Last week, I read a take about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilling a CEO from big pharma company Gilead about the exponential and rapid increase in cost for drugs in a committee hearing. It ended by saying “The government’s failing to adequately shield consumers from companies like Gilead is a continuing tragedy, but at least with Democrats in control of the House, every once in a while we’ll get to see a CEO sweat.”
The great new film We Take the Low Road, which is making its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival Thursday night, is a revenge fantasy that provides far more catharsis than watching the freshman congresswoman’s YouTube-able moment. The movie stars Rich Morris, Brian Sutherland, and Amanda Viola, and SIFF describes the plot as such:
After a leak reveals that the medical industry conspired with politicians to dramatically increase prices and exploit the ill, and names the corporate villains who profited, three vigilantes take justice into their own hands in this grisly Western thriller set among the grassy hills and burnt yellow hues of Eastern Washington. The three would-be murderers—a vengeful son, a quick-witted mechanic, and a cash-strapped friend—slip on crazed animal masks and hit the road with a name and address. Their motivation: revenge, righting injustice, and…well…cash.
We Take the Low Road was directed by Domenic Barbero and Jerry Spears, and it’s their first feature. I spoke with Barbero earlier this week in person, and Spears answered some questions via e-mail.
I loved the movie and I’m wondering was there any one incident, like Martin Shkreli or Joe Manchin’s daughter (who, as CEO of Mylan, gave the lifesaving EpiPens a 500% increase) or anything that just made you think that this is a great idea for the movie? Because it absolutely is.
Domenic: Not one thing in particular. Jerry, the co-director, his mom had been going through a really tough legal battle with medical insurance companies. She’d been struggling with getting medication for cheap, because of her injury she was unemployed basically going down. I’ve had similar things in my life with some family members. When we sat down to write this movie, we said, “okay we want to make a movie about, you know a road movie that’s got some fun dialogue. What can we do in the premise of that to make it important and cover all of these things that had been going on with Jerry and I. It’s like, lets just take a moment and maybe we can make this a piece about going after pharma and medical insurance in some way. Make them see that it sucks for everyday people.
Jerry: For nearly twenty years my mother paid into her company provided Liberty Mutual Insurance. She paid for both short term and long term disability. She never used it, but she wanted it just in case something happened. In May of 2016 something happened. She was on a trail ride at a dude ranch with my family when the horse she was on bucked her off. She shattered both of her hips, cracked her pelvis, broke nine ribs, punctured her lung and sustained a head injury. After her short term disability ran out her doctor would not clear her to go back to work, he wrote in the paper work that she “should not return to work because she may not be able to preform her duties.” The insurance company said “He didn’t say you could NOT go back to work. Which means you can go back to work.” Her company wouldn’t allow her to return to work, and her insurance company wouldn’t pay her long term disability. That meant she had no income at all which is stressful enough, but she was also coming to terms with all of the ways her life would be different because of the injuries she sustained. Like so many people, I think my mom is the sweetest/nicest person I’ve ever known, and it’s hard to describe the helplessness you feel watching a love one go through an injustice like that. We had no recourse. That kind of helplessness in the face of injustice can take your mind to a dark place.
At the same time, post the 2016 election, Domenic and I, like so many people, were wondering where is all of this headed. It felt like we were headed for a civil war. For us, the question quickly became if there was a civil war, what would it look like? It’s not going to be states vs states or north vs south. It’s going to be neighbors vs neighbors. If that is the case, what do those terms of surrender look like? How do you win that war. The public gets drummed up into a frenzy about missing emails or the “Access Hollywood” tapes, which are all distraction pieces to the real story of America. In this country, there are haves and have-nots. Health care epitomizes the nonpartisan issue that any American should be able to get behind. No one should die needlessly, but they do. According to a recent Harvard study, around 45,000 people die every year because they lack health care. That’s what sparked the premise of Low Road.
It’s such a fascinating movie to me because I got this vicarious thrill from watching it that I don’t get in a lot of movies. I watched the Avengers movie a couple of weeks ago, and it was awesome seeing everyone kick Thanos’ ass, but there’s so much more satisfaction seeing a pharma executive getting tortured.
