“Making a bold choice that isn’t exactly the norm helps an actor stand out…” – Director James Cullen Bressack on Auditions and Self-Tapes
Director James Cullen Bressack‘s new action thriller, Fortress, is – from start to finish – a really fun ride. The film, which stars Bruce Willis and Chad Michael Murray as an ex-CIA agent and his son who are trapped in a secret compound under attack by a vengeful cyber-thief (Jesse Metcalfe), is available now on all streaming platforms like Amazon.
Bressack, who seemingly works non-stop took time out of his schedule to talk with me about the film, working with Bruce Willis, how he works with actors and what he thinks makes a great self-tape. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
The scene towards the end of the movie with Chad and Jesse at the table. That was fun to watch. It was just so very tense and it’s like the payoff that I wanted to see at that point in the film, you know?
James Cullen Bressack: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I thought they really go mano-a mano there. They did a great job, and it was great. And you know, it was obviously like a lot of dialogue. So I definitely commend both of them for getting through that. But they both gave a great performance in that scene and it was a super intense.
When you direct a scene like that, do you just let them go for it and then come back and give notes? What kind of a director are you with actors?
James Cullen Bressack: I imagine every character is like a blank canvas. And so, what I do is I’ll take my ideas about the character, the actor will take their ideas about the character, and we throw them at the canvas and whatever works for both of us, we use to paint the picture of who this person is.
So, we’ll create a backstory, all this stuff that’s beyond the script together. We agree on that stuff and we start to talk about the motivation. Then I let the actor run wild in that world that we’ve created together. And then from there, I’ll shape what they do, if that makes sense. So, you know, I talked to them and it in broad strokes and then I shape it.
In that scene, we talked about where we wanted it to start and where we wanted it to end, like emotionally. And then we talked about the beats we wanted to hit, but I let them take liberties of kind of where.
And then as we went through takes, I massaged it a bit. Like, “Well maybe we move that up a little bit more to here. What if you take your turn here, cause you’re starting to manipulate him.” It’s like a chess match. So it’s like, “you’re manipulating him a little early. Let’s see if it lands right there.” It’s a lot of that.
I’m a firm believer that a good director doesn’t have to have all the best ideas, they just have to recognize good ones. And so a lot of the times, yes, I come up with my ideas, but a lot of the times you have these brilliant people that you’re working with and so you kind of just shape what they’re doing towards the overall vision.
Where do you guys shoot this? Because the locations are perfect. It adds so much to the film.
James Cullen Bressack: Yeah, the locations give so much production value. We shot this in Puerto Rico.
Being on location, somewhere like that setting, just adds so much to a performance.
James Cullen Bressack: Oh, yeah. I’m, I’m a firm believer. It’s one of those things, like it’s where you can escape you the norm of what you’ve already done. You know what I mean? Once you’re in that world, it’s easy to stay that because this is the person you are in this place, you know? That makes a lot of sense.
Another thing is when I’m working with actors, I like talking in general understandings of what I want their wardrobe to be. I’ll send reference pictures and stuff but then when they have a fitting, I like them to have multiple options of like a bunch of different stuff and then they get to kind of choose what they want to wear. Because I’m a firm believer that that’s the first thing they do to get into their character. They put on those clothes in their trailer. So they put on the clothes and that’s like part of their ritual of becoming the person. So, I like to let them choose because I’m not going to tell them what to wear in real life. So, if this is how you see your character and what he would wear, I like them to kind of go from that. As long as they don’t go like crazy and they’re wearing like a clown costume, I kind of let them run wild with it.
You’ve worked with Bruce Wallace a couple of times now.
James Cullen Bressack: This is our second movie together.
The first time you guys worked together, were you the least bit intimidated. I mean, he’s like Bruce Willis.
James Cullen Bressack: It’s weird. I’ve worked with like a lot of big actors. I mean, Bruce is awesome and he’s amazing and it was a blessing to work with him. But I’ve worked with Mel Gibson and all these different people, and what I’ve learned is: just treat everybody like a person.
We’re working on the movie together, so I don’t approach people nervously. I mean, I might internalize that, but when I first saw Bruce, I was like, “Hey Bruce, what’s up?” I gave him a high five and I was like, “Hey, so I wanted to talk about…” The same way I would talk to Mel. People relate to people and if you’re coming up to an actor nervously, they’re gonna start to be like, “Oh, crap. Why is he nervous?” I don’t think they think, in their minds they’re like, “Oh, he’s nervous talking to me.” They’re like, “Why is he nervous? Is everything not ready for this movie?”
I have the utmost respect for Bruce as an individual and as a performer. I think he’s been in some of the most iconic roles we’ve ever seen. But any type of nerves I had to 100% internalize.
But there’s that moment where he’s first on camera and it happens anytime I work with any big actor or any actor I grew up watching in general, they don’t even have to be famous… where I see them on camera and that’s when it like clicks. When I’m shooting a scene and I’m like, “Holy s—, that’s Bruce Willis.”
