Dylan Baker is probably best remembered for playing some of the most horrific villains imaginable (“The Good Wife,” “Happiness”). But his extensive career has included wild comedies (“Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” “Anchorman 2”), historical drama (he was Robert McNamara in “13 Days”), and even a musical (“Across the Universe”). He has just taken on a new role as a movie director for the first time with “23 Blast,” based on the true story of a Kentucky high school football player who lost his sight and, thanks to a supportive coach and team, kept playing. He told me the story of how this film came together, almost worthy of a movie itself.
How did you come to not just appear in this film but also direct it?
Yes, this is my directing debut. I have directed about a dozen plays but I kind of thought that directing a movie was not going to happen for me. I kind of said, “Well, directing a movie is going to take all this time and so I think I will just let that be and I missed on the bucket list.” But then all of a sudden Toni Hoover who is actually a high school friend of my wife, they were cheerleaders together, she came to us and asked us to act in the movie about five or six years ago and then she sent us a script and asked me for a little help on it and so I started working on it and I helped her a little bit with casting, little bit more and then three years ago she asked me to direct it and I said, “Well, I don’t know when that’s going to happen again.” So I jumped on board and all this happened.
Was this her first script?
Yes. Toni has never written anything before really. And she had three children with her husband Vin and they were living in Tampa Florida and they both felt like they wanted the kids to enjoy sort of a childhood in a small town and Vin was from this little town in Corbin Kentucky and so he thought, “Why do we go back there?” And Toni was not exactly on board at first. She demanded that he buy her a camera. And so she started walking the sidelines of the high school games, taking video of the games and people kind of looked at her like she was kind of strange. She didn’t know what she was doing/. And then she found a little local TV station, she started editing it together on their equipment, and then at the annual awards dinner, they said, “Stay said. We’ve got something new. Mrs. Toni Hoover has a film for everybody to see.” And it was her highlight reel. And of course, all the kids went nuts! They had never seen anything like that. So she was there with her son Bram Hoover who actually plays Jerry the quarterback in the movie. She basically wrote it because she was trying to help Bram get a break. And we were good friends of Toni and Vin I said, “Well, good, go for it, go ahead, write it, we will act in it.” We didn’t actually think it would happen but when I actually read the script and I saw the story that she was talking about and the fact that it was based on a true story and once I got to see the real Travis Freeman, I was hooked. I just thought it was an amazing story and I wanted to be a part of it.
So Toni was the one who did the tie in with Jerry Baker who of course also was a real person in Corbin and saw these two young people who as they got into high school, started kind of getting drawn apart from each other – Travis towards his calling in the ministry and the Jerry with this sort of lure of teenage problems specifically drinking. And so she felt like that contrast could follow them through. And what I really loved was that they were able to continue their friendship, if only on the football field where they both had mutual love of football.
What happened to the real Jerry? We see at the end of the film that he has passed away.
Well, it’s not a pretty story. He ended up having real alcohol and drug problems. About a month after his child was born, Jerry was working as a roofer for his uncle. This one day as you can tell in the movie, Jerry was like I guess a very stubborn guy and kind of had his own thoughts about things and he was working up on this roof and his uncle said, “Jerry, you can’t go up there today, it’s too slippery I don’t want you there.” And he fell off the roof and he died about four years later from injuries sustained from that fall. His daughter really only got to know him as a paralyzed man in a wheelchair and he died when she was about five or six. Kaylee is just such a spunky young woman and she appears in the end of the film. They are very supportive of our efforts and are happy that this is the thought that Kaylee will have for her father as a guy who had a good heart and just had a tough time sticking to the straight and narrow.
The Hollywood version of the story would go in a different way and I really respect the film telling a very honest story that I thought was really compelling because it didn’t pull its punches in that way.
Thank you very much. I think that is a great tribute to Toni and the fact that she felt like it was a story that needed to be told and we weren’t going to sugarcoat it at all.
You assembled a very impressive cast of talented actors, including your wife.
