For "The Art of the Steal," a border-hopping crime comedy full of double-crosses and high stakes heists, Sobol convinced big names like Kurt Russell, Terence Stamp, Matt Dillon and Jay Baruchel to come along for the ride. And for his part, Baruchel said the decision to join up was an easy one. He liked the script and cast, and he and the Canadian writer/director shared a mutual affinity for making movies at home, as well as knowing when to pepper the tightly-scripted heist plot with bits of improvised humour.
Moviefone Canada sat down with Baruchel and Sobol during the Toronto International Film Festival, where we heard about Sobol's heist movie inspirations, Baruchel's instant chemistry with his co-star Russell, and what it was like filming at an active border crossing.
Moviefone Canada: That scene at the border is a great one. What was it like filming that?
Jay Baruchel: It was hard to keep a straight face, because that was me getting to go toe-to-toe with one of the world's funniest humans in Mike Wilmot. I've been a fan of his for a long time, he's a frequent collaborator of one of my best friends, Michael Dowse. And we actually shot at an active border crossing, it was a government installation. We had permits, but all the same, they weren't super psyched to have us there. There's all these secure places we weren't allowed to go. And just silly conversations about "Where are we going to put the coolers?" Like the border guards give a s--t about our f--king coolers.
But no, I really liked the scene, but I was also incredibly scared of it. Because there's the potential for it to just not work at all and be kind of f--king crazy and who would buy it and all that stuff. But I think that scene exists in such a strange, weird little energy, and I adore our back-and-forth, and I was encouraged to ham it up, as was he. So it was a lot of fun.
Jonathan Sobol: They gave us a wealth of material too. I assure you of that.
When you're shooting something this quickly, in 28 days and doing six or seven pages a day, is everything really tightly-scripted and planned, or is there room to play around? Because the scene at the border feels kind of loose to me.
Baruchel: It is and it isn't. We knew the parameters of the scene, we knew the mile markers within the two pages or whatever it is. We knew that we had this beat to hit, this beat to hit, and it has to end here. And so we rehearsed it as is, and then eventually, me and Mike, we started just kinda finessing, and finessing's the wrong word because it implies it needed finessing. It was more like just we found our own way in and looked for little spots of daylight to do our own thing. But always knowing what the f--king gist of the scene was, and more importantly, where it had to go, what our out was on it. I think as long as you know that you're given specific parameters and as long as you're adhering to them, your way of doing it sometimes can be up for debate.
Sobol: This is something that somebody like Jay is very, very skilled in. It's almost too simple to call it ad-libbing. Because first you're going in with an understanding of character, and then you're coupling that with concept of story. These are the markers, this is what I need to hit. This is my character in this situation. The ad-libs are informed. It's not like just the random spewing of crazy s--t. Although occasionally everyone spews some crazy s--t.
Baruchel: There were a few riffs on what play I was going to do. I think one of them was "S--thead Goes to F--ktown." [Laughs] I'm amazed the "Predator 2" s--t is still in the movie.
Do you think your take on that is different now from when you first started acting, now that you're writing scripts as well?
Baruchel: Without a doubt. The shift for me, when I got out of my head as an actor, and stopped suffering from this chronic nearsightedness that all actors seem to suffer from, which is, "Can I do another? Can I get another one? Let me do it again." And just focusing only on their s--t, right? It was when, I don't mean to drop a name, but it's just f--king massively relevant to my life, is when I was working for [Clint] Eastwood. And on the very first day after every take, I was like, "Is that OK?" He's like, "Yeah, it's fine." And I was like, "Aw s--t." I'm picturing him like, "Look at this f--king kid. Who the f--k is this kid?" And then Morgan Freeman saw me freaking out, and he goes, "If he doesn't say anything, it means he likes it." And I was like, Oh right. What difference does it make how I f--king feel? He's directing it, he's gonna cut it together. If he thinks he's got what he needs, it's not me anymore. And it saved me. Because you can tweak forever. That was when the penny dropped, when I realized I'm a cog in a machine. Never forget that.
Sobol: But at the same time, I think that there was a selflessness to you, and there was a selflessness to Kurt [Russell], and there was a selflessness to Terence [Stamp] and all of them, which was edifying as a director to see that they take care in making sure that the story is served first and foremost. And when you're working in the middle of winter on a tight schedule in Canada, to have everyone that selfless is really both generous and humbling and relieving as a director.
Jay, you had to say "Kneel before Zod" at least once to Terence Stamp, didn't you?
Baruchel: [Laughs] That's not the one for me. The one for me is Mr. Tunstall from "Young Guns." So that was what I asked him about. That was the first thing. We talked a bit of soccer and stuff, and I think he was good friends with George Best back in the day. But I wanted to know all about "Young Guns," and he just told me what all those guys were like in that time. The two Estevez brothers and where their heads were at, and who wanted what, because that's still one of my favourite movies. But yeah, you show up on set and you look over here, there's f--king Kurt Russell, and there's Terence Stamp, and it's just like, I've got a pretty cool gig.
