In 2014, Australian-born twin brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker wrote and directed the short film Bag Man, about a 12-year-old, African-American boy who leaves his home in Harlem carrying only a duffle bag and travels to the remote woods in upstate New York. He never speaks, and by the time he gets there, we think we know what his intentions are. We find out we’re desperately wrong when he pulls from the bag what can only be described as a ray gun that looks like it dropped on earth from another world.
Many were so impressed by the short that naturally the question came “So are you going to turn that into a feature?” And the truth was that the Bakers never thought they would. But there was interest in the short (from people like actor Michael B. Jordan, who came on to the feature as a producer), and the brothers did have an idea for the feature version of the movie in their back pocket, in case the opportunity arose to make it their feature debut. That’s exactly what happened in the form of Kin, which is now playing everywhere.
The Bakers have been living in America for about the last 15 years, working primarily in advertising, directing commercials full-time. With a solid story in mind involving a kid named Eli (newcomer Myles Truitt), they turned over the actual writing of the Kin screenplay to friend Daniel Casey. The screenplay was a hot property for a time, attracting the likes of Dennis Quaid (who plays Eli’s adopted father), Jack Reynor (as his step-brother), James Franco (as the film’s villain), and Zoe Kravitz (as a stripper who ends up joining the brothers on their road trip). Kin is part family drama, part science-fiction story, part road movie, and the blend keeps things interesting and far from boring. Hell, there’s even a fun cameo by Chicago’s own Carrie Coon.
I sat down with the Bakers recently when they were in town promoting the movie as a part of Wizard World Chicago, and their enthusiasm for their work and the genres they get to play in was infectious. Please enjoy this chat with Jonathan and Josh Baker (and please understand that they look and sound exactly the same, so I may have interchanged who said what in some cases; but they share a hive mind, so it doesn’t really matter).
My biggest issue with genre films in the last 10 years is that they are so story driven that they offer no character development, so I end up not caring who lives and dies. In this film, you go in the other direction.
Josh Baker: We go waaaay too far!
Well, not too far, but this turns out to be a family drama disguised as a science fiction film.
Josh: That is literally how we pitched it to the studios. You’ll be surprised, but that actually went down like gangbusters, because everyone loves a family drama, but you can’t make just that. Hidden inside a sci-fi movie—we can make that. So everyone was excited from the beginning. I love that you love that; we feel exactly the same way. We’re fans of big and small cinema, but I think blockbusters have taken a boring turn because we’ve all glazed over. I’m not just pointing fingers as CG like people tend to do; I love CG, but I think it’s used in such a slap-you-in-the-face way that we’ve all switched off, and with this one, we wanted to re-engage people, bring the bar down, restrict things, and have some epic genre stuff in there and focus on characters.
Jonathan Baker: That takes some restraint sometimes, especially dealing with studios, when you’re trying to communicate that you want to go smaller and more intimate with things, and they’re begging for more visual effects, more action scenes, and you’re like “No, I think this is the right level now.” That’s a hard one to deny, but it’s definitely our tastes.
I don’t remember if I saw the short at SXSW the year it was there, but I know I saw it and remember that you’re lead character doesn’t talk at all.
Jonathan: He doesn’t say one word.
And Eli in this film doesn’t say much. He’s an observer, taking it all in, processing these huge changes in his life. That would seem like the harder sell than a family drama
Josh: Well, we couldn’t make him completely silent.
Whenever there’s a young person at the center of a film, they always tend to over-explain what they’re going through and overreact, and this kid is taking it all in the way most of us would. Where did that idea come from?
Josh: That definitely one thing we took from the short film—tone. Tone became what we policed on this movie. It was all about the right tone, and luckily we always had the short film to go back to, to remind people—whether it was producers, executives or whatever—that this is what it is, this is the blueprint, and we’re going to make this thing, and it’s going to have the same tone. We’re messing with a lot of genres and ideas in the film, and it was our challenge to keep the tone the same through the whole thing, so you could take a silly, video game plasma rifle and drop it into the real world of what we’re trying to tell here in 2018 wish-fulfillment movie and have it work.
