Alex Russell

Deep Focus

Michael Doneger


With Game 1 of the World Series set to kick off later tonight, we thought it was a great time to take a look at the new baseball movie “Brampton’s Own,” which is available now on Digital HD. Next up to the plate, we’re talking with writer, director and producer Michael Doneger, who originally wrote the part of Dustin, a minor league baseball player who returns to his hometown after leaving years before to chase his dreams, for himself. The film, which explores those things we sacrifice for our personal goals, stars Alex Russell, Rose McIver, Spencer Grammer, Scott Porter, Jean Smart and Riley Voelkel.

We recently sat down with Doneger to discuss combining grand ambitions with limited resources, the reason he never thinks a project isn’t possible, and why the theme of the film is eerily similar to his own journey.

TrunkSpace: You wore multiple hats in bringing “Brampton’s Own” to life. When it comes to blood, sweat and tears, just how much did you put in order to make the film – your vision – a reality? Where did Your Dreams Road and Compromise Street intersect?
Doneger: In my experiences, compromising is inherently built into the filmmaking process. However I don’t look at compromising as necessarily abandoning your vision, but instead having to find a backup solution to ultimately getting where you want to go. For instance, our story required many locations and a lot of wardrobe changes. Typically film budgets similar to what we were working with try to minimize the number of locations and wardrobe changes, but to me, that would’ve limited the scope of the world I was trying to build. I didn’t want it to feel like an indie film. I just wanted it to feel like a film. So the compromise there was that we were going to have less time and fewer days to film, which meant actors would get fewer takes than what they’re used to, and our production departments would have to work at an accelerated speed to keep up. But we knew going into it that we were combining grand ambitions with limited resources, so we planned for that far in advance, and hired a cast and crew that was game for the type of pace we were asking for. Having said all that, it’s rare for everything to go without a hiccup and the final product turn out exactly how you envisioned. We experienced quite a few hiccups, but overall the film mirrored the vision I had for it as much as I could’ve reasonably expected. That’s not to say there aren’t scenes or moments I’d like to take a second crack at, or more time I’d like to get in the editing bay to nip and tuck a couple of things. But to expect it to ever be perfect is unrealistic. “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” said the wise Leonardo da Vinci.

TrunkSpace: Because of the various responsibilities you had throughout the course of the film, did Producer Michael and Director Michael, or Director Michael and Writer Michael, ever butt heads? Did you have to find a balance between what you creatively wanted to put on film and what budget and time would allow?
Doneger: I’ve never been hired to write and direct a movie that I wasn’t producing, so quite frankly I don’t know any other way. I’m sure there are benefits to having fewer responsibilities and not being tasked with overseeing creative and business decisions, but there are also benefits of the buck stopping with you and not being able to point a finger at someone else. My producing partner Mark DiCristofaro does an excellent job of running production and making sure I have everything I would reasonably need to make our day. And again, a lot of that starts in the pre-production phase. I shot listed the film months in advance, so Mark and I were on the same page early on in terms of gathering the necessary film gear and lighting equipment for each scene. For example, my original shot list asked for seven days of a Steadicam operator, but Mark told me early on that we could only afford three days, so given that information, I adjusted and made shot list concessions where I could.

TrunkSpace: It’s always a long road to travel in order to get an independent film to that first day of shooting. At what point in the process did you know that it was going to become a reality and was it smooth sailing after that point?
Doneger: Smooth sailing? That’s a thing? Huh… I’ll have to look into that. (Laughter) In terms of coming to the realization that the film is going to become a reality: I never for one second think it’s not going to happen. Even in the writing stages, I’m never thinking about “if” it happens, but rather “when”. And I believe that as a filmmaker – you need a certain amount of naiveté to thrust yourself into this crazy business in the first place. The industry is volatile on every level, whether you’re on the creative side or business side. So if you’re too practical and calculate the odds, the numbers will tell you that you’re crazy to take the risk of going out and making a movie. So my mindset from the beginning of every project I work on is when we’re going to make this movie not if. But of course you can’t make a movie just because you want to do it. There are lots of factors that rest outside your control. But your mindset is the one thing you can control. And it all starts there.

