HEAT VISION

How 'Arkansas' Filmmaker Clark Duke Overcame Typecasting

The actor-turned-director reveals how Liam Hemsworth saved his movie and recalls the time he nearly quit acting: "I was just really tired of the kind of stuff I get offered and get to read for."
Clark Duke (left) and Liam Hemsworth in 'Arkansas'   |   Courtesy of Lionsgate
The actor-turned-director reveals how Liam Hemsworth saved his movie and recalls the time he nearly quit acting: "I was just really tired of the kind of stuff I get offered and get to read for."

From Kick-Ass and Hot Tub Time Machine to The Office and The Croods, Clark Duke knows he’s had a fortunate career as an actor, but the Arkansas filmmaker couldn’t help but grow weary of acting upon the realization that he’d been typecast as the comedic friend/sidekick. Instead of taking a step back, Duke decided to make his own luck by adapting John Brandon’s Arkansas, a novel he’d optioned a decade ago. Since the industry wasn’t going to immediately show him in a different light, Duke took the initiative by writing the role of a gregarious drug mule named Swin for himself. While the character has some of the traits that Duke’s characters are known for, the part is also layered with more dramatic and nuanced moments than he usually gets to play.

“I’ve done one thing over and over, and that happens to a lot of people, not just me. If you do one thing, you usually get put on those casting lists to do that same thing again,” Duke tells The Hollywood Reporter. “To be honest, I got to a point where I was really burned out with acting in general. I was just really tired of the kind of stuff I get offered and get to read for. So, I had always written [Swin] for myself because it’s the same story that a lot of people have had where nobody was going to write me a role like that.”

Duke also notes that the key to getting Arkansas off the ground was Liam Hemsworth’s unexpected commitment. From there, an impressive cast followed, including John Malkovich, Vince Vaughn, Michael K. Williams and Vivica A. Fox.

“The thing that made this movie exist at all is Liam saying yes. We didn’t know each other before; he just read the script and liked it,” Duke explains. “He’s somewhere in the Australian outback with no Wi-Fi, but he said he was gonna tell this story on talk shows if he could do any. He said that I looked so surprised when he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ that it immediately made him think he’d made a huge mistake. (Laughs.) He said that my face really concerned him because I was way too surprised. So, that was the start of everything.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Duke also discusses the impact that True Detective season three had on his directorial debut, accessorizing lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Vince Vaughn in a St. Louis Cardinals hat and Malkovich’s improvisational skills.

First off, you made a really cool movie.

Oh, thanks a lot. I’m glad to talk to anybody that’s seen it because I haven't been able to watch it with an audience. So, it’s fun just to hear reactions.

As someone who’s had a death-defying experience in Arkansas, I could definitely relate to the looming danger in your version of Arkansas.

(Laughs.) Oh, no! What happened?

In 2007, my mom and I were driving on a two-lane road between Little Rock and some small town, and it started to snow along the way despite no advanced warning. A half-hour later, a huge truck lost control in the opposite lane and fishtailed towards us. Somehow, my mom reacted like Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari and maneuvered around the truck by the slimmest of margins.

Oh, my gosh, there are so many little roads like that; they call them pig trails. The whole state is a bunch of dangerous two-lane roads.

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but you actually shot the film in Alabama, with the exception of that great Hot Springs, Arkansas, scene. Is it virtually impossible to shoot in Arkansas proper unless you’re True Detective and you have HBO’s deep pockets?

So, I intended to shoot the movie in Arkansas, and we worked with the state to try and do that. We were actually on the ground in Arkansas, location scouting, during preproduction, and the state called us to say that they could no longer give us the tax credit they promised because they basically gave all their money to True Detective. (Laughs.) So, we had to move to Mobile, Alabama, and we had only three weeks of prep on the movie. It was hectic to figure it all out because it moved so fast. The downtown Hot Springs stuff and the bathhouse scene were both in Arkansas, and the scene in the bar with the Flaming Lips is actually a bar called Maxine’s in downtown Hot Springs. That was more of a logistics thing than a “we have to have them in Hot Springs” thing. (Laughs.)

