From writer/director Logan Marshall-Green, the indie drama Adopt A Highway follows Russ Millings (Ethan Hawke), as he tries to adapt to the world again, having just been released from prison after serving more than two decades behind bars. When he finds an abandoned baby in a dumpster behind the fast food restaurant where he works, Russ ignores the panic it induces and wants to make sure the child has a good life.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor-turned-filmmaker Logan Marshall-Green talked about how Adopt A Highway came to be his feature directorial debut, how long he’s wanted to direct, what it was like to get this project off the ground, getting Blumhouse involved, the impact Ethan Hawke had on the film, how the film changed in the editing room, and what he learned from the experience of directing his first film. He also talked about how he’d still like to revisit his character from the short-lived TV series Quarry, and the next film that he’s hoping to get made.
Collider: I appreciate you talking to me about your directorial debut. We last spoke when you were doing the TV series Quarry, and I will always have a Quarry-shaped hole in my heart from it being gone too soon.
LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN: Well, hopefully we can fill that hole, maybe in the near future. We’ll see.
That would definitely be very nice. Well, I thought this film was really beautifully done. How did this end up being your feature film debut, as a writer/director? Were there other scripts, along the way, that you tried to write or that you wrote, or were there other possible projects that you considered directing, or was it only this one?
MARSHALL-GREEN: That’s a good question. It wasn’t just this one. In fact, I wrote this film, so I could go make the other scripts that I had written, up to that point, which were a little more demanding of finances. And so, being a first time filmmaker, I needed to know what I didn’t know and get one under my belt, before I could get to anyone to be confident in handing me those kinds of films to direct later. Hopefully, I haven’t burned too many bridges, in the meantime.
How long have you wanted to write and direct? Did you always want to do both of those things, or did it feel like you had to or needed to do them both, in order to do one or the other?
MARSHALL-GREEN: Well, I’m from a family of theater directors, and I’ve always wanted to direct theater. In fact, I have directed some theater, in my past. Nothing professional, but coming up through academia, it was important for me to understand it, by design, by production and, certainly, by direction. If you’d asked me, in undergraduate, what I was gonna become, I actually probably would’ve said I was gonna become a lighting designer or a theater director. It was only over the course of the last 20 years or so, since I’ve been a professional actor, that I started to understand that my eye was probably a little bit more complimentary to the camera. I’m a still photographer, as well, and my team had always been pushing me to direct. So, finally, about 10 years ago, I put pen to paper and wrote my first script, and it turned out okay, but it needed money. And so, I wrote my second script, so that I could go make my first script, and all of the other ones I’ve written since.
How tough was it to get this project off the ground, and what were the biggest issues and challenges that you faced, in doing so?
MARSHALL-GREEN: Well, as far as I can ascertain, being a first time filmmaker, having never done this before, Adopt A Highway’s path to production and now to the premiere was fairly easy. In fact, there are a lot of people out there, writing incredible stories, that spend decades trying to get them off the ground and shoot them and cut them and get them out there. I was so fortunate to have found Ethan [Hawke], and then, with some stroke of kismet, I took a stab at Blumhouse and Jason [Blum], and found out in the room that Jason and Ethan knew each other. The next thing I knew, Jason had Ethan on the phone, and we were making a film, a year later. It was all a lot of happenstance, but more than anything, it was about Blumhouse’s willingness to continue to seek narrative outside of its own box. When you think about Blumhouse, you think genre. You don’t think Tender Mercies, or small character-driven independent film, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been telling you those stories. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been making those stories, with the strong sense of quality that they have, and Jason certainly knows great stories. So, it was a match made in heaven, and the rest is history.
I have to admit that I actually looked it up and double-checked because I thought maybe I’d read wrong that it was a Blumhouse film, since it doesn’t seem like the stuff we’re used to them doing.
MARSHALL-GREEN: Yeah, it forces you to do a quick double take. As far as I know, Jason and Blumhouse have been pretty strict in not allowing first-time filmmakers, except in the form of actors, and I think they’ve only done it about three times. A lot of that comes with an actor’s experience being on set. That certainly changes, from one actor to the next, but in me, they found not just a lead actor, but a director and a writer, and hopefully, I can continue to make films with them.
You’ve previously said that you wrote the role for Ethan Hawke, but did you know, at the time that you were writing it, that he would do it, or did you just write it with him in mind because that’s how you saw the character?
MARSHALL-GREEN: Well, I wrote the character with a lot of different roles in mind. There’s definitely a Lennie Small type of character in there, and there’s obviously a beta in there that we root for. And yet, it was about finding a way to make that interesting and fresh. I only knew Ethan through a few mutual friends. I also knew that Ethan was far from a beta. Ethan’s an alpha. He’s an incredible leader, artist, director and storyteller, and he’s a connoisseur of independent film. So, it was a moonshot, but I also knew that I knew this character, I knew it well, and I wrote him deep. I didn’t write him broad, I wrote him deep. And I got really, really lucky that I found Ethan and got the script to his desk, on a day that his bandwidth wasn’t so low. All I needed to know is that he saw the same Russell Millings that I saw. It’s a very specific character. Not only, from day one, did Ethan understand him, in a way that I couldn’t, but he already had elevated him, within an hour of speaking to him over Skype. I knew that I could hand it off, and get out of his way.
How did the film change, once you got into the editing room? Were there any major shifts that happened there?
