Nothing shatters the dreams of youth quite like the inescapable march of adulthood. As soon as there are mouths to feed apart from one’s own, the days of uncertainty and experimentation must give way to clarity and responsibility. How do reformed dreamers reconcile with their past, particularly when the past comes knocking at their door?
Such is the set-up for Damon Maulucci and Keir Politz’s acclaimed debut feature, “Detonator,” a deliciously tense thriller about a Philadelphia family man, Sully (a riveting Lawrence Michael Levine), who hesitantly embarks on an increasingly frightening nighttime journey with his former punk bandmate, Mick (Benjamin Ellis Fine), a natural born troublemaker intent on scheming a formidable record producer (Robert Longstreet). Michael Cano’s widescreen cinematography does a remarkable job of amping up the tension, as Sully suddenly finds himself stranded on empty streets with a loose cannon capable of firing at any moment.
Maulucci and Politz spoke with Indie Outlook about their personal connection to the story, the atmospheric power of Philadelphia locations and the ways in which teaching has provided the perfect balance to their filmmaking endeavors.
Q: Philadelphia has rarely looked so desolate onscreen. You’ve found areas in the city that heighten the unease by isolating Sully and Mick in the frame.
Damon Maulucci (DM): The film is really about these two friends. It’s about a lot of things, but it’s largely about the friends’ past, the things they left unresolved and who they are now. They’re pseudo-adults coming back to these places where they used to hang out and get drunk. It’s definitely a great backdrop in which to explore their intense relationship and the tension that’s ratcheting up.
Keir Politz (KP): We wanted to capture the universe that these guys are stuck in. In many films, you get a representation of Philadelphia that is very filtered. You get the tourist shots from the guidebook. That’s not really what the city is, for better or for worse, and I actually feel for the better. I think that there is a life and energy here that is simultaneously raw and exciting. My brother is a foreign service officer living in Kinshasa in the Congo, and the draw for him is simply that it’s a breathtakingly beautiful place. You’re living life in this very visceral and immediate way. As far as American cities go, I feel like Philadelphia has that to offer. You see things here that you’ve never seen before in an American city, not even New York. We tried our very best to capture what it feels like to be drifting through Philly on a summer night.
We shot a lot in areas that have open spaces. You’ll go through parts of Philadelphia where they’ve knocked down entire city blocks not because they want to get rid of them but because the houses are so old and they’ve fallen into such a state of disrepair that tearing them down was the only option. The capital isn’t there to rebuild so you just have these vast open spaces. Now you’re seeing these new, encroaching waves of people who are finding interesting things to do with them. You’ve got a lot of urban gardens and guys zipping around on dirt bikes. There’s something special and exciting about that. People who spend more than a few weeks or a few months in the city either don’t respond to it or really respond to it. David Lynch lived in Philly for three years. We shot near the area where Lynch lived and he was very moved by being here and has expressed that many times—in a critical way, but also in a very affectionate way too.
There’s a famous Philadelphia architect named Frank Furness who designed domineering buildings such as the Academy of Fine Arts where David Lynch had studied. It’s an amazing, immense space with brick turrets. He also designed industrial buildings around the city—these factories and old warehouses—that you stumble across and you’re like, “Holy s—t, what is this thing?” It just has this decaying beauty. When buildings start to decay in New York, they knock them down and build something new. In Philly, they let them fall down. That’s the interesting dynamic we wanted to capture in the neighborhoods.
Q: The premise for “Detonator” could’ve played so many different ways—as a straight-up thriller or a dark comedy like “After Hours”—but I felt that there was a real edge to the film that grounded it in seriousness.
KP: Originally I had written the film for a director who was looking for a project, and there was interest from a television actor to star in it. I had to deliver a screenplay relatively quickly. Damon and I had been working together for years since we were in graduate school. We were at Columbia together with Larry, and Damon had another project that was moving forward but kept hitting potholes. So we decided to write this screenplay together, and when the actor disappeared, we decided to make the film our own and make it in Philly on a reasonable scale.
Our producer, David Jacovini, would always tell us that we were boxing above our weight class. We’re trying to get these cinematic qualities that you might find in a larger scale production and do it in an indie way. It was the first feature film for both of us, so it was all new to us. Whether or not we ever direct something again, we’re always going to work together and it did wonderful things for our relationship, both working and personal. It allowed us to have a support that you normally don’t get when you’re out there having to manage a group of creative people.
