Chris Evans is an actor who would like to balance his career by doing major studio films with smaller-budges independent films. One of the indie films that he has done that is much different from any he has done before is “Puncture,” directed by brothers Adam Kassen and Mark Kassen. The movie is based on a true story of two Houston lawyers who are business partners — Mike Weiss (played by Evans) and Paul Danziger (played by Mark Kassen) — and how they became underdogs in a massive battle against health corporations to allow the sale of “safety point” needles (which prevent accidental, dangerous punctures) so that the needles could be used in hospitals and other health-care facilities. The lawyers’ interest in the case is sparked when a nurse named Vicky Rogers (played by Vinessa Shaw) contracts the HIV virus after being accidentally punctured by an unsafe needle.
The major problem facing the two attorneys is that giant corporations that make the “status quo” unsafe needles are heavily invested in preventing the “safety point” needles from going on the market because it would threaten their business. Complicating matters are the conflicts that arise between Mike and Paul, who are almost polar opposites: Mike is a drug-addicted bachelor whose lifestyle of hard partying and prostitutes is in direct contrast to the lifestyle of responsible family man Paul. Even though both attorneys become committed to the anti-trust needle case (when they realize how many lives could be saved), they end up having different views on how far they want to take their case when it threatens to financially ruin them financially.
“Puncture” had its world premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where I caught up with Evans, Shaw and directors Mark and Adam Kassen for this interview. They shared behind-the-scene stories about making the film and what the real Mike Weiss was like. Evans also talked about the differences in pressure he felt making “Puncture” versus a big-budget movie like “Captain America.” They also talked about how they wanted to make the film entertaining without trivializing or over-dramatizing the movie’s important subject matter.
Did you allow the actors to see any dailies or rough cuts of “Puncture” before the final cut was made?
Adam Kassen: I don’t think we really showed much dailies.
Evans: I like watching playback sometimes.
Mark Kassen: One night, we showed you some stuff. It’s kind of an interesting thing where you want everyone to trust everyone. At the same time, we’re in a process too, in mining and discovering.
So you don’t know if you’re going to be showing somebody something, and they’re going to be so horrified that they’re going to start going, “I need two takes. It’s only going to get worse.” But what we found when it was helpful were the questions, at least from Chris then, became more educated about what kind of movie we were making.
How did Mike Weiss’ story come to you?
Mark Kassen: Paul Danzinger sent it to us as a cold submission. We had done this movie called “Bernard and Doris” that was a true story about a complicated issue. It came to us, and that went pretty well. We sold it and made it independently.
Adam and I wanted to take whatever currency we had and whatever we were able to save off of that and spend a lot of time on something that we really felt we could own, both from a production and a creative standpoint. The [Mike Weiss] character was amazing, and it was a great window into an issue that we cared about.
Adam Kassen: Yeah, and Paul sent us a version of a script that he kind of cobbled together, which is a really interesting story and an amazing character. And we had this writer Chris Lopata, who’s a friend of ours whom we’ve worked with on a bunch of different stuff. And we worked on it for about a year. And then we met with Chris [Evans]. And we gave him enough drinks to convince him to do the project.
Evans: They just got me drunk. And it worked!
Chris, how important is it for you to do independent films like “Puncture” that have an important message behind them?
Evans: The social message is a big one, but for me, it was a bit more of a selfish motivation. With smaller films, you’re in the field. With big films, you spend a lot of time in your trailer. It’s a snail’s pace. Normally, you do a page a day … It’s just a different feeling
In this [“Puncture”], you were knocking out a giant scene a day. You don’t go back and sit in your trailer. You go home and you’re like, “I made a movie today. I was an actor. I was paid to do what I love. I got my hands dirty.” It just feels satisfying and fulfilling. It’s just creatively addicting, really.
Chris, the production notes for “Puncture” said you made some suggestions for the film. What kinds of suggestions did you make?
Evans: I don’t know if I made suggestions. It was tricky to want to change too much … some of the dialogue, the way the story goes. You just have to walk a fine line because this person existed. You can’t take too many liberties.
Mark Kassen: I think getting that from the fact that we really were excited that Chris asked a lot of questions and basically said, “Why?” or “How come?” or “Why not?” Even when we were forced to say, “Oh, that was sort of a good idea in our head but not a good idea [in practice].” Or when we can’t answer the question, even if we don’t agree, if we can’t answer the question, then that’s a better way to go.
Do any of you know someone like Mike Weiss who lives a reckless, drug-addicted lifestyle and yet manages to excel in their job?
Mark Kassen: Yes. We live in L.A., so you know.
