One night in 1996, Troy Duffy came home from his job as a bartender and bouncer
to find a dead woman getting wheeled out of the heroin dealer's apartment
across the hall.
"Her leg was hanging over the side, and she had an army boot on," says Duffy,
who was living in Los Angeles at the time. "The heroin guy . . .
comes running out of his apartment saying 'That bitch's got my money!' and
slams his hand right down her boot. She'd been dead a couple of days."
That was enough. The Exeter, New Hampshire, native -- a premed dropout at
musician who'd gone west for a shot at the music business -- rented a computer
and vented his revulsion in a screenplay. Called Boondock Saints, the
script is about two vigilante Irish Catholic brothers in Boston. It eventually
found its way to Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Studios, who loved it,
bought it for a reported $450,000, gave Duffy directorial control, and told
Duffy that his band, the Brood, could do the soundtrack. Major names were
mentioned: Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg. The movie would be shot in Boston. As a
cherry on top of the deal, Miramax would buy J. Sloane's, the bar where
Duffy had been working, and give Duffy partial ownership. Fairy dust swept in:
Paramount Pictures agreed to buy Duffy's next two scripts for $500,000; a Brood
record deal looked promising. Not bad for a 26-year-old who'd never taken a
film class in college, never mind written anything resembling a movie script.
But then a gust of reality blew away a fair amount of that dust. Miramax and
Duffy couldn't agree on casting, and this past spring Miramax dropped the
project -- and, of course, the plan to buy J. Sloane's. The Brood did not
get a record deal. For a while it looked as if Boondock would go the way
of most first screenplays, and end up in . . . well, the boondocks.
But three months later, shooting for Boondock began in Toronto, and the
final scenes were wrapped up in Boston about a month ago. Duffy had found an
indie studio, Franchise Films, to pick up his movie and let him cast it the way
he wanted. (It stars Willem Dafoe; Sean Patrick Flannery, from Powder;
Scottish actor Billy Connolly; and newcomer Norman Reedus.) The Brood will
indeed be on the soundtrack, as well as in a barroom-brawl scene. The producers
aren't talking about who will distribute the film, but so far Troy Duffy,
Hollywood outsider, is improvising a very Hollywood ending to his own story.
On location at the Back Bay's Church of the Covenant, on Newbury Street's most
chichi stretch, the keg-shaped Duffy calls the shots with quiet command. In a
buzz cut and ripped overalls, he moves without a ghost of indecision, striding
around the set, giving orders to the crew, demonstrating that a virgin film
director can discern instinctively and precisely what he wants and how to
achieve it. He even has the human-engineering side down. At one point he
acknowledges the congregation full of extras -- and draws a laugh -- by saying,
after they have stood and sat, stood and sat, for take after take: "You people
are the best sitters I've ever seen."
Having managed to sneak onto the set as an extra, I hold prop rosary beads
with the rest of the congregation; again and again we rise for the Lord's
Prayer. Again and again the boondock saints, played by Flannery and Reedus,
saunter up to the altar to pray and kiss the toes of a huge crucified Jesus.
Again and again a monsignor launches into a sermon about Kitty Genovese.
Sometimes it's clear why a take fails -- as does the very first one, when
sirens howl down Newbury Street just as the monsignor starts sermonizing. Other
times it's impossible to tell what's gone wrong.
"All I know is I see the whole thing in my head and there's a whole bunch of
people there helping me to do it," says Duffy, sitting amid the hubbub of the
Prudential Center's food court on the Saturday morning after the church shoot.
He's drinking a giant-size coffee, which his foggy head probably requires --
the night before, he and some high-school buddies went carousing at Charley's
Saloon and almost got thrown out. "Some asshole always says something stupid,"
Duffy is not a dainty man. He speaks his mind. This probably helped fertilize
the sour grapes of some industry types; there was gossip in film circles that
Duffy didn't even write Boondock Saints. "It's so hard for people to
believe. No film classes, no writing classes, no nothing. Zero to hero in two
seconds. That's it. Nobody can buy that. They're like, 'This is bullshit.'
Everybody's so jaded in LA.
