I'm sure, like many of us, there was a moment as a teenager when you wished your parents weren't really your parents. They couldn't be your real parents—they were too boring, too lame, too quick to punish you for doing stuff your actual, cool parents would have encouraged you to do.
In Adrian McDowall's short film Gutpunch, that wish becomes reality for 15-year-old Adam thanks to some news from a delightfully unaware and oversharing grandmother. After the dust settles, the awkward teenager and the man he thought was his father go on a mission to discover who his biological dad is.
McDowall's film takes a simple plot and elevates it to a new high with a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek style, committed oddball actors, and impeccable retro 90s production and costume design. Beyond the nostalgia, Gutpunch shows why dream dads aren't always all they're cracked up to be and highlights why the people who put up with your daily bullshit are the parents who count.
Watch the film and check out my interview with Gutpunch's writer Andy Yerlett and director Adrian McDowall as they discuss their (lack of) daddy issues, SodaStreams, and dating.
VICE: How did you come to this project? Is it a personal thing? Are you adopted? Do you have lingering wishes that your dad isn't actually your dad? Spill it.
Andy Yerlett: Sorry, no daddy issues here. Gutpunch originated from a couple of different places. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was hit with life-changing news all very casually across the dinner table. Before they could process it, everything was swept under the carpet, and life continued as normal. I guess that's the origin of the film.
I started writing it after seeing a bunch of 1980s dating videos and wondered, What if you found out one of these guys was your dad? I joined the dots between what happened to my friend and these videos, and it grew from there.
Adrian McDowall: I'd worked on a bunch of coming-of-age stories before this, so I wasn't in any rush to revisit this territory, but the script was hilarious, and most importantly, Andy's take on the genre was totally original. But you only know if you can collaborate on a project when you get in a room together. Thankfully there was an instant bond over old-school gaming, John Hughes movies, and a shared desire to make shamelessly funny commercial films. It was a no-brainer.
Adam's story really struck a chord with me. Not because it reflected anything from my own childhood background per se, although for a number of years my brother did rather cruelly attempt to convince me I was adopted, professing that the lack of baby photos of me with either of my parents was factual evidence. Naturally, this made me look at my parents in a different light, and despite my mom producing an above-board copy of my birth certificate, I always remained suspicious that I was an imposter.
I don't know if it's because I was born in the 80s and grew up in the 90s, but the retro setting of the film, with old virtual-reality sets, pong, eight-bit games, and neon shirts made me feel super nostalgic. How intentional was the setting, or did you just want an excuse to gather all of your old favorite things?
Yerlett: It's a bit of both really. We had the plot device of a VHS tape, and a fifteen-year-old boy looking for his father on it, which naturally cornered us into setting it somewhere around the 90s. But the 90s are also my main point of reference when writing about being a teenager. I grew up in a house that looks very similar to the one in the film. So, although it is very much a 90s setting, it's the suburbs, and the suburbs don't really change. Half the stuff in Adam's room was collected from my parents' attic, so it was like seeing a weird mock-up of my childhood bedroom.
McDowall: Andy, [producer] Michelle Eastwood, and I are of a similar age, so our pop-cultural references mirrored perfectly and made it a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth of what clothes and products we could include. I was obsessed by SodaStream. I thought it was the coolest invention ever! Early on, I begged my parents to buy one, but sadly, we didn't own a machine until the fad was well and truly dead.
People can't stop writing think pieces about how we're in a dating apocalypse or romance is doomed, but looking back at VHS dating services, I'm reminded how brutally vulnerable, yet uninteresting, those made people. That seems worse than now. In making your own VHS tape, did you cull together old dating tapes for inspiration, or did you come up with the suitors lines from your own life experience?
We were keen to create an authenticity to the dating sequence that felt spontaneous, so we shot it on an old VHS camcorder and encouraged the actors to spontaneously react in character while I asked them a bunch of random questions. This was probably the highlight of the shoot for me. There is something special about working with great comedy actors like Rufus Jones, Justin Edwards, and Chris Wright, who are exceptional at improvisation. They can put on a wig and some random ridiculous clothes and before you know it, they have embodied the character and are able to create genuine moments of magic out of nothing.
Where did the character of Roddy Hart come from?
Yerlett: I wanted Roddy to be the kind of guy that you might look up to as a kid, and then totally regret that you ever did. I remember having a Brian May poster on my wall as a kid. I regret that. Then I went to a Brian May gig and bought the T-shirt. I thought he was really cool, until I got to school the next day, and then I realized and tried to distance myself from the whole thing. That's kind of what happens to Adam. He gets suckered in. So I wanted Roddy to appeal as superficially as possible—and being a virtual-reality tool ticks the box. He had to be everything that Mike wasn't.
Roddy is a massive, tragic fraud, but weirdly lovable. Rufus brought a lot to playing Roddy. He really got what kind of dick Roddy was and then really went for it.
McDowall: Roddy didn't really become a full-fledged character until Rufus donned the wig and started playing with his transatlantic accent. It was only then that I realized the full comedy potential of the character. The fact that Roddy takes himself so seriously while being so obviously ridiculous makes me chuckle like a naughty boy at the back of class. I think he deserves his own film. I could watch him all day.
Gutpunch plays with a lot of different styles, from quirky coming-of-age to a hapless sleuth story. But it simultaneously tries to slyly address more serious subjects like family, happiness, and love. Can you talk about a few of the film's main influences and how you shaped the film?
Yerlett: The different styles trace back to the bigger story that I was trying to tell originally, which was Adam on a Broken Flowers–ish trip to track down his biological father. I intended him to use the videotape as his road map and track down each of those dating weirdoes in turn.
After a refocus on Roddy, I think this was the best way to tell the story as a standalone short, but the DNA of that original approach is probably responsible for some of the different styles and changes in pace.
We made a decision to slowly drop the sense of style and the quirky tricks as we get closer to the heart of the story, and there are almost no tricks in that final confrontation with Adam caught between Mike and Roddy. It's all about the boy choosing which man he wants to grow up to be like.
I love telling stories that screw with the family dynamic. Gutpunch opens with a devastating bombshell for the family, but they pick themselves up and muddle their way through to a hopeful ending. That's kind of what families do.
Squid and the Whale is definitely an influence. I love the balance of comedy and drama in it.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.