Co-director Adam Kassen discusses Puncture, working with Chris Evans, and the effect his movie has had on the medical community.
Brothers Adam Kassen and Mark Kassen cut their teeth in Hollywood by producing TV shows such as Wife Swap, indies such as The Sasquatch Gang, and even acting a bit as well. They both make their feature directorial debut with Puncture, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD January 3. This drama, which is based on a true story, centers Mike Weiss (Chris Evans), a small-time lawyer with a big-time drug addiction, who gets in over his head while trying the biggest case of his career against a medical supply company. I recently had the chance to speak with director Adam Kassen over the phone, and here's what he had to say.
I remember reading one of the posters, and there was a quote that said Puncture was reminiscent of Erin Brockovich and The Insider. To me, though, it seemed more like A Civil Action. There is a canon for these kinds of legal David vs. Goliath stories, so were there things that made you trepidatious about taking on a story like this? Were there things that you wanted to show in this to make it stand out?
Adam Kassen: I didn't think about it too much. I definitely saw, during the script process, that it had similar themes to A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich or The Insider. I didn't try to think about it too much, to compare it. We hoped it wouldn't seem too much like every movie you saw. I think what we were connected to right away, was it's a window into this interesting health care debate that we hadn't seen before, and one that centered on the front-line health care worker. You hear a lot about the doctors, and a lot about the politicians on either side, but you don't hear much about the front-line health care workers. My mom had been a nurse for over 40 years, my dad was a pharmacist, he owned a medical supply center, so that issue connected to us. Then the character of Mike, we just found a really tragic, dynamic, hero character in Mike Weiss, and his journey. We thought, if we did this right, and we got someone really great to play him, I think we could really have something. Those were the things that we connected to, about the movie. We originally got the script sent to us by Paul Danziger, the real Paul Danziger. He wrote an original draft. We met with him, went out to Houston and met with all the people, and we really tried to stay true to a lot of the stuff that actually happened in real life, as they told it to us. That's what we tried to pay attention to. Obviously, you always try to stay away from stuff that feels too cliche, or too familiar, but, for good or bad, some of the comparisons are because it did happen. As we got involved, it's amazing how cliched some of this stuff really is, how bad corporations can really get. It feels really cliche, but it's really true.
You mentioned Paul wrote the original draft, and I believe there were some writers brought on after that. Can you talk a bit more about how close you did stick to the true story, and what kind of creative license did they give you to expand the narrative?
Adam Kassen: Well, it's a movie, not a documentary, and we're not investigative reporters, but we really tried to represent what was there. He wrote an original draft with his writing partner Ela Thier, and he gave it to us, and we brought on Chris Lopata, who is a writer we had worked with on a bunch of other stuff. We went down all together and talked to all the players, the judges, the lawyer's, Mike's friends, Mike's brother. Paul consulted with us for a year when we were putting it together, so we really tried to give a true representation of his character, the people in his life, and the journey that he actually went through.
Can you talk about the decision for Mark (Kassen) to play Paul himself? I'm always interested in hearing about how actors direct themselves. In Mark's scenes, were you primarily directing him, or can you talk a bit about how that worked?
Adam Kassen: Yeah, I just told him exactly what to do at every moment. No, we had been looking for something to direct for awhile, and we got this script and we both really connected to it. Once we got the script done, we both thought, 'Wow, you'd be really great for this. Why don't you play that part?' It was really that simple. We didn't set out to make a movie with Mark playing the part, it just felt right when we were done. Mark is a great actor, and I've worked with him a lot on other stuff before, as a producer and director and plays we've done. We're pragmatic people, whether we're producing something or directing something or Mark's acting in something, but if it makes sense, why not? It was a great thing, and he did a great job. It was great to have him in there, and it made my job a lot easier. From a directing standpoint, we spent a lot of time on the script, a lot of time with the DP, a lot of time with Chris (Evans). We went down a few weeks early with Chris and we rehearsed and met all the real players and went down to all the real locations in Houston. By the time we got to set, Mark and I had a really good idea of what we wanted to shoot, and how we wanted to shoot it. Things always change when you're on set, from time to time, but with me being behind the lens, and him being right in the middle, it gives you a whole other perspective. For me, it makes it stronger, because we have a better idea of what's working and what's not. As a team, it worked great for us.
Can you talk a bit about bringing Chris on board? Was he always at the top of your list, when you started putting this together. He gives a great performance, but since he's getting all these other huge roles now, it was cool to see him come to a smaller project, which a lot of people don't do. Can you talk about getting the chance to work with him, and what he really brought to this character?
Adam Kassen: Yeah, he was great. We were really excited to get him. We actually got him before Captain America. I think he was actually offered it on our set. The thing that turned us on to him, we saw this movie he did called Sunshine, the Danny Boyle film, and he was great. In that, I saw the exact sort of essence of what we thought Mike could be. He's this exciting yet tortured soul that was really bright. When you meet Chris, that really is him. He's a really interesting, smart guy, and a lot of his acting, over the years, gets overlooked. He's in these huge spectacle movies, where things are exploding in front of him, and you might be paying more attention to that, but if you go back and watch them again, he's really great. He's never bad. He's a really interesting, smart actor. As soon as we all sat down and met, we all connected right away, and we were really excited to get him on board. With the wrong actor, you can have this self-indulgent performance, but with someone like Chris, you get a dynamic performance which he really delivered. He's just a character who's tragic and does really bad things, but you still root for him. That's really hard to pull off, but he was great. He's working on these films where they might shoot half a page or a page a day. We were shooting six or seven pages a day, and he came to set and just worked his ass off. He was a complete professional, and brought everybody's game up. We were really excited to work with him.
