While promoting the release of Dead Reckoning, Andrzej Bartkowiak spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the film, as well as his decades-long career in the film industry. He discusses his own history as a Polish immigrant who found his version of The American Dream in Hollywood, reminisces about working with beloved pop star Aaliyah, and talks about Dead Reckoning‘s long and difficult road to release.
Dead Reckoning is out now on Digital and VOD.
Tell me a little about Dead Reckoning. I know you’re an immigrant, and this is a tale of two European brothers with very different views of America.
This was my passion project, being an immigrant. It’s such a complex issue, immigration. As we see now, it’s been amplified way more in the time since we made the movie, you know? There are always two sides to a sword, two edges. That’s what I was interested in with this story, when Kristin Alexandre approached me, the producer.
And she wrote it, right?
She wrote a story, but she didn’t write the script. We knew each other, and she came to my house in Nantucket… Do you know the history of Nantucket?
Honestly, I don’t.
Nantucket was famous for its whaling. It was the first financial capital of the United States. Before discovery of gold and oil, the whale oil was the hottest commodity. And there was no slavery in Nantucket. It was the place for runaway slaves. It welcomed all the slaves, and ships would go from Nantucket to Africa and repatriate the runaway slaves. It was very international. Even today, it’s only 11,000 people, the population, but the workforce is all immigrant, all well-blended.
Like a little melting pot off the coast.
When the Boston marathon bombing happened… Look, the movie has nothing to do, really, with the Boston bombing, but it is inspired by it, and the relationship of two brothers, the good apple and the bad apple. Blood ties exist and there are conflicts that connect them. Kristin has a daughter, and there’s a place called Altar Rock, which was the Nantucket Indian sacrificial rock, where they would do sacrifices. And it’s on a hill, isolated, so all the young people go there to get f***** up at night, you know? There’s pretty much no cops, nobody, so they go there and party all night long! Party and puke.
Good times, while they last!
So, Kristin’s daughter was dating a cab driver who was an Eastern European muslim. And she thought, look what happened with those two brothers, and I don’t know where she goes… Anyway, that’s how it sparked. So I wrote my experience, arriving to America. I was blessed. I was gifted the highest gift. I was successful. I worked hard and I was rewarded. I never looked back. This is my country. I was born in Poland, but I am American. Arriving, and going through assimilation, and Polish jokes and all that, I learned all that. I had a certain perspective of immigration. So, we hired a writer, and we wrote the script! A lot of my experiences went into that, so that’s why I call it a passion project. There wasn’t much money to make the movie, and I was asking favors of everybody, I got some great favors. It’s remarkable that we finished! (Laughs)
It was shot a few years ago, in 2016, right? And you had to sit on it for a bit before it could be finished?
We shot it a while ago. Then, we ran out of money for post-production. We had to wait until Kristin had to raise some money. She raised it, we finished it, and the Covid struck. You know, one thing leads to another… It was three years later, but finally, the movie is here. It had a different title, originally. It was called Altar Rock, but nobody really understood that, except for the hardcore Nantucket people. Everybody else was confused by the title. So distribution came up with the new title, and I thought it was a great idea, the title.
You’ve got two of my favorite actors, James Remar and Scott Adkins. To see those two guys throw down in a down-and-dirty fight scene was a real joy. It’s an intense fight!
I’ve been friends with Scott for a long time. Years ago, we were going to do a project in Turkey. We spent a lot of time there. The project never materialized, but we became friends. I don’t know if you know Scott’s background, but he wanted to be an actor. He wanted to be a dramatic actor. It was his dream. This was an opportunity for him to show his ability to act, and not just fight. He was very excited about this. I said, “There’s no money,” and he said, “I’m going to do it anyway.” So, I got him! And James, I love James. I was very lucky to get everybody. Nancy Nayor cast the movie, and she did a fantastic job. She brought me KJ and India, who I didn’t know. They were Nancy’s contribution. I didn’t want big names for them, because then you know who is good and who is bad, and I wanted it to kind of be a mystery.
It’s funny, KJ is really hot right now!
This was before he did Riverdale!
Dead Reckoning definitely shows the different ways immigrants think of their adoptive home, and the different ways people who are here think of new people coming over. That can be tricky water to navigate.
This movie was very close to my heart, I wanted to do it justice. I want to leave it open to the audience’s interpretation and feelings, and understanding how difficult it is when you have radically different points of view because of religion, and the blood ties are stronger than anything, than water, as we say. And the complications that are raised in loyalty and love. Anyway, I immersed myself fully in the film.