Adam Kassen: I think we all do. We have these amazing, talented people who somewhere in their lives can sometimes be tragic. There’s different variations. And this was a character that took it a little bit too far.
How did you know not to go too far with what to show of Mike Weiss’ drug addiction so that he didn’t turn into a caricature?
Evans: It comes down to … the directors. I’ve seen great scripts turn out pretty lousy because of bad directors. I’ve watched and worked with actors amazing performances that end up not working because of bad directors. These guys have to spoon feed the story to the audience with the camera.
They create the pace and the tempo and the tone and the feel. They get you in sync with what’s going on. They push you as far as they want to push you and bring you back.
Acting is one very, very small piece in the movie puzzle. At the end of the day, a director can take your performance and make it great or make it terrible. And that’s the way they kind of walked this line.
Mark Kassen: I remember one specific scene. It actually was the [drug] withdrawal scene. And Adam and I had a different idea of what that would be like. And Chris was like, “I called a bunch of people who have been through … withdrawal.”
And he revs off a list of what people’s experiences were. And we were like, “That’s true.” And he made that scene in a much more interesting level that we had imagined. He did it based on what he thought was real.
Adam Kassen: I think it’s one of the main reasons, but just within the drug world itself, we did a lot of talking beforehand, all of us. And movies that I’m a big fan of, like “Requiem for a Dream” and some other interesting drug movies, they’re kind of like “drug porn,” because they’re done in a nihilistic, beautiful way.
We didn’t want to do that. We kind of wanted to make it like, “It’s there. It’s in his life. He does drugs. It’s part of his life. It kind of creeps up on you how much it’s actually affecting it.” Showcasing the drug, not so much.
Evans: We never really showed the drugs that much, actually. Did you ever see the needle going in?
Adam Kassen: You never actually see the needle going in.
Evans: I think the less you show, the more it’s interesting. This guy is a functioning drug addict, but he can still crush like he does. He’s still an amazingly dynamic charismatic person who can be hopped up on an eight-ball — and you might not even know it. But his life was unraveling. He was falling apart, so he was not handling his drugs very well.
This guy was, from what I heard, a lot of people didn’t know that Mike Weiss was such a heavy drug addict. This guy obviously had withdrawals an obviously OD’ed when he reached the end, and some people didn’t know it. That’s how well this guy could navigate.
Mark Kassen: I’ll give you a description from one of the highest federal judges whom Mike worked for in the country. And she said the first time she really knew, she heard a story, and she thought it was crap. And when she read the script, it was hard for her to believe that that was the same person — except he dressed exactly like that.
Evans: That’s what everybody said: That was the one, universal thing. Every person we talked to said that this guy dressed like a maniac. But he thought he was fashion-forward … and he would rock that in a courtroom.
How do you see “Puncture” as an advocacy film?
Adam Kassen: We try to be careful, in that it’s entertainment. It’s a movie. We connected to it. This stuff is true, and just by having a conversation about it is a start. We spent a lot of time in hospitals for different reasons in the last year-and-a-half. And those [safety] needles are all over the place in hospitals now because of that case. And there still needs to be a lot more.
Overseas, that’s such a huge thing. It’s just not talked about. You hear about HIV and hepatitis and diseases that are spread by unprotected sex, but you do not hear about needles. That is a huge thing. There’s a bunch of documentaries. One is called “Injection,” which is a really interesting documentary to point to.
Mark Kassen: The footage that [they’re watching] is actually from that documentary.
Adam Kassen: The case took place in Libya, which is obviously very topical right now, about a bunch of nurses that came over and were thrown in jail, because [Muammar] Gaddafi was convinced that America was trying to kill children because the nurses must have tried to give them HIV on purpose. And it was because they were using needles over and over and over again. And it’s a huge problem. And it’s not being stopped. Our hope is that in some small part, this can start a conversation and maybe get people to help do something about it.
Mark Kassen: And it’s worth mentioning that Paul Danziger, after he has seen the movie and after other people have seen the movie … they are very committed to the issue. Like Adam was saying, we’re telling the movie first, but it is their hope that there will be foundations, that they will go on to have a worldwide fight.
Shaw: In my research, I have two friends who are nurses. One is in Arizona, and the other is in California. Both have been stuck by needles multiple times. And they’re like, “Yeah, it’s the scariest thing. You never know.” It’s commonplace, and it’s very dangerous.
Chris, besides the real Paul Danzinger, who else did you talk to in order to find out more information about Mike Weiss?
Evans: We talked to Darryl King, [Mike Weiss’] brother, his father. It’s so funny because you get a different story from everybody.
