Brant Sersen Interview – Director of Splinterheads

Friday, November 6, 2009 at 2:01 pm
By Shane Rivers

Splinterheads, an indy comedy about life, love, and carnival workers, is now playing in select theaters across the country. A1’s intrepid critic, Roxanne Downer, recently had a chance to talk with director Brant Sersen about his latest project, and he was nice enough to weigh in on fugitive carnies, geo-catching, and even the diminutive Rob Schneider. By the way, you can click on the following link to read Roxanne’s review of Splinterheads.

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Only Good Movies: Splinterheads, that’s a pretty specific, unique group of people to build a film around. What made you decide to do that?

brant-sersenBrant Sersen: I came up with the idea after visiting a carnival in upstate New York. I was there with a friend of mine who was visiting from England, who had never been to an American carnival before. It was pretty late at night and I guess there weren’t that many people at the carnival. So a lot of the carnies, the splinterheads, were sitting around not doing much. One of them said to us, “Hey, come play my game. Pop three balloons in a row and win a big, cuddly bear.” And we were like, “Nah, that’s okay.” And the guy was like “I’ll make it interesting. If you pop four balloons in a row, I’ll give you $50.” It ended up being a scam – I won’t get into the details of it – but within five minutes, my friend had lost $50 in this little gambling deal.

Anyway, I loved this carnie guy. I was so impressed by the play of words and how he was a really entertaining person. It made me just open my eyes and see the carnival a little differently than how I remember going as a kid. So I went back the next night, it was their last night. I walked around and filmed a bunch of the carnies working and I started interviewing them. I spent a year going to different carnivals and learning as much about the carnival culture as I could and started writing a film about it.

OGM: It sounds like you really built off your background as a documentary filmmaker.

BS: Yeah, I started out in documentary film. And my first narrative film (Blackballed: the Bobby Duke Story) was a mockumentary. Going from documentary to mockumentary was a great transition into narrative film making for me. Splinterheads was a straight-up narrative film but I guess the legwork was similar. I probably have enough footage that I could make a mini-documentary that I could put as a DVD extra.

OGM: How long was it between that first encounter and when the script came together?

BS: I would say from when I first had this idea to when I turned in a written script to Atlantic Pictures, it was two years. I probably spent about a year researching and then it took me – because I had a day job working at Comedy Central at the time – another year to write the script.

OGM: A year of visiting carnivals?

BS: Doing the research was really difficult. It was difficult to get information out of these guys. They didn’t want to, like, talk about it. What I learned was that a lot of these guys were fugitives. Some of them hide out in carnivals because they travel so much from town to town that they can assume these different names. And they are paid all in cash. Sometimes there are drug problems. So it was definitely difficult to get real information.

OGM: It’s interesting that you talk about the grit of the world, but Splinterheads is basically a sunny, lighthearted romantic comedy.

BS: Yeah, at the very beginning I could have very easily gone the very dark, thriller-drama route. But that’s not what I write. At least not right now. I always see the funny in moments. And these carnies are funny, especially the guys that call themselves splinterheads. It’s a real art, and you have to be really charismatic and likeable to lure people to your games to play. They’re putting on a show for you. They’re trying to make you laugh.

OGM: Another unusual element is Galaxy’s geo-caching hobby. How did that wind up in the film?

BS: When I was writing the film I wanted Galaxy to have something that set her apart from the other thick-skinned rough and tough carnies to give her a little bit of a softer, nerdy side. I wanted her to have a hobby that she could carry along from town to town, wherever she went. And I remembered that Chris Lechler, the film’s editor and co-producer, had started doing a documentary on geo-caching in 2004, right when GPS technology started being widely available. People were hiding these little things called caches in the woods or other areas and then they would leave on a website the latitude and longitude coordinates of where this thing is hidden so that others could find it. I started playing around with it and it just seemed to work. Suddenly, she was a treasure hunter and it showed a different side than just being this hot blonde. And it ended up driving the story.

