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'The Boondock Saints II': A cult hit gets a second shot

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boondock-saints-poster_lAs writer-director Troy Duffy recalls it, the cast and crew of The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day were more than a tad nervous when they began work on their Boston-set, vigilante-action sequel. “Everybody was terrified to be the guy that screwed it up,” he says of the Toronto shoot for his movie, which is released October 30. “They knew the fans would find out where they lived and burn their f—-ing house to the ground.”

If you’ve never heard of Troy Duffy or his films you’re not alone. The Boondock Saints, a violent slice of Tarantino-esque Irishsploitation, was released to just five cinemas in 2000, grossing a mere $30,000. Even Dexter actress Julie Benz, who plays an FBI agent in the sequel, was unaware of the first movie before she auditioned for the second. “I accepted the role and I told my trainer, ‘Oh, I’m going to Toronto to do this sequel to some movie called Boondock Saints,’” she recalls. “He flipped out. And this is a man who’s never flipped out over anything. I started telling people I was going to be in it, and they would foam at the mouth.” Oh yes, and about that audition? Benz says it wasn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill acting showcase: “I was reading the first scene and Troy just went, ‘Holy s—, you’re hot!’ And I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he goes, ‘Well, on Dexter, you’re not hot!’ He kept looking at my resume and looking at me. It was like, ‘Are you sure you’re Julie Benz?’ It was really, really, funny.”

For Troy Duffy, 38, there have been many less amusing incidents in the Boondock Saints saga. It is a tale that has now consumed almost his entire adult life, and has featured an abundance of both rags and riches, or at least promised riches. In the mid-’90s the scrappy, foul-mouthed, Duffy was working behind the bar of an untrendy West Hollywood hostelry called J.Sloan’s, and living in “basically a crackhouse,” when he came up with the idea for a script about two Irish brothers who set out to clean up the Boston mean streets. The central characters were based on Duffy and his younger sibling, Taylor. “Loosely based,” the director demurs. “I never killed anybody. But my brother and I started getting flat out upset with what we saw going on. Guns in the halls. OD’s. Drug dealers.” One day, Duffy came home to find a guy robbing his apartment. “I had a sawed-off shotgun leaned up against the door,” he says. “I grabbed it, had a little discussion with him.” A little discussion?  “If I say anything else, I’m going to be f—ing arrested.”

One J.Sloan’s regular was a personal trainer and actor called Tony Montana (his real name) who has vivid recollections of Duffy’s time working at the bar. “I always remember Troy flying through the air and landing on some kid that was in a fight next to the popcorn machine,” he says. “When he was in the middle of the air my mind kind of just freeze-framed. I was like, ‘I haven’t seen that before.’”

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In the fall of 1996 Duffy showed his Boondock Saints script to Montana and let him hear some demos he had recorded with The Brood, a band he played in with his brother. Montana believed both showed promise. “I thought, in the music and in his writing, there was an original voice,” he says. “There were obviously scenes in the script that were derivative of anything from State of Grace to Pulp Fiction. But I thought, ‘Here’s a kid that is talented and ambitious.’” Montana asked Duffy if he wanted to pursue film or music. The barman replied that he was going to do both, and succeed at both. “He was like, ‘And I want to be a legend,’” adds Montana. “This should have been the first red flag.”

Montana began to manage The Brood with another member of Duffy’s circle, Mark Brian Smith, although it took the rest of the group a little time to warm to their new handlers. “Troy and Taylor actually got into a fist fight over me managing the band,” recalls Montana. “They were both bloody in the living room over this.” Montana told Duffy that he wanted to make a film about his attempts to make it in the music and film businesses. “I said, ‘I think this would be amazing documentary, but I would need full access and it would have to be the absolute truth,’” recalls Montana. “He said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it with Mark?’ Because he had gone to NYU film school. Both of us thought that, because things were going in a good direction, it could take a year, a year-and-a-half. From the day we first shot, until the day our picture opened in theaters was eight years to the week.”

One of the main reasons things were going in a good direction back in 1996 was the assistance provided by another Duffy acquaintance and J.Sloane’s habitué named Chris Brinker. Brinker first met Duffy when the pair worked in a strip club together but he was now employed at New Line. Once Brinker read Duffy’s script he signed on as producer and helped his friend get representation at William Morris.

