'Hobo With a Shotgun': How a $150 fake trailer became the year's maddest movie
The new, NSFW action movie Hobo With a Shotgun is so extreme even star Rutger Hauer thinks it goes too far. How did a fake trailer made for just $150 become the year's maddest movie?
Canadian director Jason Eisener originally wanted to make his debut feature film Hobo With a Shotgun a couple of years ago. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those pesky kids. The (fictional) children in question played a small but crucial part in the script for Hobo that Eisener, his producer Rob Cotterill, and his writer John Davies had cooked up in homage to violent, low budget, '80s action movies — think Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher; or Rutger Hauer in The Blood of Heroes; or Rutger Hauer in… actually, if you're thinking Rutger Hauer, then you're probably in the right ballpark. Their tale centered on a railroad-riding homeless man who dreams of buying a lawn mower so he can set up a gardening business, but instead becomes embroiled in a blood-drenched feud with a crime family comprising evil patriarch "the Drake," and his two similarly diabolical sons, Slick and Ivan. The Hobo team were determined to portray the brothers as out-and-out psychopaths and decided to have them set fire to a busload of kids with a flamethrower. The problem? For some reason, potential investors didn't think the cinemagoing public was dying to see ablaze ankle-biters. "We would have made the film two years ago if that scene was not in the script," says Eisener, 28. "People backed out because of that scene. We never wanted to lose it. So we fought for it."
And, eventually, they won. The unrated result of that victory, which stars a certain Rutger Hauer as the nameless "Hobo" splatters its way onto selected cinema screens from this Friday (the movie is currently available on VOD). The sight of a burning busload of kids is barely the most deranged aspect of a film, which also boasts a pedophile Santa Claus, an unexplained appearance from a tentacled monster who seems to have wandered in from a different movie altogether, and the line, "When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat covered in razor blades." Even Hauer believes Eisener may have crossed a line with his first proper movie. "Yeah, he went too far," says the Dutch actor, before breaking into a wolfish grin. "And so?"
Eisener and Davies first came up with the idea for Hobo With a Shotgun at a joint called Barney's Pizza in their hometown of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. "It's where me and John go to pitch ideas back and forth," says the director. "My buddy Mojo had just bought this Airsoft shotgun that shoots plastic pellets and he had really long hair and this shirt with a bunch of stains. We were pitching ideas and Mojo says, 'Why don't you guys make a movie about me?' John looked him up and down and says, 'What, a hobo with a shotgun?' We were like, 'Whoah, that sounds so cool!'"
Although still in their mid-20s, the pair were old hands at the exploitation genre, having spent their teenage years making short films inspired by such movies as The Hitcher, The Warriors, and the shlock-tastic output of British filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith whose credits include BMX Bandits and 1986's Dead-End Drive In. "There's this drive-in that constantly shows exploitation films," Eisener says, explaining the plot of the latter. "It's where society puts all the scum and there's this kid trying to get out. I never understood why he would want to leave that place. I would want to live there!" In time, Eisener and Davies graduated to making longer films: 2003's hour-long zombie action movie Fist of Death and another horror movie, the $350-budgeted The Teeth Beneath, about a skateboard store that has a killer bunny in the basement.
In the spring of 2007, Eisener heard about a fake trailer contest director Robert Rodriguez had set up to promote the release of his and Quentin Tarantino's film Grindhouse, which itself featured faux clips by Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Shaun of the Dead film-maker Edgar Wright. The competition seemed like the perfect vehicle for the Hobo concept. To play the lead role, Eisener recruited an acquaintance named Dave Brunt who he had met while working at a comic book and video game store. "He was this guy who would come in and hang out," says the director. "He's not homeless, but he's not well off. He lives off disability because he got hit by a drunk driver, so he had to have a hip replacement. He heard I was interested in making films and his dream was to play a cop in a movie. Whenever there was no one in the store, me and him would act out little cops and robbers scenes."
Eisener shot the trailer in minus thirty degree temperatures — "We were freezing our asses off!" — and in a guerrilla style that almost resulted in the project being terminated when one rookie cop discovered a blood-covered Brunt sitting in the passenger seat of a car. "He got on his microphone and started screaming that he's found a man hurt and that he needed back-up," says Eisener. "All of a sudden this squad car blocks us off and these two older cops are like, 'What's going on?'" The situation was resolved when producer Cotterill showed the police the fake blood tubes. According to Eisener, "The cops look at the rookie like, 'That's some pretty good investigative work you're doing there, bud!' and just drove off." The total budget for the trailer was $150, a good deal of which went on buying pizza and cigarettes for Brunt.
In May 2007, Eisener attended the SXSW film festival in Austin to hear Rodriguez announce that his trailer had won the competition. The clip became a YouTube sensation and the Canadian distributors of Grindhouse included the trailer in prints of the movie when the film was released north of the border. Given the buzz around Hobo, Eisener, Cotterill, and Davies decided to try and make a feature-length version. To help secure finance they approached Niv Fichtman, a Canadian producer more accustomed to shepherding such arty projects as Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World rather than movies which involve razor blade-covered baseball bats. Eisener admits he thought the chances of getting Fichtman involved were slim: "I looked up his IMDb page, and I was like, 'Oh my god, he's never dabbled in the genre at all. How the hell are we going to convince this guy to get behind this crazy movie?' But we hit it off. I think he was just looking for something different." Fichtman's gung-ho attitude towards the film can be seen in a fake behind-the-scenes YouTube clip during which the producer's rumination on tax credits is interrupted when "Slick" (Gregory Smith) and "Ivan" (Nick Bateman) shoot him in the chest.
