“Bad Hurt is my family over 20 years condensed into Christmas week,” says Mark Kemble, co-writer and director of the feature drama, adapted from his 2007 play Bad Hurt on Cedar Street.
“I grew up in a family with alcoholism, PTSD, mental retardation, pharmaceutical drug addiction, fighting, juvenile delinquency, nervous breakdowns and cops at the door, yet everyone seemed to love one another.”
In Bad Hurt, the Staten Island-based Kendall family’s battle to stay together as they care for a daughter with special needs and a son with PTSD affirms that love and courage can be found in even the bleakest of situations. Todd Kendall, played by Theo Rossi, is the underachieving second son, desperate to win the approval of his proud Vietnam veteran father, Ed (Michael Harney), and step out of the shadow of his older brother, Kent (Johnny Whitworth). Once a decorated soldier, Kent now suffers both physically and psychologically from serving in the Gulf War. Also in need of special care is Todd’s developmentally disabled adult sister, DeeDee (Iris Gilad). Meanwhile, matriarch Elaine (Karen Allen) is the glue keeping her family together.
Kemble cowrote the screenplay with Jamieson Stern (who, like Kemble, is both a writer and actor). The feature marks Kemble’s directorial debut, and premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. As Kemble describes it, “It is the story of a family drowning in shame and the courage and love they embrace in order to pull themselves out of it and reach a measure of respect and pride.”
This raw story caught the attention of Rossi, an actor best known for Sons of Anarchy. Having started his own production company, Dos Dudes Pictures, in 2014, Rossi was in search of a human story he could turn into the studio’s first feature.
“It’s still to this day the best script I’ve ever read,” says Rossi. “I’ve never been so incredibly touched by a human story. When I read that script I felt every single emotion that a person could feel, so I knew I had to meet the people who wrote it.”
This was welcome news to Kemble, who had been looking for funding for his adaptation for three years. With Rossi on board, the film was able to attract 19 different investors. One key decision that helped the production’s finances? Unlike Kemble’s New England-set play, the film takes place in Staten Island, Rossi’s hometown, which allowed the project to benefit from New York state’s sizable tax incentives (a 30 percent refundable credit).
“The truth is when you’re making an independent film you don’t have a ton of money, you got a lot of people doing you favors, you have to keep as close to the people you know, and the town where you have the most connections as possible,” says Rossi, “because you can’t do it if you don’t. I needed more than a cast and a crew. I needed an entire village.”
That’s exactly what he got. Once shooting began, over 19 days in early 2014, the community in the NYC borough rallied around the production. Many of their meals were provided by Rossi’s mother and other community members. The local gymnasium was offered as a base for the crew; people helped shovel snow for them, especially after a terrible snow storm hit; when the power went out an electrician rushed to turn the power back on for them.
“I don’t think I would have had those resources anywhere else,” says Rossi.
Although, as a first-time producer busy with his Sons of Anarchy schedule, Rossi had only planned on producing the film, a series of circumstances led him to also star in Bad Hurt. As time progressed and Rossi’s enthusiasm for the film increased, however, the actor became the obvious choice to play protagonist Todd, says Kemble.
Newly convinced, Rossi relished the dual role. “I’m really glad I [took on the acting role] because Todd is one of the most beautiful characters I have ever played,” he says.
Kemble was also diving into the unknown as a first-time director. Given his background as an actor, he found himself better-suited to guiding his cast in scenes than mastering the technical aspects of the shoot, and relied on his cinematographer, Igor Kropotov, for many of the production’s visual choices (like deciding to shoot on the ARRI Alexa).
“I had a nice collaboration with Kropotov who walked me through it, so when it came to the technical aspects of the filmmaking itself, I was very blessed to have a completely available, young, gifted cinematographer who understood when I talked to him about the film and what that would translate into lens and camera,” says Kemble. “I would say to him, ‘I want this to feel claustrophobic;’ I want a close-up over here;’ ‘I want this to feel like complete utter loneliness,’ and he would translate that back into the lens.”
The biggest challenge for Kemble, though, lay in transmuting his original work into the entirely different medium of cinema. “You get very married and loyal to certain aspects of the stage and presentation, so you sort of have dehypnotize and go in and recreate it for a different form. The stage allows for word-driven drama, and when you go to film you keep the same thematics, the same story, but you have to tell it a different way.”
He did find advantages to telling the story via the screen: different locations and the opportunity to intensify the emotional impact through a variation of camera shots. “The luxury of doing the film was [the ability] to go to places you can’t go onstage. It was a huge gift for me,” says Kemble.
As for Rossi, audiences can expect more indie films from Dos Dudes Pictures. The producer says that his main goal is to tell a story that will have a lasting emotional impact on the viewer. “I want you to feel something. I want you to question something in your life, whether that be your mom or dad or an old relationship. I want to bring up some sort of emotion.” MM
Bad Hurt opens in theaters February 12, 2016, courtesy of Screen Media Films.