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Man, Overboard! An interview with John-Luke Montias, writer/director “Bobby G. Can’t Swim”

John-Luke Montias: I’m originally from New Haven, Connecticut, and I lived in New York for about the last 12 years, but I consider myself pretty much a New Yorker. I’d consider myself a New Yorker too, if New Yorkers probably wouldn’t kick my ass ‘cause I’m a New Jerseyian at heart. Now, did being a New Yorker play a major role in making the movie… I mean, I don’t think you have one scene that takes place above 52nd street.

JLM: It’s shot in what’s known as the Hell’s Kitchen area, which I think of as 44th St all the way to 57th street. I’d been working as a bartender at the time in a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, and I thought that there was just a lot of character there… there were interesting characters on the street. The place just had an interesting vibe to it, you know? Actually the three movies I wrote have been set in Hell’s Kitchen. I actually wrote two after Bobby G which we might or might not make – and someone said ‘oh, maybe you lived there in a past life.’ Well, who knows? Maybe I did. But what’s interesting is that when I was actually bartending there it was the early 90s and it was very different. Now it’s a really nice area. There’s Starbucks, there’s Gaps. With Giuliani, it’s gone downhill?

JLM: No, it’s true. I was telling a friend about this. They way Giuliani – and I voted for Giuliani – has cleaned up the city, you can’t set a hard-core story in Manhattan anymore. You wanna shoot a crime story you gotta go to the Bronx or parts of Brooklyn, maybe Washington Heights, possibly Harlem – but Harlem’s getting nice, too… but Hell’s Kitchen, fugget it. East Side, fugget it. Downtown, fugget it. It’s nice. It’s like Toronto. I went into New York about a month ago, the place I was in was… you been to Motor City? In the Lower East Side? That area’s gritty, and that’s even cleaned up from five or ten years ago.

JLM: Lower East Side? That’s a high-priority area right now. Giuliani trying to do his best.

JLM: Yeah. It’s good for the city. I realize if I had a wife and kids, or family, I’m sure I’d appreciate it more than I do now. As someone who came to New York because it had that on-edge quality, I thought that it was a good place for me to be inspired as an artist. It’s just a little bit disappointing, what’s happened… but I imagine it will come back at some point. These things work in cycles. You wrote, directed, and acted Bobby G. Can’t Swim. Which one do you consider yourself to be the most?

JLM: Six months ago I would have said actor but I don’t know now. I had been an actor for a number of years before this, gotten little things here and there… nothing spectacular. I wrote it because I was tired of going out for parts I didn’t care about. I directed it because I didn’t know any directors, and I thought ‘maybe I should learn how to direct’ You did a good job for a first time.

JLM: Well, it was by necessity. So maybe it was the best way sometimes. You know the saying: sometimes you do your best work with a gun to your head.

JLM: Absolutely. It’s so true. Afterwards I thought: ‘OK, I’ll make the movie. And then I’ll go on to do more acting.’ But I’ve had offers. My agent offers to send me out and now I’m not that interested. It’s bizarre to go out and audition for a part you don’t care as much about after you’ve been in a movie you wrote and directed. So I spend time sitting at home conjuring up other movies that I can give myself work in, or give other people work in, rather than just act for the sake of acting. So I don’t exclusively consider myself any. Just a filmmaker. The only guy in the film that’s had really extensive experience is Rick Poli, who played ‘Dollar Bill.’ There’s one other guy that’s been in more than three roles, but everyone seems to be new. Was this just your friends at the time? The people you knew? You know, give ‘em a call say ‘Wanna be in my movie?’

JLM: No, we casted through Backstage for the most part. There’s a number of my friends in there and there are a number of people who aren’t even actors, but the bulk of the cast came from Backstage. That’s the actors’ newspaper in New York. When you’re casting a low-budget film, that’s where you put the ad in. I kid you not, I got about 5,000 pictures sent to me, to my address. It was a matter of going to the post office every day and lugging back duffle bags of mail. The first day I’m like ‘great, what a nice response.’ I start opening these things, reading the resumes, looking at the picture. Thinking: ‘I wonder if we scruff the guy up a little bit…’ After like, an hour it was like: ‘Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad.’ You were made to be a producer or an editor.

