The Making of Rushlights
“Rushlights” is a dark, gritty, action-mystery thriller. “The film takes a rather blunt look into the shady side of human nature,” writer-director Antoni Stutz observes. “The narrative puts the audience in the position of asking themselves ‘What would I do if I found myself in this situation? What would I do if life threw a real nasty curve ball at me?’ Ordinary people placed into extraordinary circumstances is a most compelling format for telling a story.”
“There are a lot of truly unusual twists in the movie,” notes producer Donald Zuckerman (Casino Jack, Green Street Hooligans). Also, the film is extremely well cast and the performances are exceptionally strong.”
Another striking element that sets Rushlights apart from other crime thrillers is the age of its protagonists: would-be con artists and lovers Billy Brody and Sarah Johnson are barley in their twenties when they thrust themselves into a most troubling scenario. “As I was developing the script, it was exciting to explore the kids’ point of view,” Stutz says. “The choices you make in life at age 20 are usually very different from those you make at 40 or 30. At 20, you tend to act much more on mere impulse – ‘Let’s just do it and worry about the consequences later.’ So the unpredictability of Billy and Sarah’s actions, the two discovering what they are capable of doing when being pushed to the edge, brings a new energy and perspective to the genre.”
The story is set in motion when Billy convinces Sarah to impersonate a dead friend in order to collect her inheritance – a small town Texas estate worth seven figures. “Billy is a young kid who hasn’t always had the best hand dealt to him,” says Josh Henderson (Dallas, Step Up, Desperate Housewives). “He’s from the streets and he’s been in trouble a lot. But he’s a great character to play because Billy can be a really loose cannon.”
It proved difficult during the casting process for Stutz to find a young actor to play Billy. “There aren’t many actors in their early twenties who can honestly deliver the emotional depth that some of the scenes required,” the director says. “Most kids at that age simply don’t have the life experience yet. When Josh walked in and started reading, a couple of minutes into it I pretty much knew I was going to offer him the part. Not only is he a real pro in all aspects of the craft, but I was surprised by how much range he was able to bring to the table. He has a natural, very instinctive actor’s intelligence. We got very lucky with Josh.”
The draw of first love – and a strong desire to escape her demons – prompts Sarah to impulsively agree to Billy’s scheme. “Sarah is a bit of a lost soul,” says Haley Webb (Final Destination). “She got pretty heavy into drugs at a young age. She’s a really sweet person who just fell into the wrong world at the wrong time.”
“Billy is about the best thing Sarah’s got in her life, and she clings onto that. The confidence Billy conveys gives Sarah a sense of structure and the love she desperately seeks,” Stutz adds. However, Sarah is not a stranger to the street and she senses that there is something very wrong with Billy’s plan. Uncomfortable from the get-go, she is in a constant state of self-doubt. “I wanted her to have an unceasing feeling that she was walking on eggshells. It wasn’t easy stuff and Haley really stepped up to the plate. I’m very proud of her and the way she handled the challenge. She is not only very talented, but she’s a real trooper” Stutz explains.
“In retrospect,” he elaborates, “I believe that Sarah was probably the most difficult character to play, especially for an actress Haley’s age. She was very impressive and I think it shows in the film.”
All goes according to plan when the young grifters first arrive in Tremo, Texas (population 2,870) and begin perpetrating their con, but something about these “foreigners” strikes veteran Sheriff Robert Brogden as a little shady. “It’s a real thriller,” says Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Descendants, Max Payne) of the story. “As it unfolds, you unpeel the onion and discover more and more about the characters as it goes on. That’s one of the things I responded to in the script; I liked that aspect of it,” says Bridges.
“Beau is a most generous man, smart as a whip and I always felt he was two steps ahead of me on every take, in the best sense of the word,” Stutz says. “I learned a tremendous deal from working with him. When we first met, Beau was a kind, charming gentleman. He knew I was a first-timer and what I was up against. I cannot say enough about his support and helpfulness throughout the entire process. Quickly into the working process, I also discovered his exceptional wit. It was perfect for the Sheriff.”
“Most important, though,” Stutz continues, “Beau has a strong, silent presence, and that presence radiated on set and on camera. He infused the Sheriff with calm strength, and from the first moment you see him on the screen, the audience knows he’s anything but the local yokel. In fact, the sheriff is the anchor, the centerpiece of ‘his’ town [Tremo, TX]. When Billy and Sarah show up and make a claim on the Niles Estate, Sheriff Brogden senses something is amiss – he isn’t quite buying it, and he decides to investigate.”
That decision takes the Sheriff on an increasingly uncomfortable ride as it leads him to uncover secrets closely guarded by his brother, Cameron Brogden, the attorney representing the Niles Estate. “Cameron is a very troubled character,” Stutz says of the attorney played by Aidan Quinn (Unknown, The Mission, Legends of the Fall). “In a way, Cameron Brogden hates being Cameron Brogden. And there is very little he can do about it as long as he is trapped in this small town.”
Aidan Quinn’s willingness to invest himself fully in a somewhat controversial role impressed the director as much as his extraordinary talent. “There’s a pretty nasty backstory to this character, and Aidan’s openness to step into this role is a big testimony to him as an artist,” Stutz enthuses. “There was no hesitation. He jumped right into the heart of it. Aidan gave a humanity to Cameron that I didn’t quite think was possible. As Cameron reveals himself as the story progresses, you see and feel the character’s constant torment in every line he delivers. It’s very compelling to watch.”
“Aidan and I play each other’s nemesis in this movie,” Josh Henderson notes. “As an actor, he is really intense, and it was exciting to play off of him and take his energy and try to spin it back at him.”
Quinn found his own passion to be matched by that of his director. “Antoni is very, very focused,” Quinn says. “He’s got very strong ideas about what he wants, but he was also really open to letting me bring my own ideas and perspective to the character. He was great to work with.”
Stutz was impressed not only by how Quinn and Bridges energized their young costars and inspired them to push the envelope, but also their willingness to go the extra mile, to fully commit to their respective roles. “I believe it fair to say that all of us really got into it,” he says. “I had a sense that the actors welcomed my attempt to strive for something special. It was a great team effort.”
The cast and crew were equally impressed with Stutz’s specificity of vision and the stylized tone he strived to bring to the film. “He’s a real artist,” Bridges says of the director. “Initially, he showed me a bunch of his artwork, and you could see his sense of style is very strong.”
“I love the look of the film; every frame is really incredibly thought out in terms of how best to deliver the story,” Zuckerman adds.
As Sheriff Brogden digs deeper into the shadows dogging the young cons, and his brother Cameron’s finesse at masking his inner torment begins to crack as the stakes grow higher, this story of love, greed and betrayal builds to a thrilling, twisted crescendo. “I guarantee you,” Bridges says with a chuckle, “it’s not going to end up the way you think it’s going to end up.”
As Stutz sees it, “With one obvious exception, none of the characters in Rushlights are really bad people. To a large degree they are misguided, victims of unfortunate circumstances. Some are more ‘damaged’ than others, but at the end of the day, they’re all chasing the same thing: the grand prize, the Niles Estate.”
“Everybody in this film chases the promise of a better life. It’s like the metaphor of the carrot on the end of a stick: you can see it, you can smell it, you can almost touch it, but it remains nothing but a promise.”
Ultimately, chasing that promise propels the characters down a deadly path and forces them to reckon with the ugly truths they’ve been trying so desperately to outrun. “Nobody escapes their demons in this film,” the director concludes. “Like it or not, they all have to face what’s tormenting them, and there is no easy way out.”