Die in a Gunfight, out on July 16, is a romantic crime film that has been called an updated Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, there are two rival families and two lovers wiling to cast enmity aside for passion, but there are also a whole host of other references and homages to the greatest films of the 90s.
Director Collin Schliffli spoke to Screen Rant about his stylistic inspirations and casting choices. Check out an exclusive clip of the film and his interview below.
Based on the on the trailer, I know people can draw comparisons to Romeo and Juliet, but I think it’s really a love letter to cinema in the 90s. What can you tell me about the premise, without giving anything away?
Collin Schiffli: Yeah, man. I love that you say that. That setup is so perfect; that was my vision going into it: a love letter to cinema.
It’s definitely a movie that’s heartfelt, has heart and soul, and has those familiar nods to Romeo and Juliet or an over-the-top extravagant world that could be seen in Shakespearean times. But, yeah, done for a modern audience. For me, I just wanted to make a movie, and what was on the page was tongue-in-cheek, witty, and over-the-top. But the love story to it was still, at its core, very heartfelt.
I was like, “Wow, this is the perfect opportunity to dive into the nostalgic elements, those youthful elements, of the movies that we loved growing up.” whether those are good movies or not. Back in the day, I would be like, “90s movies? No, we’re going to talk about 70s movies only.” Now I’m like, “No, this is a chance to put it in those elements of things that grabbed my attention subconsciously.”
When we watched movies, we weren’t analyzing it the same way that we do now. We’re so hard on ourselves, and so hard on movies sometimes. When you’re a kid, you watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and you’re like, “That was awesome.” I wanted to incorporate as much as that into this experience as I could.
The script is so bold, and you really play off the nostalgia of cinematic history. Was the script written that way? Was it always conceptualized that way?
Collin Schiffli: It was. If the boys were here – Andrew and Gabe, the writers – they’re so smart, they’re so witty, and they themselves are so bold. You could tell they wanted to iwo ncorporate all those movies from that time in their life. They wrote it when they’re in their 20s, and now they’re in their 30s. How do we adapt this to make sure it feels relevant and isn’t tone deaf to anything that should be worked on?
But the charm of it was that it was so playful and so bold in a way that let the viewers put themselves in. We all like to romanticize our lives; we all like to walk into a bar and pretend it’s in slow motion and the music is playing. We all do that anyway, and that to me was in the script; it was on the page. These characters were bold, and some characters were clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Some characters, like Wayne and Barbie, they’re gonna steal the show for sure. You have to have those movie moments. And it was all there.
I was just like, “Alright, how do I address this?” How do I put my own stamp on it without it being just a Guy Ritchie or Tarantino wannabe or something? Those movies were our high school and college movies, but how do we make that for young people now? All the people fresh off Marvel movies, the 13 to 15 to 17 year olds who are like, “What’s out there?” They’ll find Fight Club, they’ll find Pulp Fiction – they’ve probably seen them already. But this can be a nice little stepping stone to some of those movies. That’s what it was on the page, and I just wanted to accentuate that.
Your previous films were gritty and grounded with a lot of drama and pretty heavy. How did this film challenge you as a director?
Collin Schiffli: Oh, man, that’s a good question. Because it did challenge me and my instincts as a director. I want to make all movies. I want to make all kinds; I don’t want to limit myself to any one genre. It’s maybe a little selfish, but whatever. I always keep saying, I want to see a little of everything and try to dabble in all of it.
If this is the movie version of something – if this is the movie version of that character’s costume, or the movie version of that performance – then I want to dial it down. If you’re yelling, I want you to whisper. If you’re at a 10, I want you to be at a 5. Because my instincts are always, “That’s not real. That wouldn’t happen. That doesn’t happen in real life.”
This movie forced me to do the opposite in a way. This guy’s the antagonist, and that’s a character. That’s a thing that is in stories, and that’s why storytelling is so fun and captivating. And not every movie has to take you down some dark, heavy, brooding path – which again, I want to keep exploring that stuff too. But I think this movie had both, in a way, because our two heroes’ love is real. I wanted to have a little bit of the groundedness in there – but everything else from there, I wanted to just be larger than life in a way.
That was hard. That was really hard for me, because I was like, “How do you balance this tone? What is this? Is it funny? Is this scene scary? Are they feeling the feels they need to feel?” I’m not gonna lie, the whole process was a learning experience.
As we said earlier, this is really an homage to cinema storytelling. But I also feel like there’s a modern-day classic called Streets of Fire that I get a vibe from. Can you talk to me about any films that you used as inspiration for either the look or the tone?
Collin Schiffli: Absolutely. You mentioned the 90 stuff. I know that, for a minute there, we all were tackling 80s stuff. When you watch Tarantino and stuff, they’re tackling their 60s and 70s stuff. You inject that into what you’re doing, sometimes subconsciously.
Not just me, but the producers and the writers, we all knew that True Romance was probably the biggest inspiration – where it’s a 90s movie, Gary Oldman could go sing and dance in that and it somehow [works]. It’s so bizarre, but so amazing. We wanted to try to tap into some of that, and what we loved about a movie like that. I wanted to make sure too, that if we had stuff like that or had a little nod to the Leo and Claire Danes’ Romeo and Juliet, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just mimicking that too much.
For me, as you can tell, I wanted some of the grit of Fight Club. And movies like Streets of Fire; they’re strange little cult movies that I hope that people [see]. In high school, it was Donnie Darko and Requiem for a Dream – the weird movies that you find yourself watching with your friends on a Saturday night. “I’ve heard about this. It’s weird, let’s watch it.” I wanted this to be one of those movies for people. And I know that’s asking a lot, because you can’t just go into something saying, “This is gonna be a cult classic.” But I wanted to feel that self-awareness. We know we’re trying to mimic; we’re straight up mimicking those movies. But we’re not ripping them off.