Domenic: Right, I feel like that as well. Jerry and I both felt, when we were writing this out, this feels really good to just … not so much imagine it happening but you see all these things happening in the media and thinking, “man, this is not a far jump from what is actually happening.” In our movie, we put a spin on it that. Pharma and medical insurance are pretty much directly connected to so many people that die that are close to you. You want to get help, you’re balancing “do I try to save myself with medication or do I bankrupt my family trying to go through this big hoopla with everything.” You, yourself in your sick moments are trying to figure something out and your family can’t really help. Yeah, they’re greedy and hopefully this would be a wake up call that this isn’t too far away. The people are going to take back their own rights at some point.
How did you cast it? How did you find your three leads?
Domenic: In the past I’d worked with Rich (Morris) and Brian (Sutherland). Going into this project they’re two of my favorite people I’ve worked with in town. I thought Okay if we make a movie can we get them in somehow. Turns out they worked great for the two leads and then the rest of the cast we made a pretty big casting call here. Then we went down to L.A. and did a big casting call there as well. Call backs both locations and then kind of picked who we thought was best. Amanda (Viola), Anisha (Adusumilli), Scott (McCracken), couple other people. We pulled quite a few people from L.A. and then quite a few people from here.
Jerry: Bobbi was the hardest to by far. Rich and Brian were actors that Dom knew and he said, “I’ve got the guys. you’ll love them.” He was right. When we saw Amanda read for Bobbi, it was a self tape she did on a cell phone, and we pretty much knew as soon as we saw it that we had our Bobbi.
Working with Brian, Rich, and Amanda was not only a blast, but it was also very educational. These were three great actors, with wonderful chemistry, that got along immediately. They had inside jokes together on day two of shooting. They also had three different distinct approaches to acting. There were a couple of days, the days that were loaded with some of the dark events in the film, where Brian and Amanda, as we knew them, didn’t really show up to set. They were locked into their character, and there weren’t many laughs on those days, which was how we wanted it. The goal was to try to keep the set somber during those moments. Rich has one of the biggest/kindest hearts I’ve ever met, so he was always there, but he would get himself to a different place through memories. There was a day where Brian sat by himself watching people about to die of cancer, say goodbye to their loved ones. Dark stuff. Crippling to watch. I couldn’t do that. He was kind of a wreck that day. Amanda has trained in a similar way to Brian, though different. Before she even got to town, she had written a character bio and she probably knew that character better than Dom or I, so most of the time we would just stay out of her way. All three of these people are wonderful collaborators.
The truth is that we wrote these characters as sketches that would serve a role in the story we wanted to tell. We were playing video games when we came up with this story and the characters started off with names like “main guy” and “his buddy,” but as we began to infuse them with stories from our past (or people we have known) they started to become more three dimensional characters.
How long did it take from coming up with this idea to finishing it?
Domenic: We kind of had a whirlwind plan. Jerry and I were just sitting around one day, this kind of idea popped up. I think it was around April of 2017, then we shot in September. It went from idea to in a can very quickly, and because of that there were some budget issues; post took a little bit longer because we were trying to continuously raise money to pay for our post. If it wouldn’t been for that we would of had it done quite a bit sooner. It was about year and a half total, start to finish shooting it was just a few months.
It sounded like it was put together pretty quickly, altogether. I mean some films can take many, many years. Also, I think the timing turned out to be pretty good too, having your world premiere here at SIFF.
Domenic: Yes, we are very excited about it.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Domenic: Jerry and I both started out as actors and I think we both still do a little bit on the side. I went to film school because I was acting, playing music, doing writing, and learnt some stuff there. Jerry, I think, on his path before we met kind of did something similar. Getting into that it kind of started as an outlet to satisfy a lot of my creative outlets and I’m sure Jerry feels the same way. The more I learned about all these different segments of film the more writing, directing, and telling stories that matter, those were the big things for Jerry and I that were the most important. If we’re going to spend time to tell a story, lets make something kind of important, not just a typical comedy or a typical this or a typical that. Let’s make a movie that can start some sort of conversation somewhere. I think that was what’s been driving both of us for a very long time.
