Corbin Bernsen discusses Rust

The actor/writer/director talks about finding talent in the small Canadian town of Kipling

Actor Corbin Bernsen shot to fame in 1986 portraying Arnie Becker in the hit series L.A. Law, and with movie roles such as Roger Dorn in the fantastic sports comedy Major League, which is still one of my favorites. The actor has worked steadily throughout the years, on the big screen and the small screen, most recently as Henry Spencer on Psych, although his real passion is behind the camera. Corbin Bernsen wrote, directed, produced and also starred in the brand new movie Rust, which was recently released on DVD on October 5. I recently had the chance to speak with the multi-hyphenate about the movie, which stars Corbin Bernsen as a former preacher who returns to his hometown where he finds that an old friend was arrested for arson in a house fire that claimed the lives of a family. The friend, Travis, is portrayed wonderfully by Lloyd Warner, who, like the rest of the cast, made their feature film debuts in Rust, which served as a unique and successful experiment on finding movie talent in a small town. Here's what Corbin Bernsen had to say below:

The movie is dedicated to your father and I saw on the special features that his death inspired the idea for this movie. Could you talk a bit more about your initial idea for this movie and how your father's death shaped that?

Corbin Bernsen: Sure. I had this thing set up in Kipling, where we shot the movie, with all these people. I met all these people and got to know the town and they said that they wanted to invest in a movie and raise a certain amount of money. It took awhile. There was a movie we wanted to do but we didn't raise quite enough, so a year went by and, they asked what we were going to do up there. I said that my father had just passed away and I was literally standing there with a bag of ashes. I was like, 'Where is he? Heaven? Hell? Is there a heaven and hell? Is there a God?' All these things you think about. I was sitting there with this bag of ashes wondering if he was somewhere or if he was nowhere? I wanted to write about that, but I long ago learned not to write about my story, about a guy who's dad died. I wanted to find another framework to put it in, and I thought it would be interesting to look at a life crisis, something I know about, and they dynamics of it, to integrate that. So I thought, why not create a guy who's been serving God and Christ his entire life and wakes up one day and says, 'Hey man, we're not talking.' It goes out of control and he abandons it, and walks out, like a man walking out on his wife. It allowed me to explore a guy who needed to go back to his roots and discover his faith, or reigniting it. I could've come to a conclusion that he had this bag of ashes and that was it. It would've been an atheist story, but, I don't think that was what was planned for me, so I wrote Rust instead.

What I enjoyed about it was it was a movie about faith, but it's not preachy and tells a very dramatic story at the same time. Was that part of your intention, not to get too preachy with it?

Corbin Bernsen: Absolutely. I wrote the script and I was writing a drama, a little small-town drama. It was only when the folks at Sony and Affirm, their faith-based division, got a hold of me and said, 'We've heard about this thing you're doing and it sounds interesting,' and they took a look at the script and said, 'You have a faith-based movie here.' We were two days away from production and I wasn't going to change a whole lot, I didn't want to become preachy, I wrote the script that I wrote, and I wrote it as non-denominational. He has a collar and some people think he's a priest. He has a collar because he's a preacher. Sony said that I had a faith-based movie with a couple of changes, and some of them I couldn't do, categorically. There were a couple of words like "ass" that I took out of it, so it didn't hurt to take that word out. They also suggested that when the guy is at his lowest, to go to his knees and pray to God for guidance. I thought it was pretty dramatic and I could make that work. It was only then that it took on this genre of being Christian and faith-based. Truth be told, not being hypocritcal here, it was a great journey for me and it brought me closer, personally, to God. It's opened up the exploration. While I still don't fit the criteria of being "Christian," I think I always have lived a fairly Christian life. Everybody makes mistakes. I think it works on all cylinders, but I'll tell you, when you're promoting a movie and you talk about this very personal thing, it's very interesting. On one level, you're trying to promote your movie but on the other hand, you're talking about this very personal journey. It can be taken out of context and misconstrued by people on both sides of the fence.