It seems like you are incredibly prolific. How do you choose what you’re going to work on?
James Cullen Bressack: I love to work. I love to stay busy, but I mostly like relating to stories. It’s like a four-fold thing if that makes sense. And it’s going to sound weird, but one, I love complex bad guys. So, if you’ve got a villain, especially one that doesn’t believe that they’re the bad guy, that’s going to definitely attract me to like the movie.
Another thing that really attracts me is just if I’m reading the script and this might sound a little crazy, but if I’m reading the script and I start seeing the shots and I go, “Well, how would I shoot that?” That makes me go, “Well then I want to make the movie.” If I don’t start trying to figure out how I’m going to shoot it, it means like my mind doesn’t want to shoot that movie.
Another thing is that I like stuff that has complicated dynamics with parents. I think that’s something I can relate to. I lost my father recently and that’s what I’ve been connecting with.
And then there’s weird things about certain movies that just trigger things. With this, when I started reading it, I just started going, “Ooh my God, I can do Jurassic Park. I could make the whole world look like Jurassic Park above ground.” So I got really excited about that. And if you notice, actually the first scene I had Bruce dressed up a little bit like Sam Neill from Jurassic Park, with the hat and stuff. So that started to excite me.
But the other thing is that I like complex heroes that are people that are falling apart while trying to put themselves back together in the best way possible. When I see broken heroes that are trying to just piece together their lives and doing the best they can, that’s when I really start to connect with it, because I feel like the best stories come from that human flaw.
You have parts in most of the things you direct. How do you like acting?
James Cullen Bressack: I’m totally not an actor. I’ve made a lot of jokes about it but when people ask for my director’s cut, a lot of the time I’ll say, “The first thing I do is I cut the director out.” I just kind of find it funny, kind of that Hitchcock type thing of putting myself in a one-line role. But then every time I see it, I’m like, “Ah, man.” I kind of enjoy it but it’s like one of those embarrassing, but also silly things.
What I would really love to be able to do is in my movies, in every scene be the guy with the hotdog cart, you know what I mean? There’s like a foot chase and they’re like, “Which way did he go?” And I just point to the side, don’t say anything, just chilling at my hot dog cart while they’re like chasing after a guy. If I had that in every movie, that’d be great.
When you’re casting a film, I imagine you watch a ton of self-taped auditions.
James Cullen Bressack: I don’t necessarily believe in the audition process. A lot of people do and maybe I’m crazy. I call my casting more like a head-hunting casting because what I do is I’ll just watch a ton of movies and TV shows leading up to it, like indie films, all this different stuff. And then I start to go, ‘I like this person from this movie. I like this person from it.’ I start to make a list of all the people that I liked and stuff that I just watched, that reminds me of kind of the tone that I’m going for.
And it doesn’t even have to be the same genre. It’s the tone. I might watch some obscure art house film that might have a similar tone. I start to pull different stuff and then I start to try and get in contact with those actors.
That’s a great way to do it.
James Cullen Bressack: I like doing it like that. And I’m not talking about names, I’m talking about literally the whole cast. I like doing that just because I’ve had too many experiences where people were fantastic in the room but weren’t great on set. They might be really good at that one thing they prepared for an entire week, but it doesn’t change, right?
Or I’ve had people that weren’t that great in the room because maybe they didn’t have the time to prepare or whatever, but they ended up being really great on set. Or if there might’ve been nerves that were in the room that wouldn’t exist on set. It’s one of those things where I’d rather just see somebody’s performance outside of it and go, “I could shape it this way. I can do that.”
I don’t necessarily look at somebody and go, “This guy played a villain, so he’d be a great villain for me.” I cast Tom Green as a therapist in a movie. I kind of just go off of what I think might be good in general.
That’s not to say that I don’t do taped auditions or because we need to, but my favorite way to cast is how I’m talking about.
The few that you do watch, what makes them stand out that you want to bring them in?
James Cullen Bressack: I think a lot of the time actors think that what you’re looking for is… they want to perform it the exact way that I imagined it. And that’s not necessarily true.
I’d rather somebody make like a bold choice that’s really good and it might not be what I thought. It might be completely opposite of how I thought it was, but then see if I could shape them from what they did to what I want and how long that would take. Like, can they turn on a dime and go from this to the new one?
I like seeing something that stands out because the thing is, if I’m looking at a ton of self-tapes and it’s like this character is supposed to be really angry in this scene, you’re going to get maybe 200 self-tapes of somebody yelling at somebody, you know? If somebody does something that’s the opposite and they pull into themselves and they keep it more of an internal anger and they’re more seething, then that stands out. I’ve seen everybody else do it one way, this guy did it this way. Let’s see what else this person can do. So, I think sometimes making a bold choice that isn’t exactly the norm helps an actor stand out in that respect.