Which version of Mike Weiss did you follow the most closely?
Evans: Probably the one from Paul.
Mark Kassen: Yeah, it’s his vantage point more than anything.
Evans: Paul, more than anybody, had the most … Even if you read the transcript of his funeral, you’re like, “Man, this guy is so different from what Paul was telling me.” There were common denominators. This guy was obviously intelligent. He could be crass at times and had a little bit of an ego, but was brilliant.
Mark Kassen: He affected each person in a different way.
Evans: But he had a few universal traits.
Having had the experience of doing “Puncture,” has it changed the way you look at hospitals and what kind of needles may be used on you in a hospital or medical office?
Evans: I had to go to Hong Kong and get a shot, so I was pretty nervous about that.
Mark Kassen: It’s important to say … this is not a critique of the medical industry. Hospitals are relatively safe places. They have clean needles. It’s not like hospitals are using dirty needles. They open a clean one.
It’s actually not the patients who are at risk in the U.S. It’s the nurses and pharma health-care workers. Overseas, it’s a different issue … It’s the No. 1 front line health-care injury. It’s very preventable.
Adam Kassen: You have this injury you can prevent that is affordable. It doesn’t make sense why it can happen. And you hear a lot of things in the health-care industry in the last couple of years. And we just noticed that too often the front-line health-care workers are not spoken about — or at least not spoke about enough. And they are such an important part of our health-care industry.
Mark Kassen: It’s true. There’s all this talk about the macro. And that’s what we responded to about the story, in terms of everything people in the world talk about corporations and insurance — these large concepts — and people have opinions on who should pay for what.
We’re not trying to weigh in on the debate. It’s easy to not think that everything has real ramifications both for the care that you get and all these people whose livelihoods are massively affected by these decisions, these [congressional] bills. We just hope that this sheds just a little bit of a window in humanizing the results of the conversations that take place.
Vinessa, what did you feel when you saw yourself in the Vicky Rogers character as she was dying from AIDS?
Shaw: I think just originally, it’s just, “This is what’s happening. It’s part and parcel of the disease coming to you.” I was happy that it looked appropriate.
Did you feel pressure to portray Vicky in a certain way, since she is the catalyst of what happens in the “Puncture” story?
Shaw: They didn’t give me pressure, but I put pressure on myself. I actually, I was just talking with Adam about how much it came across that she was the catalyst of this film. I was just being honest with the character: a woman who wants to take care of her kids. I’m happy with how it came across that she was the pulse of the story.
Adam Kassen: It’s really about the casting. The best and the most challenging thing that happened to Vinessa [as Vicky Rogers] is you need to fall in love with her. That part’s easy. And then you have to make her look sick and decrepit.
Mark Kassen: The only challenge we had was she’s too gorgeous [to look like a dying AIDS patient], but we had a good makeup artist.
Adam Kassen: You had to fall in love with her in a way that felt safe and real … We got so lucky with got so lucky with the cast.
Mark Kassen: It’s really hard to explain how rare it is to have an independent film where you don’t shoot or New York or L.A., and you don’t have a weak link. Every single person who came in — from Roxanna Hope to Tess Parker to Brett Cullen to Marshall Bell to Kate Burton — these are amazing professionals.
We felt honored. We couldn’t believe they showed up! I’m a theater geek. Kate Burton came for a day! Nobody treated it like it was an independent film or a favor. Everybody just came to play. We just lucked out.
Adam Kassen: Brett Cullen, his family is actually a known Houston family. In the last shot of the movie, he was pointing out this Cullen building, which he was very excited about.
Mark and Adam, how do you two work together as directors?
Adam Kassen: It’s funny, because we had to sit in front of a DGA [Directors Guild of America] panel before we did this [“Puncture” movie] to get co-directing credit. The DGA is very strict about co-directing credit … They ask a lot of those questions. And in a lot of directing teams, you have someone who does the camera, and somebody else does the actors, and people kind of split things up.
We don’t do that. It’s kind of like how we’re talking now: it’s organic. We plan together and we put it together as best as we can figure it out. Make a map, and realize that we can let it go and have everybody play, and make decisions as they come up.
Mark Kassen: And we’re different enough so that people respond to one person more than the other. “Great, go talk to that guy.”
Adam Kassen: We have the same creative tics, which is so important — 98 percent of the time. Sometimes we have some debates.
Evans: I was nervous. Two directors? How is this going to work? And then halfway through, it’s like, “I can’t believe I’ve never [worked with two directors before]. No I have to go back to one director [on my other movies]!” It was great. The rehearsal process, the shooting — it just made me feel so safe. It was great. It was fantastic.
