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KC native steers ‘Rudderless’ to Sundance

Updated: 2014-01-23T20:22:02Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

There’s a hurry-up-and-wait aspect to the movie industry that trumps all other arts.

Just ask Casey Twenter. In 2008, the Kansas City native wrote and actively began shopping a debut screenplay called “Rudderless.”

His picture premieres this weekend as the closing night feature at the Sundance Film Festival.

Worth the wait? Just take a look at the talent Twenter was able to recruit during those six years from page to screen.

The film is directed by William H. Macy, the Oscar-nominated “Fargo” actor. It stars Billy Crudup, Selena Gomez, Anton Yelchin, Laurence Fishburne and Macy’s Emmy-winning wife, Felicity Huffman, who was an Oscar nominee for her performance in “Transamerica.”

In “Rudderless,” Crudup (“Watchmen,” “Almost Famous”) portrays a grieving father who comes across a box of demo tapes by his dead son. Stunned at the musical talent on display, he forms a band with younger musicians to perform the songs.

“It is a musical drama in the vein of ‘Crazy Heart,’” Twenter says. “It’s got a lot of humor in it. We were going for something very real. There’s a tragedy in the film, but like life, not everything is one tone.”

Twenter graduated from Bishop Miege in 1990, then attended Johnson County Community College for two years before transferring to the University of Central Oklahoma. He lives in Oklahoma City, where he and creative partner Jeff Robison also wrote and directed last year’s indie thriller “The Jogger.”

The 41-year-old filmmaker answered some questions about the making of “Rudderless” before heading to Park City, Utah, to enjoy the festival.

Q. The word “Sundance” carries a lot of weight and expectations. What do you hope to get out of screening the movie there?

A. Being a movie fanatic for so long, I don’t think there’s a better place in the United States to launch a film. Like any independent film, we want to sell it. Traditionally, Sundance has been a good place for that.

How did William H. Macy get involved?

I wish it were a sexy story, like I threw the script over a fence and he saw it jogging. But the reality is when Jeff and I wrote it, we felt like we could make it ourselves with a couple musician friends. But once we started on our path, we got really good response from the script. So we were emboldened.

I read an article that Bill wanted to direct. So I called his agent — and you never, ever get the agent on the phone. Ever. But I called to give the pitch to the assistant, and Bill’s agent accidentally answered the phone. So I went straight into my pitch. I didn’t stop talking until my breath ran out.

He said, ‘Let me read it.’ I think that was in March of 2008. On April 1, I got an email from a nondescript address saying, “Hey, this is Bill Macy. And if you are serious, I would like to direct your script.” We thought it might be an April Fool’s joke!

How would you describe working with Macy?

He’s fantastic. He took on a very mentor-ish role for Jeff and I. He’s a perfectionist — in a good way. He doesn’t settle. He likes to take a beat and think about things. He’s confident in his opinion, but he doesn’t lord that over you. … He treated us as peers. Twenty-four hours after meeting him, we’re having dinner at his house with Felicity and the kids.

The cast you assembled is really strong. Who impressed you the most?

They were all great. But Billy has a very tough role to play. He had to sink himself into a dark hole for the 30 or so days we shot. He’s a dad, so I can only imagine what he had to draw on for the idea of losing a son.

Songs are a big part of the movie. Do you have a background in music?

I don’t, but I had a lot of friends in KC who were musicians. Part of how the story was born was thinking about if one of them had been struck down a little earlier before people had a chance to hear their music. But I can’t hold a tune and can’t play a lick. I’m more of a crazy audiophile.

What was the biggest eye-opener about directing?

In writing, you’re able to flip back and forth, and you can kind of dance around things. You can put something on the page as a place holder and go back to it. In directing, you have to make a lot of gut decisions in the moment with the information you have.

Six years after you wrote it, “Rudderless” is finally playing in a theater. What are you working on for the year 2020?

We’ve got three scripts right now in various levels of being finished. Two of them are in the tone of “Rudderless,” and one is a broader comedy. But with the way film works, we’ll probably end up writing something else and those three will never see the light of day.

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