TrunkSpace: Sacrificing a more traditional life path in order to chase a dream. For your protagonist Dustin, that’s baseball. Did you feel a kinship with the character when writing? Could you relate to those sacrifices based on your own pursuit with film?
Doneger: Absolutely. I conceived the project based on my own journey of navigating the ups and downs of trying to make it as a filmmaker. Dustin’s not a direct replica of me. I don’t have estranged relationships with my childhood friends or ex-girlfriends or family members. But for Dustin, I wanted to give him as many obstacles as I could when he returned home. And those obstacles were these relationships in which he did a terrible job of maintaining while he was off chasing his dream. The plot points of the movie aren’t similar to my life, but the themes revolving around the price one pays to chase a dream are eerily similar.

TrunkSpace: You originally wrote the script with the intention of playing Dustin. What made you step back later in the process and cast Alex Russell in the role?
Doneger: Oh, wow. You’ve done your research. You’re right, I had originally intended to play Dustin, but by the time we got closer to putting the production elements together, I cared less about owning the character of Dustin from an actor’s point of view and cared more about owning the film as its director. Acting and directing are two diverging skill sets. As an actor, your job is to solely focus on your character, your intentions, your choices. As a director, your job is to know every little detail that goes into painting the entire picture. That means being in non-stop communication with every department head. So naturally, that would distract an actor from solely focusing on his or her performance. Ultimately I feared that if I did both on such a limited 15-day shooting schedule, that my performance wouldn’t have been as good as it should’ve been, nor would the film have fulfilled the vision I had for it. And I’m so glad I made that decision because Alex is tremendous in the film as Dustin and an extraordinary person. He’s so detail oriented and every choice he made came from a place of reason, which made it very easy for us to communicate and collaborate.

TrunkSpace: When hiring someone to play a character that was originally intended to be inhabited by you, do you then look for elements of yourself in your actor, in this case Alex? (We realize this question is very meta, but it’s fascinating… the idea that you’re looking for something in a performer that you originally saw in yourself.)
Doneger: I never looked for Alex to tackle a scene or make a choice comparatively to how I would’ve played it. Each actor has their own strengths and weaknesses and it’s my job to help extract and support those for whatever the scene calls for. I believe that most of directing an actor is done in casting. You know right away upon meeting an actor whether they’re right or not to play a role – at least in my experiences. And within five minutes of meeting Alex I knew he was going to be perfect for Dustin. Then the more familiar we got with each other the more we trusted one another. The director/actor relationship is all about trust.

TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of when it comes to “Brampton’s Own?”
Doneger: I’m proud that from start to finish, it’s a production that by all accounts, our cast and crew had an overwhelmingly positive experience on. Mark DiCristofaro and I value how enjoyable it is to work alongside an actor and crew member, just as much as we value their talent. That working environment matters. Chemistry behind the scenes is just as important as chemistry on the screen.

TrunkSpace: Did you have to change plans at all mid-production because of time and budget headaches, only to then take a different creative approach and end up with a gem that you never intended to have in the film?
Doneger: You always have to be on your toes and know to expect unforeseen obstacles. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every scene calls for a pivot and change of approach in one way or another. You never get exactly what you want. But to answer your question, nothing big or extraordinary stands out.

TrunkSpace: You once wrote and produced a project that featured Bruce Campbell. Couldn’t you have just retired then and been a happy man? There are 100,000 future filmmakers sitting at home right now watching “Evil Dead 2” as we speak!
Doneger: What a great experience that was working with Bruce. We were so lucky to get him. We’re at the same agency and I have to thank his agent Barry McPherson for really making that happen and putting the project in front of Bruce. I hope to one day find another opportunity to work with him.

