There are no rainbow-hued sunrise shots from Signal Hill or swooping vistas of historic lighthouses atop craggy cliffs in the new Newfoundland-shot feature film Crown and Anchor, and that’s just the way its creators like it.
Instead, it offers darkened downtown alleyways, prefab homes with second-hand furniture and characters you’d probably not want to meet on George Street after midnight, in a sharp-edged tale of two warring cousins caught up in a battle that began even before they were born.
This is a vision of St. John’s that feels more familiar to lifelong friends Matt Wells and Michael Rowe, who spent many late nights among sketchy characters when they were members of the punk band Bucket Truck, and leaned on personal history to expand their cinematic tale of family and felony co-written with their director, Rowe’s brother Andrew.
When Bucket Truck called it a day, Wells continued down his path as an on-air personality at MuchMusic and MuchMore, while his former bandmate began an acting career that led to his recurring role as Deadshot in the DC Comics TV universe on The Flash and Arrow. But the friendship remained firmly in place, and together they began crafting a story based on the struggles of people they’d known their whole lives.
“It’s the old cliche, ‘Write what you know,’” says Wells over the phone from Toronto before flying east for Crown and Anchor’s premiere screenings on Friday night at Cineplex Park Lane Theatres. “I’ve even heard Martin Scorsese say it, and I wanted to write a story about inter-generational cycles of addiction and violence because I’d seen that in my own family.
“My grandfather was an infamous drinker in St. John’s, and he used to run with some bad dudes. And he used to binge drink, so when he wasn’t drinking he was a very nice and loved man, but the alcohol got him. And who knows what happened before him, but that set off a cycle that went through my uncles and into my cousins, and my mom broke that cycle for me and my sister, but some of her brothers weren’t able to do that.”
Now starting a one-week run at Park Lane, Crown and Anchor shows us a kind of Cain and Abel relationship between two people from the same family background who wind up living different lives, while still coping with some of the same issues. Michael Rowe plays James, a former Newfoundland cop who moved to Toronto, but brought his internalized anger with him. Meanwhile his cousin Danny, played by Wells, is a coke addict trying to keep a family together while his life outside the home spirals out of control.
Andrew Rowe shaped the story further, as the funeral of James’ mother (and Danny’s aunt) brings the two into each other’s orbit for the first time in years, and the old scores they have to settle get tangled up with Danny’s ongoing dilemma in paying off his debt to a local druglord.
Wells credits a lot of the film’s gritty style to the director, who brings a love of film noir and '70s urban crime dramas like Mean Streets and Serpico to their Rock-bound tale, and gives it a rocket boost with a pounding soundtrack of U.K. punk and U.S. hardcore.
“We love those sort of character-driven dramas, where you can take two hours to tell a story,” he says. “We were told you have to keep it to 90 minutes, and you've gotta have some stars in it, and everything has to be wrapped up with a little bow or it'll be too hard to sell.
“But we didn’t want to make a movie like that, and we trusted Andrew's vision, both what he did with the script and what he brings to it as a director. We wanted to go back to those independent films of the ’70s, and even the early ’90s where there was a resurgence of those kinds of stories, and we wanted to make it in St. John's.”
In the ’90s, Bucket Truck was inspired to a great degree by the city’s vibrant arts community, members of which now contribute to Wells’ and the Rowes’ film. Crown and Anchor fits in neatly with a new wave of unflinching Newfoundland-based titles stretching from Lois Brown’s 2001 crime drama The Bingo Robbers to Justin Simms’ hard-hitting Down to the Dirt and Away From Everywhere.
“Without St. John’s, this film wouldn’t connect with people the way that it has,” says Wells, who reveals most of the characters have real-life counterparts, in one way or another, and they couldn’t really exist in any other environment. “We all lived in downtown St. John’s, and we knew the darker corners of it and the back alleys, and we knew that a movie like this could work there.
“But aside from the creative aspect of it, we just wanted to make a film at home, and there’s such a thriving community there now and such amazing talent in terms of crew, we wanted to be part of that.”
Wells says making Crown and Anchor wouldn’t have been possible without the current level of skill in the Newfoundland film industry, thanks to the long-term influence of the Newfoundland Independent Film Co-op and recent productions ranging from CBC-TV’s Republic of Doyle to the acclaimed feature film Maudie, and the bevy of short and feature films appearing at this week's FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival.
Being able to shoot quickly and efficiently allowed Wells and the Rowes to film their feature in 15 days, helped in large part by having veteran cast members like Robert Joy, Stephen McHattie and CODCO co-founder Andy Jones who had their characters down and delivered the goods with every take.
“Those guys are legends,” says Wells, still pinching himself over getting to work with some of his favourite actors. “But Andy Jones, he’s a reluctant artist. He was the guy we had to sell the hardest to be in this film because he didn’t think he could do it, he didn't think he could play a cop like that.
“He said yes, and then no, and we worked through the process, and eventually he did it and was great, of course. But then I heard other people tell me things like, ‘Oh, Andy was like that on Rare Birds, he didn’t want to do it and we had to convince him.’
“Obviously his body of work speaks for itself, but he’s a true artist in everything he’s done, and that's why he's willing to say no to something if he doesn’t think he can do it, but once he digs in he’s the most committed of anyone to their character.”
For their own parts, Wells says he and Michael had an advantage, having worked on the story themselves and trusting director/co-writer Andrew, who has also known Wells since childhood.
One example of where their relationship came into play took place while filming a major confrontation between Danny and James. A pivotal scene in the movie, it wouldn't have worked if that long-ingrained relationship hadn't been in place, as their performances went beyond what either considered regular acting.
“We’d been feeling this emotional pressure between the two of us, we just couldn’t look at each other, and it felt very strange,” Wells recalls. “We never talked about it, but I realized he didn’t want to look at me, and it pissed me off, because we were also producers and sometimes we had to deal with stuff.
“We never fought, even during all that time we were in Bucket Truck together, we just had this easygoing friendship, and after doing the scene a couple of times, Michael said to me, ‘The scene’s almost there, but there’s something I’m not connecting with here. Just be Matt, and just be (friggin’) mad at me.’ This was the first time he'd talked to me all day, out of character, but I didn’t think twice about it. I reset myself, went back, and we did it, the next take was the one.”
By throwing away the rule book, Crown and Anchor is finding an audience in Canada where it’s distributed independently via Cineplex Theatres, and in Mexico and the U.S. with distribution by Crogan Filmworks.
And despite being very specific about being where its set and who its characters are, Wells says audiences seem to get it no matter where it plays.
“It can be funny in a really dark way. We’ve sat with audiences a few times now, and there are moments where people are roaring with laughter, which has totally taken us off guard.
“They’re laughing at something uncle Doug or Andy Jones does, and then in the next scene I’m about to get my nose cut off, or James’s violent outbursts are making them so uncomfortable, and then after that you’re laughing again. But that’s what life’s like, right?”