After a bidding war, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein bought the Boondock script in early 1997. It is easy to imagine why the rough-edged Duffy might have appealed to Weinstein, who had recently enjoyed considerable success distributing films by young director-mavericks Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. The mogul liked the script so much he told Duffy he would not only give him a budget of $15m to direct the film but that The Brood could record the soundtrack. As a sweetener of near diabetes-inducing proportions, Weinstein even promised to buy J.Sloan’s, which he would then co-own with Duffy.

Photo credit: Apparition

boondock-saints-duffy_lThe Miramax deal became a big news story—big enough to grace the cover of USA Today. The closest Duffy had come to directing at this point was directing drunken malcontents out of the bar. Now, literally overnight, he was the toast of the town, the “next Tarantino.” He was also meeting with the likes of Mark Wahlberg—who attended the barbecue which was held to celebrate the Miramax deal—Brendan Fraser, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Busey, Billy Zane, Jeff Goldblum, and the late Heath Ledger. “Heath was really lobbying to be one of the brothers,” says Duffy. “I went to his agency and said, ‘Is there anybody else you guys have here to package this with Heath, that looks like him?’ His look was so unique they didn’t have anybody that could pull off his brother. So that didn’t happen.”

The deal with Miramax fell apart before the end of the year—and before Weinstein bought Duffy the bar. Boondock producer Brinker depicts the end of the relationship as a mutual decision. “Troy wanted certain cast members, Harvey wanted certain cast members,” he says. “We pretty much agreed to party ways.” Tony Montana, however, says that part of the problem was Duffy’s refusal to even give Weinstein’s ideas the time of day. “He was not responding to Harvey’s suggestion about casting, or even just taking courtesy meetings,” he says. “In my opinion, if Harvey says, ‘Just take a meeting with Sylvester Stallone,’ you take it. You take a meeting with Brad Pitt. And, yes, Troy was very busy, but he would just be like, ‘No, Brad Pitt’s already done an Irish accent.’” Montana says that the breaking point came when Duffy met with Ewan McGregor, who he wanted to play one of the two brothers, and got into a heated argument over the death penalty. “This was six weeks after deal, literally,” he says. “That’s when Harvey pulled out. They did continue to bankroll some money into pre-production, but they had decided at that point it was over.” (In a 1998 interview, Duffy claimed the meeting with McGregor was “a Scot-Irish love affair. Then we heard he didn’t want to do the movie.”) According to Montana, once the deal with Weinstein went away, so did most of the acting talent. “Yeah, we did have porn stars show up at Sloan’s,” he laughs. “And models. They still came in out of curiosity. But, no, the actors did not continue to show up at the bar once the deal fell through.”

By the spring of 1998, Duffy and Brinker had struck a new deal with Franchise Films, a company founded by producer Elie Samaha. Stephen Dorff was now in the frame to play one of the brothers and, for a while, it looked like Patrick Swayze was going to portray the pivotal role of a gay, and ultimately cross-dressing, FBI agent named Smecker. “He was a man’s man,” says Tony Montana of the late Dirty Dancing star. “When you shook his hand you knew that he could kick your a—. Troy really thought he could do with Swayze what Quentin did with Travolta. Then it fell through because of financial reasons.”

Duffy eventually made The Boondock Saints for $6m—less than half the budget he had been promised by Harvey Weinstein— with a cast that included Willem Dafoe, Billy Connolly and, as the vigilante brothers, Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery. The latter recalls Duffy had a unique directing style: “They way he would direct actors would be like, ‘Alright, goddammit, you get on that f—ing table and you tell them exactly what you f—ing think, this motherf—er killed and raped millions, you need to f—ing show them what the f—he did,’ As opposed to going, ‘Okay, thespians, what you’re feeling in this moment is…’ He’s got a little bit of a different bedside manner.” Flanery has other fond memories of the making the first Boondock. “It was just dudes being dudes,” he says. “It was a ball, man. We rented out a house, had barbecues, jacuzzi parties. We were at strip clubs. It was crazy.”