Can you talk a bit about how your relationship with Kipling first started and how long had you wanted to make a movie like this, where you actually mined talent from a town like that?

Corbin Bernsen: The Kipling thing came about through this Red Paperclip thing that happened there a couple of years ago. Kyle MacDonald had a red paperclip, he lived in Montreal and said he was going to trade it on the Internet for an item and that item he'd trade for another item until he got a house. I had heard about it, becaue I was making these small independent films and I do like to look for marketing angles, because I don't like to just make films in a void and go, 'Boy, I hope my little thriller works.' They just don't go anywhere and, especially in this market with DVD's, your chances of getting a movie into theaters is astronomically impossible. I thought, well, this kid had like seven million people following him on this blog, I'll offer a part in the movie. I'll make that a part of the trade. I'll go quickly make a movie and have seven million people say, 'Hey, here's where the story ends.' Long story short, he didn't take the trade with me right away. I didn't even have the script, so that was OK (Laughs). I started putting the movie together and, towards the end, he called me up and I said, 'I collect these snow globes.' He said, 'Do you want a KISS snow globe?' I said, 'Sure.' He found out that there was this town called Kipling, who had a house, and the town wanted a part in a Hollywood movie. He sort of put that part in a Hollywood movie up there because he thought that was going to get him the house. There would be some wealthy dude or some wealthy family who wanted their daughter to get a break in acting, or whatever. It turned out to be a town that wanted it to be an economic boost. So, I got a snow globe, he got a part in the movie, he gave the part in the movie to the town of Kipling. I went there and held auditions and that's how we ended up in Kipling. We auditioned like 300 people and they were phenomenal. It was raw and it was real. It was weird because it was almost like one step beyond a documentary, because it feels so real. I always wanted to do that. I always used to say, as a director, that I could make anybody good in a movie, if you found the right part. It all comes down to casting. I met a guy once who produced a movie. I knew he wouldn't be good, I knew he would probably be stiff and he could be a jerk sometimes. So I made him a California Highway Patrol officer (Laughs). It was perfect. He's the kind of guy you don't want to run into. It's all about the casting. I liked Lloyd Warner, a mentally challenged guy, to a degree. I kind of wrote to them, I wrote to their strengths.

Lloyd was really quite a revelation. When I saw the special features, it was interesting how he was kind of the hero of this town and how it contrasts his character in Rust.

Corbin Bernsen: Oh yeah, I know. It's funny because I just literally printed the first copy of a script, I just wrote another movie for him. We're going to shoot it in March, and he's going to be the lead. I just printed it out right before I called you.

I was also going to ask you if he's still pursuing acting, but I guess he obviously is.

Corbin Bernsen: I mean, I guess he'd like to. He's really good and he's interesting. I don't know if he'd survive in Hollywood. Could he go to Vancouver and do some things? Sure. I mean, I already have another one after the one I had just written, that I wrote a long time ago, that I knoew he'd be great in. He's a really interesting character because, the imperfection of God's design, if you will, and the brilliance of God's perfection, in a strange way. It's a great dynamic because he's a faulted character, the flaw in man who's able to overcome the flaw. He's the physicalization of what Christians look it as, 'We're all flawed.' They're talking about morality, where his flaw is physical, but he overcomes it. He's an interesting character to put in a faith-based movie. It's very interesting to have that kind of person or character.

Would you like to continue making movies like this, where you maybe discover another town and try to mine talent from that town?