"There was actually a story that they picked me, that my producers actually
wrote it but they picked me as the figurehead to say that I wrote it, because
I'm a tattooed, brawling, maniac fuckin' Irish bartender and I had the right
Duffy's look, and his blunt conversational style, also helped feed Internet
rumors that he was "difficult." But one of the Boondock producers, Chris
Brinker, says, "He's really pleasant to work with. The actors loved
him. . . . A lot of directors are lackadaisical. He really grabs
it and runs." (Another producer is Elie Samaha, who heads Franchise Films and
produced the Boston-set film Monument Ave.)
As for the grab-and-run approach, Duffy talks about how his demands went over
with Miramax's Weinstein, a famously tough negotiator. "When I sat down, he
goes, 'What do I gotta do to get this movie?' I rattled off a list. I said you
gotta give me eight and a half million dollars, you gotta stick it in the bank
. . . I cast my movie. He was like, 'Whoa.'
"I passed the test because most guys would go, 'Oh, I don't know, Harvey, who
do you want? Who do you think should go in that role?' And that's how he knows
he's dealing with a putz."
It's also, says Duffy, why he and Miramax ended up parting company. He was
determined to get the cast he wanted, but Miramax didn't like his choices. (In
one instance, he chose Patrick Swayze to play the role that ended up going to
Willem Dafoe; Miramax wanted Bill Murray or Sylvester Stallone.) "I told them
I'll jibe with them on every other domain. If you want to cut my budget, if you
want to film half of it in Toronto and half in Boston, I'll jibe with you
everywhere except when it comes to casting. So they said, 'Well, Troy, we just
can't deal with that.' "
The people at Franchise Films could deal with Duffy's choices, and he says he
got the cast he wants. Signing Dafoe was the master stroke. Dafoe portrays a
gay FBI agent who's after the Flannery and Reedus characters, self-styled
lawboys with a mystical bent. When Duffy first met with Dafoe, he says, "it was
like a huge meeting of the minds. I sat down at a table with him, and we
must've talked for four fuckin' hours about the depth of this character, how to
do things, all these funny little things. I knew right off the bat that he was
"I knew I needed someone with that type of talent, who was going to challenge
me and give me some stuff that was better than what I had on paper. When you're
so talented, the script becomes nothing but a blueprint, something for you to
go by. You can go out of bounds anywhere you want."
One scene, for instance, had real holes, both artillery- and plotwise. A guy
gets perforated with bullets, while two others end up only semiperforated. The
inconsistency seemed illogical until Dafoe suggested emphasizing the fact that
there were two different shooters. "He goes, 'What do you think about this?
What if I just turn around and go, 'Good shooting, shitty shooting'? And I
said, 'perfect.' "
If there's one movie-related profession Duffy holds in high regard, it's
acting. "That kind of concentration, being able to put all that shit out of
your head and get into your character, seriously into him, I think is a very
specific gift, and I don't think it can be taught," he says. "When you hear
candy-ass stories like 'I need a trailer this big' or 'I gotta have my own
makeup artist' or 'I gotta have a guy that does my hair,' I say fuck it, give
them everything they want and then some. They deserve it, because they're
taking the biggest risk on the set. I can't go out and act all these goddamn
parts myself. I can do everything else, just about. But that I can't do."
It's typical of Duffy to seem immodest as hell one moment, then disarm you by
admitting his limitations the next. When he says that he was "elated" with his
cast most of the time, he sounds full of genuine wonder. His enthusiasm is as
guileless as his energy -- both pretty much the antithesis of Hollywood
To Jim Jacks, the producer who brought Duffy to Paramount -- where Duffy's
two-picture, half-million-dollar deal still holds -- that gruff honesty is part
of what hooked him on the rookie. "I really liked his point of view," says
Jacks. "I thought he had an original voice. I liked Boondock a lot. I
didn't think it was a movie for Paramount, but I thought it was a really
interesting script and had a lot of potential. So we sat down and talked and he
told me some other stories that I thought were much more, for lack of a better
word, 'studio' pictures."