I was able to open up my black address book and call up my friends; Stephen Lang for the coach and I found Becky Ann Baker, I just rolled over in bed and there she was, she plays the mobility coach and I think does a great job. I’m pretty crazy about her. We’ve been married for 27 years now actually. But Tim Busfield, Fred Thompson, they were all people that I had worked with in other capacities and they all signed on. I was shocked when everybody agreed to it.
In casting and then in directing teenagers, how do you work with them and what did you talk to them about?
I didn’t know too many actors that age so I went out to Los Angeles and they set up some sessions. I met Mark Hapka, who plays Travis Freeman and then I met Max Adler who was from “Glee” and Alexa Vega.
And each one of them just showed me in the room that they could take the parts and just knock them out of the park to mix metaphors between football and baseball. But I was thrilled because to tell you the truth, some of the other actors I just felt like they were so contemporary and they had such a sort of today feel to them with sort of, I don’t know an LA accent or whatnot. I’ve always loved the movie “Hoosiers” and I wanted to have that certain kind of timeless quality to it. You will notice there are no cell phones, I wanted it to kind of be able to happen at any time and each of these actors had that ability of sort of removing themselves from the present day and what happened yesterday and how kids are talking. They had sort of a more timeless feel to them as well.
Now I have to say when Toni told me that she wanted Bram to play the part of Travis in the movie, I said, “Tony, this might be a deal breaker but I’ve got to meet Bram. I don’t know him. I did not get to talk to him.”
And so my fellow producer who I turned to right away when Tony asked me to direct the film, Jerry Donatelli, we talked Tony into bringing Bram out to New York where we both were based; Bram was in LA, and he came out for about a week and we went to different things and maybe went and saw a movie and then I said, “Well, why don’t you come up and read for us on the camera and we will do a little audition.”
And he said, “Great.” At that time he was scheduled to read for Travis Freeman. And I said, “Would you also look at this role of Jerry Baker?” Because of course, Bram has that black curly hair and the blue eyes and he is built like Adonis. So he did it read for us and he did a great job with Travis but boy, when he started reading for Jerry Baker, it was a natural fit and he had such a wonderful sort of devil may care look, a great mischief behind his eyes. As soon as we were done I turned and I said, “Bram, if I were going to cast you in this film, that’s the role I would cast you in.” And he said, “That’s the role I like.” So I called up Toni and she said, “Sounds good.” And we had our Jerry and he moved forward from there.
You have a small but important role as the father of the main character. How did you create that performance?
Well, I met Larry Freeman after I had decided that was the best part for me and basically when Toni gave us the script six years ago she said, “Just pick whatever roles you guys want to do.” And as I was working on the script with Toni and we were changing things here and there, one thing I really wanted was to try and keep Larry’s participation down to a minimum because I knew I would be directing it and I figured, “Well, let him just stand there.” Also, meeting the man, Larry is very soft spoken but very direct, incredibly honest and just a lovely human being. And watching him and Mary and Travis together talk about their faith and talk about their experience with Travis going blind and his reaction to it which was nothing short of heroic, he just said, “Well, I am fascinated to see what God has in store for me. And I look forward to finding a way to use this to bring go to the world.” And that’s what is trying to do. He is trying to pass that message along.
Larry was this very simple guy and I saw an opportunity to take advantage of him in a couple of places to add a bit of comedy. I said, “Now Larry, this is not a reflection on you at all but if I could get a laugh here and there I would rather do it.” Because I feel like with the film that there are some moments that are just so tough or that you are asking people to go through a tough journey and so a little levity doesn’t hurt. I have always felt that way.
How were you able to get the resources you needed to make the film?
When we started, we didn’t have all of our money together for the budget. I had a meeting with Daniel Snyder who is one of our executive producers and he basically gave us a chunk of change that allowed us to be able to do the film. We would have pretty much been shut down. That didn’t happen until March of 2012 and we started shooting on April 2. When we got in to post-production, we found our other executive producer, Misook Doolittle, and she got us enough money to finish. We had to get all kinds of great help from people. We literally had people in Corbin who offered of their homes, the production team, we stayed at Vin Hoover’s sister’s house in Corbin and there were a couple of actors that stayed at another house. So we did anything we could to stretch our dollars as far as we could.Our whole budget was under just around $1 million. So it was really is a little engine of good.