Dropped into the bottomless well of VOD content this month, there was a single standout film with zero marketing push that is now starting to gain some traction through word of mouth— and deservedly so. The film is Band of Robbers, a modern adaptation that imagines the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but what would happen if they’d grown into men and still never found their treasure or their place in life. The result is a small-town murder mystery crime caper thriller that has both Wes Anderson flourishes of comedy and a surprisingly bloody body count. It’s an almost impossible film to pin down or explain to others, but it does warrant a viewing at your earliest convenience.
The film highlights a star-making turn from its Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) who also wrote, directed, and edited the picture (alongside his brother Aaron). It’s a singular vision of Americana that modernizes Mark Twain’s literary DNA in a fashion that almost makes you angry that no one has had the vision to attempt something like this before. The cast also features Kyle Gallner (as Huck Finn), Matthew Gray Gubler (Joe Finn), and the likes of Hannibal Buress, Creed Bratton, Eric Christian Olsen, Beth Grant, Johnny Pemberton, the star of Supergirl Melissa Benoist, and a Walken-esque villain in Stephen Lang.
We sat down with star/directoreditor/writer Adam Nee to talk about turning boyhood hijinks into adult high-crime, how to use a very Tom Sawyerish lie to get a feature film off the ground, and how you release and distribute an intentional cult film in 2016.
Where’d the idea to adapt a modern Twain story come from?
It came from a colossal embarrassment. I’d moved to New York City at 21 to do acting, and I auditioned for a Huck Finn movie that was just a verbatim copy of the book, right down to action lines copied and pasted directly from the original text.
Now, there were a few problems with this. Huck was a 13-year-old child and I was a 21-year-old man. At this point in my life, I was unreasonably obsessed with Martin Sheen’s performance in Badlands, so I stole that accent. I was doing a Texas Martin Sheen voice and saying, “Hey, Jim, we’re gonna be on this raft for a while!” The director and casting agent in the room were just like, “What the fuck is happening here?”
As I was on the train home, I had a total breakdown of just having no idea what went wrong in that room and what I was doing with my life. But that led to me acknowledging that this part was written for children, and I wondered what Tom and Huck would look like as adults, which was a simple and already pretty funny premise. So I just started writing down individual scenes.
How did you move the adaptation from that point?
I worked on it for a few years, and then about six years back, I pulled out a handheld videocam to shoot a bunch of story beats on note cards, in case I lost the notecards. I panned the camera back to my face and said, “I figured it out.” I truly hadn’t. I was so far off, still.
I loved all of Mark Twain’s work since I was a kid, and here I was trying to shove every moment into a single film, and it was just too much. It was too big and it really didn’t have its own voice. So I thought maybe it was a TV show? I wrote a 30-minute pilot and then a full pilot and I found a producer from that. John Will, who became instrumental in this, grabbed a beer with me and it turned into one of those drinking nights that ends on “Why don’t we just do this?” Shortly after, I asked my brother Aaron to join us because he’s just so incredible at story, and that led to developing the script we have now. All in all, about eight years from inception to movie.
So a night of drinking got the film off the ground?
That got us to the point of “We’ll make this no matter what,” even if it needed to wind up being a Kickstarter or something. There’s a story about Warren Beatty pitching a movie where the head of the studio turned him down, so Warren walked out the door and proceeded to tell every person he saw how excited he was that the film got green-lit. The next day it was in all the trades that the film was green-lit and the studio was too embarrassed to go back on that.
With that in mind, we went to a bunch of production companies in 2013 and told them we’d be shooting in June and that we already had money, but if they wanted in, now was the time. Which is a very Tom Sawyer way of approaching it. Everyone called our bluff. That didn’t work at all. So we all went and took other work — I directed some stuff for Amazon — and in 2014 we got a production company who agreed to basically “match funds” to other investors. So we went back to everyone who called our bluff in 2013 and basically said, “This time we actually do have the money we lied about last time.” Everything came together pretty quickly after that.
How’d you get Kyle Gallner as Huck Finn?
Gubler recommended him and when he came in it was a clear match. The guy wasn’t doing an impression of this character, he was living very comfortably as the character. We’d been chasing our tails trying to find a big name for the role and as soon as we met with Gallner we knew we were done.
How’d you develop this version of Tom?
I was never going to play Tom because it was something I’d be living with for so long I felt like it wasn’t my place. But then we started bringing all of these people in and they weren’t what me and Aaron had heard in our heads for so long. Gubler kept pushing me to do it, asking why I wouldn’t just play the part, and I had to explain that if I went back to the investors to say, “Hey, the director wants to be the star now!” everyone would leave and take their money with them.
Then, Kyle was asking Gubler what the delay with the movie was, and mentioned that based on the audition he’d always expected that I was going to be playing Tom. So knowing that Kyle didn’t think it was a bad idea led to me putting an audition on tape, and Aaron took it to the other producers.
You had to audition for your own movie?
It’s on the iTunes extras. So, we started worrying the film was going to get pushed either for not finding a Tom or for one of the directors trying to be the lead. So we went with the latter.
Where’d you shoot?
Mostly around Los Angeles, especially Downtown. But we did some out in Barstow at the end of the desert where all these people live in a place that God forgot. There are some nice folks there but it’s mostly just motels and disappointment.
The character of Injun Joe is such a surprise turn for the film. Stephen Lang of Avatar does something really spooky with the role and it’s just the tour de force of odd.
We had another actor cast and we had never really spoken to him? His agents were coming to us with weird requests and we weren’t sure how to respond, and then that person dropped out just as we started shooting. Stephen Lang’s son is one of the producers on the movie, and we had four days before his character was supposed to begin filming, so we asked if he’d have any interest in saving us. Then he showed up to set completely in character and fully immersed in this profoundly original monster. We’d told him we didn’t want him having to play anything like the Terminator-esque stuff he’d done in the past, and he took us at our word. He even noticed we’d mentioned in the character description that there was a flat nose on Joe, so he stuffed toilet paper up his nose to make that happen. He also took on this strange frailty to his voice that reminds me of Iggy Pop. That just helped set this guy up as almost comic bookish but still grounded in reality.
How’d you snag future Supergirl star Melissa Benoist?
She was coming off Whiplash, which I hadn’t seen yet, but John McAlary was our casting director and he did so great for us by finding her. From the first handshake we knew she was perfect. The charismatic girl next door who charms you immediately. So when they started casting for Supergirl we actually forwarded some of her scenes from the film to Les Moonves at CBS to help her get the part.
What’s next for the film? How do you plot out a release schedule for an intentionally cult film?
Films like Bottle Rocket were released in a time when only a fraction of the same number of films were being released each year, so they really had a leg up. We’re in some theaters and on VOD, with the Blu-ray and such coming out in a couple of months. We just hope we don’t get lost. It’����s a great movie but we are completely dependant on word-of-mouth.
What’s next for you?
Me and Aaron are developing a couple TV shows that we’re out pitching. We’re writing a movie and we’re going to shoot it at the end of the year.
So … you’ve got some money and you’re shooting in December?
We’ve already got money, so if you wanna invest now’s the time. This is a great opportunity you don’t want to pass up on.