TrunkSpace: What we love about a movie like “Brampton’s Own” is that it is original. It isn’t “Based On The…” or a “Sequel To…” or a “Remake Of…” It’s just a great original story, which seems to becoming more and more of a rarity in the world of film. How important is independent filmmaking these days to giving audiences more than super heroes and super franchises?
Doneger: The bright side is that there are various outlets, platforms and mediums for different types of stories these days. Sure, the theatrical experience is mostly inundated with superheroes, sequels and pre-existing IP, but the streaming services, cable and networks are home to a lot of great character-driven storytelling. I’ll admit, I really do miss the mid-budget range studio drama that now rarely gets made. The studio comedy is also slowly becoming extinct. But a lot of those stories are being told, just not as a movie, but either a streaming or miniseries. However sometimes I don’t want to watch a 10-episode season of a show to get my character-driven dramatic or comedic fix. Sometimes I want to see those stories told from beginning to end within two hours. And that’s what independent film has to offer.

TrunkSpace: If someone came to you tomorrow and said, “Michael, here is a blank check. Go out and develop any project that you want for yourself.” What would you greenlight and why?
Doneger: Wow, what a question. I don’t have a dream project that comes to mind. I’m so focused on my next step, the next script, the next film, that I haven’t really taken a bird’s eye view look at my career and the specific projects I want to tackle past the ones I’m currently working on. But my goal is to continue to build projects that are bigger in budget and scope than the previous ones while still making the stories feel intimate by nature of putting character development at the forefront of any story I tell. But I guess if someone would like to give me a blank check to make a movie around the theme of love disguised as a 200 million dollar outer space spectacle, then I’m not gonna fight ya… oh, wait. Christopher Nolan already did that.

Brampton’s Own” is available now on Digital HD, including iTunes.

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The Featured Presentation

Alex Russell

Photo By: George Byrne

With Game 1 of the World Series set to kick off later tonight, we thought it was a great time to take a look at the new baseball movie “Brampton’s Own,” which is available now on Digital HD. First up, we’re talking with star Alex Russell, who plays Dustin, a minor league baseball player who returns to his hometown after leaving years before to chase his dreams. The film, which is written and directed by Michael Doneger, also stars Rose McIver, Spencer Grammer, Scott Porter, Jean Smart and Riley Voelkel.

We recently sat down with Russell to discuss the risk/reward of working in independent cinema, striking a balance with your goals, and why his time on the CBS series “S.W.A.T.” is unlike anything he has experienced in his career thus far.

TrunkSpace: “Brampton’s Own” is not the first independent project you’ve worked on. As an actor, is there a bit of a leap of faith involved with signing on to work on an indie, not knowing when (or even if) a particular film will see the light of day?
Russell: I think you always have to go off your gut instinct and your response to material. If I come across great material and a great role and sign on to it and the film turns out great but never sees the light of day, to me, it’s a risk worth taking. I’m less concerned with whether it’ll have eyes on it and more concerned about the quality. And the quality of Michael’s script was through the roof, truly.

TrunkSpace: What was it about “Brampton’s Own” and the team behind it, particularly Michael Doneger, that gave you the confidence to jump into the work and take on the character Dustin?
Russell: As I partially touched on in the previous question, the script was truly wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I went on that old, ideal “roller coaster of emotions” every writer hopes to send you on. When I met with Michael shortly thereafter, it sealed the deal. I knew, first from his script and then from how he spoke about the story, that he knew exactly what he was doing.

TrunkSpace: Dustin sacrifices a lot in the pursuit of his dream to be a professional baseball player. Did you discover parallels in his passion for baseball and your own for acting that helped you to understand and connect with his journey and who he is as a person?
Russell: I’m a big family man and have a very strong relationship with my hometown and the friends and family I have there so I’ve never lost touch as a result of my work the way Dustin has. However, I think most people in the pursuit of something great can lose perspective and begin to place waaaaaaaaaayyy too much importance on their goals. Goals are great, don’t get me wrong, but nothing is worth missing out on life. Balance can be a hard thing to strike. This movie offers a very healthy perspective for highly motivated and work-focused people. Not placing all your happiness in the hands of one result or outcome, I think this is key. That theme is a major one in this film and it’s one I’ve had to become familiar with over the years in order to live a happier, healthier life.

