Big Gold Brick Director Brian Petsos On Working With Oscar Isaac And Making An Oddball, Original Indie [Interview]

Did you know a new movie is coming out this week that stars Andy Garcia, Megan Fox, and Oscar Isaac?

"Big Gold Brick," the peculiar feature film debut from writer/director Brian Petsos, feels like a minor miracle in the modern movie landscape. That's not necessarily to say that its content is miraculous — the film will not be for everyone, and Petsos is wholly aware of that. But it's a small movie with a recognizable cast, it's not based on any existing intellectual property, and, crucially, it's getting a theatrical release instead of just being poured directly into the void of streaming. It's also the kind of movie that somehow feels achievable without seeming cheap, serving almost like a lighthouse spinning its eccentric beam out into the universe to show aspiring filmmakers that, under the right circumstances, pulling off the impossible is technically still possible.

You're likely asking yourself what the hell "Big Gold Brick" even is. It's the type of movie that doesn't fit neatly into a two- or three-line synopsis, so I'll let the trailer set it up for you.

I spoke with writer/director/producer Brian Petsos about the challenge of making an original movie right now, how he met his frequent collaborator Oscar Isaac, what success would look like to him for "Big Gold Brick," and more.

'How do I try to keep my point of view in tact, while also admitting that I do want to relate to commercial film in a real, tangible way?'

Congratulations on the movie. I feel like it's an achievement to get any movie made right now, but especially something like this. "Big Gold Brick" is not an impenetrable art house movie, but I wouldn't call it a traditional or formulaic film, either. So considering the difficulty of the current landscape, how tough was it to actually find financing for something this offbeat?

Well, I just want to back up and thank you for describing it the way you did, because ironically, your description is — that's a line I try to dance, which is as an ex-art school dude and also a moderate cinephile, how do I try to keep my point of view as an artist intact, while also admitting that I do want to relate to commercial film in a real, tangible way? So I thank you for finding that braid there and pointing it out. 

But to get to the meat of your question, obviously raising money is tough. It's very tough, always. And coming with something that may be challenging to someone who wants to finance a horror movie or a thriller or a rom-com is obviously a thing. In one regard, it was very difficult. In retrospect, it seems like it wasn't that difficult. So, I can easily remember the pain of the time it took to build the house. But I think we lucked out in a sense that I had these two short films starring Oscar Isaac prior to this feature script really circulating in a real way. So, yeah, there were certain people, both on the money and the talent side, that were like, "Whoa, man, I don't know," and there were other people who gravitated towards it. So these things organically kind of roll downhill and pick up snow.

I watched those two shorts and I noticed there is a lot of recurring imagery, in particular with "Lightningface" and "Big Gold Brick." There's this lightning bolt symbol, storm clouds, facial scarring, eye trauma, a guy talking to a small inanimate object, and the idea of chaos. What is it about that collection of things that interested you enough to explore it across multiple projects?

Well, there's the one side, which is stuff that I fetishize as an artist. The other side is that the development of "Lightningface" and "Big Gold Brick" did actually happen in tandem, and "Ticky Tacky," which I'm not going to judge it nor will I speak ill of it, but I shot that in eight hours.

Oh, wow.

Yeah. "Lightningface," I wanted to sort of step out of that. So that was like a four day shoot that I squeezed into three, and I knew I wanted to bring the visual effects in because I was writing this script called "Big Gold Brick" that had a lot of visual effects in it. [laughs] So I really thought it would sort of aid the process to have, not a direct companion, but a partial companion piece. I think it really did help in that we're playing with the same colors in a way. So yeah, there is a little bit of relation there with those two.

The Oscar Isaac character in "Big Gold Brick," I almost was like, "Is this the same guy as the guy from 'Lightningface,' with the facial scarring and the cloudy eyeglass piece?" Is this just a spiritual sequel? Or is this literally supposed to be the same character years later?

It's funny that you mentioned that. One of Oscar's really good friends was talking about the Marvel universe and stuff, and they were like, "Are you trying to develop your own kind of universe?" I suppose it's nothing I'm trying to do, but it's something that I probably can't help. I play with the same stuff and I do think, over time, there'll be a gradual progression, but it is a gradual thing. So, yeah, I'm playing with a lot of the same motifs and selfishly I do try to sort of entertain myself first when I'm writing. Not that I'm not thinking of everyone else, because I am, but I kind of have to please myself first.

'This resembles, in a very distinct way, what I set out to do'

I saw Kristen Wiig's name in the credits of this movie and "Lightningface." How did you get hooked up with her?

Well, I've known Kristen for a while. People ask the same thing about Oscar and I always tell them New York is a really big city, but it gets small really quick. And Kristen and Oscar, as I was explaining to you the genesis of "Lightningface" and "Big Gold Brick" kind of happening in tandem, it was the same exact thing. We sort of carried over the whole thing. Everyone knew the end goal was going to be "Big Gold Brick." So I kind of went out and pitched "Lightningface" and "Big Gold Brick" at the same time, even though I wasn't done with the "Big Gold Brick" script yet. If you went and parsed all the names, you'd probably find a lot of the same names, actually. There's a lot of carryover, and I realize Kristen and Oscar are big fancy names, but there's been so many people in that core that have supported me on both sides of the line, and I'm tremendously thankful to everyone for thinking I've got anything at all to say.

Are you already working on something else, or is this the temporary endgame that you were funneling all of your creative energy into, and now you're going to take a breather to figure out what to do next?

No, I literally just finished my next screenplay about a week ago.

Oh, cool.