Jonathan: And retaining that level of grit and grainy imagery and taking the gloss out of it added to that tone and made you feel like “This could actually happen. I know people like that.”
Josh: There were a lot of conversations like “If you throw away the sci-fi in this movie, it has to work. It has to be a good movie.” And then put it back in and make it cooler.
When he finally does step forward and becomes the hero to a degree, there’s more of an impact if you take that approach.
Josh: Absolutely. You see his true arc as a character, which starts as a broken kid who has lost his mother and has confidence issues…
Jonathan: And is turning into a bit of a thief. His dad is fearing that he’s going down his brother’s path. We like to say that we threw the yin and yang on both sides of him—his father is the builder, the positive influence in his life, as much as he’s a hardened man; and Jimmy is the destroyer, he’s the bad influence. So really it’s about choices, and what kind of man this kid wants to become.
Josh: And if you pretend this is an origin story and in the future he becomes someone special, this movie is the very slim 10 days where he made a choice of who he’s going to be in the future.
This does feel like the beginning of something, but it would be bold if this was all you wanted to do with this.
Josh: Yeah yeah, there something about that that I really like, but there could always be a next chapter.
Because we know that he becomes something great.
Jonathan: He has an awareness of a destiny that is waiting for him as well. The window has been opened. Knowing at the beginning, he’s wondering “What is my place in the world?” and in the end knowing exactly what it is, that is a big thing for this character.
Josh: I’m not the first one to say this, but we’ve always been really attracted to stories about outsiders. It should be no surprise that we’re two Australians hanging out in America, trying to make movies. I sometimes feel like I’ve been here longer than I was there [laughs]. We have no place in Hollywood, but here we are making movies. That was really interesting from Day 1 for us. You start the movie with someone who doesn’t really know his place in the world and end it somewhere slightly different.
I noticed that Michael B. Jordan is an executive producer in this film. How did he get involved?
Jonathan: Mike was a fan of the short film. He found Bag Man and wanted to see more young, black characters in great sci-fi content. He’s a big comic book/genre fan. He knows his stuff really well and involved in a lot of different things. He was very supportive and came to us and said, “How can I help you guys because I believe in Bag Man and the pitch you just gave me for what Kin is going to become. Anything I can do to help.”
Let’s talk about Miles. This is his first film, although he’s done some pretty big TV series as well.
Josh: But he shot those after this. We’ve been done for 10 months, and he’s been working it hard in TV ever since.
How did you find him, and why was he the right kid?
Jonathan: Picture this. We had 250-300 kids that we saw, and he was the last one, literally. The very last one. We thought we knew where we were going with it, and then he walked in and we’re like “Great look. Amazing face.” All of his performance is subtle and with his eyes; he’s an observer and he’s not an over-actor. That is a very hard thing for a 14-year-old kid whose never done a movie before. A lot of kids who come up through commercials or theater, they tend to overact, and he went the opposite.
Josh: They want to impress, and he pulled back, which was so impressive.
Jonathan: We brought him to Boston to meet Jack Reynor, who was shooting Detroit out there with Kathryn Bigelow; we brought him and two other kids as back-ups, which I’m just realizing is horrible. We brought three kids [laughs]. We put him in a room with Jack and let him improv and work, and he stood far above the rest. Part of the story became “Let’s change this kid’s world. Let’s take a kid like Eli in this movie and blow his mind.” So when we called him up to tell him he had the role, we recorded it and said, “Look man, unfortunately not everybody can get the role. It’s a really challenging thing for us to choose. You were great, and are you ready for your whole entire life to change? You are Eli, my friend.” He hung up the phone, screams, mom crying in the background.
It must have been tough to find a kid who is more impactful when he’s not talking. You have to judge him as an often-silent entity.
