"All right everyone," yells the ski-masked thug. "This is a goddamn fucking robbery!" Three men storm a Gottingen Street pawnshop, one brandishing a machete, another a revolver. Inside the store, littered with VHS tapes, toys and TVs, the proprietor has just advised a young woman with a stroller that "I don't trade for babies in here. You want some jewellery, you gotta cough up some cash." One of the robbers grabs the woman, bringing the machete to her throat, while another grabs the stroller, to the woman's horror. "Oh no, he's great with kids," assures the machete man, before exhorting the shopkeeper. "Now give me the goddamn money!"
None of the three robbers has noticed a dishevelled homeless man in the corner. He was just minding his own business, admiring a lawn mower, pursuant to his dream of starting a new life in landscaping. But with the violence erupting around him, his eyes travel to a shotgun on display. Resigned to his fate, you know there's going to be some killing.
This is the set of Hobo with a Shotgun, the action movie directed by Jason Eisener, adapted from Eisener's South by Southwest prize-winning Grindhouse fake trailer. The feature is budgeted at over $3 million, produced by Eisener's pal Rob Cotterill and written by fellow Dartmouthian John Davies. Also helping out is Niv Fichman (Passchendaele), one of the most successful film producers in Canada.
Rutger Hauer is the well-armed, titular vagrant. The Dutch-born actor is well known to any fan of genre pictures, from his roles in Blade Runner, The Hitcher and Sin City. Besides being a director himself, Hauer's acted in movies by world-renowned filmmakers Sam Peckinpah, Paul Verhoeven and Christopher Nolan.
How is the pride of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, measuring up?
"With Jason I felt really good right away," says Hauer in a soft drawl inflected with just a touch of a European accent in the vowels. "He knows exactly what he wants and I just have to kick him in the ass."
Watching rehearsals of the pawnshop robbery from outside on the sidewalk, writer Davies cracks wise. "It's a very clean film, for families." He and Eisener have been friends since childhood, making movies since they were 15. In terms of what they do, not much is different on this set, aside from the star lead, a bigger crew and more expensive digital cameras. "It still feels like we're making the same crazy films," says Davies. "It's not like we hired a crew, it's like we made a bunch of new friends. And they're all on the same page. And not only are we making a movie, we're making a fucking Rutger Hauer movie."
Behind the counter of the pawnshop is a The Teeth Beneath poster, from one of Eisener's earlier shorts. Beyond that is the "video village," monitors well away from the action. Camera operator Jeff Wheaton relays a tale from the previous week when the fake blood in one scene was like a tidal wave, almost drowning those in video village. Rob Cotterill is there, close to Eisener's side. "I don't leave set, it's just the way we work," he says. "We just have that comfort level with each other. Clearly it's Jason's vision, but we work together to get him what he wants."
Anyone who's been to Eisener's Thrillema genre screening series knows what to expect from this movie. He's promising to screen it for Thrillema fans when it's complete. "It's pretty surreal," he says, of shooting his first feature. "There've been a couple times when I think back to my film class in high school, dreaming about the day when I could make a feature film. I'm excited, and I feel the pressure...I want to make a good movie."
He's heard stories of first-time directors showing up on set the first day and vomiting from the nerves. That made him nervous, not wanting to let down the crew. It turns out that with his friends gathered around him, Eisener made it through without losing his lunch, and every day since has been, in his words, "amazing," as if greater forces are arrayed to help him complete the movie and have a blast doing it.
"I can feel the Dartmouth gods shining down on us," he says, "giving us the energy to make our shit really wild and crazy."
Though Hauer—who once visited Halifax in 1997 to guest on an episode of Lexx—is often recognized from his roles in action movies such as Hobo—titles include Wanted: Dead or Alive and Blind Fury—he says he feels no particular affinity with genre and hasn't seen a lot of the newer fantasy or action movies. "I don't see many films because when I'm off I'd rather go to Peggys Cove and smell the salt rather than go see another movie," Hauer says. "I'm not as crazy as they are here, and it's funny, I don't know as much as they do about the films my colleagues have done. I'm way behind on that."
That said, he has no compunctions identifying Hobo with a Shotgun as a particular kind of genre effort. "It's everything you always wanted on gory. Every little scene is like a little movie...a little mini-opera. What's surprising is it always comes out funny though it may not be your kind of funny," Hauer says, laughing. "This is such a wicked, wonderful, crazy little movie. We're not sparing anybody."