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Capone talks SYNCHRONICITY, NIGHT SKY and more, with actor AJ Bowen!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

I have absolutely no recollection of when or how I met actor AJ Bowen. It was probably at some SXSW Film Festival because it seems like he’s in somebody’s movie there every year, but I honestly don’t remember. One day I just realized “Hey, I’ve met that guy.” Part of the reason for my fuzzy memory is because Bowen is something of a chameleon. With just a bit of facial hair and a few fewer or more pounds on his frame, he transforms and gets lost in a character. In theory, that’s the goal of most actors—to disappear into their character—but you also want people to recognize your work. You need to take a look through Bowen’s credits before you realize how many of his films you’ve actually seen, especially in genre titles.

He and a whole bunch of very creative folks from Atlanta made a tremendous film nearly 10 years ago called THE SIGNAL (co-directed by his pal Jacob Gentry), and even since then Bowen has popped up in such works as THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (Ti West); HATCHET II (Adam Green); A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE (Adam Wingard) YOU’RE NEXT (Wingard); SUN DON’T SHINE (Amy Seimetz); AMONG FRIENDS (Danielle Harris); GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS (Emily Hagins); THE SACRAMENT (West); THE GUEST (Wingard); and his latest, again with writer-director Gentry, SYNCHRONICITY, a mind-melting, fantastic time travel/film noir piece that is floating around the country and On Demand currently. I saw the film at its premiere last summer in Montreal at the wonderful genre festival Fantasia, where I ran into Bowen and Gentry.

While we certainly talk a bit about SYNCHRONICITY in this interview, I was more interested into getting a bit of background in the Atlanta film scene (pre-tax credit edition, before everyone started filming there) and understanding the life of a fairly busy working actor in indie features and shorts. I’m especially eager to see Bowen’s latest collaboration with Gentry, NIGHT SKY (which they co-wrote), as well as TEENAGE COCKTAIL, which is having its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in March. I’ve always enjoyed out interactions over the years, but this is the first time we’ve actually done a formal (well, semi-formal—I believe I was wearing khakis) interview. Also, full disclosure: Bowen maintains a close friendship with our own Eric “Quint” Vespe, which he mentions at one point and bears not at all on this interview; we won’t hold it against him. With that, please enjoy my chat with the positively luminous AJ Bowen…

Capone: Hey AJ. How are you?

AJ Bowen: Good, man.

Capone: It was great running into you guys in Montreal.

AJB: I know, it was a pleasant surprise. That was my first time having ever been to Montreal, and I wasn’t around where everyone else was. I had cashed in a bunch of frequent-flyer and hotel points to be able to go; I had to walk six miles to get there, so by the time I got there it was like, “Where am I? Everybody is speaking this weird language, and I’m all alone. Oh hey, Steve! What’s going on, man?”

[Both laugh]

AJB: They have really good cheese there.

Capone: Yes, that’s true. I was telling Jacob that I have a really vivid memory of seeing THE SIGNAL at SXSW. It might have been my first SX, and I just remember coming out of that screening wondering, “What the hell is going on in Atlanta, because it feels really cool. They’re calling it a film scene, but it feels cooler than that—like a rock scene coming to life.” Tell me about the idea of working with your friends, even to this day. Can you be creatively critical with your friends? Because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, because they’re your friends. Tell me about striking that balance of making good films, but also having that creative freedom that working with your friends allows you.

AJB: You get to be more critical. You get to be a lot more emotionally honest when you’ve been friends with somebody for 25 years, and you guys started figuring out that you love movies in each other’s parent’s basements, which is realistically the case for the majority of those of us who worked on THE SIGNAL and those of us that worked on SYNCHRO. We all came up together and learned how to tell stories. We were talking about it—and it’s only upon looking back in reflection 20 years later—we didn’t go, “Somebody needs to be a sound guy.” Everybody happened to want to do this thing,—a specific part of it, but we wanted to do everything as well.

So it always was a bit more like a group of people. None of us were rich kids, but we were all in college around the time it started being possible for you to grab a digital camera and shoot. So we started cutting our teeth on that. We still learned how to edit on VCR, two of them side-by-side. Legitimately, that’s how all of us first learned how to edit. So what ended up happening…you know, you go to college with people and you have all this narcissistic, bloviated sense of self, hopes and dreams, ambitions. For example, I went to New York; some people went to Atlanta; some went to LA. And one thing we had in common was, for the most part, in those early post-collegiate years, all of us failed. I guess I can’t really speak for everybody else. AJ failed, radically failed.

