Millenium Films releases By the Gun in select theaters on December 5th, 2014.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Given how different By the Gun and Trucker are, was it a conscious decision to make a different film than your last one?
James Mottern: I don't know if it's a conscious decision. I really like stories about people who are struggling with their own identity. The main character in Trucker and in By the Gun both have an internal struggle. I think in some ways in terms of genre it's somewhat different, but in terms of tone it's a little bit similar. Both characters are outside of typical culture.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Is it more stressful or less to just direct a film instead of both write and direct?
JM: It's two different things. The filmmaking process for me is a very collaborative one. Even though I had written Trucker and directed it, I'm always working with my DP, production designer, producer and costumer--everyone has their input. In this case, even though there's a writer separate from me, it's very collaborative. What I try to do is to set a tone that we're all kind of going for. It was an extra step in terms of dealing with another writer, but in a way it was very fruitful and not dissimilar in the process.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is so appealing about mafia films?
JM: Sometimes people think that mafia films is a very large genre like a Western. But there really are only a handful of ones that people can remember. What I find compelling about them is that they're very much about living life on the edge--an emotional edge. It's about the immediacy of it--betrayal, lover, anger, rage, violence. Men, especially, like mafia films because it's a way that they identify their manhood with the manhood that they see onscreen and it makes them feel cool because it's such a distilled form of manhood and that culture. When you watch a mafia film, it's a real endorphin rush because everything happening right at the moment. Every mafia film is about life and death. There aren't a lot of movies that are always about life and death.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you decide how much violence and what kind of violence to include in By the Gun?
JM: There's actually a great deal of violence in this film. When I saw By the Gun at its Boston premiere after not seeing it for a while, I really thought it was terrific, but I also realized that there's quite a deal of violence in it. There's also an undercurrent of impending violence and the threat of it all the way through. In some ways, it's terrifying to watch it that way because you don't know who's going to get it and who's not. A lot of times people get it who don't deserve it, and people who do deserve it don't get it. I come from a documentary standpoint, and I've seen what it looks like when people get killed. The only way that I could accurately describe it is: pathetic. There's no glory in it. It's very tragic when it happens. When I approached the violence in By the Gun, I wanted to be very realistic--as realistic as possible in a fictitious film. There's sometimes a systematic method to it. Sometimes it comes out of the blue. Sometimes it comes out of rage. But in the end, I wanted to convey how horrible, horrific and tragic it is when someone dies. Also, how violence really does beget violence. Once a person sets that into motion, there's no way that they could ever guarantee what the outcome is going to be. When you light that fire of violence, it could become a wildfire that could destroy the entire world.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the issue of gun control?
JM: I am a supporter of the Constitution of the United States, but I also think that violence is something in our culture that has been there from the very beginning. It's used as a policy to get things done. You do that for guns. When they want to take care of something, they pick up a gun. Violence systemic to the American culture. It's a smallish debate, really, about a larger issue which is how we as Americans go about our daily lives and how our government goes about its daily life---what we accept as our behavior as the people. It's very clear that if you live by the gun, you die by the gun. That's something that's always true and simple, but if you decide that that's going to be your policy about violence---whether it's personal or in a larger scale---eventually, it's going to come back to you in a way that you're not going to like very much. In By the Gun, there are a lot of guns. People use them and think that when they do, they're going to settle something or going to make their point and everything will end, but really by using these guns, they're setting up something so explosive that they have no control over it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a crime thriller into a classic?
JM: If something has great storytelling, it's a classic. It might have twisty story that everyone likes or it's told in a style that people find funny or frightening. A classic has a story that's an open book with metaphor, subtext and an emotional truth that carries through from when generation to the next. That's one reason why mafia films do hold up because it's very sharp with contrasting emotional elements of betrayal, love, lust, family, rage, and honor. All of these things move from one generation to the next, maybe in different forms, but what makes them lasting is that they touch a human being on a very emotional level. That's why The Godfather such as classic--it's a very human story about families, love and betrayal and every emotional, human traits. That's how I approached By the Gun and Trucker as well. I tell my actors that it's what's between the words that's what resonates with people. There are many emotional truths that cannot be found in the ink [on a script].
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would something be lost by watching By the Gun on the small screen? Would it work in black-and-white?
JM: This would play great in black-and-white for a couple of reasons. I was talking to my DP about what I felt like this film was. We looked at Modigliani paintings which are quite rich--the colors are subdued, but they're quite rich and have contrasts. When we approached this film, it was in that way. We also looked at On the Waterfront as a motif. It would work very well in black-and-white. What I really try very hard to do in movies is to set a very strong tone. When of the most of the most simple things like the production design and the design of the room---how it's composed. When you're watching it on the big screen, you're taking in all of the details of the frame. That frame is very important to me. I try to compose a frame that speaks to the larger themes of the shot. Sometimes when you watch it on the small screen like on a phone, those larger themes like tone become a back issue. When people watch it on the small screen, they'll love it, but on a big screen it's made in a particular way that it'll play better.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Which film director is influential for you? Which film would make a great double feature with By the Gun? Are there any actors from the Golden Age of American Cinema that you'd love to resurrect?
JM: Sidney Lumet is one of my favorite filmmakers. He would turn to his actors. I really take a great deal of respect for my actors, how they're feeling and what they're going to take away from it. I like it when they feel like they've taken something larger than what they've come with. Sidney Lumet is a great influence on me and on especially on film. One of my favorite films is Dog Day Afternoon. I thought about that a lot because it has an undercurrent of emotional complexity. I would resurrect Cazale who was a very influential actor on Al Pacino and everyone else in that circle---the tone he set, his commitment to his craft and telling a story, his ability to find real humility and the soul of fear and longing in many people.