Bushwick, Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s low-budget action movie about Texas invading Brooklyn, was inspired by former governor Rick Perry’s 2009 comment about Texas seceding from the United States. It’s a thought experiment about the worst possible end result of a prolonged culture war, so it’s a given that watching it in the summer of 2017 is a bizarre experience.
The film follows Lucy (Brittany Snow), a recent college graduate living with her grandmother near the Ridgewood border, as she wanders off the L train in the middle of a siege. She winds up joining forces with a former Marine named Stupe (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista), then spends the next 45 minutes trying to answer the question “Who would invade Bushwick?”
It’s odd that this question dominates the first half of the film, since the civil war is eventually revealed to have erupted from well-known escalating political divisions in America. That’s not the only place where the film’s politics are hazy: Bushwick initially lauds the residents of Bushwick for coming together, in spite of handicaps imposed by gentrification and generational mismatches, but it ultimately condemns them for picking up their enemies’ weapons in self-defense. As a thought experiment, it doesn’t get very far: “What if someone invaded Bushwick? Well… it would be bad!” The Bushwick residents deal with the chaos by running or fighting, and only the former seems like a “moral” reaction in the filmmakers’ eyes. It’s an odd time to present such a worldview.
But the story narrows its own scope and becomes exclusively about getting Lucy and Stupe across a mere five blocks to potential rescue. In that sense, it’s an impressively harrowing, immersive film made with few resources aside from two compelling leads, the real backdrop of a few square blocks of Bushwick, and careful sound editing. That’s satisfying in its own way. Recently, I spoke to the co-directors about how they put Bushwick together, why filming in New York was so important, and what they think their film really says about responding to violence.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you choose Bushwick as the setting for this movie? Why is that where a new civil war would start?
Cary Murnion: There were a couple reasons. One was, I lived in Bushwick for five or six years, and I really loved the neighborhood and the people there. It’s got a real melting pot, and to me, it represented a lot of what’s good about Brooklyn and New York City. I felt like if someone did invade, they would fight back. I felt like they’d be very proud of the neighborhood, and would want to keep the neighborhood the way it was.
We also loved visually how it turned out, filming it. [It] goes from very industrial-looking to, in two or three blocks, there are apartment buildings with front yards and picket fences. You can also see Manhattan from Bushwick, so we loved being able to be in Brooklyn and look out and see the skyline of Manhattan just a couple miles away. If you just look at the invasion part of it strategically, Bushwick would be a good neighborhood to go at if you were going to invade New York City. You wouldn’t go right to the heart of Manhattan, you would go into a less-populated area, establish a stronghold, and then actually move in around Manhattan and try to take it.
There are a lot of New York movies, there are a lot of disaster movies, and there are a lot of movies that are both. Did you use any as inspirations?
Jonathan Milott: The main one that really inspired us was Children of Men. It’s a possible future based on some of the current problems that are just beginning to arise. That was our thinking, back when we thought of this idea. The country is very divided, and becoming more divided, so what happens if it gets so divided that it actually turns into a war? [Children of Men] influenced us in many ways, even down to the long shots and how they filmed it. But also movies like Escape From New York and other [John] Carpenter movies — in terms of tone and in terms of the action, and there being a message behind [the action].
Given what just happened in Charlottesville, do you think this is an awkward time to release this movie? It initially celebrates Bushwick neighbors coming together to fight for each other, then condemns them for arming themselves.
CM: That’s great that you got that. Before anything was going on in Charlottesville, we thought of our movie as a cautionary tale. If you take up weapons and fight back that way — yes, you can be forced to do that, but in most cases, it’s not going to turn out well. Yes, Charlottesville is shocking. I think it’s just a culmination of a lot of things that have been going on for the past 10 years. Yes, it’s too bad that a movie like ours is so close to what’s happening in the news, because we didn’t think of it that way when we started out. But yeah, we just think of it is as a cautionary tale. What happens when people are so divided that they have to start shooting each other? And for us, war is never the answer. We didn’t want our film to be a “rah rah, war is great” kind of film. We wanted to make you feel at the end, to think about that — what’s the best way to go against things you don’t agree with?