I started working on that pretty much the week after I finished the "Big Gold Brick" screenplay. So, it's a lot bigger than "Big Gold Brick," and now it's time to put that together. So I'm pretty excited about that one, actually. Not that I'm not excited that "Big Gold Brick" is finally coming out. But my mind is very much in the lap of the new one.

So I'm really curious: What does success look like for you in the context of a film like this? It feels like a mid-budget movie that isn't really made anymore, it's not based on anything, and it's this really original burst of creativity, but it's a small movie. What do you think success is for a film like this?

Well, I really appreciate what you said there, honestly. For me success, it has to be a rule system that I lay out for myself and do not veer away from. And that means it has to be creatively successful to me. Box office for something like this, especially after the pandemic, that's just off the table. Other than "Licorice Pizza," I don't think you can even talk box office right now. So, that's off the table. My producing partner will probably throw a bunch of iTunes data at me in a couple weeks, and it's not that, either. It's knowing that when I was done with the film, when all the VFX were there and everything was sealed, I said, "You know what, this resembles, in a very distinct way, what I set out to do." I've been a part of stuff that I have not directed, but I've been a part of other films in different facets that have greatly disappointed me. I'm not saying this is a perfect film or this is exactly what a film should be, but on a relative basis, given the budget that I had to play with, the boxes that I sort of drew on the paper, I was able to check off most of them at the end. After that, man, the movie's done. I can do nothing to change it. I don't care what people write about it. It's over for me. I can do nothing. So I have to just, at least to survive without hating myself, I have to kind of box it up and put it away.

I think that's a good way to look at it.

'Not a lot of people could do what he did in that part'

How did you and Oscar become collaborators?

We were technically introduced — we had the same agent at the time. I am a formerly a performer. So my sort of entrance to all this stuff came through acting, really. So that's sort of how we met, but we became friends very fast. Just have a ton in common. It's one of those things where you don't meet someone like that all the time, but when you do and you click that hard and then you end up kind of making stuff together, to me, that's everything. I mean, like even Oscar coming to set to Toronto to do "Big Gold Brick," everyone was laughing, but I was, like, peeing. So that's the kind of relationship we have. Some of the stuff that remains in the film now, some of the pronunciation of words and stuff, are literally inside jokes between he and I. Something like [pronouncing "delicious" as "dee-lis-cee-us"] is something that he and I would say, just hanging out on a Friday eating a pizza or something. He would kind of sting me while we were on set, and that's the kind of relationship we have.

He has a small role in the film, but he is really going for it and swinging for the fences in a big way. I've spoken to him for other projects, and I just have to imagine this feels more like getting together with a group of friends and really making a movie and having fun while doing it. This project probably provided him some freedom that he probably wouldn't have in other circumstances. So were you there on the sidelines goading him on to go bigger with this performance, or did you just sort of step back and let him do whatever he wanted? What is the dynamic there, for his character in "Big Gold Brick" specifically?

Although he does have an abbreviated amount of screen time, to me, his part is huge. It's sort of like the whole thrust of the film leads to him. Not a lot of people could do what he did in that part. It's really a feat, and it excites me very much watching it because I'm also a huge fan of his work. But we have a shorthand, and I work sort of differently with everyone. With him, there isn't a ton of me working with him. He is absolutely like a top that you wind up and kind of let him roll — not to say that I don't come in with changes here or there, or suggestions or ideas, because that absolutely happens. But there's just so much trust between us and he's so damn good. A lot is conveyed in the text, and that's another thing — he's so incredibly technical. I mean, I'll write a stammer and he will hit that stammer and it'll sound like a damn stammer. It's almost mathematical. It's a beautiful thing to watch.

I want to open the floor up to you and just give you the opportunity to talk about either an aspect of making this movie or single out a collaborator or something that you feel like maybe might get lost in the shuffle, that other people haven't asked you about or that you haven't really had a chance to express yet about the making of this film.

Well, there's two things really. The one thing that I'll say very quickly: I'm a real fan of all of my cast. When the cast was starting to assemble itself in front of my eyes, there were days where I actually couldn't believe it, because I was such a huge fan of everyone, really. And again, I'm not making any judgment on the film. I don't want to come off like I think the film is ultra fancy or anything. But I really love what these individual actors are doing in this movie. If anyone else may be a fan of these folks, I urge you to come check out them playing in this film and in this world, because I think — if I can speak just objectively — I think it's quite an entertainment to watch that. You could start with Andy doing what he does here, and go from Emory [Cohen] all the way down the line. I mean, Megan, Lucy [Hale]. So that is a thing.

The other thing I'll say, doing this, trying to be a writer/director/producer and writing, as you said, stuff that may not fit into the marketplace in today's day and age easily, is a tough life. It's a type of lifestyle and it's to the point where you're making tons of sacrifice. I hope people can kind of get beyond sort of the publicity and the press side of things and understand: I live for this stuff. I love movies. I hope people know that I love movies when they see this movie. This is like my entire life. I know it's goofy and crazy and funny at times, but it's actually very personal to me. It's one of the first things Oscar said, "It's so crazy, yet so personal, too." I hope people just understand and glean that I'm not asking for sympathy. I'm asking for them to sort of open their hearts and minds and give over to the film for two hours.

I think, if absolutely nothing else, even if it's not for everyone, there's a baseline level of absolute respect that must be paid to a movie like this, having that artistic, personal touch to it, but also being able to just exist in the world in 2022. So congrats on making it.

I appreciate it, Ben. That's what I call the my mom vote. [laughs] So yeah, I'll take it.

"Big Gold Brick" hits theaters and will be available across all digital platforms on February 25, 2022.