Josh: It’s about his reactions. When Jack was playing off of him, we looked at how he reacts. Is he listening? What’s happening in his eyes? What’s his face doing?
Jonathan: In the end in Kin, he’s an observer, and we’re observing through his eyes. It’s really powerful when your character isn’t talking all the time and you can sit back and watch it with him.
Josh: That said, he’s also got these power scenes with Zoe Kravitz and Dennis Quaid. It was a week in and you could see all of that slip away and watch him be natural with these people. He’d be fucking around before the camera rolls and switch into this dramatic role, and we’re like “He’s a professional. He knows what he’s doing.” He’s going to be around for a while. Miles has a big future.
Speaking of Detroit, that’s another thing you changed from the short, which was set in Harlem. But now you’ve moved the beginning of the film to Detroit.
Josh: We didn’t want to be tied to a short that ultimately wan’t made to get a movie off the ground. It was made as its own story.
It wasn’t made as a proof of concept piece?
Josh: It wasn’t, and to be brutally honest, a lot of those bug the shit out of me, watching those. They’re transparent, they’re obvious, nudge-nudge to a studio that “I can do this. Look at my visual effects; I went hard on this.” A lot of them are from visual effects guys who want to be directors. That’s fine; it’s got a place. We wanted something that had a full arc, a full experience. So we put that out online, and it was around the editing that we realized people are going to ask what the movie version of this is, and we’re going to miss an opportunity of we say “No, it wasn’t made for that,” or “Give me a couple of months to figure it out,” and the heat goes away. So we had an idea of what that would be; we actually went away and said, “There are some obvious, surface-level elements that have to be in the movie version of Bag Man, but then we can go wherever we want to go.”
So Detroit became the instigator of decay and the concept of broken things and lives. It’s about industry in Detroit, about location, and it’s contrasting a broken family that’s lost their mother and wife, and the brother is coming out of prison.
Jonathan: Another reason is that we wanted the kid to have a side-hustle at the beginning and not really be connecting with other kids his age. So he’s a little wiser. We talked about him being the smartest one in the room, so he’s got a level of street smarts. With his side-hustle as a scrapper, there are only a few cities that take part in that—Cleveland, Detroit. That was built into the vibe of the city, and quickly we moved there. When we met with our potential writers—we looked at a ton of writers—we met with Dan Casey and halfway through the initial interview, he said “You guys are pitching me a Detroit story; you know I’m from Detroit.” “No we did not, and you’re hired!” So he brought a lot of his upbringing, and we had very similar upbringing in some way—lower-middle class, lost of exploring as little kids. He literally rode his bike the way he would go to school, so we went with him and did a little research trip. So a lot of his personal experiences are in the movie, which is great.
Let’s talk about the Terminator movies, which are referenced directly and indirectly a few times here.
Josh: What do you mean?! [laughs]
The T2 video game is seen early on, and that whole police station shootout resembles the one in the first Terminator.
Josh: We would say that the main inspiration is Suburban Commando [laughs]. We grew up with that stuff, and the feeling of a faceless, ’80s ultra villain was certainly an inspiration for the characters of The Cleaners. And after knowing we had a very nostalgic story structure, we tipped the hat to it. The video game is something we grew up playing, and we loved the idea of him shooting this ray gun at cyborgs [in the game] when there’s a ray gun in the truck.
Jonathan: When it comes to the police station sequence, the honest truth is we didn’t plan that around Terminator. That was an idea that came from Dan Casey. We were actually going to end this film in an abandoned amusement park, and it all organically ended up in this police station, where the threat level is “You’re going to jail, boys.” We wanted to contrast very earthly problems and results/punishments with other-worldly threats.
Josh: Then when we were in pre-production, there was a conversation, and we all went “You all remember the end of Terminator, right? Literally, this is how it went down.” I remember, there was at least a day when I thought “Is this a problem?” And then people were like “No, no. That’s actually kind of cool because there is a Terminator thing that runs through this movie.” And we’re all like “Okay!” One could say that the ending of Terminator and the ending of our film go down parallel paths.