MARSHALL-GREEN: Yeah, there was a big shift in post, when it came to the score. We’re so fortunate that Blumhouse allowed us to transition from an original score that was completely right and beautiful, and the composer, at the time, had done everything that I’d asked. It just simply was that we were throwing pasta up against the wall, to see if it stuck. And while the score was gorgeous and correct, it just wasn’t lifting the film. The film, we realized, in the photography and in post, really needed a sense of levity and play. Ethan said, “Just grab some guitar and throw it at this character,” and he was so right. And so, we did a huge pivot in our soundscape and our sonic-scape, and in doing so, we found, through Ethan’s leadership, that a guitar really became a guardian angel, almost, for this man. It really became a character in the story. Jason Isbell, who eventually scored it, introduced the film to me, which was one of the most profound and biggest learning moments for me. That was late in the game, but it was something that I needed to learn. I’m gonna introduce the film to the departments, but then, I have to let go and allow the departments to introduce the film back to me. That’s not just in the prep and photography. That’s all the way through the final stages of laying in music and sound, and Jason Isbell truly did that. He introduced the film to me, in a way that I hadn’t realized.
Was your team who you relied on for honest feedback on the film, or did you have family, friends and colleagues that you went to?
MARSHALL-GREEN: I didn’t seek outside sources. I certainly had a couple of directors that I respect and wanted their advice, but I just more wanted to ask ‘cause I value their opinion so highly. I had an opportunity to gain their opinion, so I took it, but not so much to allow them to dictate it or send the movie in a certain direction. I relied very much on Ethan and very much on my editor, Claudia Castello. As an actor, I was privy to many, many parts of many stages and departments, when it comes to prep and photography, but what I was not privy to was post. I had to really rely on the in-house, which was (executive producer) Couper Samuelson, (producer) Jason Blum, and Ethan and Ryan Hawke, Ethan’s producing partner and wife, who was one of the more incredible creatives on the project. I relied heavily on them, and the movie really went through incredible changes until it found, finally, its place, and then it went.
This movie has a surprisingly tight running time, just under 80 minutes. Did you ever get any pressure to expand the film to 90 minutes or longer, or was that always left up to you?
MARSHALL-GREEN: Yeah, it was always left up to me. If anything, it was the opposite. Our rough assembly, or my first rough cut, was probably two hours and 30 minutes. There is so much that I understood was getting in its way. I leaned on Ethan and Claudia, and there was a big week, that I call the hack-and-slash week, where I just got rid of all of that. It wasn’t even out of a sense of permanence. I just needed to get out of my own way, so anything, in my mind, where I said to myself, “That’s my favorite shot,” or “I loved that moment,” or “That’s my idea,” and anytime the writer or the director, if you will, got precious, I decided to see what would happen if we erased it. Sometimes that was swaths of scenes. And what I found was, in culling the narrative and deepening the character and allowing these characters to not have so much of a privileged point of view around him, I deepened his point of view and really gave the movie traction, in a way that it hadn’t. In your narrative, you have characters that either help or hurt your story, and they can either blow wind into your sails, or they can tear your sails. While every performance, across the board, was phenomenal, it was solely out of just honing the point of view of this character. In doing so, I cut probably 45 minutes out of it.
What do you feel that you learned from making this film, that you think will most help you or that you can apply to your next film?
MARSHALL-GREEN: I’ll never be a first-time filmmaker, ever again, which accounts for about 99% of what I will take into my next film. There is a so much that I learned, and am still learning today. I was so excited to return to set, as an actor, because so much of what I watched Ethan do, coming from Sundance, where he was selling a movie that he directed and wrote, and then taking that hat off and becoming an actor, and not just an actor, but becoming a character. He walked on set saying, “How can I help you achieve your vision?,” every day to me, and he was one of the greatest number ones that I ever witnessed. And so, it was so exciting for me to return to set. I share a lot of his work ethic, don’t get me wrong. That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today. I don’t have a lot of talent, but I’ve got drive and I’ve got a good work ethic. I was so excited to become an actor again on set, after being a director for the first time, and I’m even more excited to become a director for the second time, and take advantage of all of the days, before you get to set, where you can get rid of all the things you don’t, instead of doing it later, when you have no time and no money.
As I said before, I loved Quarry, and it sounds like that might not be fully dead. Is that something that you’re looking to revisit?
MARSHALL-GREEN: There’s nothing official. I just never say die. If I’m fortunate enough to be able to stand up in front of the camera, I’m never gonna say no to any of the characters that have come before, and I won’t say no to any of the ones that are in my future. I loved Mac Conway. I love that character, and I don’t think the stories are finished, but that’s not up to me. If somebody else decides that it’s time to continue to tell that story, I’ll be the first in line. I love that man, and I love that series.
Had you already started to have conversations, at all, about what another season could have been?
MARSHALL-GREEN: As far as I know, the second season was already written. It just was never produced. I can’t say anymore, but I can tell you that there are people, just like yourself, who also want that show to come back, and hopefully, maybe, we might have some news. But again, there’s nothing official, so don’t quote me on anything in the works. There’s nothing in the works, at the moment, but that certainly doesn’t mean my office doors aren’t open to it.
What are you focused on, in the meantime? Are you focused on directing a second movie, or are you working on something, as an actor, right now?
MARSHALL-GREEN: I’m unemployed, as an actor. At the moment, I’m finishing a script that I’m hoping to shop. It’s my first commercial action film, and it’s wild and out there. I’m in the mode, right now, of just sanding it down, so that it’s palatable for, potentially, some eyes on it, in the near future.
Adopt A Highway is in theaters, on-demand and on digital HD.