We chat with Jeff Wincott, where we discuss his new short film Behind Bars, working with Tony Scott & Cynthia Rothrock, Sons of Anarchy, 24, Mission of Justice, Martial Outlaw, No Exit and more.
You’ve just completed your short film Behind Bars which you wrote and directed; can you tell us about it?
Yeah, it’s my directorial debut and this film was literally born out of a playground. The camera man who I met was on the film with me; his daughter was playing with my son in the park so that’s how I met him. He said to me that he was a cameraman, that he had some equipment; I told him I was an actor. He suggested that I should write a script and I said “OK”. So every time I would see him he would say “Hey, have you written it yet?” I said “well, it takes time” and he said “don’t write a feature, make a short film instead… because we’re going to make mistakes”.
That to me was really profound; first of all that this guy was put into my life to give me this opening to make a film. Then as it turned out we shot a little piece of film on 1st Avenue one day and he sent it to me and it was really terrific what he was able to put together in a 10 second film. So the process had begun and it was now up to me to try to decide what I would write about. This film is semi-autobiographical. For the first thing that I‘m going to write, I really don’t know anything other than what I know about myself and what I‘ve lived through. I wanted to talk about what I knew the most about; so I knew about second chances and struggling with addiction.
So that was the basis for the film Behind Bars.
What made you want to direct and was it daunting?
I didn’t find it daunting at all to direct; the secret is to have a really good camera man and I had that. I had this guy Michele Civelli who is just terrific. I had a lot of faith and I had a lot of trust in this guy and that makes the job so much easier. There’s a scene in the movie where I’m speaking at a meeting and we did it four or five different ways with the script and then the cameraman said “Just improvise it, don’t even think about the script. You know it, just do something different with it”. I did and it was one take; it was the take we used in the film too. So he really has an incredible ability and an insight and I was really lucky to get him. I think that makes a big difference; I really do think as a first time director that you need to get extremely capable cameramen.
Any plans to direct again?
What is it you really want people to take away from Behind Bars?
I hopefully want them to take Kit Brock’s journey and feel for this guy; experience his highs and his lows. I’d like them to relate or identify what he’s going through. It’s a serious subject, but I find that the thin line between comedy and tragedy is if the character sees something dire but the audience finds the humour, then you’ve achieved that goal. I think there’s a message there in the film; hopefully it’s entertaining and the message is conveyed in it. Mostly I hope that people are just entertained by it and find it funny.
How long is the finished film?
Eleven minutes and seven seconds.
Any word on when we’ll get to see a full trailer for it?
No, because of the film festival circuit; it’s really something that has to be close to my vest in the sense that I can’t put it on the internet or anywhere where people can see bits of it. There’s a possibility that a film festival may say that it’s already been shown or not a world première and so on…
Therefore I’m really holding tight to releasing any of the film.
How difficult was it to get the financing for it?
Well, there really isn’t any financing on the film; I’d like to tell you this film was made for thirty three dollars. Basically it was the price of a couple of doughnuts and maybe a few other things. Everyone that worked on the film worked on it as a labour of love. We had the equipment; I went through SAG as far as the actors were concerned and got them to sign short film contracts. One day the sound guy didn’t show up so I ended up doing the sound, carrying the boom and that’s just what we did. It was really one of those things where everybody joined in and we got the job done because we wanted to make this thing happen.
Do you think independent movies will get harder to make as technology develops or will there always be a way to finance them?
I personally think that it’s getting easier to finance films; people have these Kickstarter sites that they put out there and they’re raising money. I spoke to a guy in the playground yesterday and he did a short film and they raised seven thousand dollars online through Facebook and got the film done. So, I think that today it’s easier and also the technology allows people, whether they want to shoot a film on an iPhone; they even have iPhone film festivals and contests. I think the technology is there for people to do Independent films easier and I also think ways of raising money with social media is easier. So I think that it is moving towards making things easier for the independent film maker.
