You can pick your friends but not your relatives, is the adage that dominates Clayton Jacobson’s comedy-thriller Brothers’ Nest. Brothers Jeff and Terry (played by Clayton and his brother Shane) decide to kill their stepfather Rodger. “Somebody can say that they love you but if they’re stabbing you with a knife there’s a fair chance that they’re not being sincere.”
In the family house in the Australian countryside, the two make the necessary preparations while their stepfather visits their mother, who’s undergoing chemotherapy in a hospital, miles away. Jeff and Terry have several hours before Rodger arrives, and use the time to clean the house, rehearse the murder and nitpick about each others imperfections. The result is a visceral thriller, with pitch-black humor. A roller coaster ride full of hilarious escalations, culminating in a splashing end scene.
From Montréal, Canada, we spoke with Clayton Jacobson who talks very candidly about his film and the curious combination of tragedy and comedy. “That world is something very close to me, it’s my wheelhouse. Possibly because the way my family is in real life; we always deal with tragedy and drama through dark comedy.”
How do you find the humor in those tragic things as an actor and director?
“It’s less about gags; it’s not looking for a funny joke but looking for some piece of human behavior that reflects our common stupidity. Human beings are pretty silly creatures, at best. I think we’re a strange species. We can be as beautiful as we can be horrific as we can be funny. And sometimes all at once. For me it’s about truth, looking for those truthful moments that somehow reflect on a behavior that you’ve seen or experienced before. And I can only ever do it from a personal perspective. This is my attitude with filmmaking: I’ve got to try and please myself. I don’t think I’m that unique. If I’m pleasing myself, hopefully there’ll be others out there that’ll enjoy it as well.”
Brothers’ Nest has it owns uniqueness, its own merits. It’s also being compared with films like the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996). Are its directors Joel and Ethan Coen an inspiration?
“Certainly, they are among film makers whose films I’ve enjoyed. The thing I love about their movies is that they celebrate the fool as well; that their films always celebrate the foolishness of humanity. I love the rhythm in their dialogue, I’m very big on the musicality of dialogue.”
Jeff, the brother you play yourself, may be a fool, but at times he seems a true nihilist, which is not particularly funny.
“When I say the fool, I mean that in its most tragic form. The theme that strikes me in this film is validation. When people feel they’re not being validated they can respond in very interesting ways. In Jeff’s case, sadly he feels that most of his life he hasn’t been validated. The truth of the matter is that if these characters just sat down and talked a little bit more, and be more honest with each other, the tragedies of this film would never occur.”
This theme of (the lack of) validation seems contemporary and Shakespearian all at once.
“It’s that thing about making the domestic operatic, that the Coen brothers also do. It’s also a very common reality where I live. A good deal of crime that is committed in Australia is domestic. A lot of these tragedies are happening under the rooftops of families. I think it’s Shakespearian in that way.”
The humor, in Brothers’ Nest, seems to stem from the mundane.
It’s the mundane, but it’s also just recognizing the contrast between what we say and what we do. We rarely say what we mean but we can be defined by our actions. A lot of humor comes out of that very collision. Somebody can say that they love you but if they’re stabbing you with a knife there’s a fair chance that they’re not being sincere.”
The dynamic between you and your brothers Shane feels very sincere.
“There was a lot of synergy when we were making this film. As most brothers we’ve had our moments, and what I love about Shane and what he enjoys about myself is that we’re very honest. We’re always happy to use those frailties we’ve had in our past as fodder. We talked about it in length: going back to our earlier days when we didn’t get along so well and putting a fire under there and using it go give a scene a little bit more heat. What I said to Shane was: ‘We have to be each other’s meter, let’s call each other out.’ I also had my 22-year-old son working on the film, and it’s very telling when you do a take and your own son is buying it; then you’re in good shape. He was a good gauge for me.”
Is there a bit of irony in that? Making a film about a family with your own family?
“Absolutely. I do, sadly, put as much of my own life in my films as possible. It wasn’t lost on me that here I was playing the character of the older brother manipulating the younger brother while I was also an older brother, as a director, getting my brother to play. Trust me, there were some correlations that were unsettling for the crew as well. For instance, my mother-in-law was dying of cancer while we were making the film [and Jeff and Terry’s mother suffers from cancer in the film, OL]. And she was living with us. She has a very good sense of humor. Her dog passed away while we were looking after her, and my son and I were burying the dog in the front yard and she stepped out on the front porch and yelled: ‘Why don’t you keep digging and I’ll get in with it.’ When she heard that we were making this film, she asked to be a technical adviser. We brought her on set a couple of times. A lot of the discussions in the film about cancer comes directly from what we were experiencing at the time.”