Since both you and Mark have acted before, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that skill helps you as directors? Does it help you put yourself in their shoes, or what's the biggest draw for an actor to step into directing?
Adam Kassen: I had done a bit of of acting when I was younger, but I was mediocre at best. I quickly found myself more interested in behind-the-scenes stuff, but yeah, definitely having acting training helps give you perspective, to be a little more sensitive to what people are actually going through, and how hard and difficult it is to try and get to the moment. Also, it's realizing that just because you're explaining it, doesn't mean they understand it. They realize that you have an idea about what's happening in their brain, and what they're struggling with or not. I think that helps see where they're coming from. Then, to have Mark there as an actor on set, just made it that much stronger, because he's actually acting there with them. You have another layer with them together. I think it really helped.
Have you had much response from the medical community? I know it didn't get a very wide release, but I was wondering if the DVD release coming up, and a chance to get this to a wider audience, how you're hoping the medical community responds to this movie?
Adam Kassen: We have been really excited, in a couple of ways, about how it's helped the medical community. We didn't set out to make an agenda movie. Like I said before, we're not investigative reporters, we set out to make a film about a guy and a journey, that will hopefully make you think and, if it starts a conversation about an issue, that really makes us happy, but that's not exactly why we set out to make it. What's happened has been really exciting in a couple of ways. One is this lobbying group called MDMA, Medical Device Manufacturing Association, has actually taken our film and done a couple of screenings in Washington D.C. for staffers and Senators. They invited us and I met Barbara Boxer and Senator Dianne Feinstein. One of the things they've been trying to do is overturn this law that's been on the books since 1986 called the Anti-Kickback Law. It's the only law in the books that allows a distributor to take kickbacks from a manufacturer. The GPO's are actually allowed to take a 10% kickback. It's actually a law on the books. They've also shown that there's so much waste, over $40 billion of waste, just by the apparatus itself. I didn't know anything about this stuff. Group purchasing organizations isn't a really sexy subject, so people don't really talk about it much. But when you're talking about topics of waste and other things that are going on, it's a pretty large one, especially when they're keeping out products that are needed. What's been neat for us, is to be a part of these things, and one of the things they were able to do is they got Senator Boxer and a handful of other Senators to sign a letter where over this next year, they're going to start investigating this issue. With the help of this little film, it's gotten some people's attention, and that's really exciting. It can speak to some people and have some sort of impact, and that feels really good. On another standpoint, my father passed away a few months ago. He was sick and in the hospital, and while he was there, we were in Houston, Texas, and a lot of the real people from the film were there. We had a doctor on the set, and he worked at one of the top cancer centers. They sort of ran out of ideas for my dad's lymphoma, so he started going to Houston. That connected the dots, and, unfortunately, it didn't work as they planned, but I think it may have contributed to him getting a bit longer to live. When we were in Syracuse, we did a screening in the hospital, a few days before my dad passed away, with a bunch of doctors and nurses and friends, right in the hospital. That felt really good, and the doctors and nurses were so excited that there was a movie about it, that they could be a part of this. In the end, we did a screening about a month ago, and Chris came in, as did Jesse L. Martin, and we did a fundraiser for the cancer center. We raised a bunch of money and screened the movie and did a talkback afterwards. All the nurses came and, we've met a lot of real nurses along the way, and it's amazing how selfless they are. When we told them about the fundraiser, and asked what we could get for them, they didn't ask for a lounge or better hours or new uniforms, they said, 'You know, it would be great if we could get a deck, because a lot of these people only have a few more days left to live, and if we could get a deck, it would be nice if they could go out and see the sunshine.' That's what those nurses are. We've been in Syracuse to Houston, Texas, Washington D.C., all over the place, and by and large, they're just selfless and work hard. It's outrageous, to me, that these people who work so hard, and are the first people you see when you get hurt, and, unfortunately, may be the last people you see when you leave this Earth, we're not protecting them, when we can. We're not giving them the safest equipment, the best things out there that won't harm them, when they're actually out there and available. That, to me, has definitely been an amazing learning experience, to see how these people are, but then to see a system that doesn't protect them like they should.
Is there anything that you or Mark are currently developing that you can talk about?
Adam Kassen: I just finished producing this film called Big Sur, it's based on a Jack Kerouac novel, with Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas, and Anthony Edwards. We're in post right now, and I just saw a cut. It looks beautiful. My brother, as an actor, actually was the lead in Derrick Borte's new film. He just finished production a few days ago. He was the lead actor, not a producer, not a director, just an actor, and he was really excited about that. It's called Stars, and it's a really wonderful script. They shot it in New Mexico, and he just wrapped production on that.
Is there anything else you're looking to direct?
Adam Kassen: Yeah, there are a couple of things, one in particular, that we're not quite ready to announce, but we're really, really excited about it. Hopefully we'll know more in the next couple of weeks.
Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to those who didn't get a chance to see Puncture in theaters about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD on January 3?
Adam Kassen: I would just say go see it. I'm really proud of it. It's a really great performance by Chris Evans. It's a story that will, at the very least, will make you think, and we're really proud of it, so I hope people go check it out.
That's my time. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, Adam.
Adam Kassen: Great. Thanks a lot, man. I appreciate it.