I would have been like, “No narration. You can’t have narration in a movie. That’s cheating.” But now it’s like, “No, if this the lead character Ben’s movie, he’s got to have narration, and it’s got to be Billy Crudup.” Those are the things. It’s all those inspirations that pushed us to be like, “Let’s try it. Let’s take a big swing and see what happens.”
Diego Boneta and Alexandra Daddario are the heart and soul of this film. Can you talk about Ben and Mary and their complicated past?
Collin Schiffli: Yeah, I love those characters. And the challenge for me was, this isn’t Romeo and Juliet. This isn’t just these two starry-eyed, like, ” We love each other, and we’re going to run away together.”
For me, casting them fell in line with this idea that they’re not 16-year-olds. They’re not naive. These are people who have explore the world, tried to break free from their families, tried to make it work. But they’ve been beaten up a little – literally, he lets himself be beaten up because you can’t feel anything. All those things that go along with being young and wide-eyed, like, “Wow, I can go do anything. Then you go do it, and you’re like, “No, I can’t.” You get beat down, and you sometimes have to retreat back into yourself and retreat back to what’s comfortable.
Alex and Diego brought that worldly cultured element, like they’ve seen the world. This is Romeo and Juliet, part two. They’ve lived past that; they’ve outgrown the naive, romantic view of Ben’s character idolizing Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain – and all these people that when you’re naive, you’re like, “Yeah, I’m gonna die young. I’m gonna die in a blaze of glory.” But what happens when you live past that, and you’re like, “No, I gotta grow up. Life isn’t that; that’s a little toxic.” That’s not the way you should approach your life. You’ve got to approach it with longevity and the hopes to bring something more than that.
That’s what I liked that they brought. They brought this heaviness, and the standoffish, “Wait, what’s your catch? Do we want to love each other again? Do we try to make this work again?” And then once they do, they get wrapped up in the romanticized movie version of it. But it’s that meta-exploration of all those concepts, and I think they brought that to it. They didn’t just play it as, “Yay, we’re in love!” They brought something heavier.
I love the backstories between Ben and Mary and Mukul, and the way they’re told through animation. What inspired that idea?
Collin Schiffli: That honestly came out of the limited budget of an indie movie. You gotta remember, this is still in some ways small film compared to these movies we’re idolizing. We had 23 days to make this. I had 23 days to make my other movies which are just two people in a car, and this is an ensemble piece with style. It’s like, “What are we doing?”
Thanks to the brilliance of the people around me supporting me and supporting the story, we all knew what we were trying to make. We all were on board, so we all had ideas to to try to tackle creatively some of these – not problems, but the hurdles that you’ve got to get over while making movies. And one of them was that we got hit with the pandemic, obviously crying.
We finished before the pandemic hit, in terms of principal photography, but we knew we were missing some pretty important backstory bits and side story bits. Things that I was like, “Once we get something locked in place so people can see it, I know we’re going to be able to back to LA or whatever and shoot some of this stuff – or touch some stuff up or whatever.”
Then the pandemic hit, and we were like, “Oh, boy. How do we fill in these gaps? How do we bring more to this?” Luckily, we had plenty of time to edit and then play around with all these wacky crazy things that we hope would work with the split screens and the narration and all that stuff. But we were like, “Well, how do we fix this?” I remember one day, Andrew, one of the writers, was like, “What about animation?” We’ve played with every movie trope, every nod to like French New Wave format. What are we missing? Animation.
If we can get all that animation right up front and show people what what they’re getting into – whether they like that or not because, right off the bat, they might be like, “That’s not my thing. This is a little out there for me.” But it at least shows what we’re trying to do. It shows the tone; it shows the colors, the vibrancy, and the tongue-in-cheek outlandishness. It was like the icing on the cake with all these different formats. Of course, we have to have animation in this. If it was my way, I would do more. I wish we had more. But it serves its purpose well, both thematically and just in terms of just having fun with it.
You guys created a ton of great outlier characters, but those characters don’t suffer because the story doesn’t feel stuffed. But one of these characters, and where we get our title of the film, is when Ben runs into Wayne. This is a different side of Travis Fennell that we’re not really used to seeing. Can you talk to me about what Travis brought to the role of Wayne that wasn’t on the page?
Collin Schiffli: The page was very different. He was supposed to be twice that age; an older walrus of a man. But regardless of the page and what came of it, it was supposed to be the character that steals the movie in a way. He’s the character that you’re like, “What is this guy up to? Is he good? Is he bad? When is it gonna pop back up again?” He’s the one that I wanted people to walk away thinking, “Dude, I want to dress up like him for Halloween or have his poster on my wall.”
Of course, you need to get an actor that can match that level of energy and weirdness, and take the bold risks. I didn’t know a lot about Travis other than that he was in Vikings and all these upcoming things that showed he was this powerhouse force. He was a commanding force on screen, he’s got piercing blue eyes, and he wants to take the character in so many weird ways.
It was his idea to come up with the weird haircut and have a little B for a Barbie earring and paint his nails. He’s a scary and colorful guy, but at the same time, when you peel back the layers he’s a teddy bear. He’s a big, soft teddy bear. And Travis knew exactly what he was doing going into this. He had a vision for it, and I was pretty much like, “Okay, I can just let him go play.” I let him play, and let our DP and our production designer use him as a tool and a prop to just make the movie pop.
Travis is amazing. He’s fearless; he’s one of those fearless actors.
Die in a Gunfight opens in U.S. theaters and is available on VOD July 16, 2021.
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