Not all directors would tackle writing a film based on a critically acclaimed novel, but then again not all directors are Bruce Thierry Cheung. You might already know his name from his notable credits on IMDB for both cinematography and directing. Or, perhaps you might have noticed his name alongside James Franco’s a lot, since the two are known to collaborate frequently. Either way, it is a name to know and keep an eye on in the future. The film, Don’t Come Back from the Moon, is the newest collaboration between Cheung and Franco, and made it’s debut at the LA Film Festival to great reviews.
The beautifully shot and performed film, Don’t Come Back From the Moon, is a somber tale of kids growing up in a desolate town with fathers frequently leaving to “go to the moon”. I had a chance to talk with director Bruce Thierry Cheung, and lead actors Jeffrey Wahlberg and Alyssa Elle Steinacker about filming in Bombay Beach and playing characters based on a beloved novel.
Bruce, was their any pressure in writing and directing a film when it is based on a novel?
Cheung- I felt two kinds of pressure. The first pressure of course is to honor the book, but also make it personal too, you know? I connected so deeply to the character’s from the book and I tried really hard to bring my own experience, and my own feelings to that too….weave in the friends from my own childhood into the story and weave in my feelings for my father.
Through our location scouting we met so many interesting people in the community who shared with me their stories, life stories about their children and fathers. I also wanted to represent and honor the people I met because they were giving so much to the film. I wanted to, not give back, but be authentic, and try my best to be authentic to everyone in the film.
Jeffrey and Alyssa, was having characters based on a book helpful to you in your research for your roles? Did you have a chance to read the novel before getting to set?
Wahlberg- I don’t know about you (to Steinacker), but I was reading during shooting. It was kind of really long days. I found out I got the part and we were already shooting in a couple of days.
Steinacker- Yeah it was a quick turn around.
Wahlberg- It happened pretty quick, but I did read it. You read it too?
Steinacker- I actually didn’t. I got the book, I have the book literally on my shelf at home. I read a little bit about my character and I got really scared… I couldn’t finish it. She’s so different in the book and I didn’t want to put her into my character, and sit and compare the book to the film.
Wahlberg- I agree. The script was our bible. I didn’t really use the book as my go to for searching, I think it’s all in the pages that Bruce wrote.
Steinacker- However, everything, Dean (Bakopoulos) wrote with Bruce… even though a lot of the story was different character wise… they definitely got the feel and tone of the book.
Bruce, you were told by James Franco that he raised $200,000 to film the feature. But there were two stipulations; it had to be in six weeks and it had to be in California. What were some of the biggest obstacles you came across?
Cheung- I knew if I cast it right and I had the right location the movie would be something. So the biggest obstacle for me in the beginning was to find the town. We have to find this town that is dying. So my cinematographer and I went on this mini road trip across Los Angeles, California. We visited different farm towns and areas. We were just searching and hoping when we did come across what we were looking for that we would have a feeling about things and could slowly build from there.
The Imperial Valley film commission was so helpful in recommending places to check out and see. When we got to Bombay Beach, Rawley, and Salton Sea we met the people there and were talking…and it just felt right. It finally felt like something that felt impossible was really valuable and doable.
It was so fast we couldn’t even think about it, we just really had to go. Everyday brought a little bit more good news. So much of this was based on the generosity of people that just trusted the movie, and I am very fortunate about that, and am so touched. I of course want to keep building this feeling and make something even greater next time.
Did you have to change anything crucial to the story when you moved the location of the story to take place in California instead of Detroit?
Cheung- It changed a lot. The decay of the rustbelt towns in America is totally different then what’s happening to the farm communities. I think there are some general parallels and emotional parallels that we are able to shift and grow into. The setting is different then the book, but I hope that the themes are the same, and we honored the themes of the book.
Did meeting and working with some of the locals change the way you originally thought of the characters and color them in a new way?
Wahlberg- Absolutely. The whole town, the whole experience really put us in this world.
Steinacker- It made it more real. It made it, like Bruce was saying, more authentic in that way. I got to know the people, we got to know the kids we were working with, and it put us in that head space.
Wahlberg- We met some amazing people.
Cheung- I feel very connected to them. They believed in us and our movie, and I believe in them. I don’t see it as locals vs non locals. I see it as we were all making the film together. Their dreams were my dreams too, we were all in it together. I think, it was very collaborative for all of us.
“Their dreams were my dreams too, we were all in it together.”
– Bruce Thierry Cheung
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(Photos Courtesy of Dark Rabbit, Elysium Bandini, atlasobscura.com, and blogs.esanjoaquin.com)