Shaw: It’s a little bit like Mom and Dad: they have two different opinions in some ways, but then they have the same core purpose and meaning. So I felt like the direction would either come from one of them and then the other. And it would flip flop. Some of the scenes I was with Mark in them, so that’s when [Adam Kassen] would take over a little bit.
And then Mark would peek around the corner, about to do his own scene. And he’s directing me. I was like, “Gosh, he must have so much going on, to prepare for your own scene and then to come and direct me.” But being an actor, [Mark Kassen would use a little more actor-y words.
And Adam was very straightforward. Sometimes you’d do that in a scene: just be very straightforward and just blunt. And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed two different kinds of ways and styles. I thought you guys were different in your styles, but together, they wore the same ring.
How are Mark and Adam different?
Shaw: Well, Mark was really soft and would come really close to me and talk. I don’t know how else to say it but he would use more of a metaphor or analogy. And Adam was just very blunt. It helped me, in a lot of ways, in scenes where I needed it to be. He just gets to the point and move forward. The scene that really helped was when I [as Vicky] was with my kids, getting ready for school and that kind of thing. It really helped me, both of their styles.
The Vicky Rogers character handles her AIDS disease with more dignity and grace than a lot of people would. Was she that way in real life?
Mark Kassen: It’s really important at this stage in the film where there are things that don’t really matter. What’s important was how it worked in the story. [The characters in “Puncture”] are based on real people. What’s really important, in terms of the film, is that the person is not a simpering victim. Even though you are a victim, you are not victimized.
And that was the hope: You’re still going to be with this person. And Vinessa made sure of that. So there was that, but it was really drawing more n the actual performance than documented stuff of the woman who actually [is the basis of the Vicky Rogers character].
Shaw: It’s true. There are some moments that could get very sentimental … especially that scene in the hospital. We just got really simple.
Adam Kassen: Again, the casting with these actors. Some of those scenes are so difficult because you could end up doing a “movie of the week” or a Lifetime movie. Lifetime movies are great, but that’s all I’m going to say … The point is that we were able to get very real, nuanced performances because of the actors we were able to get.
Mark Kassen: And any time we would feel it would go “movie of the week,” [we thought], “That’s not what we’re doing here.” And in the same exercise, with the drug use — the other side of it, like they did in “Requiem for a Dream” — you just wanted to tell this kind of story where it felt real, and you didn’t over-sentimentalize or over-dramatize things that were already important and dramatic. And that was part of the reason why we cast real enigmatic people. Real, enigmatic people would just make sure we would try to be truthful.
Do you think the Vicky Rogers character development was already in the script, or did it happen as you were doing the movie?
Shaw: I definitely feel like it was on the page. And I think what we grasped out of it was to give her the heart of somebody who had the passion and the power of the people, but at the same time has accepted her fate. Again, that brings out a sense of strength, rather than the sentimentality of it. And so I really feel like in the end, what you get is somebody who you’re really rooting for to survive … But I think I think on the page, the words, the character was definitely filled with strength and energy and verve and not all like on her last legs.
Adam Kassen: We talked a lot about that in the script stage, and working with Chris Lopata, we talked about what we didn’t want it to be. And Chris Lopata is a great writer who is not an overly sentimental writer, which is why we asked him to do it at the end of the day.
What was the last rambling message that Mike Weiss left?
Evans: DVD extra! I love that too. I was like, “Oh, man! I want to hear that message.”
Mark Kassen: That whole piece of the movie really came from conversations with Paul. And hearing him describe the whole surreal experience he had with the fight … and that kind of recurring phone call he would get from Mike and finally ignoring it. You’d have to ask [Paul Danzinger] but in terms of that responsibility versus friendship, that whole bit we just tried to display that whole experience. And the words can stay personal.
Did Paul Danzinger believe there was foul play involved?
Adam Kassen: What we like to say we did with that was we talked with a lot of people involved in the case and different sides. And we tried to represent those sides. And we’d like to leave it to the audience to make their decisions about what happened.
Chris, can you compare and contrast the pressure you feel from portraying a real person in a movie versus the pressure of being part of a big comic-book movie franchise with Marvel’s “Captain America”?
Evans: It’s all pressure. Yeah, it’s different. I don’t know which one is worse. I think with [“Captain America”], because there are so many people involved in the comic book, it’s stressful because there are so many people’s livelihoods at stake. A lot of people have invested money in these films, and they want these films to do well, because it’s their job. If the films do well, a lot of people are employed … And there are the fans who love the character, and you want to do them justice.