What'd you see in Jonathan that made you want to get involved with the movie?
Baruchel: Our philosophies just kind of dovetailed, what we want to do in movies, and how we want to make 'em and where we want to make 'em. Just like two patriots met each other, and it seemed like a really fun thing to do. And on a five-hour train ride away from my city, so I was just like, f--k yeah!
We need to make more movies here that take place here, and don't hide our Canadianness. I'm sick of seeing the Toronto skyline and then when it comes time to currency being exchanged, it's a close-up on f--king American money. Like enough, man. And I was happy to meet someone else, because unfortunately we're in the minority. I can count on one hand the amount of filmmakers who are as patriotic. And not in some weird propagandist thing, we're not trying to go out and sell the f--king pipeline. But just, if you were in any other country in the world and you wanted to make movies in your country, people would just be like, "Oh, you're a filmmaker." They wouldn't be like, "How come you're making 'em here? You're Syrian, you made a movie in Arabic, you shot it for Syria? Where's the establishing shot of Chicago?" That would never happen.
A good movie's a good movie. The setting is equal parts irrelevant and relevant. It's wallpaper, but it's also something. And we got so much flack when we made "The Trotsky" for all the Montreal "inside jokes" we had. I was like, the inside jokes? Why, because we mentioned a f--king street? [Laughs] Jesus Christ, man!
Sobol: Rue Sherbrooke. Hilarious!
Baruchel: Hilarious! Only a Montrealer would get that f--king joke! Enough is enough.
Sobol: And on a slightly optimistic joke, I think that we as an industry are beginning to do that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with resolutely setting things here that are designed to be popular, or designed to entertain. I think that's a hallmark of a maturing industry.
Did you reference any heist films in the development of the movie?
Sobol: It sounds a little pretentious, because they're very heady genre picks, but "Rififi" [and] "Bob Le Flambeur." "Bob Le Flambeur" was actually a touchstone for the relationship between Kurt's character and Jay's character, where you had the mentor/apprenticeship relationship. So that's the '50s. Moving into the '60s ...[Laughs] I can go "Topkapi," "Le Cercle Rouge," and then more contemporary stuff too. Even the "Oceans" movies. So it seems like I'm referencing earlier films, and the reason is it's because I just saw a spate of heist and con movies that relied too much upon, for lack of a better word, bulls--t. Like "The computer hacker who can tap into the city's mainframe and shut off the power grid."
Baruchel: What a lazy deus ex machina.
Sobol: So it's a little bit of a throwback, and then I wanted to tweak those genre sensibilities, but observe their conventions. You don't want to just blow up these conventions. You want to observe them, tweak them slightly, and then hopefully make something that people enjoy.
Speaking of Kurt and Jay's mentor/apprentice relationship, was there anything that you did to help build that rapport?
Baruchel: It's one of these things where if we didn't get along at all, I'm sure we'd find a way to fake it. But what really helped was, we just were two Chatty Cathys together. And I would just ask him every conceivable thing, every John Carpenter story, stuff about "Tango and Cash," stuff about "Tombstone," one of my very favourite movies of all-time, and he was cool to talk about all of it. So whenever we called "Cut!," Kurt and I would go outside, have a cigarette and talk about God knows what. We talked about everything, we talked politics, we talked movies, we talked sports. So I think that when it comes time to say "Action!," there's an energy and there's a connection and a shorthand, because we enjoy each other's company. And it can be faked, it's just way less fun and way more work.
What made you want Kurt for Crunch Calhoun?
Sobol: Because he's a screen legend. He brings a gravitas to him, a very different gravitas than someone like Terence Stamp, but I mean, he is heroic.
Baruchel: He's one of cinema's great heroes.
Sobol: Exactly. And I mean this lovingly, he's also blue-collar. He has an authenticity about him, which I greatly admire. And I was really welcoming the chance to work with Snake Plissken.
And you got him to dress as Elvis...
Baruchel: How f--king cool is that?
Sobol: The weirdest part is I couldn't talk him out of it. At first I'm talking to the wardrobe lady. I'm like, "Let's do it with a little bit of tassels, and let's not go too far." And he looks down and he's like, "You know, I was really hoping for a way wilder suit." And I was like, "Ohh, all right." And I wanted to take it really, really far. But eventually we settled on that. And then he does a karate crane kick too.
Baruchel: I know! He does the "Karate Kid" thing.
Sobol: Here's the best part, he likes to have fun. He likes to work hard and have fun. And he's, like Jay, selfless.
"The Art of the Steal" opens in theatres on Friday, September 20.