Burn-jobs in a Bad Country: Interview with Writer Jonathan Hirschbein

Writer Jonathan Hirschbein worked for years on the film Bad Country with the late director, Chris Brinker, who passed away only days before filming completed.

The two met when Jonathan was freshly out of college at the ripe age of twenty-two, with little career prospects besides the odd job here or there. Chris quickly took Jonathan under his wing, and soon the duo were hashing out details of various edgy film ideas. Tragically, Chris suffered an aneurism late into filming, and passed away with Jonathan and Chris’ family by his side on February 8, 2013. While losing Chris certainly changed the experience for Jonathan, the film remains as a fitting reflection of the time they spent together.

Set in 1983, Bad Country, showcases Louisiana as a character of its own; it’s raw, dingy, and murky. Matt Dillon plays Jesse Weiland, a convict turned snitch, willing to do anything to protect his family, and is a valuable player in putting a stop to an expanding ring of crime. Willem Dafoe stars as Bud Carter, the detective who is willing to learn from the criminal he helped put away.

Bad Country will open with a limited run in Westwood, Los Angeles beginning April 12, and then a wide on digital release April 22, and on DVD April 29. MovieMaker caught up with Hirschbein to learn more about the process and how making the film has changed his life forever.

William Defoe as Bud Carter

William Defoe as Bud Carter

Danielle Alberico, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Lets talk about this main character, Jesse Weiland. He’s a white supremacist and a seemingly bad guy, but he’s likeable. Why do you think we gravitate towards his character?

Jonathan Hirschbein (JH): I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “likable.” I don’t think anyone sees this film and thinks, “I’d like to invite that guy over for a milkshake.” But what matters, is that you understand him. As you said, he’s a white supremacist. He’s also a contract killer. He cuts people’s throats and gets paid for it. That being said, he has a wife and a child on its way that he loves dearly. And when we meet Jesse in this story, he’s trying to leave that life of crime behind because he loves his family and he doesn’t want his son born into it; he wants his family safe. To the general audience, that’s what makes Jesse human. So when his family is murdered in cold blood he wants revenge in the worst way. And for anyone that loves or has been loved, they’ll understand that. Suddenly, as the reader or audience, you find yourself relating to someone you’ve always feared and despised. You find yourself understanding him.

MM: Talk about the relationship between the main characters Bud Carter and Jesse Weiland. How did their relationship drive the story?

JH: I think there were probably only two or three decisions in their early lives that made them different from one another. Decisions that made one of them a cop, and one of them a criminal. And had either one of them made a different decision, they could have very easily become the other. Both came from violent backgrounds. Both utilize violence as adults. And both have to understand the way cops and criminals think in order to survive.

MM: What research was involved in the writing process?

JH: The producers gave me a series of newspaper articles, a few photographs and about four hours of audiotape that allowed me to hear the real Bud Conner (the detective that Dafoe’s character is inspired by) tell his story. Those tapes were invaluable with the dialogue and getting an ear for the dialect, since I’d never been to Louisiana before making this film. I did extensive research on prison gangs as well as hate groups throughout the South. That was difficult, because my dad is Jewish so I have a Jewish last name. I couldn’t really call those people up with that, so I used a few aliases. I told one guy who called himself “a pastor” of what he considered a “New World Order Organization” that my name was “Tom Collins.” I told another that my name was “Earl Grey.”

MM: How did you connect with director/producer Chris Brinker?

JH: I met Chris in New York in early 2000. I moved there in ’99 and was sort of roaming around aimless, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got a few jobs as a driver for really low budget films — driving camera trucks and shuttling actors back and forth throughout the city. One actor was yelling in the backseat about how bad the script was to the movie he was in. And when I dropped him off at his hotel, he had left the script in the car. So I read it. And thought I could do it. And over the next couple months, I started writing this story about fixing fights. But I really didn’t have the first clue about script structure or even know to abbreviate interior and exterior at the top of scene. All I did know was how to write dialogue. So I went at it, night after night like a mad scientist, with no idea where I was going, just characters talking; dozens of them, all in my head, all shouting at once. When I finished, I had what amounted to almost 400 hundred pages of dialogue. I mailed it to a family friend who said he knew an entertainment lawyer named David Krintzman. David was nice enough and patient enough to read it and when he called me, he said that he was sending it to a producer named Chris Brinker — who he thought might respond to it. About ten days later, I got a call from Chris. He was making a film in Brooklyn at the time, and was also patient enough to read all the madness that I’d written. He invited me to his set and we talked on this old rooftop, overlooking the city and asked me, “What do you want to do?” I told him, “I want to be a writer.” Then he said, “Move to Los Angeles, and I’ll teach you how to do it.” About a month later, I moved to LA. And he taught me everything I know.

Sunset at a Louisiana swamp. Courtesy of Louisiana.gov

Sunset at a Louisiana swamp. Courtesy of Louisiana.gov

MM: What inspired this story?

JH: In early 1983, there were a string of burglaries happening throughout Louisiana. Someone was welding vaults and safes to what amounted to over a dozen robberies (These were called “burn-jobs”). A crew of detectives worked the case, believing it was an organized burglary ring. But what they eventually discovered, is that it was just one guy. And when they arrested him and tore apart his house, they found cash and jewels and welding equipment. And they also found guns. Not just one or two, but closer to thirty or forty. And they were stashed throughout his house under pillows, in the couch, in the cupboards and behind the toilet. So that no matter where he was, he could reach for a piece. The lead detective knew this guy was scared of something. Not about being arrested; but about being killed. When this detective did his research, he found out that this guy he arrested was in fact a contract killer that committed and organized hits all throughout the United States prison system. He could hit you in any prison and any state.

