The latest indie film out of Boston almost got scrapped because its director, Troy Duffy, was so ornery. It's finally getting made -- for pretty much the same reason.
By Amy Finch
NOVEMBER 2, 1998: One night in 1996, Troy Duffy came home from his job as a bartender and bouncer to find a dead woman getting wheeled out of the heroin dealer's apartment across the hall.
"Her leg was hanging over the side, and she had an army boot on," says Duffy, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. "The heroin guy . . . comes running out of his apartment saying 'That bitch's got my money!' and slams his hand right down her boot. She'd been dead a couple of days."
That was enough. The Exeter, New Hampshire, native -- a premed dropout at musician who'd gone west for a shot at the music business -- rented a computer and vented his revulsion in a screenplay. Called Boondock Saints, the script is about two vigilante Irish Catholic brothers in Boston. It eventually found its way to Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Studios, who loved it, bought it for a reported $450,000, gave Duffy directorial control, and told Duffy that his band, the Brood, could do the soundtrack. Major names were mentioned: Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg. The movie would be shot in Boston. As a cherry on top of the deal, Miramax would buy J. Sloane's, the bar where Duffy had been working, and give Duffy partial ownership. Fairy dust swept in: Paramount Pictures agreed to buy Duffy's next two scripts for $500,000; a Brood record deal looked promising. Not bad for a 26-year-old who'd never taken a film class in college, never mind written anything resembling a movie script.
But then a gust of reality blew away a fair amount of that dust. Miramax and Duffy couldn't agree on casting, and this past spring Miramax dropped the project -- and, of course, the plan to buy J. Sloane's. The Brood did not get a record deal. For a while it looked as if Boondock would go the way of most first screenplays, and end up in . . . well, the boondocks.
But three months later, shooting for Boondock began in Toronto, and the final scenes were wrapped up in Boston about a month ago. Duffy had found an indie studio, Franchise Films, to pick up his movie and let him cast it the way he wanted. (It stars Willem Dafoe; Sean Patrick Flannery, from Powder; Scottish actor Billy Connolly; and newcomer Norman Reedus.) The Brood will indeed be on the soundtrack, as well as in a barroom-brawl scene. The producers aren't talking about who will distribute the film, but so far Troy Duffy, Hollywood outsider, is improvising a very Hollywood ending to his own story.
On location at the Back Bay's Church of the Covenant, on Newbury Street's most chichi stretch, the keg-shaped Duffy calls the shots with quiet command. In a buzz cut and ripped overalls, he moves without a ghost of indecision, striding around the set, giving orders to the crew, demonstrating that a virgin film director can discern instinctively and precisely what he wants and how to achieve it. He even has the human-engineering side down. At one point he acknowledges the congregation full of extras -- and draws a laugh -- by saying, after they have stood and sat, stood and sat, for take after take: "You people are the best sitters I've ever seen."
Having managed to sneak onto the set as an extra, I hold prop rosary beads with the rest of the congregation; again and again we rise for the Lord's Prayer. Again and again the boondock saints, played by Flannery and Reedus, saunter up to the altar to pray and kiss the toes of a huge crucified Jesus. Again and again a monsignor launches into a sermon about Kitty Genovese. Sometimes it's clear why a take fails -- as does the very first one, when sirens howl down Newbury Street just as the monsignor starts sermonizing. Other times it's impossible to tell what's gone wrong.
"All I know is I see the whole thing in my head and there's a whole bunch of people there helping me to do it," says Duffy, sitting amid the hubbub of the Prudential Center's food court on the Saturday morning after the church shoot. He's drinking a giant-size coffee, which his foggy head probably requires -- the night before, he and some high-school buddies went carousing at Charley's Saloon and almost got thrown out. "Some asshole always says something stupid," he says.
Duffy is not a dainty man. He speaks his mind. This probably helped fertilize the sour grapes of some industry types; there was gossip in film circles that Duffy didn't even write Boondock Saints. "It's so hard for people to believe. No film classes, no writing classes, no nothing. Zero to hero in two seconds. That's it. Nobody can buy that. They're like, 'This is bullshit.' Everybody's so jaded in LA.