DM: Keir’s story constructs a great triangle between these three one-time friends, and as we fleshed out the script over a long period of time, it became very personal to us. We’ve both had these kinds of relationships where somebody emerges from your past who is like a brother to you. They challenge you and sometimes there can be toxicity—
KP: And a tremendous amount of love there as well.
DM: You’re constantly thinking, “Am I in a place in my life where I should invest more energy into this relationship when I’ve got other stuff going on?” When we were in the midst of making the film, Keir’s wife was pregnant with his first child. We thought about how we had put ourselves into debt with film school, and how we were trying to be filmmakers while monetizing some sort of lifestyle. We were asking deep questions about how we can make this [film] happen and how family factors into that. Having such a personal story motivates you to spend three or four years making it as good as you possibly can.
KP: How do you incorporate some of these more idealistic, youthful notions into a more sustainable adulthood where you have responsibilities? How do you incorporate them in a healthy way that allows you to be a decent dad or a decent husband or significant other? I don’t think Damon and I are like either Sully or Mick—I think there are elements of us in both of them—but I think we were both working out our own struggles in the process.
Q: The stakes are higher in Sully’s life than they were when he and Mick were close friends. There were less consequences to one’s actions, but now that Sully has a family, Mick’s recklessness is genuinely frightening.
KP: What Ben brought to the character was a great deal of humanity. We didn’t want to lose the lovability of the character. His attractive qualities make him so much more dangerous.
DM: Stakes are really important in the way that we want to tell stories. We wanted to have externalized danger mixed with Sully’s internal stakes. Some of our actors are known for delivering very naturalistic performances with slight character arcs, and we wanted to ratchet that up and play around with that.
Q: You’ve cited Elaine May’s 1976 film, “Mikey and Nicky,” as a key inspiration, which struck a similarly tricky tonal balance while defying genre conventions.
DM: That’s a wonderful thing to hear, though at the same time, I wonder if our inability to fit in a box will be a problem for us.
KP: In the short term, it might be, but if Damon and I continue to push ourselves artistically without getting complacent or feeling tempted by any sort of physical appetites, our storytelling is only going to get better and more confident.
DM: Keir and I check in with each other a lot. We both teach Screenwriting in Film respectively, and we find it kind of symbiotic. It makes us continue to evaluate and learn from the work that we’re sharing with the students, and it’s also a great way for us to monetize our creative lifestyle.
KP: In pushing them, we push ourselves. I read a ton of screenplays, and I love it. It’s like a drug in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not particularly ambitious, but then there’s a lot of stuff that is that needs a little bit of coercing. It’s almost as exciting to me as writing my own work. Teaching creates a nice balance that simultaneously keeps us engaged with fundamentals and the spirit of it, but also creates a balance so we don’t get too lost in our own heads or egos or the business of it all. We’ve been able to create our own little environment where we hopefully can continue to thrive and create interesting work that folds outside the confines of the business.
DM: I love serving other peoples’ stories. When I’m an audience member in a developing story, I want to be a mirror that shows the writer what the opportunities are. We have big ambitions for projects, but at the end of the day, it’s a difficult time economically. We just want to try to tell our stories in a way that creates community and doesn’t lose people a lot of money. If we can aspire for middle class, which is hard enough as it is, then that’s the extent of our dream in film.
Q: Sophia Takal has created a different sort of chemistry with her husband and frequent collaborator, Larry, in every film I’ve seen them in. They’ve played everything from flirtatious lovers to brother and sister. Here, Takal is convincingly portraying a wide-eyed temptress who appears to be much younger than Larry, despite the fact that they’re around the same age.
DM: We were wondering what it was going to be like when we got these two people, who were engaged at the time, onset. Sophia challenged Larry and kept him on point, so she actually took some of the heavy lifting off our shoulders. They’re very story-minded. Sophia added so much to her role. You got that she was a smart girl and then you saw some of the fire when she is, in a small way, spurned. We were so pleased with how it came off.
KP: There was a moment when Sophia and Larry were talking off on the side. I wouldn’t say she was directing him, but she was talking to him about the character and the scene in a way that kind of pushed him. Larry was getting pushed in this a lot. He’s used to making his own movies where he’s in them, he makes his own decisions and figures it out himself. In this film, he’s working with other actors and being asked to do things that he hasn’t done previously. Sophia showed up and it was effortless. She just has a natural ability to be in a moment and to understand what’s happening in a moment. I think that Larry has this extraordinary potential as an actor, and one of the things that we wanted to do was just try and take it to another level with him. Having the two of them onset was good for windows of time and it was also good to not have the two of them together. He needed time to be alone and be in his own head as well as be with us too. It was a nice balance.
