From first-time feature director Alex Pettyfer (who also plays the lead role in the film), the dark indie drama Back Roads, tells the story of Harley Altmyer (Pettyfer), a young man in a rural Pennsylvania town who’s been taking care of his three younger sisters since their mother went to prison for murdering their abusive father. Uneducated and working two dead-end jobs just to try to hold his family together, Harley connects to an older, married woman (Jennifer Morrison) and shocking family secrets threaten to destroy them all.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor turned director and producer Alex Pettyfer talked about the evolution of Back Roads, first reading the script about ten years ago when Adrian Lyne was attached to direct, feeling really supported throughout his directorial debut, putting together such a talented cast, his first day on set, how his perspective on directing has changed, when he’s looking to direct again, what’s up next for him, as an actor, and what made him want to sign on for the upcoming Netflix series I-Land.
Collider: Really tremendous work on this, taking on the lead role, as an actor, while also directing the film.
ALEX PETTYFER: Yeah. It’s a bit of a haze, to be quite honest. I feel really lucky that I was given the opportunity to be able to direct a movie.
You originally became interested in this project about a decade ago, when director Adrian Lyne was developing it and you were just talking about acting in it. So, what happened to that incarnation?
PETTYFER: So, I got the script about ten years ago, as an actor, and Adrian had adapted the book into a screenplay and was going to direct the film. I guess through times changing and certain circumstances with him, the film didn’t move ahead. Cut to nine or ten years later, and I had a small success as a producer, and the movie had always stuck in my head, so I went back to the producer that controlled the rights to the film. I just went in there out of pure love, wanting to see the film get made, and not with any intentions of acting or directing. So, we had a long conversation and I let him know my passion for the film, and he agreed to have me sign on as a producer, which was remarkable to me. And then, it happened organically. He then said, “Well, why don’t you be in the film?”
As an actor, I’d been very intrigued by the character, but I had wanted to play this ten years prior, so I was a little concerned on where my mentality would be, as I was probably too old to play the character. But when it came around to two directors, who came on board and signed on to the film, and then, due to unfortunate circumstances, they both had to drop out of the movie – one had a movie that they had written that got green-lit, and the other had a contractual obligation – and both of them were A-list directors, I was stuck in a weird position. We were two months before shooting the film, and I had no director, so I put forth a presentation, not thinking that they would take it seriously, but they thought it was an interesting idea and wanted to see where it would go with the cast.
So, I signed on as the director, and I can’t believe that I”m saying this, but then I got Juliette Lewis attached. Then, I got Jennifer Morrison and all of these wonderful female actors to collaborate with, and it just happened, organically. It was never my intention to be a part of the film, let alone direct the film. Adrian Lyne is probably one of my top five directors, of all time. I worked with Mickey Rourke, when I was a young boy, and I remember secretly going to Blockbuster and getting 9 ½ Weeks to watch and feeling infatuated with Kim Basinger.
How different is the version that we’re seeing now?
PETTYFER: Adrian tells the story in a narrative through a sexual manner. Sex is the most animalistic thing that we can do, and to go into characters that surround themselves in a sexual nature makes an interesting film. I cut back that narrative. Even though it’s still present, I cut a lot of that narrative out of the film because I wanted to tell a story that was based on characters and experiences through trauma. It makes for a much darker film. If I was to go back and remake it, I probably would add a little bit more of that Adrian Lyne content to bring a little more lightness to the film. It was really me depicting characters and watching them in a really negative environment to see how those negative circumstances interact with one another.
This is definitely a lot to take on. Did you have moments of panic, or were you just too busy with the production to have time to panic?
PETTYFER: I don’t really panic, in those kinds of situations. I was surrounded by beautiful people that were very supportive. You’re the captain of the ship, so you hold the flag high. I really had an amazing team around me. This is the first time that I’ve ever directed, but I really did have an amazing support system. Jennifer Morrison had just directed her directorial debut, Sun Dogs. And then, having people like Juliette Lewis, and a great producorial team, and Jarin [Blaschke], who’s an amazing cinematographer, I just felt really supported.
What was the first day on set like? Did you set up schedule to ease yourself into things, or did you jump right into the deep end?
PETTYFER: Talk about independent films, I actually was still raising finances while in pre-production, so we did a day of exterior shots. I went to the Police Chief of Louisiana and went to a precinct, and the precinct let us use the helicopter to do aerial shots. For the first day of shooting, I felt like I was in a Michael Bay movie. You only see three seconds of the shot in the opening sequence, where you see the trees and the red truck flying through the abyss of the wilderness. But on the day, I was strapped into the helicopter, holding the camera and thinking, “I’m meant to be making a drama here. I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel like I’m making the sequel to I Am Number Four.” That was our first day. And then, two weeks later, we started in the supermarket.