How long have you been angling to direct, and what made Arkansas the material to initiate you?

I’ve wanted to be a movie director since I was 12 years old and the ‘90s guys came along like Tarantino, Soderbergh and the Coen brothers. I’ve been trying to make Arkansas for about 10 years since I optioned the rights to the book about 10 years ago. As far as why, it just spoke to me on a lot of levels. I’m from Arkansas, obviously, and my grandfather was this tertiary Dixie mob character. So, I always wanted to write something about that world and about him — even if it was just thematically. So, the story spoke to me a lot for that, and I also really loved the two younger characters that Liam and myself play. It just spoke a lot to the economic struggles but also the general disdain and disinterest they had for modern life and society. A lot of that is more subtextual than it is textual in the film, but it was all there under the surface for me.

Your character, Swin, also goes against the type of characters that the industry has asked you to play over the years. Besides your dream of directing, were you just as motivated to write yourself material that the industry hasn’t let you play for the most part?

Yeah, absolutely. You nailed it. I’ve done one thing over and over, and that happens to a lot of people, not just me. If you do one thing, you usually get put on those casting lists to do that same thing again. To be honest, I got to a point where I was really burned out with acting in general. I was just really tired of the kind of stuff I get offered and get to read for. I did this show called I’m Dying Up Here a couple years ago, which actually made me want to keep acting. Whatever problems the show had, I had a good time playing that character. That especially made me want to act in Arkansas. So, I had always written that role for myself because it’s the same story that a lot of people have had where nobody was going to write me a role like that.

Independent film has a high degree of difficulty since you’re working without the resources of the major studio system. And yet, you still assembled an incredible cast. Did you cast the movie through the usual channels, or did you bust out your Rolodex and cash in a few favors that you’ve collected over the years?

I really didn’t know any of this cast ahead of time. That was the hardest part. Like any indie film, it’s this terrible chicken-and-egg nightmare scenario where no cast wants to attach unless the movie is real and has financing, and nobody wants to finance it unless the cast is attached. I’m as guilty of doing this as anybody. In the past, I’ve gotten asked to do some low-budget indies, and I’ve asked, “Is it real? Does it have financing?” and they’re like, “No.” Then, I’d say, “Well, what are we talking about? Send it to me when they have the money and we can schedule it.” So, I totally get it.

The thing that made this movie exist at all is Liam saying yes. We didn’t know each other before; he just read the script and liked it. He’s somewhere in the Australian outback with no Wi-Fi, but he said he was gonna tell this story on talk shows if he could do any. I never in a million years thought he was actually going to do it. I was like, “This meeting is a waste of time; Liam Hemsworth is not gonna do this movie.” He said that I looked so surprised when he said, “Yes, let’s do it,” that it immediately made him think he’d made a huge mistake. (Laughs.) He said that my face really concerned him because I was way too surprised. So, that was the start of everything. Once we had Liam, then we could get other actors.

Despite an all-star cast, Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh Brolin and Alice Adair) might have impressed me the most since I didn’t have a frame of reference for her. I know it’s a stock question, but how did this casting come to be?

She sent a self-tape in, and it was the best tape you’ve ever seen. In the audition tape, she did the scene where she’s crying and telling him that she’s pregnant. And she ate an entire Twinkie during the take. I just thought it was really brilliant, but, yeah, I agree; she’s fantastic. She was a real find. I saw her tape, and my co-writer [Andrew Boonkrong], my brother [Chandler Duke] and I had lunch with her one day. You do that just to make sure you’re not hiring a crazy person, but she’s awesome and fun to hang out with, too. (Laughs.)

Out of curiosity, how many takes did John Malkovich need to grab the phone with his feet?

