“It’s a movie that tells the truth about adult men’s interest in their fathers and their sons,” writer-director Jordan Roberts said of his new film, “Around the Bend,” in which Christopher Walken plays Turner Lair, a ne’er-do-well who returns after many years to visit his estranged son Jason, played by Josh Lucas. Jason’s been raised by his archeologist grandfather Henry (Michael Caine), and still lives with the old man, along with his young son Zach (Jonah Bobo). When Henry dies, he leaves behind a series of tasks for the three survivors to undertake–tasks that take them on an eventful trip not only to a destination but to, as Roberts put it, “reconciliation and forgiveness.” But the trip is also quirkily comic, not least because Henry requires the three always to open the next set of directions at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. “I was shocked that [KFC] gave us permission [to use their name],” Roberts said, “but we were going to do a made-up place” if they refused. “I wanted chicken, because I think burgers aren’t funny,” he explained.
Roberts admitted that the script has a strong autobiographical element: “The character that Christopher Walken plays is modeled quite closely on my father, who was a heroin addict and a thief and a guy who’d spent a lot of time in prison, a guy I didn’t know. He did leave my family when I was a kid, very young. He came back when I was an adult. He came back more than once. He would come back, then leave, then come and leave. It probably happened seven or eight times. So it had always struck me as an interesting relationship that we had, and as the years went by it was a different relationship. It was quite volatile when I was young, and always absurd and funny and strange. We would each try and establish this instant intimacy, which was ridiculous. But as the years went past, I found that I was not just pissed off all the time. Absurdity followed us through every one of these encounters, but the anger kind of diminished. And as I became a father myself, I found myself feeling almost compassion or acceptance of this broken individual. And I always thought that would be an interesting story to tell. But I knew by itself it wouldn’t be enough, so I concocted these two generations on either side of them…as a sort of way of hanging this relationship story into a narrative that was kind of cohesive and funny and had somewhere to go. It felt like an interesting way to approach the climax, to approach the place where the family disintegrated as a journey, as a road journey.” Jordan realized only later that he modeled the figure of Henry after his stepfather, who actually raised him along with his “wonderful mother.” As the script went through draft after draft over the course of many years, he said, “archeology began to be a more powerful thematic thread throughout the piece. [But] it was only in the later drafts that the movie sort of hung on this idea of exploring a secret that was buried. [Henry’s] career preceded the use of it in the narrative.”
Roberts spent many years as a successful script doctor–he worked on “Road to Perdition,” among other films as well as writing thirteen scripts for hire for studios (though not have been made until now)–but he kept this one back for his own direction, polishing in between other projects. “There was no evidence that I’d ever be able to do it,” he said, “but I figured if the time came, it was the one to go out with [as a director]. Looking back on it, it was actually a harder film to do first; it would have been really easy to blow this one, because it’s so fragile–it’s a small little story, an inward story, which is the most difficult to tell.” But he was fortunate in the fact that Walken, Lucas and Caine signed on. “These guys were our first choices, truly our first choices,” he said. “The agency that represents all three of them–ICM–now represents me. They got behind the movie in a big way, really made this film happen.” Roberts explained the stars’ interest: “My father passed away about a year and a half ago, and that’s when I sat down and wrote another draft. At that point the script became funnier and clearer and more moving and more honest. And those are the things that actors look for. There are not a lot of roles out there where actors get to play real people. Comedy is usually pushed so far to the side that they have to behave like cartoons, and drama is usually pushed so far into the sentimental realm that it’s kind of embarrassing. They believed that I had no interest in making a sentimental movie. I wanted to make a deeply, deeply emotional movie that felt honest–especially in the way that men’s emotions are expressed, which is, for better or worse, restrained. And I wanted to practice great restraint through the film, and they wanted to do that. So keeping them in that zone where the comedy was real and the drama was real was basically the best bait I had. And I did it. I wasn’t tricking them. And they were helpful; they wanted to do that, too.”
That’s why Roberts was perplexed by the reaction to the movie among some critics on the two coasts. “We’ve taken a lot of hits from [critics] who are calling this movie sentimental,” he noted. “And it drives me berserk. This is not a sentimental movie. It’s an emotional movie. It was not easy to do that. The material could easily have lent itself to a kind of maudlin [approach]…and we didn’t do it. So it disturbs me that some people aren’t able to recognize emotion as distinct from sentiment….I love the courage of telling a story of compassion in this day and age. It is shocking how edgy a story of compassion actually is, especially in the independent film community. Compassion is not a theme that is held dear in that community, and I’m extraordinarily proud that I did it and I did it honestly, and the actors told that story with great integrity and honesty….The whole point is that folks break, and sometimes they’re worth looking at as broken vessels. And sometimes they even want to heal themselves before they go….Some [critics] are knocking the theme of this film as a contrivance, and they’re literally calling compassion in this particular regard a Hollywood contrivance. They’re actually speaking a world-view that’s not mine, because I actually believe that compassion is not only possible–it’s not easy, but it’s the best we can do as humans, and I think it’s demonstrated day in and day out by thousands of people. So to refer to something that’s what we can do in our heart as a myth, I think says more about those people than [the film].”
Jordan Roberts’ “Around the Bend” is a Warner Independent Pictures release.