Duffy has already finished a draft of The Peregrines, his first
Paramount script, which Jacks says is in the "brilliant mess" stage. "It
actually attracted the interest of a lot of major directors, so we'll see who
we end up developing the script with. [Duffy's] not going to direct The
Peregrines. It's a very sophisticated visual movie. Maybe he could direct
in a couple of movies, because he actually is kind of -- after seeing a lot of
Boondock -- he does have a strong visual style."
"He's a really smart, very talented man," Jacks adds. "And I'll say this: he's
not really movie-savvy, at least not knowing old movies, so what happens is his
scripts are much more literary in the sense that they come from great books
that he read as a young man. So his scripts don't read like anybody else's.
Which is a good thing. It makes him exciting to work with, although it makes it
a little frustrating because he ignores certain things that are usual in
movies." He laughs. "Like clear beginnings, middles, and ends."
Jacks is right about Duffy's literary background: the director tells of being
assigned regular extracurricular book reports by his father, a Harvard graduate
in English literature. "No matter how thick that book was, we had to get it
done by the end of the month. It was annoying at the time. We wanted to play
ball, you know? What the fuck? But it gave me a real good sense of when authors
are hitting their mark and when they're not.
"I wrote [Boondock] in three sections. I wrote the very beginning and
then I started thinking of cool shit for the middle. Then somehow between the
beginning and the middle, the ending dictated itself."
Beginning, cool shit, ending -- Jacks's protestations
aside -- is pretty much the recipe used in literature from the Odyssey
to Angela's Ashes. And it may be this ability to strip art down to its
guts that has gotten Duffy where he is. When he speaks of the sordid
inspiration for Boondock Saints -- heroin dealer jamming hand into boot
of corpse -- he exudes passion and frankness.
"I decided right there that out of sheer frustration and not being able to
afford a psychologist, I was going to write this," he says. "Think about it.
People watching the news sometimes get so disgusted by what they see. Susan
Smith drowning her kids . . . guys going into McDonald's, lighting up
the whole place. You hear things that disgust you so much that even if you're
Mother Teresa, there comes a breaking point. One day you're gonna watch the
news and you're gonna say, 'Whoever did that despicable thing should pay with
their life.' You think -- for maybe just a minute -- that whoever did that
should die, without any fuckin' jury."
So, he decided, "I was going to give everybody that sick fantasy. And tell it
as truthfully as I could.
"Everybody's like, so, you got a story like Death Wish, huh? I'm like,
no, it's not like Death Wish, because these guys are killing everybody
who's inherently evil, that's it. It's not like, 'Hey, you raped my wife and
killed my family, I'm coming after six particular dudes.' . . .
It's like, 'I don't know you, I've never seen you before in my life, but you're
a drug dealer, you're a pimp, you're in the mob, you die. That's it.' "
Duffy's description of the Boondock vigilantes lends them an oddly
hallowed radiance. He says the two brothers, who work in a Boston meatpacking
plant, possess mystical, saintly airs. Somehow, they know five languages --
"Whenever they don't want anyone to know what they're talking about, they speak
in Latin. They're very humble people, but at the same time [they get into] lots
of bar fights, always drinking. . . . But every Sunday they make
sure they get their ass to church. . . . They're waiting for a
hint from God to tell them what the hell they should be doing."
This mix of coarseness and concern for fellow creatures characterizes Duffy
himself. He's a softie when it comes to old friendships -- he cast at least one
high-school buddy in Boondock Saints. And he loathes cynicism, which he
blames for "so many shitty films being made."
Despite the dead woman and the assorted LA horrors and users he's encountered
over the past couple of years, he has not lost faith in people. LA is "only a
tiny little town full of a bunch of assholes and a bunch of great people. It's
just like anyplace else." Nor has he lost faith in the magic of movies: "Making
a film is the most human thing you can do, because you're trying to bring all
these other human beings into you, into your story . . . touch them
on a personal level. . . . If you lose faith in human beings and
you become a cynical, questioning motherfucker, then you're going to suck."
Directing a film, he says, is simple. "Tell people what you want. Be nice to
everybody. Shake hands with everybody that helped you out afterwards. Just be a
human being. It's not that fuckin' difficult."