JM: I think we come at it as Americans. We have friends in Texas; we have friends down South; we have relatives all across America that have different political opinions than us. And even though we might get together and argue our politics and really disagree, in the end, we think the conversation is just going to end the way it ended in Charlottesville. It’s just going to end with people dying and getting hurt and nothing getting resolved. Rather than, say, the Boston protest, where there was not that kind of violence. There was more peaceful protest, and more peaceful expression of opinions, and that’s definitely much more the route to take. Hopefully it’s not hitting you over the head with our opinion, but it’s something we actively tried to put into the movie.
What you’re saying about violence is blurry to me, because in Charlottesville the white-supremacist protestors were being violent and carrying guns and torches. It’s hard to tell people “don’t be violent” when their community’s being attacked, either in reality or in this movie.
CM: Yeah, I think it’s a natural response. If someone points a gun at you, you have the right to defend yourself. I think if someone invades your neighborhood with guns, people are going to react differently. I’m not saying there’s one way to do it. Hopefully, the message is just that whenever there are weapons involved, it’s not going to turn out well.
JM: We’re taking the stance of “Don’t let it get to the point where there’s so much hate that somebody is invading a place like Charlottesville with weapons, and Charlottesville needs to be defended.” Let’s not let our politics get to the point where we’re so divided that you have to defend yourself. Once the arms get taken up, the conversation gets much more difficult. It’s like breaking up a fight with a bunch of kids. It doesn’t matter who threw the first punch if you all end up in the hospital.
A lot of reviews of this movie have compared the aesthetic to a first-person shooter or to Grand Theft Auto. Would you say that’s fair?
CM: We never thought of it that way. We play video games, but we’re not gamers. I think because of the way it was filmed — a lot of it is from behind the characters, following them — I think it’s mostly those POV shots that people respond to. And for us, it’s also the immersion. In a video game, you’re on the ground and you are immersed in a world where you can’t see things that are going on. We hope it’s a compliment that we filmed this in a way that you do feel immersed in a neighborhood and with these characters.
JM: I think people are also responding to the long takes. For us, that was actually meant to make it a little less glorifying of the violence. In a typical action movie, it might cut away from the violence, or not leave you in the scene, or let you really experience what’s going on. But hopefully the way we approached it, you’re always with the characters. You’re not cutting away when something bad happens. You’re not allowing the audience to take that break, and you’re stuck with the characters. I think that’s why people love to play video games, because they make you feel like you are the character. When there is a shoot-out in the movie, I think you feel more of the intensity of that.
How was Brittany Snow cast in the film? She flits so easily between horror and genre work, and then huge teen movies and Pitch Perfect.
JM: We cast both Brittany and Dave [Bautista], kind of knowing their history. Taking their past roles and subverting them. We know Brittany is known for Pitch Perfect, and she plays this very positive singer in those movies. What happens if you take that character and put her in a situation like this? You know her as dealing with all these problems that a typical person would deal with in a college setting, but what if you put her in this totally different situation? How would she react?
The same with Dave. He’s typically an action star, and someone who’s very much about having fun with the clichés of violence in action movies. We love that, but we like the idea of putting him in a movie where he doesn’t want to fight anymore. He’s been in the fight, he’s got post-traumatic stress. He’s doing pretty much everything he can to get away from violence. And then at the end, what happens to his character, we feel like that’s the opposite of what normally happens to the cool action-movie hero. We like the idea of inverting what you normally know about actors.
CM: I think they both took on these roles because they knew it would be a big challenge. Essentially, we’re filming a live play on the streets of Brooklyn. They had to memorize 10 to 12 pages of dialogue and do that, on the run, with a camera following them.
Operating on such a small budget, how did you make sure your action sequences looked real and impressive?
CM: We wanted to make sure we really filmed in Bushwick. We utilized the budget we had pretty well. The full shooting time was 15 days, so we were able to get what we wanted in a relatively short amount of time. We did a lot of planning. John and I spent months in the neighborhood, planning the shots out. We had a week and a half of rehearsal with the actors and some of the key crew. We walked through the scenes. When we actually got to the shooting days, which is where the main budget goes, we had done a lot. We knew what we wanted to do. That was a way to utilize our small budget. We decided purposely to focus on Lucy’s journey because she’s trying to avoid all the big action. She’s not going to go into a full-on gunfight. That’s not who her character is. A lot of those things are happening on other streets, and you hear those things happening. A lot of the sound design is to make it seem like there are things happening two blocks away. Or you look out a window and kind of see those things. And that’s how we made our budget work.
Bushwick opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD on August 25th.