Interview | Dave Bautista on the Unexpectedly Political ‘Bushwick’

The actor discusses how 'Bushwick,' a supposedly far-fetched story about American secessionists, has become eerily topical.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Dave Bautista has been a wrestler, a space alien and a James Bond villain. He’s had a varied career, full of ups and downs. Just one look at that resumé sells the actor, and now executive producer’s argument that what he wants, more than anything else, is to entertain.

That’s how his new film got started, with a far-fetched and disturbing idea of a very near future, in which the New York City neighborhood of Bushwick is invaded by violent secessionists who destabilize society, and turn the streets into a deadly war zone. Dave Bautista stars in the film as Stupe, a mysterious former military man who only wants to find his wife and child, but winds up helping a young woman, Lucy (Brittany Snow), make her own way through the chaos.

Also: Interview | Pom Klementieff Says Mantis and Drax Are ‘Just Friends’ in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Bushwick is ambitious on multiple levels, telling a story about the potential downfall of America, and doing so in extended shots that make the whole film feel like it was recorded in real time. The technical challenges, especially on a low budget, made for a high-pressure environment on set, according to Dave Bautista, who also executive produced the film.

I talked to Dave Bautista on the phone earlier today to discuss the production of Bushwick, and the unfortunate way the film has transformed from a seemingly far-fetched thriller into an uncomfortably relevant one, given recent events and divisions across the country. We also discussed his intention to move behind the camera, producing his own films and hopefully directing independent dramas in the near future, as well as why La La Land was his favorite film of 2016.

Bushwick debuts tomorrow in theaters and on VOD.

XYZ Films

XYZ Films

Crave: This is your first Executive Producer credit on a movie. How did that come about, and what made this a film you wanted to get behind, behind the scenes?

Dave Bautista: I think because that’s my mission in life, to develop films, and I was always very interested in the creative process. Eventually I want to be behind the camera, developing and hopefully directing one day. But this all came about because this project, it had very limited resources, and I really wanted to be part of it. So this was my first opportunity to be a producer and I jumped all over it. I loved the premise, I loved the challenge of the long takes, and I wanted to be a part of developing this character and the script.

So that’s how it came about. And I did, I contributed a lot, especially to the character development of Stupe, because when I first read the script I actually wasn’t crazy about Stupe at all, actually. I didn’t like the character and I thought nobody would want to root for this guy because he’s a fucking asshole. [Laughs.] So I wanted to revamp Stupe and actually make him likable and be able to tell a story that people could actually empathize with.

What made him an asshole in that earlier draft? What had to be changed?

He just was. I mean, he wasn’t nice. He wasn’t nice to Lucy. He was kind of mean to her, and snappy. He was just a very bitter, bitter character. He just wasn’t likable.

You have the biggest speech I’ve seen you give in your whole career, at the end of this movie, when we finally find out what motivates Stupe. Were you part of developing that backstory, and could you tell me about filming that scene?

Yeah, I was completely responsible for developing that backstory, and that particular scene was my one opportunity to tell the story of Stupe. So I did, I took advantage of that, I told his backstory. I wanted to tell something that would make people think, and kind of be able to relate to, and I think anybody in a marriage could relate to that.

Originally in the script, Stupe was on his way back from overseas, he was in the military, and as he was on his way home his family was killed in a car accident, and I didn’t think that was very interesting at all. So I actually proposed that to the directors one day. I talked to the directors and Brittany [Snow], and I said, “Well, what if this was Stupe’s backstory?” And [I] gave them kind of a general outline of the story, and then I said “Well, if you trust me to tell my story when I have the opportunity, then I’ll just do it.”

And that’s actually what I did. I had a story in my head and I just told it as a story rather than a written-out monologue.

Oh, wow. What was that like, actually filming that? Was that a particularly intense day? It seems like almost every day would be intense on this kind of project…

It was, but I think that’s because… it was intense for a lot of reasons, and I think where we were in the film. We all really poured our heart out into this film, and there weren’t easy conditions. We were very limited on money and resources, and this is a few weeks into the film, and we were all just kind of beat up and tired and really all emotionally invested in this film at this point. So yeah, it was emotional. It was just draining. For Brittany and I both.

It was very draining on her, it was very emotionally and physically draining, that whole scene. We only did it a few times but she literally had to drag me across the floor, and at this point I’m almost 300 pounds. Brittany is a hundred and nothing. [Laughs.] And that’s in winter clothes! And she literally just sucked it up and dragged my ass across the laundromat.

XYZ Films

XYZ Films

That’s rough! When you’re doing a film almost entirely in long takes, what does that do to the vibe on set? Is there more pressure to get it right on the first try?

Yeah.

Is it funny when you screw up? Is it a tragedy when you screw up?

No, it’s a tragedy. [Laughs.] It’s a tragedy. It’s really, and it’s one of those things because we all have to be all on the same page, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Like I said, we’re on limited days, we’re on limited hours because we’re working with a real timeline, we’re working with real daylight, so we only have a few opportunities to really nail this because it [takes] so long, so it’s a lot of pressure.

It’s a lot of pressure but that’s actually what was so appealing to me. I wanted that challenge, as an actor, and I believe it made me a stronger actor, but it is one of those things where you give a performance and if you’re not happy with it, and it’s time to move on, you just try to suck it up and that’s it. That was your opportunity. You did the best you could. Because even though I may not have had the greatest take, Brittany might have have had a stellar take that everybody’s super happy with. So I can’t go back and say “Well, let’s do it again because I’m not happy with my take.” It is what it is and it’s time to move on. The camera was in the right place. There’s nobody walking through our shot. There was no cars driving through our shot. [Laughs.] We got what we needed, it’s time to move on, and that was kind of the risk.