MM: Do you have a particular style or tone that you tend to use?

JH: I write fast. I write extreme. I write to grab the reader by the throat and arrest their attention completely. I have a myriad of influences, in books and film that had that same effect on me. Authors like Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, LeFanu, Poe and Emile Zola. Extreme authors that wrote extreme. And the films I gravitated towards, the main characters were never really heroes, but more of the grey-zone types: “Straight Time,” “The Conversation,” “Mikey and Nicky,” to name a few. I’m avid fan of Lon Chaney Sr., who said once that he was only interested in playing characters that were either emotionally or physically deformed. I respect that.

MM: Have you always been a storyteller? What prompted you to take a career in screenwriting?

JH: No, not always. I’m shy in general and prefer to listen to others. I’ve never been the type that surrounds myself with a group and loudly entertains everyone. As far as the art of writing, there’s a tremendous history behind it…and it’s something I wanted to be a part of.

MM: Do you think the actors accurately depicted the characters you wrote? How did you feel when you heard the casting choices of Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon as the lead actors?

JH: Shocked. Honored. Disbelief. Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon are two of my favorite actors since I was a kid, and still are. It never occurred to me that they would ever even read something I wrote, let alone like it… let alone agree to be a part of it. I still don’t believe it. Willem dove into scenes in ways that I never saw coming. While he was also very protective of the character and the story, he made choices that I just never thought of. That humbled me. I really enjoyed witnessing it.

Lead man, Matt Dillon as Jesse Weiland

Lead man, Matt Dillon as Jesse Weiland

MM: How is the location important to this film?

JH: At one point, Chris considered filming in Canada. He went on these extensive location scouts and found several stunning locations. But when he came back, he said it didn’t feel like Louisiana. It didn’t have the same heat. The bugs, the swamps, the streets of Louisiana are all characters in this film. We shot in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and mostly Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary. We had to contend with Louisiana’s daily thunderstorms as well as Hurricane Isaac, which knocked out production for four days. We shot the film in 21 days.

MM: What were the overall challenges of getting this film made?

JH: Name it. It was an ever-changing paradigm that seemed impossible on most days. I didn’t sleep for nine years. And Chris didn’t either. Just off the bat, every studio and most independent financiers thought it was impossible to market a story in which one of the leads is a white supremacist and contract killer. People we’d go to would say, “Interesting script, but we could never back something like this.” Of course, I can only tell you of the challenges as a writer. While Chris was good enough to include me in a great deal of the filmmaking process, there were countless things he didn’t expose me to, in fear of my head exploding.

MM: Were there any drastic changes in the script over the years? What were some of the hurdles you dealt with pertaining to rewrites?

JH: I was rewriting every day. We had a true story as a leaping off point and as it evolved from there, I was pretty sure about the story that I wanted to tell. The biggest and most intense hurdles pertaining to rewrites came in pre-production. We just didn’t have the budget to film everything in the script. Some scenes ended up being cut. Others were consolidated. And we usually had minutes to do it.

MM: What is the significance of the movie’s title?

JH: It’s in homage to Bad Lands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Up until completion our film was called Whiskey Bay but we had to change it for marketing reasons. There’s no real significance except that it has a southern ring to it, and a boldness that the story portrays.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

JH: That’s a tough question. I’m not a very casual writer, or light-hearted. You won’t find me at a coffee shop on a laptop, sipping a latte. I pace, I stand on chairs, I talk to people that aren’t there. I go at it till my forehead starts to bleed. Bottom line, if I don’t write, I get weird. And when I do write, I get weirder. But honestly, I don’t see how that’s avoidable. When you’re writing a script, you become different characters. And they all have different voices. And they’re all in your head. So I’m not sure that I have a favorite part. I just write. And all the good and bad that’s come with it, is just that.

MM: I know that during production, Chris Brinker, your close friend and director/producer of the film died suddenly of an aneurysm. It must have affected you greatly. Talk a little bit about how that changed the making of the film and how you were able to cope with such a tragedy.

JH: It is and will always be one of the great losses of my life. I owe Chris so much. He gave me the spirit. He spent years teaching me how to do this and instilled the confidence not to give up. It’s difficult to think about all the time we spent together to make this movie happen, and that he’s not around to see the end result. That being said, everyone involved in this movie has put his or her best efforts forward to keep Chris alive, by giving a life to this film. I know he would be proud of that.

The late director, Chris Brinker

The late director, Chris Brinker

MM: What else are you working on? What do you see in your future as a writer?

JH: I’m writing the true story of Harry Greb, a prizefighter in the 1920’s, who fought for the middleweight crown when he was virtually blind.

MM: What is your advice for writers trying to break into the industry?

JH: Belong to it. Every day. Read, watch, anything and everything. Then use it. Some people use writing to enhance their life; but I’d rather use life to enhance the writing. I don’t have any advice on how to “break in,” per se. Because I don’t know that I’ve broken in myself. That being said, if you want to be a writer, then write. And keep writing. Bob Dylan said, “An artist should always be becoming.” I believe in that.

MM: What’s your favorite genre of film? Who in the business inspires you?

JH: Stories against the grain. Actually, I’m more interested in characters than in story. If a character is interesting enough, I’ll watch them do anything. There’s a film called, “Penalty,” with Lon Chaney from 1920. He plays a crime boss whose legs were mistakenly amputated as a child. As an adult, he’s violent and he’s terrifying. And while his path of revenge is twisted, it makes sense. I’m inspired by artists that don’t take the safe path. They go their own way and strive for something different, no matter how long it takes. No matter what they’re up against.

MM: As you prepare for the opening of the film, what is going through your mind?

JH: I’m just hoping that enough people see it, that I get to do another one. MM

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