Capone: In New York?

AJB: Yeah. I found myself back in Georgia. We all found ourselves back in Georgia. I was in Athens. I think I’m the only one of us who actually didn’t live in Atlanta. The only times I’ve lived in Atlanta was to shoot. I grew up in the suburbs, just north of it, like most of us did. So we found ourselves all back in Georgia, and we started talking about it again. By the time I got back, people had started finding each other in Atlanta, because Tyler Perry wasn’t there yet, “The Walking Dead” and Marvel, they weren’t there yet.

Capone: Because the tax credit wasn’t there yet, right?

AJB: I’m telling you, if the tax credit had been there, all of us would still be living in Atlanta. We’re talking like 12-15 years ago. So they all have jobs, like editing on commercials, or somebody works in a coffee shop. So creatively, they want to be fulfilled. So on the weekends, they’ll make a short together, and then they hear about friends of friends of friends, and then they’ll go off and make something.

What ends up happening is, one of you is a bartender, and it’s a quiet Saturday or Monday night, and there’s nothing going on there, there’s no band playing, so what if everybody goes down there, and we buy a lot of drinks, and we play our movies on the TVs, and it ends up being our own little punk rock film festival of shorts. That’s really how it started, and that’s what led to THE SIGNAL. I was already out in LA, and I had heard they were thinking about doing this exquisite-corpse-style process of making a movie, so we ended up doing that not knowing anybody.

It’s funny you mention SX, because that was such a hugely significant event for me. That was my first one as well, and that’s also how I met Eric [Vespe], one of the great loves of my life. How we met, if you were to take it in the abstract, is my greater ambition in philosophy of independent film and why I do it. It was after THE SIGNAL, and we just stood out under the awning at [the Alamo Drafthouse] South Lamar, and we started talking. It was like 2:30 in the morning, and we were still talking when the sun came up, and all we were talking about were movies that we liked. That’s it. And that was the beginning of like such a strong friendship. He’s my brother, and that’s because of movies.

And as things evolve, the idea is you go make a movie for very little money with your friends, and what this will do if it’s good is people will see it and they will give you more money to go off and make your own movie, and then you can go off and get big and do your own thing. So that is what, however consciously or subconsciously, you’re trying to do. Then what happens is, first of all, everything changes—VOD starts happening, which I think is a great thing. But what that also meant is, if you made a $50,000 movie, if it did really well, you were hoping to turn that into making a $2.5 million movie. And then next thing you know, you’re working on $15 to $30 million dollar movies and you’re getting everything you wanted out of life. But what ended up happening is you make a $50,000 movie, and they go, “Okay, cool. You can make a $50,000 movie; I’ll give you another 50 grand.” And you go, “No, no, no. I did this with very little money. Give me more.”

And then when VOD happened, the sale price at film festivals went way down, so it became harder for independent filmmakers to make money off of making movies, and it became harder to build your career that way. That’s certainly what happened in my case. So I was looking at it and I thought “It’s not going to happen that way, but what can we do instead?” We can think small again. We can keep the overhead low, and that gives us complete and total creative freedom, and then we’re emancipated from some big-brother thing where we don’t have to be corporate. We can stay true to our interest. I think that’s been one of the best things about VOD and about so many micro labels existing now is, there’s such a diversity of content that we have—at least in that small micro indie world, where we pretty much exclusively live in—freedom of complete creativity. Whatever we’re into, we can go do it. It doesn’t matter if 10 or 20 or 2,000 people pick up on it. We’re able to do it, and do it in a fiscally responsible manner so that our distributer doesn’t take a bath on it, and then we get to make another one.

That’s sort of what happened with SYNCHRONICITY and what’s happened in the past few years, at least in my case and my friends that I made movies with, we miss those days of purity—let’s just tell a really specific thing that we wanto to do, and let’s see if we can do it for no money, which is way trickier once you’re on the unions. So SYNCHRO, for me, was the opportunity to get back together with my lifelong friends. Let’s kick the dust off, kick the rust off and see if I can still do this, and the idea being “Let’s take one dollar and see if we can make it look like five.” Then you get to go super high concept, sometimes lo-fi. The thing is, the people that like it are going to really like it. The people that don’t like it, that’s okay, because it’s not for everybody.

That’s what everybody’s doing these days. Then you ask “Where do you think you want to take this? What’s the best audience for this?” The idea being, we just have to make this one and get it out there so we can make another one, then we’ll keep doing that, then hopefully the amount of content we have will build into a library that we can be proud of or at least not embarrassed of.

Capone: On SYNCHRONICITY, I’m guessing Jacob on some level wanted the actors who are playing scientists to have some understanding of what was supposedly going on in this film. Can you just tell me a little bit about what you did to get your brain in the right place to play a character like this?

AJB: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I always let the editor worry about that [laughs].

Capone: Did he just gave you a list of smart-sounding words and then piece it together in post?

AJB: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I was like, as long as I have suspenders and a blazer, then I’m done. I look like I’m in Mensa now. Everyone will believe me. I’ll just speak quietly and softly and stay out of the way, and everyone will be like, “That guy’s quiet and super smart.” Like Jacob, I had a very intellectually pedestrian fascination my whole life with science, and fringe science specifically, like string theory and quantum mechanics. That being said, if anyone who actually had any education on it came up and talked to me, I’d think they were speaking a foreign language. But I read a lot of Michio Kaku and so has Jacob. So for me, and we’re so close to each other both emotionally and literally—we live less than a mile from each other. I speak his language, so I understood what he wanted to do and the bigger-picture things.

When you’re so close with someone emotionally, intimately, when you know the ins and outs of their brain sometimes better than they do, you understand immediately the meta picture. You know all the moving parts. That being said, we all did a little bit of research. Scott [Poythress, another actor in SYNCHORNICITY] had to do a lot of research. For me, if I just say the dialogue and get out of the way, no one’s probably going to go, “Hey, that guy’s not a scientist.” But you tell them that I am in the movie, so they’ll give us the suspension of disbelief. But Scott, who plays Matty, played a character that had dyscalculia, and that’s an actual thing. So Scott had to do some very specific research. How does this look? What does this sound like? What is this like? Which is a rare thing, and it’s tough, and kudos to him for pulling it off, because it means that intellectually he has to be able to make some choices that are represented physically, which impacts how he does things in the movie.

The idea was “We’re going to try to tell this time travel story.” One question we’ve gotten a lot was, was it hard to wrap your mind around which universe you were in at the time? I would say no. I’m not trying to sound meta here, but when you’re making a movie, 99 times out of 100, you don’t have the benefit of starting in a straight line and going from point A to point B to the end. So your job as an actor is to try to understand the whole big picture, and then what ends up happening is people start cutting up that line. So you execute a broken line to try to get to a place where the audience will see a straight line. So it wasn’t any tougher to shoot this; we shot it out of sequence.

Plus, Jacob vetted the script with a scientist. So when you know that that’s already been done and you passed the test, you can walk up to Jacob, which is what you should be able to do with your director, and say, “Hey, I think I fucked up. Am I supposed to be wearing the vest now, or am I not supposed to be wearing the vest now? I can’t remember.” And then he can refer back to a chart like, “Yeah, yeah. Lose the vest. Okay everybody, back to one. We’re going to do that one more time. Good job. Good call.”

Other than that, it’s really not a different approach. You’re basically talking about when you’re shooting, you’re trying to get to the emotional truth of a beat for a couple of beats. We’re not worrying about what worlds or what universe we’re in; that’s literally an aesthetic thing. If I start trying to think about it when I’m on set, my brain will break. I’ll break like Haley Joel Osment in A.I. I think I almost did a couple of times, because I started looking at Chad [McKnight, the lead actor] like, “I don’t know if he’s in the right wardrobe. Should we say anything? It’s pretty stressful right now. I guess I won’t say anything.” Then smoke starts coming out of your ears, and it’s like “Let’s go try one again.”

Capone: It’s funny, even before you said you had this interest in fringe science, I thought that Chuck seemed the most like you of any character you’ve played. He’s a devoted friend, just looking out for his friend when it comes down to it. It feels like you not just played this guy, but you could identify with him. Did he feel close to you?

AJB: What I can tell you, I don’t know if Jacob told you, but the characters of Chuck and Matty were written for myself and Scott.

Capone: He didn’t, but I assumed that.

AJB: Scott’s full name is Mathew Scott Poythress, so Matty is short for Mathew. My full legal name is Alfred Charles Bowen Jr. So Chuck is short for Charles. He wrote those parts with us in mind, and aside from some of the brain issues that Scott’s character has, which he doesn’t have, the sensibility of the way that they get along and care for one another was very much a reflection of the way that we are. I am certainly not the most responsible human being in the world, but I think Chuck in the movie is the parental figure, the one that is kind and trying to keep things calm for everybody and trying to be the source of reason without being the source of conflict. I definitely try to avoid conflict, because I don’t like it. Now that I’m thinking about it, you’re kind of fucking me up. Maybe I am Chuck.

