Director Brett Simon on “Better Start Running”

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“Better Start Running” is a touching little indie film about a shy big box store clerk (Tony Award winner Alex Sharp) on the run from the law who takes a road trip with the girl he has a crush on, his ailing grandfather, and a quirky guy they pick up along the way. As they travel through the heartland on to give the grandfather (Jeremy Irons) one last chance to see the love of his life, a relentless FBI agent (Maria Bello) is determined to capture them. Director Brett Simon answered my questions about his favorite road stories, the real-life and fictional sights the characters find along the way, and the role of the many ways the characters are watched on their journey.

I have often pointed out that the single most enduring storyline in a narrative (plays, movies, books) is the road trip, with people who don’t know each other or know each other but will get to know each other much better. What is it that makes road trip stories so engaging?

There is something about the road that’s like storytelling itself. Each intersection offers new choices where the story could go. There is a destination in mind, but good stories never reach it, at least not on the expected route. Good stories are about change, and the road is a quick fix for change, switching up the scenery, getting out of your town, or trying to get back home.

What are some of your favorite road stories?

Some of my favorite road novels are Don Quixote, Rule of the Bone, The Sisters Brothers, and The Road. Some of my favorite road movies are Y Tu Mama Tambien, Thelma and Louise, Wizard of Oz, Deadman, and Zombieland.

The movie features a lot of Americana along the road, including statues of Paul Bunyan and a cricket (locust?) and some striking road signs. Were all of those in the script or did you find them in location scouting? Were any created for the film? Do you have a favorite?

There’s a mix as 90 percent of the film was shot in and around Louisville, Kentucky. I spent a lot of time scouting odd locations (thank you Atlas Obscura) and then reverse engineering the story to the best places I could find. Some of the “real world” places were already roadside attractions, like the Wigwam Village in Cave City. Some of the attractions were entirely computer generated like Paul Bunyan. And then some were a mix of the two. I turned a water tower into the “world’s largest flashlight” (although I’m not sure that made the final cut). The world’s largest cigarette lighter in the film is actually a concrete structure that the Louisville Fire Department uses for training. We painted it red and added the neon flame in post.

We had a week-long second unit driving the Previa across the country, where I shot my two favorite attractions. One is Carhenge in Nebraska, a replica of Stonehenge made out of automobiles. The other is not a roadside attraction at all, but one of the most striking man-made sites I encountered. It is a pyramid in Nekoma, North Dakota that was part of a Cold War anti-ICBM installation.

I’m a huge fan of your cast in the film and was lucky enough to see Alex on Broadway. Tell me what casting him was like and what made him right for the part.

Alex Sharp is an extraordinary actor and a heartfelt human being. For Harley, I was looking for someone who lives by the heart, someone who could be vulnerable, someone who takes risks. Alex conjured Harley’s relentless optimism but also hints to Harley’s demons. Alex and I had our first conversation about the film on Skype, and when the call was over, I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone else in the part. It was the same with Analeigh Tipton. After we first met on the project, I knew she had to play Steph. She has tremendous instincts, and this undeniable spontaneity and curiosity. I wanted to see her and Alex on the road together.

The music in the film adds a lot to the atmosphere and keeps the story from getting too grim. How did you select the music and what did you want it to show?

Matthew Compton and Matt Popieluch did the score. We wanted to create a fairly timeless sound that spoke more to the old roadside attractions than the big box stores. Analog sounds. At times the score sounds more like the movie Harley imagines himself to be in, rather than the story he’s living. The tone is such a tricky thing in a film like this, swinging from humor to heartbreak, an absurdity to fear. I think their score helped balance out the tone, nudging it here or there, offering a counterpoint or subtly pushing the point.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a label-maker. What is the significance of Steph’s labels?

I think we have some primal need to mark our territory and to leave behind a trace, some evidence that “we were here.” Roadside attractions are an oversized expression of that desire, a farmer in the Dakotas breaking up the big sky with “the world’s largest grasshopper.” Steph’s label maker is the small expression of the same need. This is mine. I am here. I matter.

There’s a lot in the film about the use of security cameras that characters use to see each other. What does that tell us?

The surveillance footage is the eye of the law, the eye of the big box store, and the eye of our digital devices. All three pursue our heroes relentlessly on the road.

What’s the best advice you ever got about directing?

To embrace limitations as opportunities for creativity.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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