What was it like shooting in Nantucket?
We couldn’t shoot everything in Nantucket, so a year before we shot the movie, the scenes on the beach, we shot second unit on a real July 4 party. Thank God we did it, too, because the police shut down the Fourth of July the next year! Because 7,000 or 8,000 kids come in and they just destroy the beach. So they shut it down. Everything with actors, we had to shoot on the mainland, because we couldn’t get permission to shoot in Nantucket. So the only parts we shot in Nantucket, the scenes with KJ and India, it was three days of stealing footage without permits, because in summer in Nantucket, you can’t get a filming permit.
You gotta do what you gotta do!
We pieced the movie together.
You always get the most out of your actors, and making them look really fantastic, whether they were known or unknown at the time. I’d say you pretty much made Jet Li a Hollywood star with your collaborations. And you brought back Steven Seagal, who had been written off by most when Exit Wounds came out, and that one really brought him back for a while! From what I’ve seen, you seem to be a very agreeable person, very professional. To me, the mark of that is someone whom people are willing to work with multiple times. Like, they know you, they’ve seen what you do, and they’re game to do it again. You’ve worked with actors and filmmakers multiple times. Joel Schumacher, you did Falling Down, and then decades later, Trespass, which I thought was a really good little movie. Underrated.
I loved Joel. We wanted to do more… I was busy with other projects, but we wanted to work together more. He was very close to my heart. He was a wonderful person.
And you worked a lot with Sidney Lumet.
I did 11 movies with Sidney. I believe film is a collaboration. The only way to get the best out of people is to be agreeable. As we see what’s happening with our government. Bickering doesn’t help! When Obama ran the first time, I was living in London, and I said, I have to fly home and do a personal vote. I didn’t want to do absentee. Same for the second Obama election, I flew from London for one day, just to vote. I did about a thousand donations during that period. So far, I just got a letter from the Democratic corner, I did over 700 donations to the party! I voted, I took my ballot to the drop-off box.
Wow, you really did your part! Okay, you started out as a cinematographer, working with some serious legends, shooting all different genres and styles. When the time finally came to do your own films, did it just happen to work out that they’ve mostly been ass-kicking action movies, or are those the kinds of movies you set out to make?
It’s a personal interest! First of all, I love drama. I started with drama. Sidney Lumet was like my father. He was my adoptive father when I came here. He really took care of me. Everything I know about directing, I learned from him. I worked with some good directors, but Sidney was my first 11 films. I learned a lot from Sidney. Anyway, I love action. When I did Speed, it was like, we couldn’t make this movie today. It would be all CG and green screens. OSHA would never allow us! Keanu was on a real mechanical dolly, going 50 MPH between the bus wheels. That’s real! Everything is real, except for two shots where we removed the road. But the jump? The bus jump was real. The road was there, and we removed the road. And when the subway comes out of Boulevard, there’s also CG there. Everything else is real. I love that. I also love mixing Kung Fu and Hip-Hop. And I love music, as well. Music is very important to me in films.
Oh yeah, there’s some singing in this one, too.
On Dead Reckoning, I was casting, and the girl in Boston, Devon Diep, she got the part and said, “You know, I’m a singer.” So she’s singing her own songs. When she performs, all the songs in the movie are her songs. She recorded them and did a fantastic job. So I was very lucky. I was lucky with Aaliyah, on Romeo Must Die.
She’s another great example of your ability to see something in people and know they’re a star. She’s someone who had so much potential, and we only got to see a little bit of what she could have given us. That was such a tragedy, but your movie is a testament to how talented and beautiful she was.
The studio had someone else pretty much set to do the part, but then I saw a video of Aaliyah, and she was more right for the part. I screen-tested her with Jet in the taxi scene and the bar scene, and she was just unbelievable. She had never acted before, but she was natural. I fell in love with her, and she became my adopted daughter, basically. It was such a shame. I remember, I was still in Los Angeles, it was 4:00 in the morning, and I recognized a call from Diane, her mom, I said, “What happened?” She said, “Aaliyah died.” It was the worst night of my life. It was just horrible.
That’s so sad. I mean…
It was beyond. She was such a talent. The sweetest, the nicest. It’s just… She was amazing. My daughter was 13 at the time, they both had January birthdays, and my daughter is dancing, she’s in a three-second scene when she’s teaching the kids dancing at the shop.
Oh, okay, yeah! Thanks so much, this has been a real treat, I hope you never stop making movies and discovering stars, and I hope to catch you on the next one.
Thank you so much! Talk to you later.
Dead Reckoning is out now on Digital and VOD.