Steven is currently developing several film projects. Steven’s taste in film is eclectic, ranging from genre movies and anime to international arthouse cinema in all its incarnations. His fascination with film began at the age of eight when his imagination was captured by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and he never looked back!