Interview: Matt Shakman from "Cut Bank"

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Dwayne McLaren has been looking for a way out of his small town upbringing of CUT BANK, MT since he graduated high school several years earlier. When he finds himself in the wrong place at the right time, he jumps at a chance to pursue a better life in a bigger city with his girlfriend Cassandra. But luck doesn't exist in Cut Bank, and this perceived good fortune is quickly followed by a flood of bad karma.
June 18th, 2014

Director Matt Shakman has a resume full of some of the best TV shows made in the last 10 years.  He has directed 37 episodes of the hit show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, and 2 episodes of this years “Fargo”; including the finale.  Matt’s latest project is a Montana based thriller called “Cut Bank”, named after the city, that is stacked with acting talent including: Teresa Palmer, Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, and John Malkovich. Matt took the time to talk with us at The Movie Network and told us all about this great film.

Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: Hey man, congratulations on your new film coming up, "Cut Bank."

Matt Shakman: Oh, thank you very much. I am excited about it.

TMN: Now tomorrow's the premiere, right?

Matt Shakman: Yeah. June 15th will be the first time that we show it in front of a public audience. So, we're very excited about that.

TMN: Oh, man. So, you think it's ready?

Matt Shakman: I think so, yeah. Actually, we've done it all the things we need to do to get it ready. It’s mixed, and color corrected, and all that, so hopefully the story works, and everybody likes it.

TMN: Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to see the film, but it's on my top list of films for four main reasons. One, because I love thrillers; two, because the cast is amazing; three, because I'm traveling to this part of the country later in the year, to Montana; and the fourth is that I love the work you've done in the past, so I'm really excited about that. First off, I love thrillers. Can you kind of give us an idea of what the film's about?

Matt Shakman: Sure. We call it a Western gothic noir, which is our own little genre. It's part thriller, part black comedy. It's about a young guy who's trapped in a very small town that's kind of frozen in time, and he wants to get out. And he comes up with a really bad plan to make money quickly in order to get out of town with his girlfriend, and things go terribly wrong along the way, and that's pretty much the story.

TMN: Can the audience expect more of an action-style thriller, or more of a character-driven thriller?

Matt Shakman: A character-driven thriller. It certainly flirts with different tones and genres. It's part drama, it's part coming of age story, it's part black comedy; and definitely, the thriller is the thing that wraps it all together. With a group like Malkovich and Billy Bob, and Bruce Dern, Michael Stuhlbarg and Liam Hemsworth, all these guys, it's definitely a character piece, first and foremost.

TMN: Like you said you got John Malkovich, you got Billy Bob Thornton, you got Teresa Palmer, who I loved in "Warm Bodies" and you got "Nebraska's" Bruce Dern, who was fantastic in that film. Can you tell me a little bit about what these guys are bringing to the film?

Matt Shakman: They're all kind of amazingly connected to this tiny little town. As you said, you're going to Montana, so you probably know the real Cut Bank exists. It's up near Glacier National Park. It's a wonderful town. It's very quirky in its own way. And I sat down with John Malkovich, one of the first things he said was that he had been a volunteer fireman at Glacier National Park in the summers, during his years in college; and he helped himself through university by doing this. So, he knew Cut Bank really well, and spent some nights there. And Bruce Dern almost made a movie there in the '70s. And Billy Bob mentioned that Robert Duvall had spent a lot of time there, and they talked about it. So, it's a strange little town that most people haven't heard of, seemed to be a common link between all these actors.

So there was that, that pulled them in there, I think. And Malkovich, in particular, is playing a simple, Midwestern, sort of Montana sheriff, who is overwhelmed by the violence that he encounters. So it's a very simple, ordinary, every man kind of part that he hasn't played in a long time, not since maybe "Places in the Heart," and that kind of thing, some performances he's been known for villains and some of the more interesting, flamboyant characters that he's played over the years. This is someone he knows really well, a person he kind of grew up with, and people he was around, this kind of small town character. And he does a beautiful job with it.

TMN: Since you got John Malkovich and Billy Bob Thornton, obviously, I don't know exactly what their characters are like 'cause I haven't seen the film, but they both could play such good good guys and such good bad guys, so how could you decide that?

[laughter]

Matt Shakman: It was true. I do a lot of theater as well, and as I was putting together my cast, I was interested in people who had a theater background, Malkovich being certainly a big draw for me because I'm a big fan of Steppenwolf, but also, just that idea of putting together a rep company, including Bruce Dern and Stuhlbarg, I mean, these guys could just change roles with each other at the drop of a hat. So, if you like this version of "Cut Bank," come again next Sunday. We'll switch everybody up. That's a possibility, to go back and remake the movie with everybody playing each other's parts, 'cause they certainly have that range.

TMN: That actually makes me most excited to watch the film, is to see who is in what place in the film, what character, or who's playing what character.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, all these guys, they don't have a type. They're all so fluid and flexible, they can play anything. So, it was fun to see them tackle these different characters.

TMN: Did you film this in Cut Bank?

Matt Shakman: We did not film any of it there, but I did research trips there. I would have loved to, but the resources to make this kind of movie on our budget level in Montana didn't exist. Having to bring in a lot of crew, and house people in that small town, it would have been very hard. So, we went directly north of Cut Bank, up to Edmonton. So the topography is very similar and even the accents are a little similar, too. Cut Bank is right on the border of Canada. Your phone keeps switching back and forth to Rogers, the Canadian telecom company when you're there. So we went to that part to shoot something we thought it had the same spirit.

TMN: Can you tell me about the writer Roberto Patino, who is famous for his work on "Sons of Anarchy", and your initial thought of the script?

