The true crime story centres on Jason Derek Brown, a charismatic conman whose criminal trajectory eventually saw him land on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for murder. Gentile’s film is bolstered by a star-making turn by Tom Pelphrey (Ozark) in the central role, supported by an impressive ensemble including Idina Menzel, Ryan Philippe, Paul Schneider, and Australian acting legend Jacki Weaver.
FilmInk sat down with Gentile to talk about his debut.
As a child, your true crime obsession found you looking at the FBI’s most wanted list. This is where you first encountered the subject of your film, Jason Derek Brown. How old were you, and when did you decide that you were going to tell his story?
“Before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be an FBI agent. As a kid, I used to go on the FBI’s website and scan the fugitives’ wanted posters and mugshots to see if I could help the FBI capture one. I was around fourteen years old when the events of American Murderer took place, back in the early 2000s. When I saw Jason’s face on his wanted poster, he immediately stuck out to me. In a sea of menacing faces and criminals like Whitey Bulger and Osama Bin Laden, there was just something different about Jason: a surfer dude with spiky hair, a bright red hoodie, and a cocky grin. That image had an impact on me and made its way into my subconscious; I didn’t think about him until well over a decade later when I saw on a television program that he was still missing.”
How did you gather the information on Jason Derek Brown for your screenplay?
“I had a long and extensive research process. There was a lot of information on this case – since it was pretty well publicised here in the states. Jason’s story was covered on Dateline, American Greed, America’s Most Wanted, and many news outlets. Jason Derek Brown also gave me (and my collaborators) a gold mine — in that he documented himself and his life pretty well. He took many photographs of himself flaunting his toys, as well as videos of himself partying on boats and living his ideal life (some of which we recreate in the movie). I conducted interviews with people who knew Jason, and I also travelled to the crime scene in Phoenix. I visited the places where Jason lived in Utah, Arizona, and California to get a further sense of where he came from. One of my filmmaking idols is Michael Mann, and I love what he says about doing as much research on your subject as you can, so that when you go to make your film you can have full immersion in the subject. Sharing my research with my creative team helped a lot when we went to prepare the movie.”
We seem to be living in a true crime boom; with the increased content comes increased scrutiny – what are your feelings on the ethics of telling a true crime story for entertainment?
“It’s an interesting question, no one seems to know why true crime is so popular today. In every interview I have done for American Murderer, I always stress that this movie is a work of ‘true crime fiction’. While it is based on actual events, I like to be very clear that I made many things up to dramatise the story for the screen, mainly to make it an engaging story for the audience. I think that whatever project I do, whether it be true crime, true story based, or completely fictional, my principles are the same: I want to make a great movie. I want to tell a story that feels honest and real to me, and I want to entertain the audience in a meaningful and insightful way. I think there have been many great true crime films that inspired this one, like Dog Day Afternoon, The Honeymoon Killers, Star 80, In Cold Blood, or Vengeance is Mine. All of those films have achieved what I’ve set out to do.”
Between his Emmy-nominated performance in Ozark and his work with David Fincher in Mank, Tom Pelphrey is having a moment right now, how did you come to cast him?
“Ozark was my introduction to Tom Pelphrey, and like most of the world, I was blown away by what he did with that role. My producer (Gia Walsh) was the one who told me about his performance, and his season on that show came out at a time when we were just starting to cast the movie. It’s strange to say, but when I watched him on my TV — it was a lightning bolt effect, watching him for just 30 seconds I felt very strongly he was the guy. He has such a dynamic emotional range, and his physicality reminded me of my all-time favourite actor, Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai). At the time we were pursuing him, it was tough to say whether or not we’d get him, he was – and is still – in such high demand. Luckily enough, he connected with the script, and we had a couple of good meetings. Once he said yes, we were off to the races.”
Ryan Phillippe has made a career out of playing good-looking sociopaths. Do you think it is curious that in your film he is trying to catch one?
“That’s a good point, especially when you consider how Cruel Intentions made Ryan a star when he was so young. I loved working with Ryan. During the first few days of filming, I got to bug him about what it was like working with so many great directors: Tony Scott (Crimson Tide), Robert Altman (Gosford Park), and Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers). Sometimes, when you’re a new and young director, the more established actors in your cast can become mentor figures to you. That was the case with Ryan. He is the consummate professional, and I’m very proud of his performance in this movie, mainly because he plays Lance Leising (the agent trying to capture Brown) in a very subtle and restrained way. Ryan deeply understood Leising, who he talked about as being a ‘shark’, someone with a laser focus. I thought he did a great job, and I think it’s fun to see him in this film because even though he’s played cops and sociopaths before — he’s doing something different here.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of your favourite films, how did it feel to be directing one of its stars – Jacki Weaver – almost 50 years later?
“I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock when I was in college, and Peter Weir has been one of my favourite directors ever since. I love the haunting, eerie tone of that film, and the cinematography is so good and so expressive. Jacki Weaver is a true treasure. The fact that we got someone of her calibre to act in this little indie movie is absolutely insane. To be honest, I never thought it was even a possibility that she would say yes. In fact, Weaver was the first person we offered that role (of Jeanne Brown, Jason’s mother), and thank god she took it. Not only is she a fantastic artist, but she is incredibly humble and one of the easiest people to work with. She’s also hysterically funny. She made fun of me for writing ‘actually, really, and truly’ into my dialogue a lot, so now whenever we text, we’ll often write ‘actually, truly, and really’ to each other. She is also the Queen of emojis.”
Your film has an unusual, non-linear structure. What was your creative thinking about having dual narratives?
“The original drafts of the screenplay were actually linear. The timeline was compressed to the year of the robbery, and the audience’s gaze was primarily limited to Jason’s point of view. While some scenes from those drafts stayed — I realised that what made this story special to me, and one worth telling, was not just the character of Jason Derek Brown, but the people who knew him, loved him or got caught up in his web. I was really inspired by the structure of two of my all-time favourite films: Rashomon and Citizen Kane, both of which are movies where you get to see a character, and a set of events, from multiple points of view. I decided that the best way for an audience to understand Jason’s complexities would be to enable them to see him from multiple perspectives — so that by the end of the film, whether you love Jason or hate him or fall anywhere in between, you get a 360-degree view of who he was.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m developing a few scripts in the crime, thriller, and action genres. I have my second feature that’s in active development. I can’t say too much about that project other than that it’s an even crazier story than American Murderer.”
American Murderer will be released on February 8, 2023.