OGM: You’ve assembled such an unusual cast of characters from Galaxy to Bruce to the Amazing Steve. What about these quirky people appeals to you?

BS: I have a problem writing normal characters. I love very rich, colorful, unpredictable characters. I love characters that walk to a different pace than the rest of the world. They come off as strange but they’re people who have really good intentions and good hearts. But my intention is not to consciously make a really crazy, quirky character. I’m attracted to interesting settings first, and then I research the setting, and I see the people that are in the setting.

OGM: And how does that play out when you go to cast the film? How did you know Rachael Taylor would be Galaxy?

BS: At the time, Rachel, Thomas [Middleditch] and myself were at the same agency. They told me that she had read the script and really took to the character. It was something a little different for her, especially coming off Transformers and Bottle Shock. So she called me from Australia and we had the greatest conversation. She really got the character and injected more of the Galaxy character into the movie than what I think was originally in the script. After that, I didn’t even hesitate. It was like, if we can get her, we’d be lucky. And then the rest of the casting was built around her.

OGM: I heard there was originally supposed to be a big star playing the Amazing Steve.

BS: Jason Mantzoukas was my first choice. Then, at some point, Rob Schneider read the script, really liked it, and wanted to be a part of it. I don’t know him personally, and I’m sure he would have been great, but it was sort of pushed on me. It’s a catch-22 in the film business. You need big names attached to your film so that you can sell your film or raise money. There are certain people who want to see big names. They want to be able to slap Rob Schneider’s face on the cover of a DVD in India and be able to sell it. And it’s not always necessarily the best decision. You have to give and take a little bit.

But in the 25th hour, it didn’t work out with him. And I went, hey, how about Jason Mantzoukas who I wanted from day one? And Jason was awesome. He jumped in a van, didn’t even read the script, and was like, okay, what am I doing?

OGM: How did you find Jason and Thomas?

BS: I frequent the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and they both perform there. I love fresh faces. What’s great about that is you’re not thinking of an actor’s role in a different film when you watch my movie. So with Thomas Middleditch, no one’s ever seen him before, so he’s Justin when you’re seeing him.

OGM: I know that Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) released his sophomore follow-up (Gentlemen Broncos) just last week. Do you think there’s more acceptance of this kind of offbeat comedy in the wake of those films?

BS: There are so many comedies out there that are generic feeling. I like something with a little style. When you watch a Jared Hess movie, you know it’s a Jared Hess movie. He’s a great filmmaker, and he’s doing movies that no one else makes. He has his own voice.

OGM: Do you think about being compared?

BS: After Blackballed, I was compared to Christopher Guest because I did a mockumentary, and I was like really guys? I shot a movie for $30,000 in three months, just on the weekends, in the pouring rain. This time around, we’re getting comparisons to Adventureland because it’s a theme park. But they are totally different movies. I’m just writing what I think is funny.

OGM: Who are your influences as a writer and as a director?

BS: Well, he’s not a comedy director, but my all-time favorite is Terrence Malick. Every single one of his movies I die for: The Thin Red Line, The New World and I can’t wait for The Tree of Life. Wes Anderson has definitely been an influence on me. I absolutely loved Rushmore. Christopher Guest. Best in Show is one of my favorite comedies. The Coen Brothers are geniuses. Ricky Gervais is a hilarious comic and writer. Larry David consistently makes me laugh. Adam McKay, Paul Thomas Anderson.

OGM: What’s next for you?

BS: I’m working on two writing projects right now, one with Thomas Middleditch, actually. The other is in a familiar world that you will see differently after you watch it. That’s all I can really say for now.

OGM: So you open at how many theatres on Friday?

BS: We open at one theatre, the Regal Union Square in New York City and if we do well, they’ll keep picking us up. Then on November 13, we open in Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon.

OGM: Are you hoping for a little Paranormal Activity activity?

BS: (laughs) That was a phenomenon. I don’t expect that at all. But it would be cool to break even. It’s a fun movie. You’re gonna laugh and have a good time. Hopefully, you’ll walk out smiling, and that’s all that really matters to me.