Stephen Lang Interview: VFW

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Joe Begos’ punk rock thriller, VFW, hosts an enormous cast: including the likes of Martin Kove, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, and George Wendt, among many, many others. But without a doubt, the face of the film is Stephen Lang. Playing Fred Parras, the unofficial leader of this band of older, partying vets, Lang gets to show off both his improv and ass-whoopin’ chops for the project. In time for the film’s limited theatrical, digital, and on-demand release on February 14, Screen Rant had the opportunity to speak with Lang about his experiences working as a producer on the film, as well as his time in the upcoming Avatar sequels.

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VFW is one of your first films as a producer. Why did you decide to get involved in producing?

Stephen Lang: I produced two films before: Beyond Glory and The Wheatfield. I was a producer on those films, but in any case, I was offered the opportunity to be a producer on this film and it was fun. [Plus,] it was useful having your opinion on things so it sort of made sense to me, and I liked the movie plenty.

Were you signed as a producer before you got the script, or did you get the script and then decided to jump on to produce?

Stephen Lang: No, no. Actually my son Noah called me saying that these guys sent him a script for me and he said, “I think you should read it, pop. I think you’ll like it.” So I did and I liked the concept of it a lot; I thought that there was a good movie in there, so both me and my son Noah came on as producers.

There’s definitely a fun story in there. That being said, is producing something you see yourself doing more of down the road?

Stephen Lang: I don’t think it would ever take precedence over some of the other stuff: acting and writing. But, it does seem to be a natural extension of that in a way. When I write things to be performed, I tend to think of them in terms of production. So, I’d do it again, absolutely.

It’s funny what you said about writing because from what I understand, this was a very collaborative set, in that there was a lot of improvisation involved. Why do you think that was important to the film and what do you think it added to the experience?

Stephen Lang: Well, if you’re going to improv, you certainly want to do it with people who are good at it. And as it happens, this was a very seasoned group of actors. Now, the dialogue in the script was all serviceable diaglogue; there was all good dialogue there. But there was nothing sacred about it to the writers and it became a jumping off point for us to form these relationships. So, we were blessed with a bunch of really fine improvizational actors and a director who totally encouraged the interactions – letting them be spontaneous, and not having anything locked down.

It was great working with these guys too because we had a shorthand. You know, we’ve been doing it a long time so we really knew how to negotiate our moments as it were – which you find during improvization. It all becomes a part of the script.

When you were going through the casting process, what was it about your costars that you knew would achieve that level of chemistry on the screen?

Stephen Lang: I don’t know if I did know that. I’d worked with Bill Sadler but not for many, many years; we worked together a couple of times but probably not for over 25 years. But I knew these guys; I admired their work. And you take a flyer, you see how it goes. But just because of my role as Fred, who’s sort of the boss of the whole thing, I was able to do everything I felt I needed to do to make the group coalesce, you know what I mean? That was sort of my role.

But it was going to succeed. We were going to communicate one way or the other and as it happend, I was working with guys who understood that, intuitvely, that’s what we had to do to make this film work. It was natural.

Yeah, it was very natural, definitely. And something else I appreciated about this film is that while the main threat is this army of punk junkies, the film felt like a barricaded zombie movie. When considering your character’s place in the film, what do you find interesting about stories that take place primarily in one isolated location?

Stephen Lang: Within the boundaries of that isolated place, it gives you a lot of freedom to explore that particular place. I think that Joe does a pretty darn good job of that with the VFW hall. That’s always interesting because it just allows for a different kind of drama, a more claustrophobic kind of thing. And with people banging on locked doors, there’s always a good source of tension.

This, of course, isn’t the first time you’ve worked within a claustrophobic environment: there was Don’t Breathe a couple of years ago, which was just fantastic. When you’re acting in these isolated locations, what do you learn about your character?

Stephen Lang: Well, you have to find your character through how you deal with the circumstances that you’re in. Of course, physical circumstances contribute to character. But in the same token, there are certain qualities that just reside within the heart and soul of whatever character you’re playing that make that person able to deal with adverse circumstances.

With all of these guys like Fred, my character, he’s dealt with adversity before. The conditions of assault that come with going to war are familiar to him and, in a sense, comfortable for him.

When I was speaking with Marty Kove about this film, we very quickly got off topic and talked about Westerns because it’s both of our favorite genres. Not only were you in Tombstone, but you were also in what Marty and I both agreed was one of the most underappreciated and impressive Westerns of recent years: Hostiles. Having now worked on two great modern Westerns, a genre that has largely flattened out, what do you think is the best way to approach those kinds of stories?

Stephen Lang: Listen, I love Westerns. If I had to pick a genre, it would probably be a toss up between Westerns and War movies. I like action [laughs].

I adore the genre but look, it’s been flattened out, as you put it, for a long, long, long, long time. But there’s always room for a great one. They do get made, but it’s been a while. But I don’t know, it’s all about story: if you have a good story, you can tell it as a Western.

And you know, you always root for them. Like when Hostiles came out, you certainly root for the film to do well because if it does, it’s ammunition for making more Westerns.

In terms of future projects, it’s kind of hard to believe that we’re now less than two years away to the long-awaited release of Avatar 2. What can you say about working on this film compared to the first time?

Stephen Lang: It’s been a long process. It goes on. It’s been fascinating, and it’s become as much a lifestyle as anything else. I know to some people, opening in December ’21 sounds like a long time away, it feels just around the corner [to us] since we’ve been on this for so long.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s been a great journey. I really loved the first one and it’s only gotten deeper and more complicated as we’ve gotten deeper into the sequels.

From what I understand, there are 5 films in total. How many of those stories are prepared that you’ve been a part of so far?

Stephen Lang: Well all of the stories are there; the scripts are all there. And we have shot Avatar 2, and part of 3. That’s the extent of where we’re at right now. And there’s still more shooting to be done. This is a very specific and particular process. Right now, we’ve amassed a huge amount of material, you know? So now the film is – I don’t think you can even call it post-production  – but it’s going great and we’re working hard.

VFW will be available in select theaters, on-demand, and Digital HD February 14.

More: Martin Kove Interview: VFW

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