"There was actually a story that they picked me, that my producers actually wrote it but they picked me as the figurehead to say that I wrote it, because I'm a tattooed, brawling, maniac fuckin' Irish bartender and I had the right look."
Duffy's look, and his blunt conversational style, also helped feed Internet rumors that he was "difficult." But one of the Boondock producers, Chris Brinker, says, "He's really pleasant to work with. The actors loved him. . . . A lot of directors are lackadaisical. He really grabs it and runs." (Another producer is Elie Samaha, who heads Franchise Films and produced the Boston-set film Monument Ave.)
As for the grab-and-run approach, Duffy talks about how his demands went over with Miramax's Weinstein, a famously tough negotiator. "When I sat down, he goes, 'What do I gotta do to get this movie?' I rattled off a list. I said you gotta give me eight and a half million dollars, you gotta stick it in the bank . . . I cast my movie. He was like, 'Whoa.'
"I passed the test because most guys would go, 'Oh, I don't know, Harvey, who do you want? Who do you think should go in that role?' And that's how he knows he's dealing with a putz."
It's also, says Duffy, why he and Miramax ended up parting company. He was determined to get the cast he wanted, but Miramax didn't like his choices. (In one instance, he chose Patrick Swayze to play the role that ended up going to Willem Dafoe; Miramax wanted Bill Murray or Sylvester Stallone.) "I told them I'll jibe with them on every other domain. If you want to cut my budget, if you want to film half of it in Toronto and half in Boston, I'll jibe with you everywhere except when it comes to casting. So they said, 'Well, Troy, we just can't deal with that.' "
The people at Franchise Films could deal with Duffy's choices, and he says he got the cast he wants. Signing Dafoe was the master stroke. Dafoe portrays a gay FBI agent who's after the Flannery and Reedus characters, self-styled lawboys with a mystical bent. When Duffy first met with Dafoe, he says, "it was like a huge meeting of the minds. I sat down at a table with him, and we must've talked for four fuckin' hours about the depth of this character, how to do things, all these funny little things. I knew right off the bat that he was the one.
"I knew I needed someone with that type of talent, who was going to challenge me and give me some stuff that was better than what I had on paper. When you're so talented, the script becomes nothing but a blueprint, something for you to go by. You can go out of bounds anywhere you want."
One scene, for instance, had real holes, both artillery- and plotwise. A guy gets perforated with bullets, while two others end up only semiperforated. The inconsistency seemed illogical until Dafoe suggested emphasizing the fact that there were two different shooters. "He goes, 'What do you think about this? What if I just turn around and go, 'Good shooting, shitty shooting'? And I said, 'perfect.' "
If there's one movie-related profession Duffy holds in high regard, it's acting. "That kind of concentration, being able to put all that shit out of your head and get into your character, seriously into him, I think is a very specific gift, and I don't think it can be taught," he says. "When you hear candy-ass stories like 'I need a trailer this big' or 'I gotta have my own makeup artist' or 'I gotta have a guy that does my hair,' I say fuck it, give them everything they want and then some. They deserve it, because they're taking the biggest risk on the set. I can't go out and act all these goddamn parts myself. I can do everything else, just about. But that I can't do."
It's typical of Duffy to seem immodest as hell one moment, then disarm you by admitting his limitations the next. When he says that he was "elated" with his cast most of the time, he sounds full of genuine wonder. His enthusiasm is as guileless as his energy -- both pretty much the antithesis of Hollywood ennui.
To Jim Jacks, the producer who brought Duffy to Paramount -- where Duffy's two-picture, half-million-dollar deal still holds -- that gruff honesty is part of what hooked him on the rookie. "I really liked his point of view," says Jacks. "I thought he had an original voice. I liked Boondock a lot. I didn't think it was a movie for Paramount, but I thought it was a really interesting script and had a lot of potential. So we sat down and talked and he told me some other stories that I thought were much more, for lack of a better word, 'studio' pictures."