DM: Right, because from his standpoint, he’s the protagonist and he’s carrying the movie on his back. He took that very seriously. Being a fan of his work, I love his performance in this film. I’m obviously biased, but I really love that he did something a little bit different.
KP: It stretched his personality. One thing that’s particularly telling to me is when his mom and dad saw the movie at the Brooklyn Film Festival, and were moved by it. They came up to us and were very complimentary. His mother said, “I’ve never seen Larry be like that in a movie.” She was really moved by seeing her son in that type of a role and that meant a lot to us.
DM: It’s the best critical praise we’ve gotten.
Q: Perhaps that feeling of being “in over his head” may have enhanced Larry’s performance, since his character shares that same anxiety.
KP: Yes. I think Ben pushed Larry too. Ben puts you on your heels when you meet him. He’s not always conscious of it and a lot of times, it’s coming from a good place. He’s a big personality and an interesting balance of utter confidence and crippling insecurity. He sort of wears it on his skin. That’s an extremely exciting type of actor to have onset, especially when you’re trying to crack the shell of the other actor.
DM: Ben came from Interlochen, a conservatory in Michigan for classical music students that developed a big theatre program for acting. That’s where he began his journey. He’s a trained actor very big into alternative theatre. I love working with actors that have that background. Larry has a bit of a theatre background too, and wrote a successful play that he made into a film, “Territory.” He’s very much an on-camera actor.
KP: Larry knows what a camera is picking up and he knows when he can play something small. In a lot of ways, we had to tone down Ben and try to pump up Larry, and they helped each other do that.
Q: Robert Longstreet has the deft ability to appear fatherly and threatening all at once.
KP: He’s a wonderful actor and a pleasant guy to be around. I can see why he’s so present in movies. Just having him there for a few days has made me think about how I could get to work with him again. Originally we were picturing his character as a mixture of Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye, but Robert Longstreet is different—pretty much exactly how you described him. He’s a menacing guy with a broken heart. He’s sensitive and sad but he deals with his disappointment in violent or reactionary ways.
DM: Robert really pushed the idea of this film being about a triangle between these three men. His character had kind of a mentor/apprentice relationship with Sully, and Robert brought this pain of betrayal that made everything so much more grounded.
KP: A lot of this movie is about the affections between buddies and how that evolves or fails to evolve as you get older. It’s always there. I see people from my distant past that I haven’t seen in a long time. There will always be a moment where I go, “Yeah, I remember why I felt this way about you, even if I can’t anymore.”
Q: What was your approach to co-directing your first feature?
DM: We didn’t assign roles. Being a director of any kind of film, but especially a low-budget film, you’re also a producer by default. Keir and I have been working together for so long, and when we were in pre-production, I’d like to think that the energy and rapport that we had together helped engage people who were giving us locations and coming on board. Keir and I are like brothers, so we can manage each others’ moods. It was a real collaboration. Some of the best moments for me onset were simply when Keir and I were looking at the monitor and seeing something that was better than how we envisioned it. We got into a rhythm where someone would go and give notes while the other stayed back. There were also some occasions where we literally yelled cut at the same time.
KP: I would say that it was very much an extension of the conversation that we’d been having for many years before that. It was always about serving the story. Some moments exceeded our expectations, others challenged us to get what we needed, but it was always about stepping back and figuring out the needs of each scene and each moment. In the end, for the most part, everyone felt pretty good about each other. To me, that was a great accomplishment. You want to have a set where there’s camaraderie and love and where everyone wants to hang out afterwards. There were a few karaoke nights and relationships that came out of that set. People from different parts of the world met on that set and are still in touch and working together.
DM: We all had relationships respective and irrespective of each other.
KP: To me, that’s the beauty of this. You have people come into your life, you try to do this very ambitious, idealistic and wonderful thing with them, and sometimes you fall short, but you’re still doing it together, and then you get on the phone with someone like you who saw it and had a response to it. That’s the good thing about making movies. I don’t need anything more than the ability to pay my mortgage and get my children to college. That’s all I need in life.