Antoni Stutz talks about directing his new film “Rushlights”

After a few television appearances and a supporting role opposite Don Johnson in John Frankenheimer’s “Dead Bang,” Antoni Stutz decided to take his talents back behind the camera. He made his feature film directorial debut with the comedy/thriller “You’re Killing Me,” starring Julie Bowen and Traci Lords. This week sees the release of his latest film, the noir-ish drama “Rushlights.” While promoting the film’s release Stutz took the time to sit down with Media Mikes.

Mike Smith: Can you give our readers a brief introduction to “Rushlights?”
Antoni Stutz: “Rushlights” is a story about two young kids from the wrong side of the tracks that travel to a small town in Texas to falsely claim a dead friend’s inheritance. Their claim seems to be going in the right direction at first but it soon turns out that pretty much everybody in this little town has a stake – slash – interest in the estate. It’s also a coming-of-age story, which I think helps separate it from the usual crime story. The choices that you make when you’re in your early 20’s are much more random and impulsive than those of someone who is in their 30’s. They would think things through more. When we got to page 20 while writing the script we had to think, “what would a 20 year old do in this situation?” We’re looking at it from a late-30’s point of view…we had to remember back to when we were 20. It’s a completely different dynamic. And that’s what interested me in the film.

MS: We’re informed at the beginning that the film is based on a true story. How did you come across the tale?
AS: My co-writer (Ashley Scott Meyers) approached me with a story she had seen in a newspaper that took place in Alabama. These two young people went to a small town in Alabama and tried to pull a similar stunt…impersonating someone else and claiming an inheritance. And I realized that ONLY a teenager would come up with an idea like that and think it would work. I also realized that maybe what they did didn’t make them idiots. Maybe what they did made them desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.

MS: You had some success early on as an actor. What made you take your talents behind the camera?
AS: I actually started out behind the camera. I made short films…VHS, digital, High-8, Super-8. I started when I was 14. I came to Los Angeles and I guess I had the right look at the time. I did some commercials, some television. But that wasn’t where my drive was. I was up in Canada for three months with John Frankenheimer and Don Johnson doing “Dead Bang.” It wasn’t a big role but they decided to keep me there even when I wasn’t shooting. So I basically had a three month crash course in filmmaking. To the despair of John Frankenheimer, I should add. I know I got on his nerves. I kept asking “why are you putting the camera there?” Finally he said, “listen, kid, we’re paying you to be in FRONT of the camera, not behind the camera.” I was so naïve that I didn’t really know who he was or what a legend he was (among his films, Frankenheimer directed “Black Sunday,” “Birdman of Alcatraz” and the original “Manchurian Candidate”). He told me that if I shut up and didn’t bother him I could stay on set and watch him. So I basically went to film school for two and a half months. I had also worked with Bob Giraldi and Michael Mann so I had some great exposure. The only problem was that it was a studio environment. Making independent films is a completely different environment.

MS: Have you ever thought about acting again?
To pick up an acting career in my early 40’s…not really. I really enjoy working WITH actors. I think I can bring what experience I have acting to the directing job. But at the same time I’m not excluding it.

MS: You pull double duty on “Rushlights,” as both co-writer and director. Do you prefer one job over the other?
AT: Directing by far. That is where my passion lies in the creative process. Not that I don’t enjoy writing. You have to understand that filmmaking is a little bit like a modern day operetta. You have all of these different art forms. Photography. Acting. Writing. Production design. You name it. And you put it all under one umbrella. There are some things you’re going to be good at and some things you’re not going to be good at. You make sure you take advantage of the things you shine at and you also make sure that you have people that do shine on the things you don’t. It’s a great learning experience to put your ego in the drawer.

MS: Now that “Rushlights” is being released what do you have coming up?
AT: I have two thrillers on my desk. They’re both finished scripts but one is a little more developed than the other. That’s the one I’m favoring. It’s really a hair-raising original story written with bravura and balls. It’s really outside of the box. With a little bit of luck we should be shooting it the middle on next year.

MS: That’s really all I had. Thank you for your time.
AT: And thank you for taking the time to watch the film. I don’t make films for myself. I don’t put it on a shelf and just show it to my friends. I make them for an audience. The most enjoyable time for me on a film is the moment between “action” and “cut.” Second thing is a good Q&A, either with the audience or a critic. I’ve talked with people that really enjoyed the film and I’ve talked with people that were angry with me…”this doesn’t make sense…that doesn’t make sense!” And I’ve realized that this is part of being an artist. If a film I make generates this kind of emotion than I’ve done my job. It’s a dialogue like this that inspires me to get up in the morning, get on the horn, raise money…all of the crazy, insane stuff you have to do to get a film off the ground. When you’re a film buff you’re stuck with an incurable disease. I don’t recommend it for everybody!


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Film Review “Rushlights”

Starring: Beau Bridges, Josh Henderson and Aidan Quinn
Directed by: Antoni Stutz
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 36 mins
Vertical Entertainment

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

It seems so easy. You learn you bear a strong resemblance to someone who has just inherited a boatload of money. Realizing nobody but the dead person has ever met you, you decide to claim the inheritance yourself. See. Easy.

Such is the premise of the new thriller “Rushlights,” the sophomore directorial effort of Antoni Stutz, who has also added “co-writer” to his resume’. Billy (Henderson) and Sarah (Haley Webb) meet cute. She’s a waitress at a diner he frequents. After constant hours of flirting Billy gets up the nerve to ask Sarah out. Fireworks ensue. Sarah is burdened by a drug addicted roommate who, sadly meets a sad demise. While going through her things Sarah finds a letter from a lawyer in Texas explaining that the roommate’s uncle, who she hadn’t seen in decades, has passed away and left you everything. Commenting that Sarah and her roomie could pass for twins Billy convinces her to head to Texas with the dead girls ID, claim the inheritance for herself and then she and Billy can split town before anyone becomes the wiser. But when you’re not the sharpest (or, for lack of a better word, most scrupulous) knife in the drawer you’re bound to run into problems.

Based on a true story, “Rushlights” could have been a very standard, by the book imitation noir film. Instead, Stutz packs it with genuine surprises and emotion. He is helped out by a strong cast, led by Henderson and Webb. Aidan Quinn shows up as the deceased man’s lawyer while Beau Bridges tries to solve the mysteries as the local sheriff. Bridges character is also brother to Quinn’s lawyer, meaning these two will turn out to be as corrupt as you’ve ever seen a legal representative. But top marks go to Crispian Belfrage, so creepy as a man with ties to both Sarah and her dead friend.

Stutz’s direction is clear and sharp, taking the audience into Billy and Sarah’s lives, showing that everything is not always greener on the richer side of the fence.