I think one, and that was completely Malkovich improvising that. I wish I came up with that. I did fight with everyone that tried to cut it out of the movie, though. Everyone that was trying to cut stuff for time, I was, like, “No, no, that’s one of the best moments in the whole movie. You’re crazy.” I’m really glad you pointed that out. One thing that has been nice about doing interviews the last two days is that a lot of people are responding to stuff that I really like and fought to keep in the movie. So, it’s nice to hear that you like that moment. Malkovich barely needs any direction; he’s a genius and also one of the nicest, funniest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He’s by far the most professional guy I’ve gotten to watch up close. He was just an absolute dream. I think we had one or two phone conversations beforehand; l just gave him my ideas for it, and he showed up fully formed. He’d be standing there talking to you normally, and he’d just shift and put that weird, bright face and voice on. … He’s as good as it gets, man. You wish you had 10 John Malkoviches on set.

Since the St. Louis Cardinals are the Chicago Cubs’ greatest rival, did lifelong Cubs fan Vince Vaughn put up a fight over the Cardinals hat he had to wear as his character?

(Laughs.) He did not, and to be honest, I didn't know that about Vince. So, that’s really funny. The Cardinals hat was a big character thing in the book. The character always had this red Cardinals hat on, so I just never questioned it. It also felt like a signifier in the way that a black cowboy hat is in a Western, and I always thought of this movie as a Western in my head. The execution of the visuals, the soundtrack and all that other stuff added to that. So, I liked the red hat because then you had the opportunity at the end for Liam to have a similar hat on. Like I said, I’ve been trying to make this for so long, and obviously, him wearing a red hat predated any modern association we have with a red baseball cap now. (Laughs.) Somebody pointed that out to me, and they were like, “Is it supposed to be like a MAGA hat?” and I was like, “Oh, my God, no. Not at all.” (Laughs.) Frog (Vaughn) is from that part of the country. Arkansas doesn’t have a baseball team, and people just like the Cardinals there. But, no, I never heard Vince say anything like that.

Admittedly, I was hoping for a story that rivaled David Fincher’s baseball hat experience with Ben Affleck on Gone Girl. Have you heard this story?

(Laughs.) No, I haven’t. 

Apparently, Fincher wanted Affleck’s character to keep a low profile by wearing a New York Yankees hat during an airport scene. However, according to Fincher, Affleck, who’s a devout Boston Red Sox fan, refused to wear a Yankees cap, which caused production to shut down for four days. Even Affleck’s agent got involved to negotiate another hat, something Fincher called “unprofessional.” Ultimately, they settled on a New York Mets hat, but Fincher didn’t sound too pleased with the outcome on the Gone Girl director’s commentary. So, I’m glad you didn’t have that experience with Vince.

That’s really wild. The only thing Vince refused to put on one day was the gray hair stuff to make him look like an older man, but that’s about it.

A lot of first-time actor-directors have discovered that they despise editing themselves. Was this the case for you, as well?

Not especially. The only stuff that I’d ever directed before was Clark and Michael and a pilot that didn’t go, and I had acted in both. So, the only way I know how to direct is also when acting in it. If anything, I was the first person to go, “Let’s just cut me out of this or cut that line.” (Laughs.) I was really glad to have my editor, Patrick J. Don Vito, there. When you write, direct and act in the movie, there’s just a certain point where you lose the forest through the trees. It’s not that you lose objectivity, but you have no clue if the movie is any good or you’re any good; the quote works to a certain point.

Maybe Bradley Cooper said this about himself in A Star Is Born, but there’s a tendency when you’re acting in a film that you’re directing to give yourself the short end of the stick as far as the number of takes and the focus on your performance...

My very next question was going to reference this exact same point that Cooper made.

(Laughs.) I really tried to force myself to be aware of that. I don’t know if it’s embarrassment or modesty to be like, “Look, I’m not spending that much time on myself,” but that’s a real thing I had to keep in mind. I didn’t want to move on until I was positive that I got what I needed from myself out of the scene, too. I didn’t want to show up in editing and be like, “Oh, God, I forgot to direct myself.”

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Arkansas is now available on digital HD and VOD.

  • Brian Davids
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