Nowadays, just in the last few months even, Bushwick seems to take on a different vibe, I imagine, than you had intended when you filmed it. 

Right.

Did it always feel like you were making a political film, or was that only just part of a tapestry when you were in production?

Yeah, it wasn’t… I mean, that wasn’t… I mean, when I originally read it I thought it was really interesting. I thought the premise was interesting because it was so far-fetched. [Laughs.] You know, it didn’t seem very relevant at all, and as a strange, odd, horrible twist of fate, it just seems more relevant now. But no, then I took it strictly as a performance challenge, and never really thought about it as a political film at all. And I still try not to. I know people will read into it a bit more, but at the end of the day, we shot this in 2015. So things were much different than they are now, which… it’s terrifying. It makes me feel uneasy. It’s unnerving, but it is what it is.

I think that it will strike some cords with people. I hope in a good way, because I believe at the end of the day, our message here is that nothing good comes out of violence. That’s the message I would like to portray, anyway. Nothing good comes out of it, and that’s why there’s a very somber ending to this film. The directors felt very strongly that there should be a somber ending. This is not a feel good movie. This is not a happy ending, because war is not a happy ending. Violence is not a happy ending.

XYZ Films

XYZ Films

You say it’s your mission to develop movies and then move behind the camera at some point. Is this the kind of movie you want to make, or are there other things you have in mind?

I think mostly I would stick towards smaller, independent films. I think that’s really because I really love the art of storytelling. I think a lot of times when you’re under the umbrella of a studio that’s looking for a big blockbuster film, you may not have as much creative input. You may have to stick to a certain guideline. I just don’t want those restraints. I really want to tell the story that I want to tell. I’m not really worried about making a billion dollars.

I just want to make good films. I really love storytelling and I really want to keep that art form alive. I think independent films, they do. Every once in a while you get really, really lucky with films like Guardians of the Galaxy, which I believe James Gunn is a great storyteller and he really wants to keep that art, even if it is a big budget film with a lot of special effects and a lot of CGI, he still, at the end of the day wants to [portray] a message and tell a story.

You’ve been in a lot of action films in particular, but if you were to direct, is that the kind of film you’d want to make? Or is there a Dave Bautista romantic comedy?

It’s weird, I haven’t thought about a romantic comedy. I think I tend to lean more towards drama. Heartfelt stories, I think that’s where I think my vision would go.

What are some of your favorite movies? What movies inspire you to be a filmmaker, not just as an actor?

Just right off the top of my head, La La Land. [Laughs.]

Yeah?

Very much, La La Land. I was just having a conversation about why La La Land was my favorite film of last year, and I think it’s such a beautiful story and such a romantic story that makes me feel like Hollywood is romantic again. And I love that they took you up until the last two minutes of the film, the last one minute of the film, and it was still unpredictable. Just didn’t know what was going to happen, and I think that’s almost impossible to do anymore. They just did it in such a magical and exciting way, I just loved the way they did that. It was really just a beautiful story, but I loved that it was really unpredictable.

Did it also make you want to sing and dance?

Hell yeah! [Laughs.] You know, at the end of the day… and I know it seems weird, because I realize that I’m built like a gorilla, and I seem a bit rough around the edges on the outside, but I really think at the very core of me I think I’m a performer. I just love performing. I want to be an entertainer. I want to entertain people and make people smile. I want to make people cry. I want to inspire people. I just love entertaining people.

XYZ Films

XYZ Films

At what point did you realize that what you wanted to do was, specifically, be an entertainer?

I think when I started wrestling.

Yeah?

Yeah, to be honest with you. I think I was always a fan. Like, I love movies. I love television. I grew up just sitting in front of the TV and that’s where I got my inspiration from, going to films. That was always my escape. But I just always was such a shy introvert that I never imagined myself doing it until I got into wrestling, and I got into wrestling, really, because I was desperate. And after I got into wrestling I found that I fell in love with it, man. I just loved entertaining people.

What was it like adapting to the world of wrestling, when you were introverted? It’s a very outlandish medium in a lot of ways.

It was absolutely terrifying. [Laughs.] But I mean it when I say I got into wrestling because I was just desperate. You know, I had two kids and I was penniless. I had this great big body and I thought, “What the hell can I do? I’ll go be a professional wrestler.” Then I was told that I would never make it in professional wrestling, which at first broke my heart, then it just pissed me off and then it was a challenge. Then when I got into it and started entertaining people I fell in love with. I became so obsessed with it and so passionate about it, and I just loved it, and I left the ring every night just feeling good, and loved that I made people cheer. It just made me feel good. It made me feel like I had a purpose. But it was, it was terrifying.

A lot of people love your movies, and with good cause because I think you’re great in them, but do you miss the live crowd?

Oh, all the time. All the time. I mean, there’s nothing like it. It’s immediate feedback. To me it’s the most intense adrenaline rush you could ever get. I try to tell people, I try to describe it. I say that to me it’s as close as an athlete can get to being a rock star. That’s what it feels like. I love that immediate feedback. I miss it all the time. I don’t miss working for the WWE, and that’s not a dig on them because I’ve never been disrespectful to the company, because I still love the company and appreciate what they’ve done for me. I still stay in touch with a lot of people there, but they are a hard company to work for. They’re really hard to work for. But I love wrestling, man. I love entertaining people and I love the live audience.

Top Photo: Jun Sato/WireImage

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.