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.
And then there's the fact that the 34-year-old brothers, who grew up near Missoula, Mont., now live on opposite ends of the continent - Alex in Los Angeles and Andrew in New York.
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 SlaughterRule," 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 wouldcheck 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, thecoach 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.
Asked what it was like working with two first-time directors, Morse replied: "as I got to know them over the five years it took to make this thing, at least since they asked me to do it. There is a very calm dynamic between the two of them.... You never get a sense of any desperation or making decisions out of fear, maybe because they have each other to bounce things off, they're not quite so alone.
"I think directing can sometimes be the loneliest job in the world. Everybody is turning to you for the answer and you haven't got a clue. Sometimes you've got to make things up to keep things moving. But I think because they had each other, they could always get into a huddle and figure things out."
Alex and Andrew admit they fight like brothers when writing scripts but made a conscious effort to hide their tempers on the set.
"We knew we couldn't fight on set because the energy on the set is kind of a tenuous thing and everyone is watching you," Alex said. "We also didn't want the actors to play mom against dad, like 'You said I could do this.'"
Raised on a non-working ranch about 20 miles outside Missoula, the twins said they inherited a love of writing from their parents. Their late father, David, taught at the University of Montana and their stepfather, William Kittredge, once ran the creative writing program there. Their mother, Annick Smith, is a writer and filmmaker who has directed documentaries.
"A lot of writers live in Montana," Alex said. "You've got space, you get left alone and there's a writing community, so we grew up sort of immersed in that community."
But it was Sundance that introduced them into the world of independent filmmaking. It was, in effect, their own film school.
"We were like sponges," Alex recalled. "We went to everything we could, every seminar, every screening. Especially at the [Sundance] lab. There were all these incredible filmmakers who we had access to."
Eventually, they sat down and began writing their script but underwent a long odyssey. They first sought a director to make it, but he wanted to change it into his vision of a football movie and they couldn't stomach that approach.
Ironically, they submitted the script several times to the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs and were rejected. The brothers said they think they had closer scrutiny because the labs didn't want to cut them any slack.
They eventually got the financial backing they needed to make the movie their way. The movie was produced by independent producer Michael Robinson ("Trueblood") and by Gregory (producer) and Gavin (executive producer) O'Connor, whose most acclaimed work is "Tumbleweeds."
As for the Smith brothers, they are currently writing "The Faithful," a Civil War ghost story, for Disney Pictures and hope to finish another film they want to direct about a town in Montana in the 1920s where Communism was in vogue.
Now that they are back at Sundance, the brothers can take satisfaction that their years of work have finally paid dividends.
As morning snow flurries dusted the streets as festival moviegoers lined up for a screening on Main Street, Andrew looked out the window of a restaurant and remarked: "It feels like coming home."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun