Matthew Gentile is the writer/director the new film American Murderer which is based on a true story. The story follows Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey), a charismatic con man bankrolling his extravagant lifestyle through a series of scams. On Brown’s trail: Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe), a dogged FBI special agent determined to put Brown behind bars. When Brown’s funds run low and his past catches up with him, he plots his most elaborate scheme yet, pitting himself against Leising in a deadly game of cat and mouse — and becoming the most unlikely and elusive fugitive on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Matthew Gentile stopped by to chat about putting the film together.
Today we’re going to talk about your latest film, American Murderer which is the story of Jason Derek Brown. It’s a fascinating tale that I’d actually not heard about until I watched your film but it made me want to investigate further. You also did a proof of concept for it in 2019. How did the whole story come to your attention initially?
Well, before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be an FBI agent. So I basically wanted to be Ryan Phillippe’s character in this movie. The story goes back a long time. It happened in 2004, as you know and around that time I was 13 or 14 and I was a movie junkie. But before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a Fed. So I used to go on the FBI website because in horror, action and thriller movies that I watched growing up you would see the Top Ten Fugitives website. I would just go on the site, look at it and see if I could help the FBI catch somebody as I wanted to get the reward money and hang out with my friends. On the FBI top ten list if you look at the early aughts, like 2004 or 2005, you had some pretty menacing criminals out there like Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger, like really scary guys. Then there was this surfer dude from Southern California with spiky blonde hair and blue eyes, and something about him just didn’t quite fit the bill, you know? He just seemed to stand out. Jason Derek Brown very much resembled Sean Penn from Fast Times at Ridgemont High actually, when he was younger, especially with the classic surfer dude look. So his face just struck me.
Cut to 14 years later. I’m graduating from film school at the BFI and made a couple of short thesis films that are kind of getting around town and out into the industry. One of them was pretty action heavy called Law Man, which was a Western that I did. So I was thinking what’s my first feature? What does it look like? What’s it going to be?
One day, I was storyboarding for a commercial that I was shooting and I always have the TV on in the background when I draw on my storyboards. Sure enough, Jason Derek Brown’s face popped on my television and I saw it and I was immediately struck and I turned the volume up. I realise as I watched this, it was the show American Greed, because Jason’s story is covered on it, as you’ve been seeing from the rabbit hole of interviews. Jason’s story has been covered on all kinds of platforms, from American Greed to Dateline to the Internet to newspapers. It’s a very widely covered story. But I was struck by the fact that he was still missing and then this documentary in particular had a lot of great interviews with people who knew him like the FBI agent Ryan plays, a lot of people who are kind of caught up in his web talking about him. What I saw immediately was that this guy was so many different things to so many different people. I’m somebody who grew up loving crime films; Dog Day Afternoon was the film that made me want to be a filmmaker, but I loved crime and action and thrillers. My favourite directors ranging from like Sam Peckinpah to Tony Scott. I thought that this story had those kind of surface fun elements of a crime thriller, right? But at the core was this character who is really fascinating to me. I saw it both as a genre movie, but also as an exploration of the dark side of the American dream and a story about family.
Tom Pelphrey has been one of my favourite actors since Banshee; why was he so perfect to play Jason?
Yeah, I agree. He’s a phenomenal actor and I had seen him on Banshee, too, and I remembered him. I think for one Jason’s character’s a complex role; often when I’m casting somebody, whether it’s for one of my shorts or this movie, and now the next film I’m doing, I hope to make a list of traits of the character that the actor I think needs to have. So for Jason’s character, he needed to be charismatic. That’s first and foremost. You can’t have a non-charismatic guy play him. He needed to be charismatic, but he also needed to be unpredictable. He had to have that kind of unhinged energy and quality, which some actors have but a lot don’t. Then the fourth thing he needed to really have was being physical and watching Tom’s work in Banshee and on Ozark, which is right around the time we went to cast his movie Ozark (the season he was guest starring in) had just come out. That was the show that really, I think, showed his acting chops to the world at large. He was getting a huge career wave from that moment. I was just struck by, again, his physicality, his ability. My producer was the one who suggested Tom to me. She called me and said, “Are you watching Ozark?” so I turned it on and watched it. I saw him then I remember him from Banshee and some indie films I’d seen him in. The person he reminded me the most of is my favourite filmmaker of all time which is Akira Kurosawa. His leading man was Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa said about Mifune, that “Mifune can do in five words what it takes most actors 50”. Mifune was so physical and padding it all off, he had this energy that struck Kurosawa and I always thought that was interesting. Then when I saw Tom, I kind of felt like for the first time, I understood what he meant by that quote. I just saw somebody who had this dynamic nature to him that really, I think, worked for Jason. So once we learned of him, he was put on my radar. It went from this is Tom Pelphrey from Banshee and Ozark to Tom Pelphrey needs to play this role and thank God we got him and he said yes to the project.
Yeah. I can’t picture anybody else playing that role. Did you get to speak to anybody involved in the case in real life for research for the project?
There were some people I spoke to; I’m not going to name them, just as I don’t want to out them now. I did not speak to the FBI. The FBI actually doesn’t cooperate with movies that are about ongoing investigations because it still technically is. They weren’t like, giving me the cold shoulder or anything. It just was not going to happen because Jason is still at large but maybe this film will help. I did speak to people who knew Jason – acquaintances and I spoke to some cops. I have a really great law enforcement official consultant who I work with named Adam Richardson; he’s amazing and he really helped me a lot. He runs the Writer’s Detective Bureau as well, and he’s a writing consultant. He does law enforcement consulting for a lot of TV shows and movies. He’s actually listed on the WGA’s resources. He’s amazing and he really helped. He read like seven versions of the script and helped me kind of get the details right. He actually is famous for do you remember the movie Alpha Dog, by any chance?
Yeah, With Justin Timberlake and Bruce Willis.
Well he was the detective who brought in that real guy and he worked that case. So he had a lot of good insights for me and I did show it to someone who used to be an FBI agent. So I had a lot of consultants, but I decided not to consult people who are mostly portrayed in the film with the occasional acceptance of some composite characters. I did not consult the Brown family. I didn’t consult the real Lance because I wanted to have my lens on these people unfiltered. My feeling was if I talked to them that they might influence my take and I wanted be as subjective as possible as a director and screenwriter.
I would love to see what the Brown family would think of the film…
Yeah, me too. Obviously it’s never a goal of filmmaking to exacerbate someone’s pain or trauma and I think a lot of people involved in Jason Derek Brown’s web en masse were fraught and had to experience a certain degree of pain. But that said, I do think it’s an important story to tell because this character and this concept of a con artist is something that I think is very important in our culture today. Why do we fall for con men? Why does this keep happening? When I first started writing the script, this wasn’t really the case, but it really kind of came back into the zeitgeist in the last few years with Fire Fest and I guess Tiger King to a certain degree and Theranos. So it’s something that we’re still talking about and unpacking.
Was the fact that this is based on a true story more daunting for you to direct?
No, because for me, I call this true crime fiction. We’re not striving to make a documentary. I didn’t necessarily go for accuracy as much as I went for emotional truth. Early drafts of the script were very close to the facts. I spent six months researching and finding out everything I could and getting details as much as I could. One of my favourite filmmakers is Michael Mann. I just read a story about him and how for that Ferrari movie he’s doing, he wanted to make sure the window shades were the right kinds of window shades that they actually had and that kind of stuff I do love like some of the shirts Jason wears in the movie are literally shirts we had pictures of. Part of why it was so important to talk to so many people is there was so much stuff Jason put of himself out there into the world. In a way Jason Derek Brown was an influencer before the thing existed; he was filming himself at boat parties and flaunting. He put out so many images of himself. So me, Tom, the costume, the hair and makeup, the production designer, we had so much to go off because there was such a wealth of stuff out there about him. So, yeah it was important to do the research, I think, to get a sense of how these people were. But then at the end of the day, it’s a film that I made. So this is an interpretation, right? It’s based on a true story, but it’s my interpretation. If you were to take seven other directors and they made a story, a film about Jason Derek Brown, I’m sure there would be vastly different versions, at least I hope so. At the end of the day, it’s my take. It’s not staying so close to the facts because real life often does not play out like an action crime thriller. I think the only exception that does maybe is the movie Captain Phillips, right? True stories never play out like action movies and that one did. But very rarely does that happen. So there was a lot of work I had to do as many interesting anecdotes and facts as there were. I had to do a lot to dramatize it and make it work as a film that you can enjoy.
You mentioned the research. Did you get any of your cast to do research for their characters?
I mean, Tom really had this character down. He knew it so well. We talked a lot about the script, like we would meet on Zoom. We filmed in the height of the pandemic. So just keep in mind that we didn’t really have the luxury of rehearsals in person, but we did do a lot of Zoom rehearsals and meetings where we’d look at the script, we talk about it, he’d ask questions but all of them kind of had different needs, you know? I know that Ryan has played an FBI agent and or a cop before and his family has a military background. Ryan knew a lot actually. He was actually kind of schooling me quite a bit. He was like “I hold the gun like that” or “I hold it like this” because he’s on Shooter and other shows and movies he’s been in. He’s played a cop multiple times and a CIA agent in Breach, which I think is great. They knew their roles pretty well. Shantel Vansanten who plays the sister is an actress who really was into the research because I had so much research. What I did was I offered it to them. I said, “Hey, you want to see my photographs? Do you want to see my collections, my interviews? I’m happy to share with you”. That stuff can be useful, but I think with actors, it’s tricky because you don’t want them getting in their heads about their performance. It’s never something a director wants you get to intellectual about; you want to give them whatever they need to get there. So, I had research and some of them did research on their own, I know for sure. But I didn’t really question them too much. I don’t think they questioned me either. It was kind of like if they wanted it, great. If not, stop being the boring dad at the party with a history lesson (laughs). At the end of the day, what we’re doing is drama. It’s based on true events, but it is true crime fiction. So it’s based on a true story but we fictionalized it.
How would you describe the writing process of the script?
Took a long time. I wrote the first draft in 2018. I was kind of kicking it around. In the early drafts of the script interestingly enough, we were actually much more limited to Jason’s point of view. So it was linear. There were no flashbacks. It kind of just followed Jason as he went about his petty crimes that escalate to this big armoured truck heist that comes to define him. I struggled a lot with getting the audience to really feel what I needed them to feel, to be engaged with this character. It was always designed that you were going to be with this charismatic guy who does something horrendous and then it switches and then you’re stuck with him. That was always kind of how I wanted it to be. But, the script was optioned by these two companies with these three great producers Kevin Matusow, Kara Baker and Gia Walsh; they kind of came on and helped me develop, and that was really my schooling in becoming a professional screenwriter. So I was taking notes, getting paid to write, all that great stuff. As I worked with them and went through that process of development and learned kind of by trial by fire, I realised that what really would make Jason’s character more exciting and three dimensional was actually to see him through multiple perspectives, almost like a Rashomon, Citizen Kane effect, where you’re really looking at him from different anecdotes of people telling them their account of him. Then you still have scenes that were like the original early draft where it’s just both Jason and following his point of view. But you get the point of view of Jacki Weaver who plays his mother and she can just see right through him; she’s the con man’s worst nightmare.
Then you have the sister, Shantel VanSanten who really carries the emotional crux of the movie on her shoulders. She sees him change over the years from a little boy, innocent to a criminal and then you have his brother as his caretaker in the wake of their father abandoning them. So you get all these different perspectives and then by the end of the movie, what you ultimately come away with is you get a 360 degree view of Jason. It’s whether you love the guy, hate the guy, rooting for him, or rooting against him. I think what you come away with is a full understanding of who he was and what he meant to the people and what that was and it makes you ask questions, like how real was it? And it’s a good question. How real can a con man be? How real is love from a con man or someone whose intentions aren’t so great. That’s what I think is interesting about the story and this character.
What would you like audiences to take from the film?
Well, I think that Jason Derek Brown’s character is an important person to understand and look at. It’s not a movie for kids obviously but, I think that this is a thought-provoking story that certainly explores and examines the dark side of the American dream. I think it’s a universal story at its core. My way as a filmmaker is that this is a film about family. I don’t really make message movies. That’s not necessarily my thing. American Murderer doesn’t have a specific message saying don’t do this or don’t do that. Ultimately, the big question the film asks is can we take someone who is quite rotten to the core, has sociopathic tendencies and can we move an audience to a place of some understanding of who this guy was? And how can we then use that and reconcile that and ask questions about that? Is the love of a con man real? Is it possible to love someone like this or have them love you? Is that real? And so that’s what I think the movie is there to ask questions, to be an engaging story. But ultimately, it’s not a happy ending. It’s a tragedy, this film. It is about someone who’s even though Jason Derek Brown is still at large and gets away with the crime, he completely erodes his humanity and destroys his life and the lives around him. So in a way, we always saw it as a monster movie where everyone he comes into contact with you get kind of scared for. I think ultimately, it’s a film that I think audiences can watch and ask questions after, and come watch it again and see how they hold up. It’s designed to really provoke an audience and ask questions about these kinds of people and why do we keep falling for con artists? And why do they keep getting under our skin.
American Murderer will Be released only In Theatres October 21, 2022 and On Demand and On Digital October 28, 2022