Exclusive Interview: Director Daniel Petrie Jr. Talks About DAWN PATROL, Scott Eastwood, and the Lack of Diversity in Hollywood

(Photos courtesy of Falco Ink.)

Over twenty years after helming his last feature, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop) returns to the director’s chair for a story of revenge, remorse, and redemption.

Set during the financial crisis of 2008, Dawn Patrol depicts the consequences of violence and racism following a tragedy that affects a group of working class families — played by Rita Wilson, Jeff Fahey, Dendrie Taylor, and Kim Matula — in a small California beach town.

In one of his first leading roles, the handsome Scott Eastwood, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, Clint, carries the biggest emotional burden as John, a young surfer-turned-marine who decides to seeks vengeance on a Mexican rival that he presumes is guilty of murdering Ben (Chris Brochu), his brother. But as John soon discovers, blood for blood won’t wash away his grief — it just makes it worse.

Written by screenwriting duo Brian Pittman and Rachel Long, Dawn Patrol first captured Petrie’s interest at the 2008 Austin Film Festival, where Petrie and his producing partner Rick Dugdale run the Enderby Entertainment Award, an annual award recognizing original screenplays under the $5 million budget.

Gripped by the screenwriting finalists’ story, Petrie optioned the screenplay, originally titled Stranded, for Enderby Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based financing and prodution company that he and Dugdale co-founded. Seven years later, after raising enough money to shoot in Ventura County, Dawn Patrol is finally making its way to select theaters on June 5.

I spoke to Petrie ahead of the film’s release to talk about why this project appealed to him, how Eastwood became involved both on and off camera, and what he thinks of Hollywood’s diversity problem. You can check out the interview below.

Dawn Patrol was a finalist at the 2008 Austin Film Festival. What was it about Brian Pittman and Rachel Long’s script that made you want to direct it and produce it as well?

I first met them at the Austin Film Festival by accident. Everyone wears a badge, and their badge listed them as a finalist in the screenplay competition for their script, Stranded. And I started making conversation, what it was about. And they talked about a town where it was set, which I actually knew. I had a house right nearby at the beach. I read the script… It was a terrific slice of life I wasn’t familiar with. A real working class, xenophobic, racist — very racist — surfing community all behind the shore, just behind where the big mansions are. And I thought the script could be a little gem.

You have pretty impressive titles in your career. You’ve been a two-time president for the Writers Guild [of America], you’re also with AMPAS [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences], the American Film Institute, and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. Since you have this much experience, how do you decide when to produce a screenplay? Are there any particular elements that you think make for a compelling story?

Well, characters that you can believe, incidents that are anguishing… It’s hard to say overall. There are many things I gravitate to in movies. I like comedy as well, drama… But in drama, it’s gotta be the characters that are most compelling to me.

Since this was in development for years, has there been any changes from the original script? Or is it pretty faithful to how it was at the Austin Film Festival?

It’s kind of both. It’s faithful overall, but the writers did a great deal of work on it, making it tighter, better, in my opinion, much stronger.

This [film] also marks one of Scott Eastwood’s first leading man roles. How did he get involved with the film not only as the star but also [as] one of the producers?

He auditioned for it about three years before we made the film. We thought we had the money; and then it turned out we didn’t. But we knew that he was our guy. He was the third actor we saw, and he blew us away. Then we learned as a bonus [that] he’s a semi-pro surfer. When we came back to him three years later and asked him to play the role, we all wanted to take full advantage of his experience. Some of his friends are great surf photographers, so we enlisted him [Eastwood] as a producer as well.

I read an interview with one of the other stars of the film, Julie Carmen, for She said you’re “an actor’s director.” How is your style of directing actors?

I saw that interview. I was very touched by it; she was so kind. I think I try and create a safe space for the actors to do their best work. I don’t tend to give them a lot of free direction but rather react to what they bring to the role. You know, you cast the movie properly, then you have to trust what the actors do, because they become the guardians of their characters, and they knew better sometimes.

Did you encourage ad-libbing?

If it felt right, certainly. But I didn’t either encourage or discourage it. I think the actors stayed pretty close to the script.

For each character in the film, they deal with Ben’s death in a different way. It’s ultimately John who goes overboard and decides to get revenge. But it’s also story about redemption ‘cause there’s a twist. How did you interpret his character’s story arc? Was there something that resonated the most with you?

I thought his story was a real tragedy. He’s been put in a situation that’s against his true character. But he’s allowed the uglier side of this character to come out. To some degree he’s been pushed there. But he did it, and he’s gotta live with that for the rest of his life. And we see how it haunts him years later.

The root of this is really the racism and xenophobia, which are major themes in the film, and sources of conflict in this town. Was it a challenge to present these serious and prevalent issues in an honest way, knowing that some audiences might be sensitive to it? I was surprised by how the racist remarks were pretty out there.

Yes. It’s always a concern if you have racist characters. Are people going to think, “Oh, the film is racist.” But we’re certainly not endorsing that point of view. We’re exposing the tragedy that almost inevitably flows from it.

While this is a film that has ethnic minorities and women in major roles, it’s not really the case for most films, especially for big studio films. Hollywood as an industry has lately been under criticism for its lack of diversity. I have a couple statistics that I want to bring up from [the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at] San Diego State University. They say that of the top-grossing films of last year, only 12% were with women protagonists and only 17% were women directors, writers [as well as producers, editors and cinematographers] behind the screen. Since you’ve had so much experience holding these important roles in the industry, what do you think needs to be done to change this?

A lot needs to be done. It is a seemingly intractable problem, which is so shortsighted, so stupid, because we do better as an industry when all of the stories are told. It’s been proven over and over again that movies with older protagonists, female protagonists, black, Latino protagonists -— all have done extremely well. It’s a lesson we need to keep relearning, apparently; so little progress has been made.

I wanted to ask about your upcoming projects. You have Go with Me and Rosemont. Can you tell us anything about those?

Sure. Go With Me stars Anthony Hopkins, Julia Stiles, Ray Liotta, Alexander Ludwig, and Hal Holbrook, and is directed by a terrific Swedish director named Daniel Alfredson. It’s going to be a terrific thriller for next year. And Rosemont will be on STARZ in the fall. It stars Grace Zabriskie and Brad Dourif. It’s a small indie drama; but I think [it’s] a lovely Christmas film.

I also have to say… Were you ever distracted by how much Scott Eastwood looked like his dad? (laughs)

He really does; it’s uncanny. When he first auditioned for the role, I had not seen his last name in advance.

So you just thought he looked like him. (laughs)

So I turned to the producer, Rick Dugdale… “You know, he reminds me of somebody.” And then he [Dugdale] pointed to his [Eastwood’s] last name, and then it came to me.

Dawn Patrol opens on June 5. Watch the trailer below.

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The Author

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina is a Toronto-based freelance writer and graduate of the Journalism program at Ryerson University. He has written for The Huffington Post, Tribute Magazine, Next Projection, Pop Wrapped, MuchMusic, Screen Invasion, Flicks And The City, and UpandComers.