The un-PC nature of the Boondock team’s après-shoot activities would be more than matched by what ultimately appeared onscreen. Indeed, The Boondock Saints is a defiantly illiberal piece of work, and not just because of the brothers’ bypassing of the judicial system. The “N-word” is at times thrown around with jarring abandon, given this is a film made almost entirely by white people. Of the three small female parts in the movie, two are briefly glimpsed prostitutes while the third is a parodically butch feminist-type who Reedus punches in the face while the opening credits are still rolling. (In fairness, it should be pointed out that this is only after the character has delivered a firm kick to Flanery’s nether regions.) Finally, Duffy fetishizes gunplay with an enthusiasm that at times borders on the demented.

It was the latter aspect of the film which, following the Columbine massacre in April 1999, torpedoed the film’s chances of securing proper distribution. “That was a pretty depressing period,” says Duffy. “The only one who didn’t give a s— was Billy Connolly. I said, ‘Look, this acquisitions guy told me that we’re screwed.’ And he’s like, ‘Doesn’t matter, dear boy! The kids will find it! It’s rock’n’roll!’”

Photo credit: Apparition

boondock-saints-connolly_lDuffy wasn’t feeling very rock’n’roll. Actually, while his band had recorded the music for Boondock, the resulting album sold less than 1,000 copies and the group was subsequently dropped by their label. The director, who would not direct another film until Boondock II, came to view himself as a Hollywood “black sheep.” That status was little helped when Montana and Smith’s documentary about Duffy, which they had named Overnight, premiered at the 2004 Sundance film festival and was subsequently released theatrically. The movie damningly portrays Duffy as an aggressive, unpleasant, egomaniac drunk on power and/or just plain drunk. Damagingly, the director is shown describing Keanu Reeves as “a f—king punk,” and Ethan Hawke as a “talentless fool.” There is also footage of him using the c-word when talking about Miramax executive Meryl Poster.

The Boondock acting family is quick to come to Duffy’s defense when the subject of Overnight is raised. “If you have enough footage of Santa Claus you can edit it to make him look like an a–hole,” says Norman Reedus, “Troy’s a pussycat.” Julie Benz says that she has “seen some snippets of (the documentary), and I’ll tell you that the Troy I know is not the Troy in Overnight.” Duffy himself claims he only recently viewed the film. “I was bored to death, yet flabbergasted at the same time,” he says. “If you think that I accomplished what I have accomplished by walking into rooms full of my friends and advisors and acting like an a—hole and then leaving, feel free to give it a whirl and see how it works for you.” Montana, meanwhile, insists that the documentary depicts Duffy in an accurate fashion.  “Absolutely,” says the film-maker, who is currently in pre-production on a horror-drama called Homage. “When we showed our very first cut of Overnight to investors, one of them remarked, ‘Do you have any more footage of him being a nice guy?’ And we said, ‘No, it’s not there. That’s not what happened.’” According to Montana, the director should consider himself lucky they didn’t depict him in an even worse light. “There were comments that he made about women and about gay people—this was just the way he was,” says Montana. “You can only impose so much on an audience. We didn’t want people to get up and walk out.” “I’ve always sworn like a sailor and I’ve always spoken my mind,” says Duffy.

The good news for Duffy was that, by the time of the documentary’s release, Boondock had become a sizable hit on VHS and DVD.  “We got a Blockbuster exclusive deal,” says Duffy, “Which means they put this out like a larger movie. They (had) 60 to a 100 copies a store. It ended up being extremely successful for them. That’s when it first touched the public, and that‘s when I first started hearing about the fanbase.”

Billy Connolly had been right. The kids did find the film and they thought it was rock’n’roll. “There are drinking competitions associated with the film, there are thousands of fans with tattoos,” says Duffy. “You just cannot buy that kind of fandom.” According to Norman Reedus, “People come up with my face tattooed on their arm and Sean’s face on the other arm. I say, ‘I hope you were drunk when you got that.’ And 99 out of a hundred times they tell me, ‘Yes, I was drunk.’” Moreover, the Boondock cult does not just consist of young men. Duffy says that when he spoke at the all-women’s college Wellesley, he was greeted by “600 screaming fans. Women like seeing young guys stand up for what they believe in.”