It’s interesting to hear a more positive aspect as most people tend to focus on the negative side. Just the other day, Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock financed their movie The Martial Arts Kid completely through crowd funding. So the film exceeded its goal and is getting financed with the help of fans. I think it’s a different way of doing things but I think there will always be independent film.
Yeah, that’s a perfect example and I totally agree with you.
Are there any characters from any of your movies that you’d like to return to?
There was the character I played in the Vancouver crime series Cold Squad; I played a guy called Thomas Brown. He was a serial killer and the writing on the show was brilliant. Obviously I can’t come back as the character as he ends up going away for life to prison. I still get chills any time I see clips from that show and all the subtleties in that character were terrific to play.
Jimmy Cacuzza is a terrific character and I love playing him; each time I play him on the show Sons of Anarchy he grows a little bit more; he has bigger plans with what he’s going to do with The Sons, whether it’s buying or selling guns through them. So he’s growing more and I like that because I’m looking forward to the next one. Hopefully he’ll come back in Season 7 and there will be more things for him to do and to grow as well. He started out on the show having a very tight relationship with Clay (Ron Perlman) so when Clay goes off to prison; he develops a relationship with Jax. So that is always developing and moving along.
Rocco whom I played in The Undertaker’s Wedding was just such a fun role. Obviously playing with Adrien Brody was wonderful and a great experience. That was a character that definitely has a lot of legs and could continue on.
You also got the play Lucifer himself in House of Fallen… how do you prepare for a role like that?
I don’t know if you do prepare for a role like that (laughs). People sometimes say “How do you prepare for playing a serial killer?” I think that you just use your imagination and hopefully the words take you to that place. Playing Lucifer was fun; obviously he’s an extremely dark character that finds things funny. Playing dark characters as opposed to playing guys like Frank Giambone in Night Heat, where he’s a really goody two-shoes kinda guy. He has his Italian emotional, passionate moments but for the most part he does things by the letter of the law.
It seems to be more and more TV Series and movies are going with their leads; like you take Sons of Anarchy or The Sopranos. These are antagonists rather than protagonists; they are immediately set up as characters without any really redeeming qualities. They’re criminals, commit crimes, kill people, whatever but they have a baby that they care for so they’re finding this dichotomy with the characters which I love! People in life aren’t just one sided and I was told that very early on in theatre school. You play a dark character like a bad guy then you have to find something about that character that you like. Even if it’s just the relationship with his mom; there has to be something. It can’t just be all bad and the guy just can’t be all good.
I think television today is becoming more and more appealing for actors because of the writing.
I sometimes think that TV is more creative than some of the movies out there today where actors can really get into these characters, because none of them are black and white. I think that’s the appeal of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Do you think television is more appealing as an actor?
I definitely think television is very, very appealing today for actors; like you said they are finding the grey areas. When you look at characters like Batman, the reason I think that he is so appealing to audiences is that he has a dark side to him and people like that. He’s not just a goody two-shoes guy who saves the world; there is something else going on in this guy.
But with shows like Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, there is a lot of great television today and that’s really changed because of the writing.
Going back to some of your older movies; there was an interesting theme in a lot of your movies. The discussion of violence in movies and society would keep coming up (No Exit, Last Man Standing, etc); was that just a coincidence or was that deliberate?
Again that was the writing; the writer behind those films had a great insight in trying to find those grey areas. In No Exit, you’re dealing with this character who is teaching classes about non-violence and then he ends up in a situation where he has to fight in order to save his life and his family. That’s great, when you can find the conflict because great scenes are about conflict. If the guy wants to get the girl but the girl doesn’t want him, then you have conflict and then you have a scene. If the guy wants the girl and she says “yeah, you can have me” then the scene is over; it’s done. You always have to have a conflict; so that was something that the writer brought to the table. When you talk about violence in the movies, obviously when you’re dealing with films that are action/martial arts then violence is part and parcel of that.
The opening of No Exit was always quite shocking with you shouting all of those insults at one of your students. Was that tough to do?