TrunkSpace: When you’re working on a film where your director is also the writer, does that become an extra tool in your toolbox? If you have a question, does it help lead to a better understanding of where your character is coming from and ultimately where he is headed?
Russell: Absolutely. It’s great having two important roles living on inside the one person. Questions about a scene that would be geared towards a director can often go hand in hand with questions about a line. Michael was always there, wearing both hats at once.

TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with your work in “Brampton’s Own?”
Russell: This is tricky. Ummm… I don’t know, I don’t think I have a favorite scene of mine.

Actually, I’m really happy with my work in the scene when I’m asking my sister for a job. There was a Newton’s Cradle on the desk and I kept clicking the balls back and forth to annoy her – I don’t believe this was scripted – and I found it funny when it was kept in the scene.

TrunkSpace: What we love about a movie like “Brampton’s Own” is that it is original. It isn’t “Based On The…” or a “Sequel To…” or a “Remake Of…” It’s just a great original story, which seems to becoming more and more of a rarity in the world of film. How important is independent filmmaking these days to giving audiences more than super heroes and super franchises?
Russell: I think it’s massively important. It’s important as a vehicle for new filmmakers and creatives with new ideas to come through and up in the ranks, keeping the industry fresh and on its toes. I also think it’s important for studios to keep making “mid-level” studio movies. We’re at a point where it’s million dollar indies or the next 200 million dollar franchise installment – both of which I love – but almost never the in between movie; the 30/40/50 million dollar film with, yes, great action, set pieces and A-listers, but where the STORY is the star. It’s tricky because these days, it’s hard to get people to go and watch that movie. They wanna take their kids to see the blockbuster. I think something’s gotta give. The whole thing is cyclical and I feel we’ll have a demand for this kind of movie again before too long.

TrunkSpace: You’re currently in your second season of “S.W.A.T.” for CBS. (Props to David Lim who also stopped by recently!) From what we could tell, portraying Jim Street is the longest you have ever spent with one character thus far in your career. What has that long-term character journey been like – knowing who he is, but at the same time, still learning as new scripts arrive week after week?
Russell: It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I have to say, it’s awesome! I love Street. He’s my buddy now and I feel I can rely on him week after week to take me on a fun, new adventure. I love learning more about him and myself as the show moves forward.

TrunkSpace: Does working on a show the size and scope of “S.W.A.T.” take some getting used to, both in terms of the workload and the attention that it can bring?
Russell: I suppose the longevity of focus and hard work is new for me. I’m used to movie schedules where you bust your ass for a few months or a few weeks and then you’re done. I must be getting more used to it now though. This year is flying by compared to last year.

Russell with the cast of “S.W.A.T.”

TrunkSpace: What we love about your career is that you are still very involved in the Australian film industry as well. As your profile continues to rise and you achieve more success within the industry as a whole, does it become easier or more difficult to pursue various avenues? Is there more freedom in success, but less time to enjoy it?
Russell: I think the more successful an Australian actor becomes in the US, the more avenues there are to pursue back home and even elsewhere. The network shooting schedule can make it tricky but not impossible. I’m grateful for the Aussie roles that my American career has helped afford me. I love being a part of stories on both sides of the pond. It’s like having my cake and eating it too. And I love cake.

TrunkSpace: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
Russell: I think no. I like not knowing what’s ahead. Part of the fun is taking the ride and enjoying the twists and turns. The unknown, the potential of what could be. This excites me. I think getting a glimpse of the future would kind’ve be like a spoiled surprise. And I love surprises.

Brampton’s Own” is available now on Digital HD, including iTunes.

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