It’s only a matter of weeks before fans attending this month’s 2-day induction of the Fighting Spirit Film Festival will be able to check out at actor, producer and maverick filmmaker Bryan Larkin’s latest gritty short duration entry, Dead End II: A Justified Kill.
I had the privilege of seeing the first two installments in the last few years and I’ve enjoyed them both thusfar in my own excitement of wondering just what would become of this ambitious shortfilm series.
For this, I can earnestly say that this was one of the most enjoyable Q&A’s I’ve done, as Larkin’s story is one of tested mettle, faith and tenacity – having pounded the pavement and strived for the very platform he has to maintain his growth.
He’s proven himself to be a leader as much as he is an artist in multiple facets. He talks the walk and walks the talk, and you needn’t look further for proof of his capabilities and acumen than the allies walking right next to him.
Sure, most film professionals can galvanize and lead a team into something great and worth celebrating. Larkin, for me, is something of a different kind from a characteristic point of view. It’s that air of hunger and drive that isn’t overcome with ego – a recurring commonality that can make or break someone’s admirability.
Nope, Larkin is somewhere above all that malarkey. He’s too busy with his eye on the ball, moving forward and staying vigilant, and he talks exploratively about this in our discussion below, just as he pushes the needle forward on the upcoming threequel short, Dead End III: Down The Rabbit Hole.
Below, he weighs in on the many challenges that come with shooting an episodic project like Dead End – from the darker, bustling, more edge-of-your-seat days to the more joyous, colorful, happier ones.
Larkin is cool people. He’s good at his craft and as welcome as I’d imagine he is to this year’s FSFF, it’s certainly an honor and privilege to share a stage with him here.
Thank you so much for taking the time out to engage our questions Bryan, I imagine this year has been a bit non-stop for you.
I’ve really enjoyed following your coverage at FCSyndicate since it came on my radar a year ago. It really gives fans and action movie enthusiasts an unbiased and intelligent perspective on emerging and established filmmakers their films and the talent, so thanks for having me.
It’s been a busy year for me. The first half has been mostly spent editing Dead End II and shooting part 3 as well as developing other projects. I’m enjoying a growth a period of growth as a filmmaker and actor just now.
You’ve definitely dabbled in multiple aspects of film over the last eighteen years more or less, and you’ve especially proliferated yourself in acting. What was your turning point for you into that career choice?
I wanted to be an actor for quite some time before I made the step. It wasn’t a financially viable option at the time and I didn’t know anybody in the industry. I started doing background work and met a guy who did it regularly and who was involved in a community drama workshop so I went along and performed a monologue. He took me aside and told me I should consider trying out for drama school.
That was the encouragement I needed, though I didn’t know if I was any good. I was broke and drifting from day job to day job but now had a focus. So, I prepared for the entry audition and got accepted, and while at drama school I quickly developed a passion for filmmaking and screen acting as it was part of the curriculum. This is where I started ‘dabbling’ as you say.
I started from scratch. Very basic kit. A Hi-8 camcorder, a shoddy tripod and a basic editing programme. The tipping point into filmmaking for me was when I took a moment and thought “well… if I can shoot my own material then I can have some control over my development.” That was my mindset. This is the path into film that I chose.
Looking back, the actors who were the biggest influence on me were Stallone and Bruce Lee. I was drawn to the underdogs, and then I saw De Niro in Taxi Driver, Ed Norton in American History X, Oldman in Leon. These were the types roles I wanted to play. The kind of actor I wanted to be.
Talk about the process of growing yourself into the craft earlier on and the effort it took back then as a self-taught filmmaker. Pretty grassroots, I guess.
I knew nothing about filmmaking, but the resources were becoming more accessible. Somebody in my network had a mini DV camera, a set of lights and a microphone you could borrow and a bunch of people itching to shoot, although solid ideas were not so readily available. I took it upon myself to mix more in this community and I started writing and reaching out to local filmmakers. My first short cost £50 and ended up screening at the Sundance Film Festival and that opened up a new world to me.