It was, there are moments in films where it’s difficult to play that character, but you realise it’s that character and it’s not you. I had to play a German character in this film Lustig and he was a completely unsympathetic character. It was very difficult to play him and I had to make a choice. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to play the part. They came to me and asked me to do it; I had to learn German for it, but sometimes we don’t want to do things but it can also be good because it challenges us as an actor.
One of the first equity shows I did was the play Bent in Toronto; Martin Sherman’s première of his play and one of the characters that I played in there was the character Wolfe. He comes out on stage naked and my first thought was “I’m not doing anything like that”! Then I realised as an actor do I wanna grow or do I wanna go? If I want to grow, then I’ve got to do these kinds of things otherwise I’ll just stay at a certain place. I guess I made that decision early that if I could find work that actually was disturbing to people then I didn’t mind that at all.
In Street Law, I said I wanted to have long hair and I want this guy to ride a Harley.
I like to do stuff where people are uncomfortable, whether it was something they could relate to in their past and it made them uncomfortable, making them laugh or cry. That’s good! Like in the play Bent people got up and left in the middle of the play because they couldn’t handle it. I don’t want people to leave (laughs) but I do want people to be disturbed and to think. I do want people to have something going on.
I say that but I also realise that there’s very little of my work that I can ever say reaches that place. I try and I’ll always try for that, even when I was doing the martial arts films. I really tried to get in there and try to cast better people; trying to change the script as best I could to try to get those conflicts.
In Street Law, I said I wanted to have long hair and I want this guy to ride a Harley. I said there was something different with this guy as he’s a pro-bono lawyer and they went with me on that. I had hair extensions put in my head and they got me a Harley Davidson and I rode it around. It was great; I think that it really gave some colour to the character. He wasn’t your typical dress up in a suit lawyer type of guy. He was a pro-bono guy who helped people for free so there was something different about him.
So I try whatever I can do; sometimes I’m limited but I do try to push the envelope whenever I can.
One of the things I really loved about Martial Outlaw was the relationship between the two brothers: you and Gary Hudson. Can you tell us a bit about getting the relationship right between the two brothers?
The good guy is only as good as the bad guy and that’s the truth; it is a ping pong game in that sense in that when you hit the ball it gets to the other side and he hits it back. If you can hit something back and forth and it flows then that’s great. I had that with Gary Hudson who was terrific; he was a good actor and just a great guy. So that it’s easy enough to believe that he could be my brother, which was nice. Again, you want that relationship to be solid enough that people can empathise with you and your journey. When we’re at odds with each other, the audience hopefully goes through that as well. That was important; they did create that and it was good that they had it.
We also had some great fight scenes in that film. It was funny because I trained for three months for that film with my trainer and I was on a strict regimen for that film. I was eating no fruit, no sugar, no fats, no alcohol, no milk and no bread. He had me really, really strict for three months on that film; we trained twice a day at Gold’s gym on Venice Beach and then the one in Hollywood. So when it came time to shoot that film they didn’t have anything in that film with me with my shirt off.
I said to the director “I’ve been training really hard; I wanna show of what it is I‘ve been working on” and they didn’t see how that was possible because we’d already shot the scene before where he comes in a sweater, so that’s not gonna happen. So I designed the fight in such a way that the guy grabs me and rips my sweater off me. I got him to do that; I pulled back and the sweater comes off. Then we got the rest of it with the shirt off. You sometimes have to get in there and put your two cents in there and try to do what’s best for the film. That was one of those situations.
Do you still practice martial arts?
I don’t; these days I mostly do walking in the streets of New York City, do a lot of cardio and I do yoga. As far as the heavy impacting martial arts stuff, I don’t do that anymore.
Bruce took me aside for 45 minutes and trained me with those sticks; then I went in and they started rolling the cameras.
One of our fans, Cory Sielfleisch wanted me to ask about Mission of Justice; is it true that you hadn’t been trained in sticks before the movie but had to learn for The Gauntlet scene?
