One of the perks of this gig is that I get to see wonderful films that I may otherwise have missed because they didn’t get the same publicity a Hollywood film would get. SEMPER FI, written by Henry-Alex Rubin (MURDERBALL) and Sean Mullin (SAM AND AMIRA), is one such film. Coming out today in select theaters, and on demand and digital, it impresses me with its appealing story and powerful performances. After seeing it, I couldn’t wait to chat with Henry-Alex Rubin, who also directed the film, and two of the main actors, Jai Courtney (DIVERGENT, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) and Nat Wolff (PALO ALTO, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS).
Henry: “This was a movie that was not so much about war and fighting and all that stuff that you’re used to seeing in action movies. This was a movie much more about the love and brotherhood and loyalty between this group of men that grew up together. To me, the definition of true loyalty is someone who will back you up regardless of their own self-interests. That’s what this movie is about. It’s also about the struggle to stay loyal. It was an attempt to fuse my favorite filmmakers, which are those people like Ken Loach (I, DANIEL BLAKE) and John Cassavetes (GLORIA), who are real humanists and realists, with a plot that has enough edges of an action film. What you get, I hope, is something closer to a 70’s movie than a movie from today where everything is super polished and super crisp.
[While the film takes place in upstate New York] “the bulk of acting bits were shot down in New Orleans because it was cheaper, and [the cast] really did use and abuse the New Orleans bars.”
Jai: “That’s a town where a lot of shenanigans can be had, and you got 5 guys that are all kind of a little rambunctious at heart and like havin’ a good time. We certainly had a good time, I’ll put it that way.” (After a short pause,) “Nah, we were cool. Everyone’s very professional, well-behaved, and obviously on set we’ve all got a job to do.
“The way Henry shot was quite documentary in style. He would roll on takes and do things on a series quite often. Dave Devlin, our cinematographer, shot with a lot of zoom lenses and stuff, so you never really knew where the drama was being picked up. Sometimes on film or TV things can feel a little structural. It can be a bit like my side, your side, stand on your mark, say-the-line kind of shit, and this really wasn’t about that at all. It all felt very immediate, so I guess [we were] just sort of kept on our toes by that, and I found that a really interesting and great challenge.”
Nat Wolff echoed Jai’s appreciation of Henry’s directorial style.
Nat: “Working with Henry, who is not worried about “oh, you’re stepping into another actor’s light or you’re stepping on their line,” is really liberating as an actor. He’s just about the truth in a way. It was almost like the freedom was the most I’ve ever had. I think every actor delivered one of their best performances in this film. I think some directors think that the way to be a great director is to control everything. Most of the great directors I’ve worked with are great facilitators of other people’s talent.”
Regarding the characters, both Nat and Jai got to develop additional skills through playing Oyster and Callahan, respectively.
Nat: “Oyster is probably the most expressive character I’ve ever played. A lot of preparing for Oyster was unlocking a shadow-side of myself that needs a lot of attention and is very boisterous and loud and takes up a lot of energy in a room. A part like this was drawing parts that were kind of unattractive inside me out. [It] was very cathartic.”
Jai: “I think I got a chance to explore that more contained sense of drama [in my role]. I mean, there’s a lot just going on behind the eyes with these guys. Part of what intrigued me so much about [this role is] trying to explore that relationship [with Oyster] on screen ‘cause it was one I genuinely, really understand. My best friends in the world are guys I’ve known for 20 years plus, and for those guys I’d do anything. I mean it.
“For me, it was really about these relationships. We had to establish a lot of connective tissue between them in a really short amount of time. Buying that relationship and that connection and that love between them was essential to really believing what’s at stake in the story. There was a plan in place originally to have like a month together, do some boot camp kind of vibe stuff, really put us through our paces, and get our training with the intention that through that period there, we’d build a lot of trust and a love for each other.
“The way the cards fell through scheduling and budget restraints meant that we met on a Saturday and rolled cameras on a Tuesday. We were pretty restricted in the time we had but fortunately, we were able to break the ice really quickly and grew like a genuine love for each other in a really short space of time. We met on that Saturday. We went out and had a few drinks. We knew from that moment that it was going to be a great time shooting, and that hopefully we could sell that relationship between them quite authentically ‘cause it already felt real to us.”
The film relied on the expertise of Sean Mullin, a former Army Captain, and Rudy Reyes, a somewhat famous Marine who starred in HBO’s mini-series, Generation Kill.
Henry: “I sought Sean out because he was in the grad screenwriting program at Columbia where I’d gone to school for film [as an] undergrad. [I wanted] to collaborate with someone who came from that world so I’d get the language and the tone just right. Rudy’s the real deal, and he helped us oversee the whole thing. He’s one of the more beloved Marines that was really helpful and wonderful to get the language.”
SEMPER FI is not your typical action film with your typical characters, rather they’re real people who react in real ways to the sometimes unreal situations in which they find themselves. I love so much about this film that I recommend giving it a chance, especially if you’re looking to avoid the masses of people flocking to see JOKER this weekend.
Nat Wolff as Oyster and Jai Courtney as Callahan in the thriller / drama, “SEMPER FI,” a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
aka Barbara Kennedy