When it became clear that Boondock had acquired a cult following, Duffy started selling Boondock merchandise though his website. That helped keep the wolf from the underemployed auteur’s door and funded a law suit against Franchise and other parties which would last for five years. Once the suit was resolved, the path was finally clear for a sequel to Boondock, which has grossed in excess of $40m. Duffy says he had no problem getting reuniting cast from the first movie. “When we set this up, the number one question I kept getting was, ‘How did you get them all to come back?’” he says. “I was like, ‘They never f—ing left. These guys were f—-ing calling me up every couple of months going, ‘When are were going?’ They were always ready to go because of (a) the experience they had making the first one, and (b) the fact that they were getting stopped all the time by college kids calling them their character names and stuff like that. They realized the impact the film had on real people.”

Photo credit: Apparition

boondock-saints-benz_lDuffy shot Boondock II late last year with a budget of $8m and debuted the trailer at Comic Con this summer. According to Sean Patrick Flanery, the clip received a highly positive response. “It was a few thousand people that were just on their feet freaking out,” says the actor. “I don’t do big movies at all, so I don’t really experience this kind of reaction. I videotaped the whole thing on my iPhone and sent it to my mom, like a rank amateur.”

At the start of September it was announced that Boondock II would be released domestically by Apparition, the new company set up by movie exec Bob Berney, who previously shepherded The Passion of the Christ to phenomenal success while president of Newmarket Films. Berney didn’t need a focus group to tell him that Duffy’s sequel had potential. “I have two sons and Boondock Saints was their favorite film,” he says. “They just watched it over and over, literally hundreds of times. Luckily, they didn’t grow up and jump through glass windows with guns blazing themselves.” Berney is releasing the film on 70 screens but hopes to platform it out to more. “This could be a franchise” he says, before correcting himself: “The continuation of a franchise.”

That would be just fine by the Boondock actors. “I would do ten of these,” says Reedus. “It’s like Disneyland for dudes with guns. Hopefully, they won’t wait so long next time long, or Sean and I will be using walkers.” “I will say it is the first time I’ve been directed by someone who used more curse words than regular words,” says Benz, “but I would 150% do another one.”

However, Duffy is not so keen for his third movie to be another Boondock. “During that ten-year period I wasn’t exactly sitting around with my thumb up my a–,” he says. “I’ve written a few scripts and we’re planning on knocking them down one by one.” Duffy would like his next film to be The Good King, which he describes as “a comedy black as the starless night at the bottom of the ocean.”

It remains to be seen whether Duffy can fully resurrect his Hollywood career. Bob Berney admits that the stories surrounding Duffy and the first Boondock movie are “fairly legendary,” and that the typical studio exec might be “nervous” of working with him. Of course, that nervousness could well vanish if Boondock II proves a success. And, as Duffy laughingly points out, his bad boy rep is hardly going to affect the chances of that happening: “Yeah, I don’t remember the last time I watched a move and said, ‘Boy, that was good, unless the director is a complete a—hole, and then it sucks.” The director does admit he has learned to be more diplomatic in his Hollywood dealings. “I’m not really a changed guy,” he says. “But, being a newbie, I didn’t want to deal with the pleasantries and the etiquette in this business. I realize now that was a huge mistake. Because you’re going to see these people down the line. A career is building blocks. It’s not rolling it all on one film, and hoping the people and blood you leave in your wake will turn around and go, ‘Oh okay, I get what you were doing there, Troy.’ I’m more adept at the politics in this business than I was.”

Duffy has changed in at least one other way. He no longer spends his nights getting wasted at J.Sloane’s, which he says changed both name and character around 2000. “It became kind of a ‘face’ bar,” he snorts. Not that he’s given up the demon booze, you understand. These days you can find him at a joint called Birds. “Love it,” he enthuses. “Hang there all the time. They call it Birds, because they serve nothing but chicken there.”

“But,” he adds, “I don’t go for the food.”

Photo credit: Apparition

Originally posted October 22 2009 — 9:00 AM EDT

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