This [“Puncture”] was tough because this was so personal. This wasn’t about money. This is a brother, son, a friend who really mattered to a lot of people. And that is so precious. The fact that they’d even want to give us a story is just amazing, a blessing for all of us. A lot of the guys who knew Mike would come to set. We talked to them plenty before shooting, and they were on set.
And I was like, “I can’t talk to the guys. I’ll just freak myself out. I’m going to second-guess everything I’m doing. I’m going to get lost in my own head. I’ve made some decisions. I have to commit to these decisions and just hope for the best.” But it was constantly in my head — probably worse pressure than “Captain America.”
What has surprised you the most about being part of a superhero movie franchise? Your first one was obviously the “Fantastic Four” series.
Evans: The first one, I felt safer in the background. Everybody wanted to talk to Jessica Alba, so it was safe. I thought, “If it doesn’t work out, it’s not my fault. If t does, maybe I’ll get a little bit of money.” With “Captain America,” it’s just me up there, so it’s just a lot more [pressure].
“Puncture” is a serious drama, but did anything happen that lightened the mood while you were working on the movie?
Adam Kassen: It’s such a serious topic.
Evans: I wasn’t pulling pranks or anything.
Mark Kassen: [He says jokingly] Every day we filled his shoes with sand. It was hilarious!
Evans: We worked a lot. We worked long days. How many days? Twenty-one days. That’s insane! You do so much each day,
Mark Kassen: I think the biggest joke I played was I saw his sunglasses and I just put them on a table.
Evans: There was no easy day. There was no day where I was like, “This is a relaxing day with a few lines. It’s not really about me in the scene.” I think we had one day off.
Mark Kassen: We were shooting six to eight pages a day … To be fair, you’d go home, and half the time you’d call someone. And you’d say, “So this is what’s going on for tomorrow. Call me with questions and dialogue and we’d do the work,” which was great, but it didn’t stop. And that’s after a 12-hour shoot day,
Evans: After the first week of filming, I was like, “All right, my weekend is going to be all about … Usually, you do your work, and you go home and prepare for the next day at work … After the first weekend, I didn’t leave my apartment. I sat there working on things. I’d never had so much work.
Mark Kassen: It’s a lot of work!
Chris, how do feel about independent films and how they fit into your career?
Evans: Getting scripts like this is intriguing. Finding stories that have a great social message, that make you think, that make you feel. At the end of the day, I love acting. I really, really love movies, because I really think movies can do things to people that not many other mediums can.
The most narrow-minded, cynical person can really see things differently through music and art and film. When you get a script like this that strikes those chords and makes you think and feel afterwards, it’s why we do this.
Chris, how prepared did you feel when you started filming “Puncture”?
Evans: I think once we came to set, I felt pretty prepared.
Mark Kassen: It’s really easy to take for granted how prepared Chris was. I’m really not saying this to give him a compliment. We went into this intentional lack of appreciation for how hard it would be for that actor to pull that off under regular circumstances. We just ignored it. Knowing your lines is not a small thing while giving a complicated journey.
One of the things we never had an experience of before, quite frankly, is having a pop culturally known person and then shooting on the street. Shooting on a Friday night in front of a bar, not knowing that people would be excited to see some famous dude. Like, “Can you ask the extras to not have their cell-phone cameras out?” You have all this stuff, with a lot less support than people would have, with this insanely demanding emotional … It’s a lot to ask of somebody.
The production notes for “Puncture” compares Chris Evans’ performance in “Puncture” to Paul Newman’s performance in “The Verdict.” How do you feel about that comparison? Did “The Verdict” (directed by Sidney Lumet) influence how you made “Puncture”?
Adam Kassen: Yeah. I’m a big Sidney Lumet fan, to begin with, and “The Verdict,” both in tone and it’s just a great movie for acting. I’m a huge Paul Newman fan. Maybe on a subconscious level, I never thought of Chris as Paul Newman, but it’s an interesting comparison. We had hoped to make a movie that had as much texture and meaning like a movie like “The Verdict” with the great performances.
Mike started to think about changing his self-destructive lifestyle toward the end of the story. Do you think he wanted to make the change before he took on this big case about safety needles?
Evans: In real life? Who knows? This is obviously film where we’re taking scenes that probably didn’t happen in real life and projecting them into something that’s for entertainment. But in the script, yeah, I think so.
From what I heard about Mike, the common denominator was at times he was a bit hurtful — not intentionally, but I think those guys were so brilliant, and their brains just moved so much faster, they speak before they think. At times, he could be careless and thoughtless. When you start putting yourself last, that’s what makes for an interesting shift.
For more info: “Puncture” website
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