Corbin Bernsen: I think so, yeah. I think I might have to get a little bit more traditional talent with it, so it would sell the movie a bit easier. I can't tell that story that I told you, and have it sell a movie. We know what sells movies is people on the cover. Word of mouth can help us, but it's really hard if you're not Spider-Man to get something that's a bigger story like this town in Kipling. I could be on the radio or on the phone all day long, talking across America, about the story behind the story, but you can't do it. So, to get a couple of other names in there... I mean, I walked into Wal-Mart the other day to buy my first copy of the movie, because you've got to get the first copy. I went in there and it was at the bottom of the shelves. You get a couple of other names in there, and it probably moves up the shelves a little bit. It would be a little easier, but yes, to answer your question, I am very much going to do this. It's kind of become my thing. You know, I'm 56 now and these days, older directors are becoming more obsolete, as do writers. It's kind of in a Roger Corman zone, in a weird way, because I do like to bring up talent in acting and camera and every other department. It keeps budgets down and it gives opportunities to people who haven't worked on features who would really like a credit. You're getting some of the smartest, youngest minds who know the technology far better than I do to come in and do these things. They want the opportunity and you want to keep the costs down. It's easier to do in this kind of environment. It's not a pressure cooker, with a studio behind it. The budgets are smaller, and you want the investors to make their money back, but it's not a huge road to get back to even. I also dig this notion of going around the country into these communities. This next movie I wrote for Lloyd is another little town, which we're doing the same thing we did with Rust, raising money in this little town in Canada. I've written a movie for them, this small town called Provost, in Alberta.

Is there anything that you're looking to attach yourself to, as an actor, that you can talk about?

Corbin Bernsen: Well, I keep doing my TV series Psych on USA. The reality of it is that the big studios aren't really coming to me. Occasionally, I'll get a call from a Shane Black, 'Come do Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.' I got a call from the guys who did this movie called The Big Year and I did a day on this Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson movie. You can get lucky and find the right movie and have this cool career as this 50s or 60s guy. You can carve out something new, but you never know when that's going to happen. I'm not going to sit around. What I do in the meantime, with these indie movies, I'm a big fan of these smaller magazines like Indie Slate and I feel out people who are making these small movies. I really like this world. I think there's a lot of exploration, which allows you to stretch a little bit more. The stakes aren't as high and you can keep it fresh. You've got to bring game to it because it doesn't have the infrastructure of the Hollywood system around it. You've got to get in there and be inventive and be creative and I have the opportunities to meet with people who could potentially be a great DP or a great director, or young writer, actors, who aren't normally in movies. Being on a TV series is great too, because it's the day job.

Oh yeah. Especially with something like Psych, where it's 13, 14 or 15 episodes and you're not on set for the whole year.

Corbin Bernsen: My year is pretty cool. Here's what I do. I basically shoot the movie during the hiatus, I edit at the beginning of the season, for the most part, and then I write the next summer's movie during the second act. There's time to write, there's time to edit, especially the part I have in Psych. What it doesn't allow me is time with my family. That's the only thing that's kind of a drag. Any breaks we have, I'm in one of those other modes. We finish in October and go back in March, so I'm always busy doing stuff. But, what am I going to do, complain about that? No.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about Rust about why they should pick up the DVD?

Corbin Bernsen: Well, a couple of things. One is support independent film. I think you're really going to find interesting stuff. It's a nice break from the stuff you find in theaters. There are great, big movies, but I would urge people to support independent film. This gets a little odd to talk about, but in this crazy world, where things get even more insane by the moment, like people who are protesting at the funeral of this 19-year-old kid who was killed in Iraq. In this world, there is a lot of stuff going on and a lot of people just want to simplify. There's something cool, even on a philosophical level, about understanding the bigger picture and exploring faith, if you well, in a very real way. The more you delve into it and give into it, you just have to have faith. The more you invest in faith, wherever it takes you, some of those jagged edges become less sharp. Within that unity of the chaos, if you will, you get some sort of peace out of it, a break from the insanity and a little smile. You just find yourself being a better person. Whatever it is, you just find yourself in a better space than not exploring. I'm not saying you have to become something. Everybody is on their own trip. What the movie encourages, and the message of the movie is to just have faith. It could be that one little thing, take that one little leap into the void and see where it takes you. That's ultimately what the movie is about. Have faith in something bigger, and I think your life becomes richer.

Excellent. That's all I have for you, Corbin. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with your future project. I really enjoyed Rust.

Corbin Bernsen: Thanks, man. Thanks a lot for your kind words. That really means a lot to me.

You can find Corbin Bernsen's terrific movie Rust on DVD shelves everywhere.