Matt Shakman: Absolutely, yeah. It seemed like it was meant to be. It was sent to me by my manager and then he was also recommended to me by one of the producers on the movie, Dan Cohen, with whom I'd worked on a movie a few years ago at Sidney Kimmel. It didn't end up getting made, but we knew each other there. So, all of these independent parties recommended this movie to me at the same time, so it sort of felt like it was meant to be. And Roberto had not yet gone into television, and he had written this screenplay and it had been listed on the black list, and it was his introduction to the town. I thought it was fantastic, a great character piece, a great thriller, unique. I hadn't read something like it before, and I thought it would be a wonderful challenge for a first movie, so I was quite excited to work with them on it, and we started that process, many years ago, I think now about four years ago, trying to get it set up and cast and put together.

Roberto's story is great. He's a graduate of Harvard, and quite a brilliant American guy, but he was born in Columbia, and his father moved the family. I'm speaking for Roberto here, but I think he was around seven or eight when he came to the States. And his father was in love with Americana, he wanted his kids to really understand what America was all about. So, at every opportunity, at every break in school, he would drag them out to battle fields, and the parks all over the country. So he took them through Cut Bank on the way to Glacier National Park, when Roberto was younger and he was struck by this town that you were greeted by a giant penguin on your way in. And he said, "This is a very strange place." It somehow had lodged in his subconscious, and then a few years later, he was in the post office and he saw a sign about a reward that you could get if you had evidence that would help the postal service track down people responsible for a crime against a postal worker.

And those came together and became the plot for "Cut Bank." It's an inside, outside story about what is America in a way, because it's written by this Columbian American, brilliant man, Roberto, who has a fully insider view, but also a bit of an outsider point of view on things. And that's what he's created, this kind of meditation on small town America.

TMN: Is there any scenes, in particular, in "Cut Bank" that you're most proud of or that you find most your style?

Matt Shakman: No, hopefully, after decades worth of working in television and my hand at a million different styles, I feel like an art student, in a way, where you go to the museum, and they tell you to sit in front of the Rembrandt and copy it, and then go sit in front and copy that one. By going from show to show, you have to do the best possible version of that show and yet make it your own. And so, I've added tools to my tool belt over the years.

So there's a lot of different things in "Cut Bank," a lot of comedy and drama and suspense, and I feel that each of those things I've done fully in other ways on television. So, I feel pretty comfortable jumping around in tone through out. But definitely, my heart is in the thriller and so some of the more exciting thriller moments of the movie are, I think, where I'm most at home, because I grew up a big Hitchcock-Polanski fan, and adventure, so getting a chance to work in that world is very exciting.

TMN: I'm a big fan of your work in the past and thought to myself, "It's a thriller by the guy that directs Sunny in Philadelphia."

Matt Shakman: Yes.

[laughter]

TMN:You've had such an incredible past. I'm a big fan of "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia". How did you make the transition?

Matt Shakman: Funny, I come originally from theater and in theater, directors aren't necessarily identified by a genre. They're identified by flexibility. If you're a big New York theater director like Daniel Sullivan, who's one of the top guys right now, he's expected to be able to do a brand new comedy, a brand new drama, a Shakespeare play, a Chekhov play, and a Noel Coward play, to be able to do all those things, because at heart, they're all making use of the same skills and talents, hopefully, which is storytelling and character development, world building.

And I've been taking that approach to television. I think I was probably a little bit naive as I began, because my first job was for "Once and Again," which was produced by Ed Zwick, who's one of the producers of "Cut Bank" actually, and he gave me my big break from theater work that he had seen. And that was a drama, a family drama, on ABC. And my next thing was for Steven Levitan, who went on to create "Modern Family," but it was a show called "Oliver Beene," which was a relatively broad comedy.

And I kind of locked into those two different sides right away and have continued to try to nurture both of those and to add to the resume, procedurals, and action shows, and medical shows, and all that, because I really enjoy being challenged by the different shows and different stories. And sometimes, whenever I felt like I might be doing a little too much of one thing, I've actively tried to reach out and do something different, and to keep it eclectic.

TMN: You directed a few episodes of this years "Fargo," right?

Matt Shakman: Yeah, I directed the finale of "Fargo," the last two, so the one that aired last week, and the one that airs this coming week.

TMN: Congratulations on that. That's a great show.

Matt Shakman: Thanks! It was a lot of fun to work on. And there's a show that combines a lot of different talents. It's, I think, very funny, but also freaky and scary, in its own way. Very smart, quick writing. So, I had a blast working on that.

TMN: Now, I have to ask, because I am a big fan of "Sunny... " Is there an episode, or a season that stands out as your favorite?

Matt Shakman: Yeah. I think that consistently, that show is incredibly funny, and I love those guys. They're geniuses. But there was something about season four, I think, that for me, I always look back on with special fondness and that's the year we did "The Nightman Cometh," "Gas Crisis," "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell," and a few other really classic episodes. So, I certainly have a special place in my heart for that. And then "Nightman" ended up becoming a bit of a cult classic, and we did a bunch of live shows of that. So, I do have a lot of fondness for that.

TMN: Now, for "Cut Bank," when do you think that people are gonna be able to check this out?

Matt Shakman: I'm not sure. I hope soon. We've done most of our foreign distribution deals, and then hopefully, after the LA Film Festival, we'll know where we're gonna land domestically in terms of distributor, and then it will be up to them to tell us when and how people can see it.

TMN: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I'm really looking forward to the film.

Matt Shakman: Awesome. Well, it's a pleasure talking to you, Nick.