Capone: I didn’t get a chance to ask Jacob about this, but I’ll ask you about NIGHT SKY. You already shot it, you co-wrote it. Talk about writing. Does that flex a different creative muscle for you, getting to do something like that?

AJB: One is physical and one’s intellectual. Acting is always physical for me, and I think it’s best when it stays that way, for me at least. But I’ve been a writer longer than I have been an actor. I didn’t necessarily get things produced nor get writing credit for something. I wrote my first screenplay when I was six years old. Of course, it was probably like three pages long and it was about eating a hot dog or something, and there were aliens. But I definitely thought I was Amblin material at that age.

NIGHT SKY was a really specific thing. The thing that became the inspiration for that was the day after Robin Williams passed, I was looking at particular movies, and I had landed on THE FISHER KING, and FISHER KING led me to another movie, and I watched that movie that had nothing to do with anything, that had different people entirely in it, and it was a movie that was made in 1984, and I thought to myself, “Nobody’s making this kind of movie with this kind of sensibility, and I’m really interested in doing that.” And this is a true story: I got a text from Jacob, and he’s like, “Hey, man. I want to talk to you about something.” And I’m like, “Cool, cool. I want to talk to you, though, because I want to write a movie that’s like this movie.” And he’s like, “Oh, so we already spoke?” I was like, “What?” He said, “We already spoke about this, because that’s what I was going to call you about and tell you I want to do this.”

Now I don’t believe Jacob; I think he’s a liar. Because I think it was my idea and he was like, “Yeah, let’s do that, and I’ll just tell him so that he has no power over me that I already thought of it, so he’s an idiot.” [laughs] So we got together, we sat down and decided “We are trained and we technically know how to do something, so what if we write something that has a very dedicated story to it? Every emotional beat done.” It had been about 10 years since we made THE SIGNAL, and we wanted to see if we could go do something that was purely creative again, and that’s what led to NIGHT SKY. “Do we still have it in us to do something like this?”

It’s very different then anything either of us have ever done. It was a lot of pushing 40, learning new lessons and trying to challenge ourselves and seeing if we could learn something new from this and break out of doing things our own way. Like I was saying before, you reach a point where you say, “If I’m not going to make any money at this, what if I do only the things that my friends and I are passionate about?” Because there’s no real pay check in the independent film world if you’re an actor, and not really if you're a director. Sometimes if you’re a producer, if it does really well. So that leaves only the content. So we were like, “Alright. What would we want to watch, or what would we want to see if we can pull it off?” And that’s where things have been leading us lately. So that’s what NIGHT SKY is.

Capone: Are you aiming to get that into festivals around a certain time this year?

AJB: We have submitted. We’re pretty much in the can, and we have begun submitting to festivals. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.

Capone: Before we actually met in Austin, I had probably had seen you in a half-dozen movies and not really realized you were the same guy in all these movies. That must please you to a certain degree that you can pull off that chameleon thing just by like growing a beard or changing your hair, or gaining and losing weight. Are you cool with that brand of disappearing act?

AJB: Thank you. It’s funny to me, because I feel like I look the same that I have since I have since I was 10 years old, except my hair is grayer and my beard is full and starting to go gray when I have it. I think that boils down to like, I’m not like Christian Bale, dude. There were a few movies there for a couple of years where I had a nice alcoholic, bloated sheen about me that was reflected visually in my characters. Those are character choices, Steve [laughs].

The physical component of the character is always interesting to me, and I tend to work outwards in. If I can figure out what the character listens to and what the character looks like, then it leads me to other answers. So yeah, it’s incredibly satisfying. It’s always surprising to me. I was surprised that nobody knew who I was in THE GUEST, and it made me start believing that the Clark Kent thing might be possible. I never thought that was plausible. I always thought it was bullshit. But all I did was shave my beard and wear glasses and put a suit on. I didn’t have blood on me and I wasn’t beating people to death.

Capone: At that point, I was recognizing you in everything, but when I was looking over some of your credits, I realized I’d seen all of these movies. How did I not recognize it was the same guy?

AJB: I’m so unmemorable. I came and went like a fart in the night.

Capone: Not at all. I just saw six different, memorable actors. AJ, thank you so much, man. It’s always great to talk to you.

AJB: Alright, happy New Year. Bye.

-- Steve Prokopy
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