JLM: I guess. In the movie, you basically have Bobby G. and then these misanthropes that surround him in his world. The most interesting one I think is Lucy, played by Susan Mitchell. How did you cast her? Was she one of the responses to Backstage or did you go out looking for her?

JLM: She responded from Backstage, but she actually sent me… well, it’s funny. When I wrote the part of Lucy I wrote I thought ‘man, this might be a hard part to cast to find a woman with that sort of lived-in quality who’s sexy as well who can play that sort of off-center role. I didn’t know anybody personally, so I knew I would have to use someone I didn’t know. She sent me a reel. She was in Q&A. She was in New Jack City. She was in a movie by Nick Gomez called Wild Kingdom, which he shot before Laws of Gravity, which all kind of portrayed her in that street mode. And I popped in the tape and said ‘Whoa, that’s Lucy.’ I don’t think the role is that different from her… not that she’s like a street hooker or anything but she’s that way. That’s her voice. Her mannerisms. What were the inspirations for Bobby G. Can’t Swim? Did you just want to make a street movie that was different?

JLM: I just wanted to make a street movie. I didn’t really think of different. It just popped into my head: this guy getting thrown out of a bar at seven in the morning, after drinking all night in an after-hours club and he’s gotta take a leak. He’s gotta find a place to take a leak, and let’s try to find a story to piss himself with. It just kinda popped in my head. It came pretty organically. Start right on the first page.

JLM: Absolutely. Now, you said that you have two other screenplays that have not yet been produced. Is Bobby G. the first screenplay that you wrote?

JLM: I wrote a screenplay called Johnny McCoy, which also takes place in Hell’s Kitchen. We had tried to raise money for that, with not much success. That’s one of the reasons that I wrote Bobby G. I thought ‘well, it’s gonna be harder to write Johnny McCoy than I thought because it costs more money than I thought, so why don’t I write something that I can do for next-to-nothing?’ After Bobby G. was finished, we got an offer for Johnny McCoy finally. It was couple of years after I wrote Johnny McCoy, and I thought I had grown out of it… so I’m trying to focus on things that I wrote after Bobby G. Being a bartender, you just overheard a lot of conversations and that led to great dialogue?

JLM: Absolutely. Being a bartender, you hear great dialogue whether you want to or not. You don’t have much choice in the matter. A number of the characters in the movie are based on the customers t
hat I’d had. There were some colorful characters in there. And actually, I asked the real people that the characters were based on to come in and read, which they did but they couldn’t be themselves. I didn’t tell them that it was about them. Everyone says ‘Sure, I can be an actor.’ But if you’re not used to it, it’s kind of difficult. Do you find it difficult to get into the character of Bobby G, or, because you wrote the character you know him so well?

JLM: You know what it is? Bobby G is not that different from me at all. I don’t mean that I’m a drug dealer – You just killed my next question. (makes a snorting sound)

JLM: In terms of mannerisms and speech and so forth and overall rhythm it’s not a stretch or anything. And plus, when we were shooting Bobby G. I was getting maybe four hours of sleep a night… if I was lucky. Which means that I was beat up and looked like hell every morning. I’d have bags under my eyes, I looked like I just got run over by a car, I’d just step in front of the camera and say ‘Action.’ There’s one scene where you jumped in the Hudson river. How much did you seriously hate jumping in the Hudson?

JLM: Well, you know, the Hudson has been really cleaned up in the past five years. The place where we jumped is called the Hudson river project, and it’s the only place in the Hudson where you can swim. I think we did maybe three or four takes of jumping in the water, and it was October, and it was mighty cold, that much I can tell you. Just checking, you can swim, right?

JLM: I can swim. I was down there by myself, no life jacket, no anything. I had to tread a lot of water while the DP was framing his shot. We did save that for the last day of the shoot. I figured that if something happens, we have at least 99% of the movie shot. You had a lot of anecdotes in there. You had the Rabbit anecdote, which brought up the subject of Bobby G. not being able to swim.

JLM: The rabbit anecdote… I don’t know how I came up with that scene. I think it came out of an Anne Landers column I read as a kid that rabbits can swim. It was one of those things where the readers would write back saying ‘no a rabbit can’t swim, cause I had a rabbit once…’ It just stuck in my head because it was so bizarre. The bowling ball story is a true story. It actually happened to a friend of mine, who was a drug dealer. The guy sold him a bowling ball for some goodies. For the most part things just kind of come to you for some reason.

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