That is true; when we got ready to shoot The Gauntlet and I think his name was Bruce Richardson from San Diego and was an expert in the style of escrima stick fighting. They said that they wanted me to do this stick fighting in the scene. I said “I don’t know how to do that, never been trained.”
So Bruce took me aside for 45 minutes and trained me with those sticks; then I went in and they started rolling the cameras. That’s it; that was the extent of training in stick fighting.
What made that scene were those people in the scene; yeah it’s me walking through doing this thing with the sticks, but those guys make that scene. Those people on both sides of those mats; the way that they react to whatever I’m doing; they sell it, they make it, it’s all them! I’m not just saying that; they really made that scene.
Mission of Justice: The Gauntlet Scene
I love seeing your brother Michael in 24; now you’ve both been in the show which is pretty cool… was that deliberate?
It was by total coincidence; Michael did a film with Kiefer Sutherland (The Three Musketeers) and then went to work with him on a new film up in Canada. I believe it’s called Redemption, but I‘m not sure. There they talked about the possibility of doing 24 together and that’s how it all came about.
I did a couple of episodes on the show and now Michael is doing it as well and doing an amazing job. He always does such great work with whatever he gets his hands on and is great to watch.
You started out as a stand-up comedian, here in Toronto; have you ever fancied trying it again?
Sometimes I think about it actually, but not enough that I’ve actually sat down and written anything to get back up on stage and do that, but I think about it sometimes. It’s tough but I‘m glad that I did do that because as I said before I think it’s important to be challenged, not just as an actor but as a writer, as a journalist, directors, whatever you do you should never have fear stop you.
It’s OK that you have fear but you have to walk through it and it’s important to walk through it and not avoid it. I think that by walking through those fears, we find out about ourselves. I think the growth for me has been in my pain, where I’ve been in painful situations is where I’ve grown the most. I feel really blessed; I really do because I’ve met so many wonderful people along this journey. They have always been so giving and it’s great when you get the chance to work with people who care about what they do.
I think that’s one of those things with this short film that I really loved about it. It’s a group of people who live in the same area in New York City at the same time, have the same similar interests and goals; we put something together as a team. As a single person, you can’t do that; when you add more people who are the same as you then you can make something out of that. For me, it’s a renewed spirit that I get from these kinds of things and I like it.
I’ve worked with Cynthia Rothrock on Martial Law and on another film; she’s just terrific and is one of those people that always gives it her all.
I think she’s probably the greatest female action star of all time; I can’t think of anyone like her.
Yeah, and on top of that she’s just a sweetheart. She’s just the nicest person, the kindest, and giving with a great sense of humour; so it’s wonderful. Like I say, it’s great to be around people who care about what they do and it’s always something that I gravitate towards.
I was always such a massive fan of Tony Scott and was frankly devastated to hear of his passing; you worked with him on Unstoppable. Can you talk to us about that experience?
He was such a sweet soul, just a sweet soul. I remember when I first got on set and he said “Come on, walk with me” and we just walked down the street together. For 45 minutes we just talked about everything from my family to his family, life… just a sweet dear guy.
Obviously, I loved his style and the work that he did was phenomenal; I loved the way he shot. He’s put four cameras on you and he’d have them rolling with the long or short lenses. He’d have you go through the scene and he wouldn’t say “Cut!”
He’d just say “Go back to first. Do it again.” So you’d go back to first, do it again and your momentum is great as you’re really in the moment. He’d say something like “hold on a second, I heard something upstairs” and he does something like Tarantino where he’s right next to you. He’s not behind in another room or in the car watching a video; he’s right next to you. Right there in front of you while you’re shooting.
He was a wonderful and gifted human being.
How did the audition go for Kurt Sutter’s new film Southpaw?
I haven’t heard back yet but it went well; with those kinds of things you just have to wait.
What else do you have coming up?
I auditioned for a recurring role on a TV series; I can’t say what the series is but I did do that last week. It’s a show that’s already in progress…
Thanks so much for chatting with us and all the best with Behind Bars.