Along with yourself, everyone in this film does some exceptional work. What most impressed you about the cast that you were able to gather together for this, both as a director and as a scene partner?
PETTYFER: Watching Juliette Lewis was a dream come true. She’s an icon. Cape Fear, which she got nominated for, is a phenomenal film and a phenomenal performance. Juliette came onto the set and asked me to speak to her in her trailer, and I went in her trailer and sat down and she said, I’m a little nervous. Could we go over the scene together?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” I was sitting there thinking, “This is Juliette Lewis, who’s a two-time nominated actress, and she’s nervous. She said, “Is there anything that you can tell me, or that you would like to say?” I said, “Juliette, if you’re nervous, I’m ten times more nervous than you. Whatever you do out there, it will be great and it will work. Let’s just go do this, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. All that matters is that we have fun.” And we went out and did that scene in the prison, with just me and her, in one take. We never did another take. It’s seven minutes and it’s a one-shot, where it pulls in and then pulls back, until I get dragged out. So, I looked over to Video Village and people were very emotional. We shot in a real prison in Louisiana, so Juliette was on the other side, where it took about ten minutes to get her out. I radioed over to the AD to let them know to bring Juliette out, and I put the headphones and let her watch the scene. She watched the scene and came over to me, and I said, “I don’t think that we need another one. I think this was very beautiful. I made a copy, so we’re safe. If you feel okay, I feel okay.” She looked at me and said, “I feel okay.” We shot all of her scenes in half a day, which was unbelievable.
Now that you’ve had this experience, how has it changed your perspective on directing?
PETTYFER: For me, the biggest learning experience is that, as an actor, you come from a real singular narrative where the character is about you and you think about what you need to do on your journey. Directing a film is about collaboration. It’s about the whole narrative. It’s about everyone that’s involved in the picture. I not only learned, as a filmmaker, but I learned in life, as well, that collaboration, whether it’s creative or in a work environment is the key to any success. Not one singular man, or woman, knows everything. It’s about coming together to unite, which was a really humbling experience for me, in my life of thinking that I need to carry everything on my shoulders, or that I need to do things myself because that’s the only way it’s done. But to be on the film and listen to the sound department, and the grips, and the hair and make-up, everyone has their creative input that really is so valuable. It was a beautiful experience.
Is directing something that you would want to do again soon, or do you want to take a break before you do it again?
PETTYFER: I’m looking to direct something around the end of summertime, next year, so I’m excited about that. I’ve just finished a first draft, and I’m working on setting it up.
What kind of material will that film be?
PETTYFER: It’s a thriller that’s a political drama, based in Belgrade, Serbia, in the ‘70s.
Do you know what’s next for you as an actor, as well?
PETTYFER: Yeah, I’m doing a movie, called Echo Boomers, with Michael Shannon. And then, I’ve got another movie, called Warning, that I’m doing. Then, I have two others, but I can’t name them quite yet. So, I have a busy first quarter. My brother said, “You normally only do one movie a year,” so to be doing four in the first quarter, I feel very blessed.
When you work as a director, does it give you a new appreciation for the directors that you’ve worked with, and that you will work with?
PETTYFER: It’s so funny, I just did a TV show (for Netflix, called I-Land) with Neil Labute, who did The Wicker Man and In the Company of Men. He was directing the first two episodes and he said, “I just heard that you directed your movie. How does that feel?” And I said, “Neil, I am so happy to just be here, as an actor. I can relax. I don’t need to be doing anything, but my job.” It was weird not to be behind the camera, but it was nice to do one job, and not 20.
What was the appeal of that project, for you?
PETTYFER: First of all, it was working with Neil. I feel like Neil is probably one of the great American screenwriters of our generation. His writing is beautiful and poetic. And then, I loved the story and what they wanted to tell. I can’t say too much about it because Netflix made me sign confidentiality agreements. It’s funny, I’ve never experienced that in my life, but I guess it must be like what doing a Marvel movie is like. But, it was a good experience. I’m happy that I did it.
Would you ever want to do a Marvel movie, or a big superhero film? Is that something you’ve thought about, at all?
PETTYFER: Marvel makes some great movies. Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy were great movies. I love them. They’re entertaining, and they’ve got great appeal. If it was the right character and the right story, with a great team, 100%, I would love to be a part of that. I’m excited for Captain Marvel, too. That looks exciting.
Back Roads is now in theaters and on iTunes.