The first things you notice about identical twins Alex and Andrew Smith are the few differences that they do have.
Alex is the taller one, standing about 21/2 inches above 6-foot-1 Andrew, and Alex is huskier, too, by about 15 pounds on the scale. And Andrew, with his glasses, gives the appearance of the brainy-looking one.
But one thing the Smith brothers share equally is their passion for filmmaking, and their appearance here this week at the Sundance Film Festival marks a homecoming, for it was here many years back that their dreams of writing and directing movies found sustenance. At 18, Alex and Andrew first worked at Sundance as volunteer ticket takers, catching the festival screenings of independent films whenever time allowed. For the next decade, they would return every winter to this mountain resort town to perform other jobs for Sundance, working in the box office, answering phones or managing theater venues, while getting to know some of the up-and-coming filmmakers. Now, they have returned with their first feature-length film, which they began to write in 1992 and spent years developing. The film, called "The Slaughter
Rule," is a searing drama set in the brutal dead of winter on the plains of Montana. The story revolves around a high school quarterback who is cut from the team and a down-on-his-luck former coach who persuades him to play again, only this time in that gritty slice of small-town Americana known as six-man high school football.
The movie, which is in the festival's dramatic competition, stars veteran character actor David Morse ("The Green Mile") in what some at Sundance are saying is one of his finest performances, and young Ryan Gosling, who electrified this film festival last year playing a Jewish youth who becomes a neo-Nazi in "The Believer," a film that won the audience award.
The brothers say Morse's character, Gideon Ferguson, is
based on a man they knew who coached basketball when they were growing up in rural Montana. He was an odd, lonely figure with a shaky reputation in town who would
check the list of those high school players cut from the team and then recruit them to his team in a local men's league. Rumor had it that he may have molested his players.
"We were cut as freshmen from our high school team and were recruited on a men's league team by this strange guy in Missoula," Alex recalled.
Andrew said the man would call the cut players and say, "I got a team I put together." He would sell newspapers at bars around closing time to make a living.
The dark rumors about the coach became a "rural myth," they recalled, never proven, only the stuff of local gossip.
"There was never anything untoward that happened," Alex said. "He was a guy who was kind of bruised up by life and kind of a lonely guy whose only joy was coaching this time. But we both almost bought into the rumors."
Then a strange thing happened. In college, Alex called up Andrew one day and said he was writing a short story about this coach they used to know and was surprised to discover that his brother had been working on a short script about the man.
"I think there was a little bit of personal shame that was involved," Andrew said. "Later on, a sense of like, we didn't give this guy a fair shake. We didn't out him or dis him or anything, but we just sort of went with the prevailing myth in the town."
In the film, Morse approaches Gosling's character, Roy Chutney, while hawking his newspapers late at night. Knowing Roy has been cut from the high school team, the
coach invites him to play quarterback on a six-man team he is forming. "I hail from West Texas," Gideon tells Roy.
"Six-man is a religion down there."
Morse and the filmmakers attended real six-man games to get an insight into how much more demanding it iswith players performing on offense and defensethan regular 11-man games. The reason they play with only six players on a side is because the rural areas are so sparsely populated. Morse called a state championship game he watched "one of the most exciting football games I've ever seen."
"You watch these kids, like in the film, they have to do everything," Morse said. "Defense and offense. They don't get a break. They have to be tough to play this game."
(The film's title comes from a term used in six-man games that says if the opposing team is up by 45 points, the game automatically ends no matter how much time remains).
Using real-life players, the filmmakers shot scenes in Great Falls and the surrounding communities of Augusta, Brady, Broadview, Centerville, Geraldine, Heart Butte, Highwood and Power. There is one memorable sequence, filmed with residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where real-life homecoming queens dressed in gowns accompany the players onto the field as elders bang out drums and sing Indian tribal songs. Alex and Andrew say they captured it just the way it really happens with the girls wearing their actual dresses.
In one scene charged with electricity, Gideon invites Roy up to his room to bandage a cut hand Roy has injured in a fight. In the ensuing sequences, Gideon unburdens himself about his life, including the fact that he had been in a boat with another football player who had drowned.