A Q&A with The Boys are Back producer Greg Brenman

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Based on journalist Simon Carr's memoir, The Boys are Back didn’t break any records during its limited theatrical run last year. But it deserved better. Clive Owen gives a great performance as Joe Warr, a guy who finds himself thrust into parenting mode after his wife suddenly dies. Unable to discipline his two sons, he practically lets them run wild, even leaving them at home to fend for themselves one weekend when he has go out of town to cover the Australian Open. With plenty of bonus material (including an interview with director Scott Hicks), the film makes its way onto DVD tomorrow. Its producer Greg Brenman phoned in from Los Angeles to talk about the movie’s long gestation period (it was seven years in the making).

How did you end up getting involved in this project?
We were approached by Simon Carr, who wrote the original memoir, about seven years ago. He was a great friend of the chairman of our company and at the time, we didn’t know about his book. He told us he’d written a book and needed some advice because a group of people wanted to option it as a movie. I read the book and told him he should let us make it. That’s how we got involved. The book is a series of anecdotes and memoirs about bringing up two boys from two different marriages when his second wife tragically dies from cancer. Once we had the rights, it was the usual process of finding the right writer and director and star.

I guess it was originally supposed to be filmed in New Zealand, where the book is based. But then production shifted to Australia and director Scott Hicks says on the DVD that he was actually more comfortable filming there. You can really tell that just by watching the movie, don’t you think?
I think that Scott was keen to make the movie back in Australia, where he hadn’t made a movie since Shine. He was keen to work in an environment he knew really well. We shot the film in South Australia where his home is. I think it pays off. There is a great juxtaposition between what’s going on with a father and two sons in a house in the middle of nowhere. There’s an epic scale to the landscape and in many ways to the emotional journey. There was a synchronicity between the two. Everyone has an overly familiar view of Australia and normally think about the red Outback or the tropical far North. It was refreshing to show a place that was entirely different. We never went too far down the road about shooting in New Zealand. We figured we’d shoot it in Australia.

Joe Warr is such a complex character. You want to like him but then he seems so reckless and insensitive. Talk about Clive Owen and his ability to portray the character’s depth.
We wanted an actor who had this volatile unpredictable and slightly dangerous quality while at the same time could convey that he was a guy who was going through torment and personal torture. He goes on a journey that perhaps makes him realize he’s not one of the boys but has to be a dad looking after the kids. There are resonant references to the Lost Boys and Peter Pan. It’s about three boys and one of them grows up and realizes he’s the dad. There’s that scene at the end when he goes back to England and tries to get the older son to come back to Australia. His son says he was scared. And he says, “What? Of the snakes” and makes a joke of it. His son says, “No, I was scared of you.” He says, “I promise I won’t be that father anymore.” We wanted someone who had that danger and that vulnerability.

Sigur Ros adds a lot to the film. Whose decision was it to enlist them?
The editor Scott Gray just started laying out that music early on when we were doing assemblies. We felt it had a good emotional resonance with the film. Sigur Ros does very little on the film front. We had to woo them. We went to Reykjavik and showed them an early cut and they loved it and agreed to come on board. And felt they were a good score for us. Hal Lindes did material that wove in and around the Sigur Ros stuff. He used to play guitar in Dire Straits.

I like the fact that on the DVD you can see the two boys upon whom the movie is based and that they actually visited the set. Did you get to meet them?
I didn’t meet the two boys for the first time until they came on set in Paddington station. Because we hadn’t met them, we just cast actors based on the book. What was fascinating was that there was a startling resemblance. Everyone was knocked out by how we had intuited the personalities. For them it was a complicated experience. When they saw it for the first time, it was moving. Artie is now a 20-year-old but he was six when it happened. He was having his life played back to him. It was very emotional.

Director Scott Hicks didn’t write the adapted screenplay but can you talk about what he wanted to retain from the book and in what ways he wanted to depart from it?
The story is about a guy who realized that he couldn’t replace his wife. She had created the perfect home. He felt he was unable to be the perfect substitute and when he realized he couldn’t be his wife, he had to be himself. At the time, he was chewed up with grief and needed to grow up. He realized that he would bring them up as he way, but that he was a guy. He was more comfortable having a loose ship with fewer rules that was a bit of a pirate ship. Simon Carr sums it up by saying, “men on a whole are unaware of the risk that their children are in and women are overly aware and maybe neither are right.” There was also an anger that Joe Warr was going through in terms of being abandoned and maybe there was a recklessness to it. Simon has a very strong bond with his boys now. He saw the film again recently and said he underestimated how much the boys missed their mom. It’s a huge thing when your wife dies and he was doing the best at the time and he created a philosophy that worked for them at the time.

I’m not sure what the budget was for the film and whether it made it back at the box office. But do you view it as a success, even if it didn’t make a profit.
I view it a success in as much as I’m proud of the movie and I love it. The feedback I get back is strong. I hope that it will have a long shelf life. The themes it deals with are pretty universal. Even though we started working on the movie seven years ago, there’s a timelessness to it. I think Clive is wonderful in the leading role and it becomes a good reference point to families. I would hope that it would mean as much in five years as it means today. We had mixed responses when it came out. The New York Times was outraged by the movie and thought it was an appaling kind of parenting philosophy and how dare we presume. We really outraged them. As soon as they saw that boy on the bonnet, they got really nervous and couldn’t relax. Some people make the mistake that we are saying he’s superior to any woman. We’re saying here’s a guy who did it very differently. He made a lot of mistakes and there were some pluses and minuses and he went on a journey and realized he needed to modify things drastically.

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