Duffy has already finished a draft of The Peregrines, his first Paramount script, which Jacks says is in the "brilliant mess" stage. "It actually attracted the interest of a lot of major directors, so we'll see who we end up developing the script with. [Duffy's] not going to direct The Peregrines. It's a very sophisticated visual movie. Maybe he could direct in a couple of movies, because he actually is kind of -- after seeing a lot of Boondock -- he does have a strong visual style."
"He's a really smart, very talented man," Jacks adds. "And I'll say this: he's not really movie-savvy, at least not knowing old movies, so what happens is his scripts are much more literary in the sense that they come from great books that he read as a young man. So his scripts don't read like anybody else's. Which is a good thing. It makes him exciting to work with, although it makes it a little frustrating because he ignores certain things that are usual in movies." He laughs. "Like clear beginnings, middles, and ends."
Jacks is right about Duffy's literary background: the director tells of being assigned regular extracurricular book reports by his father, a Harvard graduate in English literature. "No matter how thick that book was, we had to get it done by the end of the month. It was annoying at the time. We wanted to play ball, you know? What the fuck? But it gave me a real good sense of when authors are hitting their mark and when they're not.
"I wrote [Boondock] in three sections. I wrote the very beginning and then I started thinking of cool shit for the middle. Then somehow between the beginning and the middle, the ending dictated itself."
Beginning, cool shit, ending -- Jacks's protestations aside -- is pretty much the recipe used in literature from the Odyssey to Angela's Ashes. And it may be this ability to strip art down to its guts that has gotten Duffy where he is. When he speaks of the sordid inspiration for Boondock Saints -- heroin dealer jamming hand into boot of corpse -- he exudes passion and frankness.
"I decided right there that out of sheer frustration and not being able to afford a psychologist, I was going to write this," he says. "Think about it. People watching the news sometimes get so disgusted by what they see. Susan Smith drowning her kids . . . guys going into McDonald's, lighting up the whole place. You hear things that disgust you so much that even if you're Mother Teresa, there comes a breaking point. One day you're gonna watch the news and you're gonna say, 'Whoever did that despicable thing should pay with their life.' You think -- for maybe just a minute -- that whoever did that should die, without any fuckin' jury."
So, he decided, "I was going to give everybody that sick fantasy. And tell it as truthfully as I could.
"Everybody's like, so, you got a story like Death Wish, huh? I'm like, no, it's not like Death Wish, because these guys are killing everybody who's inherently evil, that's it. It's not like, 'Hey, you raped my wife and killed my family, I'm coming after six particular dudes.' . . . It's like, 'I don't know you, I've never seen you before in my life, but you're a drug dealer, you're a pimp, you're in the mob, you die. That's it.' "
Duffy's description of the Boondock vigilantes lends them an oddly hallowed radiance. He says the two brothers, who work in a Boston meatpacking plant, possess mystical, saintly airs. Somehow, they know five languages -- "Whenever they don't want anyone to know what they're talking about, they speak in Latin. They're very humble people, but at the same time [they get into] lots of bar fights, always drinking. . . . But every Sunday they make sure they get their ass to church. . . . They're waiting for a hint from God to tell them what the hell they should be doing."
This mix of coarseness and concern for fellow creatures characterizes Duffy himself. He's a softie when it comes to old friendships -- he cast at least one high-school buddy in Boondock Saints. And he loathes cynicism, which he blames for "so many shitty films being made."
Despite the dead woman and the assorted LA horrors and users he's encountered over the past couple of years, he has not lost faith in people. LA is "only a tiny little town full of a bunch of assholes and a bunch of great people. It's just like anyplace else." Nor has he lost faith in the magic of movies: "Making a film is the most human thing you can do, because you're trying to bring all these other human beings into you, into your story . . . touch them on a personal level. . . . If you lose faith in human beings and you become a cynical, questioning motherfucker, then you're going to suck."
Directing a film, he says, is simple. "Tell people what you want. Be nice to everybody. Shake hands with everybody that helped you out afterwards. Just be a human being. It's not that fuckin' difficult."
Amy Finch is a contributing writer to the Boston Phoenix.
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