Movie News & Reviews

Film asks, what if Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer grew up in the 21st century

Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) and Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) in Band of Robbers.
Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) and Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) in Band of Robbers.

It’s really no big secret that theater, TV and film frequently cast actors and actresses that may not be the exact age of the characters they are portraying. But when a then-21-year-old Adam Nee auditioned for the title role in a theatrical production of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even he knew he might be pushing it.

“There was really no good reason to be at this audition,” he said. “The director was confused as to why this grown man wanted to be a teenager.”

When he left the audition, he didn’t get the part … but he did get an idea. What if Huck Finn, along with another equally young and familiar Twain character like Tom Sawyer, were saying the same things from those classic Twain stories not as children, but as grown-ups?

Adam ran the idea by his brother, Aaron, and what eventually materialized from the sibling writer-director duo was Band of Robbers. The independent film has already had a major theatrical release to mostly glowing reviews earlier this month, and it will have its Lexington premiere on Wednesday at the Kentucky Theatre. It is also available at Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and other outlets including Time Warner Cable On-Demand.

The film re-imagines Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) and Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) as not just grown-ups and best friends, but small-time crooks with big aspirations in modern times. Finn gets released from jail with intentions of walking the straight-and-narrow only to be pulled back into crime by Sawyer, a crooked cop with a grand scheme to nab the fabled treasure they hunted as children. They form the Band of Robbers with the help of Sawyer’s friends Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Burress) to set their plan in motion, only to have it quickly unravel in unexpected ways. The film also stars Stephen Lang (Avatar), Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) and Eric Christian Olsen (NCIS: Los Angeles).

Adam and Aaron’s first feature film, 2006’s The Last Romantic, premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, took the Grand Jury prize at the Starz Denver International Film Festival and led to them being named 25 Filmmakers To Watch by Filmmaker Magazine. The Nee Brothers originally envisioned Band of Robbers as a TV pilot and possible series but thought making it a feature film better fulfilled their creative vision.

“The tone has a very unique, special voice and I don’t think a TV network would let us do that at this point in our career,” Adam says. “We had the freedom and control of it being an independent film.”

One of the first people to be captured by Band of Robbers’ unique tone was lead producer John Will. He had extensive experience in both studio TV and film development and took his first crack at producing indie films with The Trouble With Bliss, a 2012 drama starring Michael C. Hall and Lucy Liu. Will said in a sea of scripts that make their way to his desk, Band of Robbers instantly stood out.

“I get a lot of good scripts and solid scripts, but it just doesn’t have that spark. That’s the thing that Band of Robbers had, is just that spark of a really unique concept,” he says. “I love the idea of a film that could oscillate between comedy and drama, where characters in one instance would be saying silly things and be a very comedic moment and in another moment, they’re in a dangerous situation and it’s dramatic.”

The Nee Brothers used the mix of lighter comedic and darker dramatic moments of the 1997 cult classic Boogie Nights as a model for what they were trying to accomplish. They shot for 24 days in Los Angeles between August and September of 2014. Adam and Aaron managed to stretch the film’s budget, which they recall producers saying was enough to shoot “four friends at a cabin at the lake,” into a shoot that utilized 30 different locations, not to mention an epic score for nearly 35 minutes of the 95-minute film. They managed to pull it all off, but it was no easy task.

“We have rocks in our heads. We’re crazy,” Aaron says. “I think it’s common among artists that they can always dream bigger than they have the means to do. You want everything you can imagine. The movie definitely feels a lot bigger than the budget would make you think it is.”

One of the main reasons Adam and Aaron were able to make Band of Robbers at all was due to a producer from Lexington being the picture’s saving grace. John Winn Miller, a journalist in residence at the University of Kentucky journalism and former Herald-Leader editor and occasional film producer, is Adam’s father-in-law. Miller took it upon himself to provide the necessary financing when the film’s funds started to run dry. Miller, whose daughter is actress Allison Miller, ended up providing a lot more of his money, flying out to L.A. for the shoot and doing whatever was needed.

“This is an investor in the movie that’s offering to give people rides, do Starbucks runs, just the most humble, giving producer you can imagine,” Adam said.

Even though the film has already premiered at multiple film festivals and played in cities like New York, L.A., Chicago and Orlando, Miller is a big reason why the filmmakers and producers thought it was important for Band of Robbers to get special screening at the Kentucky Theatre. It was a way to say “thank you” for all he had done to help the film come to life. Based on audience reactions, the Nee Brothers think they’ve made something special, but having the film play in Lexington will also be special for one of them.

“For me, I love that theater,” Adam said, who married Allison in Lexington and saw a screening of Casablanca at the Kentucky Theatre. “It’s going to be great not only to experience it in such a cool theater but also in a town that I have such nostalgic roots in and bring it to a lot of family there.”

Blake Hannon: blake.hannon81@gmail.com

If you go

‘Band of Robbers’

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3, followed by Q&A

Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.

Tickets: $12 available online only at Kybandofrobbers.com

Call: 859-231-7924

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