Being a student eighteen years ago, the internet was still new, mobile phones and email were bridging the communication gap, and so I came along as a newbie at a point where there were huge technological advancements. Very dated by today’s standards but I was learning how to edit on my lunch break at drama school and shooting in the evening or on the weekends.
Once I got the hang of it, I would just shoot anything and scrutinize my performance. There was a lot of experimenting going on back then. I focused on movement and subtext to see if I believed myself and slowly but surely I got better and better. We moved into the digital age and it was a good time to be learning new skills as a filmmaker.
And you’ve also been sharing sets nowadays with the likes of Donnie Yen and Gerard Butler. How starstruck do you get, if you do, at this stage of your career?
I get asked a lot about what guys like Gerry and Donnie are like to work with. For me these guys are very similar personalities on set. It stems from their values as human beings and wanting everything to work the best it can. They have an invested interest in every member of the cast and crew because they were also producing the movies we were shooting. They’ve worked hard for their success and it shows in their work, their personality and their attitude to others. They want you to be good in the movie and that’s what real stars are like. They give a shit.
There’s no denying the attention surrounding people like that, but they are just people to me. Colleagues. Sure, when you meet them for the first time it’s like ‘Wow, IP man just asked how my day is going!’. Or ‘I just shot the shit over coffee with Gerard Butler’, but in all honestly the way I see it is, fame and celebrity are fabricated human constructs. They only exist because of the media, the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. They are what we perceive them to be. Famous people are elusive and mysterious to most of us. But I just see the person in front of me. It’s way more accessible. I still keep in touch with both Gerry and Donnie and we text now and again. I doubt they’d bother if I was fanboying them and I don’t get Starstruck easily. And guys like that respect you more when you can meet them with a firm handshake and deliver the goods on set. They are easier to talk to when there’s something you can share in common. If on the other hand I meet a star who would rather keep to themselves then I completely respect that. Everybody is different.
Tell us about Dead End and about birthing the concept into what it’s now still growing into.
The process of developing Dead End has been quite unconventional. It’s been a huge learning curve in self-discipline. The first film was not planned the way the others have been. It kind of came together as we shot. We kind of reversed engineered the first film into being. There was a script, sure, but I just didn’t know where we would end up shooting or exactly how the script would change along the way.
The glue that held the whole film together for me was the addition of a voice-over. It fills in the gaps in the audiences journey. But now with the second film and third installment almost complete, it’s finding a very solid footing. The thing for me now is to dig deeper into what it’s really about. What are we saying about people who kill for a living and how does that fit into the bigger picture? The overall theme of things.
What is it about the hitman genre that stands out to you?
I think what makes the hitman genre unique is that the characters can be as unpredictable as your imagination will allow them to be. As the writer that is a joy to create. I really wanted to do something different with Dead End that the subgenre hadn’t covered before. They are the kind of characters who exist in what I call “the sweet spot”. They are neither good or bad. Not “black or white”. They exist in the grey area. They’re the messengers. Anti-heroes. Anti-Villians and underdogs.
What makes Dead End different at least is that both Julian and I who play the leads are not motivated by revenge, power or money. Our characters are very different but they both share a vision of a world made better by removing a lesser evil from it. They are human. Flawed. They are not indestructible killing machines. Things go wrong for them, they get fucked up doing what they do and the pleasure is that you get to see them bleed on the inside and on the outside. Overriding everything is the bigger picture that the world is both beautiful and ugly and together they try to restore the balance by eliminating, for example, sex traffickers.
As the series develops, I’d like to navigate much deeper waters. For now at least with the three parts, what does become clearer is that there is world here, a very expandable world and it becomes clearer who is pulling the strings. Killing evil people is just their way of leaving their mark on the world. Their legacy. They might not be remembered for what they have done but when their time comes to an end they will hopefully have saved a child from slavery, or a nation from being destroyed by taking out criminal mastermind who operate across the world.
That gritty, edgy style of filmmaking, going Guerrilla on the streets of Hong Kong, it tends to have its close calls doesn’t it?
As Ron Howard said: “…Every movie worth making, every story that’s worth telling, will find its way to breaking your heart”. And Dead End has been no exception. The quicker you accept the fact that anything that can go wrong will go wrong you’ll have way more fun. It’s all problem solving. If you get through the day with something exceptional, it’s a miracle and it’s down to passion, determination and working with the right people.
Every day was a battle against the odds, nature and the elements. You have to be vigilant and really on your game or somebody is going to get hurt, especially if people get caught up in solely what they are doing. Shooting guerrilla is like starting back at the gym after a holiday. You know it’s going to hurt for a while but the results are worth it. I got into the habit of always being aware of my environment and I knew the limitations of the team so I could manage it. But it’s easy to forget when you are wearing too many hats.
I strive under pressure and I’m very decisive when things don’t work out. You need a team of people who don’t complain or go on about what isn’t working you just have to adapt and find a solution. But you must, and I mean MUST inspire people under such conditions. For the actors it’s easier provided they have all the information they need. I have never met an actor who doesn’t want to come off the best they have ever done in a scene. It’s all about giving them a chance to shine.
For the crew it’s not always as easy because you can create an environment for them to feel like they are pushing their skill level but when you don’t have control over the set, because the set is the world around you it can be tough on them. But Dead End would not exist unless we shot it the way we did. There is so much that can get in the way. Location permission, better sound kit, the bigger/better cameras, the drone restrictions, the list goes on. We just prepped the best we could, rocked up and shot.
There were times when we nearly wiped out a group of shoppers in Mongkok while shooting the chase sequence – Nobody got hurt. Ever. Sure we talked things over thoroughly and mapped out exactly what we were going to do, but you can’t direct the public, especially when your hurtling down a street with a camera and the actors are sprinting at full speed and dodging and weaving between the oncoming crowd.
We were shooting the final scene in the movie and Chloe Chan and her mother were on set. They were standing on a bridge at the top of the reservoir and all of a sudden we were surrounded by a pack of almost 20 wild feral monkeys, clammoring to get at her. It wasn’t until I saw what had drawn them to her that it all became clear. They spotted the tiny orange fish in the bag she was setting free and they were determined to have it!
Thankfully they vanished when the wild boar arrived and scared them away. We reccied the location the day before and it was not the same place. The same way when we met Som, a homeless man who was at deaths door lying in a rat infested alleyway, and I offered him money if we could film him and buy him a room for the night. You can’t plan that. You just have to be ready for anything.
Talk about the people of Hong Kong and your chance experiences with its citizens in the course of maintaining this production. What’s the most memorable for you?
There’s many. Som, I’ll remember forever. The film is really about people like him. One of societies victims that go mostly ignored by the population. The people of the world who have been dealt a bad hand and people just walk by without a care in the world. Real people who should not be denied. He too has a story to tell. Suffering in silence.
On the bright side, we had so many wonderful interactions. There was an elderly lady in Peng Chau, a small idylic island just about 30 mins on the ferry from Hong Kong where Julian lives and she grows vegetables in her garden and sells them on the street. We wanted to shoot a scene where Chloe’s character had transformed her life and was now on the path to freedom. I asked Chloe to see if she would let us film her while we did the scene and she immediately obliged.
The lady made about £10 pounds a day selling her wares. I gave Chloe £20 and told her to clean our her stall of everything she had and let her keep the change as a fee for filming with her. The look on their faces was priceless. She even said “Come back any time!” in Cantonese. That scene is in the movie.
Tell us about Julian Gaertner and what he’s brought to the table as the proverbial Young Gun. Was he the production’s first choice for the role?
We met on my first day of the set of Chasing The Dragon where we were playing a double act opposite Donnie Yen. There I was in the suffocating humidity surrounded by the best in the Hong Kong film industry and couldn’t understand what was going on amidst the thick Chinese dialects and this German dude rocks up speaking perfect English then proceeds to break into fluent Cantonese when the camera starts rolling.
How does a guy from Germany end up in a situation like that? He came from a language and communications background and fell into the film industry out there. He has a martial arts background and was very eager to expand his knowledge or film and be more involved in his own productions. So we’d hang out in Hong Kong between shooting days and that’s where I became even more fascinated with Hong Kong.
He showed me around and I always took my camera with me. I knew right away I wanted to explore more of the culture and see more of the surroundings. So he took me to some cool restaurants and we went hiking and trained together. We became friends and I expressed my desire to shoot something while there so he became part of that.
Alas, he was the only other choice for the role. If he was going to be working on the film then I would write a role for him and that’s how it worked out. He’s a very hungry and energetic guy. Very resourceful. He helped with locations, casting, crew, you name it. He’s as much a part of the film happening as anybody. We have a similar sense of humour and he’s got a lot of good qualities that are essential for being in the film business and it’s been rewarding to see him grow as an actor over the last three years.
He’s involved in a lot of projects for Shaw Brothers and TVB and is writing his own material. And, what impresses me most about him is his ability to speak four languages and flip between them while cracking a joke.
How did you and Carter Ferguson, your fight arranger, decide on the sort of requisite fighting styles of both your character and Julian’s? Is there a specific style, in a sense?
There wasn’t a specific style in mind. Every move is different and it started with the character and the situation. I wrote the script with with that in mind. Carter works mostly with people who have an existing set of skills and builds the fight action around that. For my character it was mostly about adapting to the environment, using what objects he could in the vicinity that he found himself and to be economical as possible to get the job done. The towel, the knife, the nearest wall – with Julian he wanted to add a few kicks and elbows to show variation. But it was all about making it feel real whilst looking clean on camera and that isn’t easy. A street fight is usually a lot messier in real life with people throwing punches and the first one to the ground is usually going to lose. So it had to be economical, achievable and feel real. I think we achieved that.
How hard is it planning these kinds of chase and fight scenes on a small scale? What goes into that apart from choreography?
When I am scouting I trying to look for locations that we could use three or four times in one scene by turning the camera around and looking in the opposite direction but infact it looks like we have covered a lot of ground.
Safety is key, accessibility is another and cleanliness. For the fight scene in the alleyway it had to be clean and wasn’t infested with rats. It had to be in a quiet part of town where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic and also a place where there was access to a unit base so that the actors could change, rest and eat.
That’s the basics. I’m always thinking, what if we get moved in on by the police? What if a bin lorry comes along and we have to break for an extended period of time? What if we have to relocate so I spend time getting two and sometimes three options?
The Muay Thai scene was originally written to happen in a casino or betting shop but we couldn’t find one, then Julian called and said – he was competing at fight night and we had ringside seats. “Cool,” I thought – “but can we shoot instead?”, and one phone call later we had permission! One of those rare occasions when we got permission, and that’s how it rolled. We filmed the live fight. Everything you see in the movie is as it happened on the day.
I can quote at least one filmmaker I know who has adapted this saying into his platform – he’s independent, like you, and the saying is “it takes a village”. Talk about the team you’ve had on this series thus far and what it means to be a leader on top of being a director, especially one leading from the ground up.
I read a quote recently and it summed up the collaborative process perfectly. As the leader of a group of people you have to be careful who you let onto your ship because they could sink it if they don’t get to be the Captain.
As soon as people see positive results it can do one of two things. It can motivate them or drive them away from you. Some even try to take control. It’s one of the many phenomena of filmmaking. Thankfully the vast majority of people who have worked on all three films love what we are doing and they can’t wait to shoot again.
It’s a very liberating and exciting process to make your own rules and film something you all believe in. They enjoy and rise to the challenge while a few have scoffed and didn’t think it was worth all the effort, then they come crawling out of the woodwork when they see the trailer or hear about the trailer or positive feedback through the grapevine. I just try to treat people the best I can. I give everything I can for them to be at their best. I give them a platform to do their best work, to push the envelope of truly independent film making and remind them of the fact that we are all in it together. It’s down to us.
You see, when I know I’m about to shoot, I already have a vision, I already see their faces at the premiere, the excitement as the light fades down. I see Iris Tai who was a runner and still photographer who stepped up to camera operator having never shot anything before standing there collecting a best cinematography award with Thomas Sandfield, our DP. I see the face of an actress in her first screen role shaking her head in disbelief at how great she was in the movie.
All that matters is what the camera sees and I know when we are getting the good even if everybody else doesn’t. It’s all down to passion and people. A great idea is nothing without it. A great script is nothing without them. There can be no egos on set. I know from meeting people pretty quickly if they are going to work well on if you shoot the way I shot Dead End. It’s not for everybody and I know why that is. There is no safety net, but there’s way much more to gain from not asking for permission to make a movie you can be proud of.
Derek Newlands who executive produced all three films has been a friend for twenty-five years. He’s been a terrific supporter and always gives unfiltered and feedback as have Black Camel Pictures. Actors like Jai Day and Sam Gor were a pleasure to work with because they see the bigger picture. They’d not only give you the best they had as actors, they never complained and even inspired the others to the cause. Sam Gor who also acts, writes and produces out of Hong Kong is a household name there, he arranged logisitcs and even acquired some great locations for us.
Dead End is looking toward a third short installment with Ross Boyask. How have discussions been so far up to this point?
I was originally going to direct but as I was still shooting pick-up for part two and had to organize shoots in London and Scotland for part three, it was the obvious choice to ask him if he wanted to take the reigns otherwise it would have been a really long prep time.
It’s been a real pleasure to work with Ross again. We just get along really well and he brings so much to the party creatively. He’s very easy going and he knows the action genre very well. But the challenge for Ross was to fulfill the demands of a character driven suspense thriller as this was a different type of film for him. Once I wrote the script I asked him if he wanted to direct and he agreed. We set the task of streamlining the action, minimizing dialogue and getting on the same page thematically and stylistically for the third film. Mark Nutkins is our DP on this one.
You also have feature film prospects with this particular development. Can you publicize any specific details on that front?
I have two feature films in the works. They are thrillers. One is with Millennium who made the Expendables and Fallen franchises and the other is with Rick Romano and we are moving along nicely with both of them. Can’t say any more at the moment.
A bit of introspective fun here: if you were to compare yourself to The Contractor, where would you say the commonalities lie?
Oh, good one. To be honest I think we are similar in many ways. He speaks directly and honestly and has a dark sense of humour and we’re both not motivated by money. Where we are very different, apart from the obvious is that I think he lives entirely in the moment and I’m always thinking six months ahead.
Arm wrestling match between you and the Contractor. Who’s winning, and who’s buying the beer? ?
I’d definitely win the arm wrestle and most likely buy the beer too coz I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.
What would you say were the most important lessons you now take with you going forward?
Choose your team wisely. Communication is everything. Plan all the way to the end and manage everybody’s expectations as far ahead as you can.
Is there anything you can tease for future projects that may be in store? I noticed on IMDb at the time of this interview that you’re returning in Angel Has Fallen as the SAS operative from the second film?
I’m not actually in the film. But I am working on some high profile projects just now but I can’t talk about any of it! But there will be some announcements in due course.
I want to extend a further thank you for sharing your story, your adventures and ideas with this Q&A Bryan. On this note, do you have any final thoughts you wish to express to readers as we exit this discussion?
I’d like to wish all your readers the best with their endeavours and to you for taking the time to chat.