By the spring of 2010, Eisener had a $3 million budget. What he didn't have was a hobo. The director originally planned to have Dave Brunt reprise the role, but ultimately realized his hip problem made that impractical. Instead, Eisener sent the script to the agent of Rutger Hauer, whose films had done so much to inspire the project in the first place. "His agent read the script and said, 'Rutger, this isn't for you, you're not going to like it,'" explains Eisener. "But Rutger, he gets really interested when people tell him he's not going to like something. So he took it upon himself to read the script. He was like, 'What the f— is this?'" In fact, the actor was not overly impressed by the Hobo screenplay and, in particular, the role he was being asked to play. "The heart was missing," recalls Hauer. "It was not a character yet. He didn't have balls or meat." The actor, who was making a movie in South Africa, did agree to take a Skype meeting with Eisener, but only so he could let him down-face to Internet face. "It was crazy," says Eisener, "because it was like a week before production. If he had said no, the whole film would have fallen apart. We talked about the movie for maybe 10 minutes and then we bonded over our own inspirations in life. He's an ocean conservationist and before being a filmmaker, I wanted to be a marine biologist and we connected over those things. We got a call back in a couple of hours [saying] he's totally down."
Prior to the start of the film's Halifax shoot, Eisener put together a reel of clips from such films as Deathwish III, the comedy-horror movie Street Trash, and The Hitcher to "get my crew up to speed as to the world they were going to be jumping into." Anyone still unclear about that world was thoroughly clued-in on the first day of shooting, when Eisener filmed the contentious bus scene. "It was in the can before anyone could say anything," chuckles the director.
The preparation-obsessed Hauer seems to have taken as much care over his performance as "Hobo" as he did playing iconic android Roy Batty in Ridley Scott's much more lavishly budgeted Blade Runner. The actor believes the amount of mayhem in Hobo made it doubly important that his performance register emotionally with audiences. "You've got to be dead serious," he says. "Shooting heads and tearing the limbs apart, that's only going to work so far." Hauer was assisted by the on-set presence of Dave Brunt, whose cinematic dreams had been finally fulfilled when Eisener cast him as a dirty cop. "He was a great inspiration," says Hauer. "He was on the set almost every day. I took as much as I could from him."
Certainly, Hauer's performance is vanity-free. In person, the 67-year-old still has the other-worldly handsomeness he displayed in his Blade Runner and Hitcher days. In Hobo, he cuts a far more wretched and aged figure while, on the movie's illustrated poster, he looks positively zombie-fied. "There was no time for a pretty hobo," says Hauer. The actor suggests Eisener's shlock tribute is actually a film with a message. "There's grit in this movie that says, 'Wake the f— up," he says. "The American West has shrunk to s—, and people with the smallest amount of hope are losing the f—ing game. They end up very bloody. It's a metaphor for me. It's not the [whole] movie, but it's there."
In December 2010, independent distributors Magnet Releasing (Monsters, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead) announced they had picked up the U.S. rights for Hobo, which Magner senior vice president Tom Quinn described, somewhat un-vice presidentially, as "Pure blood-drunk, bat-s—-crazy fun." The film debuted at this year's Sundance Festival, where Hauer appeared at one post-screening Q&A toting an actual shotgun. Prior to the festival, Eisener was concerned that his film failed up to live up to the promise of the title — that he might have made another Snakes On a Plane — but was reassured by the enthusiastic welcome shown to it by Sundance attendees. "I was worried about that," he admits. "But then I saw the reaction from audiences. I'm not worried about it anymore."
One possible reason for that reaction is that Eisener does not wink at audiences in the way Rodriguez and Tarantino did with Grindhouse. "I like the Grindhouse movies," he says. "Our problem is they kind of spoof the genre [with] missing reels and stuff. We just wanted to play it straight. We wanted to make a movie that you feel you could have pulled off a VHS shelf in the '80s." Eisener says he has deliberately not played up the Grindhouse connection: "I met Quentin at the Inglourious Basterds premiere in Toronto and told him we were making the movie. He said he couldn't wait to see it. But we never really reached out to those guys. I didn't want to piggy back off them. I wanted to do our own thing and if they see it and they dig it that will be awesome."
The presence of Rutger Hauer in Hobo does provide a connection to Rodriguez. The actor appeared in the director's Sin City, albeit in a cameo role. Cameo roles are pretty much all Hauer has played, at least in major U.S. productions, over the last couple of decades. "Absolutely, it's a comeback," the actor says of Hobo. "Let's say a comeback to no one! Because the audience that likes this has never seen me before, or hardly. I haven't been on film in a long time," he says, before correcting himself: "I've made a ton of films, very interesting films, but Americans tend to go, well, f— that s—."
Eisner and Davies are currently writing a high school-set martial arts movie, but the director is hopeful Hobo will prove successful enough to warrant a sequel (or two). "Rutger calls Hobo a 'Graffiti Western,' which I think is very fitting, and I'd love to make my Western trilogy out of it," says the director. "We wrote, like, 27 drafts of the script. We have so many different stories that I'd love to tell." The director reveals that one of the discarded Hobo sequences was a scene that might have been more disturbing than the flamethrower sequence, at least to cat lovers. "The original opening of the movie was just insane," he says. "It was Slick and Ivan waiting for a train to pull in. Slick had a bag full of cats and he covers it in gasoline and lights it up. Ivan opens up the train doors and there are all these hobos and he throws this burning bag of cats inside. We quickly realized we couldn't take up a railroad for a day, for budgetary reasons. But that would have been awesome."