Bob Byington's '7 Chinese Brothers' Explores Alcoholism In the Funniest Way Possible
Bob Byington's latest film 7 Chinese Brothers gives us another entry in the annals of Jason Schwartzman sardonic sad-sack performances — this time alongside Schwartzman's real-life dog Arrow.
At SXSW, Byington talked with us about handling alcoholism on screen, being part of a film community in Austin, and why you shouldn't get angry on set.
NFS: What is it like being part of the Austin film community and how has it helped your filmmaking?
Bob: There is just a great film culture here. The film society is a real film society now which is wild because in the 90s it was this little thing. Now it's this big animal that has awards and grants. I think that's good. I would say 10-15% of the reason Jason did the movie is because we shot it in Austin and he wanted to come shoot something here. It might even be up to like 20%, but I know that it was a tangible part of his decision-making. There is a good crew base here and actors, for the most part, want to come to Austin. There are not very many actors based here but they tend to want to come here and that's great.
NFS: How was the process working with Jason? Did your budget dictate what you were able to do before shooting?
Bob: He was here for two weeks before we started shooting. He showed up really kind of as some clay and then those two weeks we were molding him into what you see in the movie. Figuring things out like what we are going to do with his face and his hair and the clothes and all that stuff is a big part of the character. It took 11 days of the 14 that we had to get all of that ready. I can't imagine really what that would have been like if we didn't have that time.
NFS: How much rehearsal were you able to do?
Bob: Jason is very well established and sets the tone. He really just likes to hang out and talk and play music for you. He loves to play YouTube clips for you. Part of our process was doing that for a few days and just getting to know one another. I think if I were reading this I would think that doesn't sound very interesting or relevant but it turned out to be crucial. You are on set with him and you are not fake friends. You feel like you have spent some time with him. There is a difference between being friendly and then also feeling like you are coming at it from a more established connection.
NFS: This film is tonally very light. The peg-leg joke was pushing it a little far though. I'm very sensitive.
Bob: Yeah, if I had a wooden leg and I saw this movie I would think "Haters!" No, this is a warm family comedy, isn't it?
NFS: Sure. With some solitude and misanthropy and...
Bob: — alcoholism. Everyone knows an alcoholic. If you don't know one you are one. Everyone has something that they're addicted to usually right? I used to love to gamble and for a couple years I really liked gambling. Not a lot but too much. Like sports gambling or I would go to Vegas and lose a lot of money and then one day it just went away. I'd stopped loving the idea of gambling.
Speaking about alcoholism I think alcoholics always kick dogs. That's how you know they are villains. No one was going to kick Arrow. It's hard if you are on day six of a week that you have done 12 hour or 14 hour days all week and then you are on the 6th day and it is like hour eight. People are pretty cranky. Arrow was always around though and it is hard to be too grumpy around Arrow.
NFS: How do you block your actors and for you what is the most important element of the actor's relationship to the camera?
Bob: I was really attracted to two focal lengths or two of the lenses that we had were just the way that I saw Jason. We camera tested for two days with him. Driving and walking and in his apartment checking the lights. I just got oriented. I took the widest lens and threw it out and then I threw the 50mm out. My DP really liked the 50mm and I threw it out and we used the 25mm and the 35mm for Jason. Looking at him, that is the way I want to see him. I also always like to look just slightly down rather than slightly up. Photographing Arrow who is very low to the ground I never wanted to really look down. There are a few shots of Arrow where we kept looking down but most of the time I want to be right at Arrow's level.
NFS: Is there one thing you could pinpoint on this project that you've learned that you'll take with you for next time?
Bob: There are opportunities to get angry early on the job but it's like fools gold. It's not a good idea. I seem to forget that on every job that getting angry early on will bite your ass later in the movie. My thing now is instead of getting angry I would like to just step away from the set for 10 minutes so that on day 20 I still have an equilibrium with everybody on set. If you get angry it can fray a dynamic that will then continue to fray.
Thanks to Bob for chatting with us.