Can I ask if there are any films that influenced you when making this movie?
Domenic: Jerry and I are both big fan of the Coen brothers. We loved a lot of their stuff, plus Hell or High Water had come out pretty recently. We wanted to kind of take that similar landscape of a modern western desert, the three amigos out fighting a thing but deconstruct it and make it a little more abstract in the modern western. I guess you’d call this now a thriller or a road movie or something. It started out as an abstract modern western and I think we still kind of hold to that. It has a lot of those Hell or High Water, Coen brothers’ movies…
Jerry: Hell or High Water, The Devil’s Rejects, and No Country For Old Men. Aesthetically, all of these movies are a modern western films, but the moral complexity of No Country for Old Men was something we really loved to talk about. That is a movie where there is no real hero, there are only different interests playing out. Llewelyn is the white hat in that movie, but he is motivated by greed. Anton is the black hat, but he is motivated by a code of justice… though twisted. Right and wrong feels like a moving target depending on whose perspective from which you’re viewing the situation. Hell or High Water is a classic ‘rob to feed your family’ premise, and The Devil’s Rejects is a dark story of three charming psychopathic killers. We see our movie as a ‘You killed my Paw, now I’m going to kill you’ story with a unique backdrop.
You’re having your world premiere in just a couple of days and you said that there’s not a lot of people have seen it yet. I think I’m in a small handful, which I feel lucky about. What’s been the reaction so far from people that have seen it?
Domenic: The people that have seen it have been fairly impressed by how we shot it in twelve days. It’s a very short production and I feel like to get across what we got across in that amount of time during production, I feel like it has gone very well. I mean you always show people the movie and they don’t want to tell you it sucks to your face. Even when we showed this movie in a very early edit to people, they were really impressed and saw the potential once the sound and color and all that stuff was polished up a bit. The people who have seen it finished all the way have been pretty impressed for what we had to work with.
Is there anything you can talk about what happens to the film after it plays at SIFF this week?
Domenic: We just started to put our stuff out there for other festivals. We’ll see what we get into. For right now it’s festivals, some local screenings for people that missed it here and then distribution, just try to get it out there. It’s a movie that Jerry and I really hope a lot of people see because we think the content is very important.
Last question, but why do you think this movie is important?
Jerry: First off, we hoped to make a bad ass western that people have fun watching. The tendency is for us to start sounding very pretentious very quickly when we talk about Low Road, so I apologize in advance. In some ways it is a cautionary tale for America. Since we wrapped on the film we have begun to see this kind of violence spring up more and more; misguided ideological acts of war.
I hope people take a few different thoughts away from Low Road. I hope this serves as a warning to the wealthy. This is what could happen when we push people to extremes of desperation. There are consequences. It should also serve as a warning to the rest of us, the masses, that there is a price to pay for revenge. It doesn’t come cheap. The bottom line is that most of the problems in our country are not left vs right. All roads usually lead back to income inequality. There are millions of Americans being forced to choose between putting food on the table and prescription drugs. The choice of death or bankruptcy is very real for people. The need for prescription drugs isn’t like shopping for a new car, it’s not the same kind of bargain. If I don’t like the price on a car I can go try a different dealership or get a used one. If I don’t like the price on a prescription drug, I can either pay or die. It is a different kind of conversation. It seems like people on the left and right could recognize this is a place where unregulated capitalism doesn’t work. I hope our movie sparks this kind of conversation on the drive home. We always looked it the morality of this film like this: If your father is drowning, and a man is on a boat holding a life vest, but he refuses to give it to your dad. Instead he watches him die, doesn’t that man have culpability in your father’s death? We believe he does. On the other hand, if we all become violent extremists then we have lost something else. Something even bigger. Our integrity. When we lose our hope, love and compassion who have we become?