Jonathan: Even the way it closes just before the credits is inspired by the feelings you get from Die Hard, where you’re sitting in the ambulance with the police in a blanket over your shoulders. It’s a classic, familiar ending, and we wanted to have all of those things where you feel a part of that movie because you’ve experienced that growing up, but then you’re peppering in this sci-fi that is very unique and different.
It’s funny you mention the blanket, because as soon as I saw Eli with one I wondered why he had one, as I had hundreds of time in other movies I saw growing up. He didn’t get wet, and it wasn’t cold.
Josh: [laughs] I protest that because that was the coldest night I have ever experienced ever. “Why does he have a blanket?” The answer is always “Because he’s in shock!” We were shooting up in Toronto in the winter, and it was the coldest I’d ever been.
Jonathan: Carrie Coon was originally wearing a very slick, nicely fitting coat, and it was so cold, she looked at me with eyes that said “Please don’t make me take my goose down off.” And I made a decision very quickly that that was real too. Just leave it on. And suddenly she’s wearing that in the final scene, with a hood with fur on it. And the producers came over and asked “You know she’s wearing her jacket?” “Yeah, we made a call. That’s how she’s going to look in the final scene.” They backed away slowly, because we needed her to talk on camera.
You mentioned The Cleaners before, and for the whole movie we don’t know if they’re robots, cyborgs, aliens, soldiers.
Josh: Or Chinese government. Your mind is going crazy trying to figure it out.
I thought maybe Daft Punk had really gone off the rails.
Josh: Yeah, their last album was either really successful or really not [laughs]. We call them The Cleaners because they represent the clean-up team who clean up the scene, and they just happened to leave behind a weapon.
Tell me about designing the weapon, making it look harmless in its dormant state, and how it looks in its different modes.
Josh: From the beginning, we wanted to attempt to come up with something that felt unique on film. We designed a hundred weapons with a team at a place called Super Vixen, looked at a million sketches, and it was the most fun we’d ever had in a week, because you’re going through ray guns going “Is this it?” But there was one they designed that closed up into a box—this was for the short film—and we thought, “This takes some exploring to figure out what it is.” There’s no muzzle, you don’t know which end is firing, how you hold it. You have to play with it to figure it out. The kid in the short and Eli in Kin are both curious kids, so giving him something almost like Aladdin’s lamp that he has to touch and open and reveal was important visually.
Jonathan: The idea was, you pull this thing out of the bag and instead of everyone going “Oh my gosh, it’s a ray gun!” people go “Awesome, what is that?” And it takes a little bit of play to make it light up, and it’s got symbols on it, it’s got this high-tech scope, multiple modes, and giving it depth as its own character in the film was important. In our minds, it’s the broad sword from The Sword and the Stone. An innocent kid being able to wield something that no one else can. We don’t know whose important yet; he’s the only one.
Do you have an idea of where this might go next?
Jonathan: The short answer is yes; the longer, more complicated answer is so much of this is out of our control. This is an original sci-fi story that a lot of people have been asking for for a long time, and if they don’t support it then further installments will never get made.
Josh: But at the end of the day, we’ve got a studio who has taken a risk on an original sci-fi idea that is remarkably quiet and indie spirited, and if it makes two bucks at the theater, we’ll never get to make a sequel. If people back it and go “I’m hungry for material that isn’t just a Marvel movie,” we’ve got a cool way of taking this to a much bigger film that attempts to retain the level of character and intimacy that we set up in the first film, but do it on a much bigger scale.
I was going to ask, if you get to do that, how will you maintain the intimacy?
Jonathan: That’s the whole DNA of this, the whole purpose. If you Iron Man 2 this sequel, you’re going to mess it up, and we very well may [Josh looks at him and mumbles “No we won’t; don’t tell him that.”]. But the concept is to try and retain as much of that as possible.
Thanks to both of you.
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