Defense attorney Richard Ramsay (Keanu Reeves) takes on a personal case when he swears to his widowed friend, Loretta Lassiter (Renée Zellweger), that he will keep her son, Mike (Gabriel Basso), out of prison. Charged with murdering his father, Mike initially confesses to the crime. But as the trial proceeds, chilling evidence about the kind of man that Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi) really was comes to light. While Ramsay uses the evidence to get his client acquitted, his new colleague Janelle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) digs a little deeper — and begins to question the truth that has been presented during the trial. I sat down with the talented director Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) who is a lawyer herself and is married to a trial attorney, about this riveting film.
Danny Miller: I didn’t see any of the fascinating twists and turns of this story coming. For a movie like this, where so much depends on how much information you’re giving us and when, was a lot of that worked out in the editing room?
Courtney Hunt: We did a little of that, but the script was written with all the flashbacks built in. One of the things that I loved most about the script was how it plays with memory. We tried to roll things out in the way that people kind of half-remember things in their lives.
Without giving anything away, there were aspects of this film that made me uncomfortable about myself in terms of how I felt about certain characters regardless of their “guilt” or “innocence.” I appreciate how your films always challenge us as viewers.
This film really asks you to look at aspects of your own morality. With Keanu’s character, we look at where issues of morality and legality crisscross. I think that’s so interesting because it’s something real lawyers have to deal with every day and it’s something that is kind of washed over in most TV shows about lawyers. I wanted to delve into putting us all in the position of having to test our own boundaries of morality even though it can be a little uncomfortable.
I think on paper we all agree that in situations like this we just want the “truth” to come out, but when you get actual human beings involved, it gets a lot more complex.
Exactly. In our minds, crime is not supposed to pay, a lot of things aren’t supposed to happen, but they DO happen all the time! And so, in this post-modern courtroom drama, we wanted to look at our own limits — how far would we go? My challenge was to have people ask those questions and yet have the movie be believable. I do believe that things like this could happen and have happened many times.
How much did you call up your own experience as a lawyer during the making of the film?
All the time. I’ve second-sat many murder trials with my husband. I would see him go through exactly what Keanu portrays in the film. Nobody talks about how scary it can be for lawyers — somebody’s life is at stake and you are responsible and if you screw it up they may never again see the light of day. And the kid in this situation is very young. I think Keanu looks and sounds so much like a nervous lawyer at a trial. That’s the way trial work really is, the burnout rate is very high, you wouldn’t believe it.
Have you had any critical reaction to the film from lawyers or lawyers groups?
No, just the opposite. I have many good friends who are criminal lawyers and they love the twists and turns. They were all like, “Yeah, that could happen.” More than anything, I tried to keep it believable in terms of what really goes on in a courtroom. In many courtroom dramas, they need the story to go in a certain direction so they just take the trial in directions that procedurally would just never happen. We never wanted to veer from that reality. In fact, my husband was on the set and talked to Keanu regularly about what would happen and what would never happen. And one of our producers, Elon Dershowitz, would consult with his father, renowned attorney Alan Dershowitz.
How much did you work with Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger to help them find their characters? It was so fun to see them in roles that are a bit different for them.
They are both very accomplished actors. In the case of Renée, she walked in with a lot of work done, she really understood this woman. Keanu is very much a perfectionist and we worked together to have his character be as truthful as possible.
I thought Gabriel Basso, who plays the son, was also very good. That was a difficult role, especially since he doesn’t speak for a good portion of the film.
Gabriel is a great, natural actor, but one who does not like to talk about acting. If you want to talk to him, you’re gong to talk about soccer! His idea of preparation is me yelling, “Action!” We looked at a lot of people but once we found him, it was clear he was perfect for the part. He has this kind of wholesomeness but also this deep well inside.
Jim Belushi was also great as Renée Zellweger’s husband. Were you worried about how much to show of his actions in the flashbacks and how much to leave to our imaginations? Did you end up dialing some of that back?
Yes, we did dial some of that back! When you’re in a courtroom, you’re basically dealing with memories. I wanted everything we see about what happened between them to be snippets of the truth, I didn’t want to show too much. It’s funny because I’m really not into flashbacks in general, I view them as a kind of “poor man’s filmmaking,” and yet here’s I’ve made a film with tons of flashback! But I definitely think of it as “flash” or a spit of a thought that gives you an impression, a moment that stays in your mind. No one remembers things in a perfect narrative and I wanted to present the flashbacks in a way that’s more like how our brains really work. I liked giving us bits of the relationship between Jim and Renée without delving too far into it.
So interesting, and again, what is “truth?” I’m very close to my sister but we have fights all the time when we talk about our childhoods because I’ll have a very specific memory and she’ll say, “That never happened!”
Right! In a murder trial, people are coming in with their fractured and imperfect memories. I remember reading transcripts of trials and seeing how people remember the same events so differently. It’s kind of horrifying — isn’t there any objective truth out there?
And, of course, in some situations people are blatantly and purposely lying versus just remembering things a certain way.
Yes, and sometimes they’re believing things that they WANT or NEED to believe. There are people who are really good at denial, even to themselves. I’ve sat through so many trials where you can’t even believe what people are saying. That’s just how we are as humans — we’re very flawed.
And juries are certainly not infallible, they can be tricked.
Absolutely. Juries, judges, and, in some cases, a whole country — without mentioning any names!
I so loved your first film, Frozen River, and wondered if this was a much easier shoot after that film which was made in such a frigidly cold environment.
Well, this time, instead of being in 20-below zero cold in upstate New York, we were in thousand-degree heat in New Orleans!
Oh God, can’t you just make a movie in lovely spring weather in New York City?
(Laughs.) How about Paris? I think both films were difficult in different ways. It’s hard to make that second film. I wanted to make this one at a higher budget level to see how that world operated since Frozen River was made on an extremely micro-budget. But in the end it’s all about story. If the story is good and you find good actors, no one really cares about budgets.