Every so often a smaller-budget indie film sneaks out onto the scene with little to no fanfare that’s absolutely amazing. Cameron Van Hoy’s new crime thriller Flinch is one such film. It’s a small film and wouldn’t have had much of a release anyway, but it’s fair to say that Covid-19 has substantially reduced the number of viewers who have seen it theatrically. But, let me tell you this: as a man who writes crime fiction myself, has written books on both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and has seen Goodfellas more times than Donald Trump has told lies, Flinch is absolutely the finest crime film since S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 debuted back in 2017.
Flinch tells the story of a Mafia hitman (played by Daniel Zovatto) who finds his latest job has been witnessed by the mark’s beautiful assistant (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey). He obviously knows he should kill her. That’s just Hitman 101. However, he finds he cannot. No doubt her beauty plays a role in his reluctance to eliminate her, but there’s something else about her that intrigues him; when he stuck the gun in her face, she didn’t flinch. His father, an old-time knockaround guy (Steven Bauer) once told him that only two kinds of people don’t flinch—those who have seen unquestionably dark things and those who are pure of heart. But which one is she? Unsure what to do next, he kidnaps her until he can devise a plan to save them both.
The film has a 1980s feel to it, and its score (by Miami Nights 1984) is reminiscent of the soundtrack from Nicholas Winding Refn’s underappreciated gem, Drive. Writer-director Van Hoy’s (who previously produced 2017’s Tragedy Girls) screenplay is superb and features one of the best twists the crime genre has seen in a long time. The impressively-directed film also features fine performances by veteran actors David Proval and Cathy Moriarty, as well as the younger Buddy Durress, whom audiences will remember from the Safdie brothers’ Good Time.
The film is currently screening in a limited theatrical run and DVDs of the movie are available to order from the film’s website (www. flinchthemovie.com).
I sat down to talk to Van Hoy about his impressive directorial debut, covering everything from the writing of the script to bailing out a cast member to the final film.
You produced a couple of pictures and dabbled in acting before making your directorial debut with Flinch. Did you always want to direct?
I started acting very young; I was a kid actor. I grew up in the theatre. I loved theatre from a very young age. I also loved my video camera and I was just always putting on a show. I was always writing plays, filming things, editing stuff, and acting. It’s what I did from a very young age, and it’s progressed throughout my entire life. I did pursue acting for a while, while also pursuing film. But film ultimately won over. It’s where I spend my time. Making movies is what I’m most passionate about. And now it’s all that I do.
You told me you really enjoy writing crime stories, so I was wondering, what do you envision for yourself in the future? Would you like to be recognized as someone who is primarily a crime writer-director, or do you see yourself as being a filmmaker who works in a lot of different genres?
That’s a great question. How do I answer that? Everything I write tends to have some element of criminality in it. Criminal people. So I often do gravitate towards those types of characters, though I do write things in different genres. I would love to be able to continue down this path of doing this certain type of straight-lined story that I enjoy, but then also I’d love to be able to break away every once in a while and do something totally different. I don’t know… [Laughs.] Like any writer, I think of ideas all day long. Sometimes I have crazy ideas about things like rom-coms. And I think, this is a great idea for a rom-com! So I don’t know how to answer that one.
I read a review prior to seeing Flinch that alluded to there being a big twist in the third act of the film. So I knew it was coming. I was waiting and watching for it as I watched it, and I have to tell you, I still didn’t see it coming at all! You handled that extremely well. We won’t spoil that here, but what have the reactions to that twist been?
It’s been cool. I haven’t met anyone yet who’s seen it coming, interestingly enough. I discovered the twist while writing it. I had the majority of the story and the characters down and then found the twist through the process. I didn’t always know that was going to happen. Then in shaping it, I learned a lot. I learned a lot on this movie about building tension and building suspense and where you put the audience’s perspective; if they’re one step ahead of the character or one step behind the character as far as information goes. I played with that a lot in the movie. Even in small scenarios where the audience will see something that they think the character hasn’t seen yet. But then the audience will realize that they’re actually one step behind the character. Even smaller details like the scene in the bedroom with the gun…
I remember trying to figure this out while making the film, and one of the things I came across was what Hitchcock said about the bomb under the table. He said there were two ways you could go about a scene. You could have a scene with two people sitting at a table and there’s a bomb under the table, but no one knows it’s there. The audience doesn’t know it’s there and then, all of a sudden, it just blows up. It’s a big explosion and it’s exciting. Or you can have these two people at a table and show the audience that there is a bomb under the table, and then continue with the scene. And now the scene is so much more tense because the audience is saying, “Oh my God, there’s a bomb under the table!” I learned a lot about tension bulding and experimented a lot with that on this film on smaller levels, and then the twist is the bigger literal version.
How many unproduced scripts have you written? Are you one of these guys like S. Craig Zahler who has a big stack of them?
I have a few good scripts that I’ve written. I have a few good ones. I wouldn’t say a stack, but I’ve written.
You talked some about the process of discovery during writing. Are you traditionally a writer who maps things out, or do you always allow the story to grow? I find in my own fiction that I’ll often map things out, but then the story kind of gets a mind of its own and ends up somewhere completely different than where I had envisioned.
Absolutely. Same for me. You have an idea of what you want to do, whether it’s the characters or the plot or the world or the tone or a combination of these things. You’ve got ideas. And then it just changes along the way. I’m also an overthinker [laughs], so I will just go down a rabbit hole of exploring this scenario and that scenario. I probably do that a little too much. I’m a very obsessive person, period, with everything I do. So when you’re writing, it’s tough, because the possibilities are infinite.
What was the genesis of Flinch? What aspects of the story came to you first?
I always liked the idea of the hitman and his mother. I always liked them as a duo. I just thought they were great characters. I knew them immediately. I was like, I totally know who these two people are; this young, tough, brooding, reserved sort of like beaten-down-but-still-strong humble but yet really dangerous hitman, and his mother, who’s this overbearing, lovable, pain in the ass, neurotic, flawed, but absolutely beautiful woman who will do anything for her son and vice-versa.
And she might be tougher than him. He’s hesitant to kill the girl, but she wouldn’t have batted an eye.
Absolutely! So that’s where I started.
You had some great veteran actors in this. You’ve got David Proval and Cathy Moriarty, who both started out working with Scorsese. Then you’ve got Steven Bauer, who played in De Palma’s Scarface. So you’ve got built in cred with the crime audience right off the bat. And each of them is tremendously talented too. Would you talk a little bit about casting them and what they were like to work with?
It was awesome to work with all of them because they’ve all been around. They’ve been in so many great movies and have been a part of the filmmaking process for so many years. You mentioned Scorsese and De Palma. Those are two of my favorite directors. So just working with actors who worked with those directors, there’s something very cool about that.
Casting them was great. We just reached out to them, and they said yes. And a lot of that was a testament to the script and to Danny Zovatto. Once Zovatto came onboard—he was the first actor I brought on—they all wanted to work with him. They all knew his work. Actors are pretty savvy. Even though Zovatto’s not a mega movie star yet, he’s a really good actor. And anyone who knows these things knows he’s one of the young guys that have real chops and that there’s something special about him. So they were all very excited to work with him and they liked the script. So everyone coming on… I don’t want to say it was easy, because it’s never easy, but it was a good process.
And working with them was amazing. They’re pros. When we first started filming, it was Zovatto and Tilda working first. And then Buddy Durress, These three young actors and myself, just making a movie together and finding our way together. The first few days in on a film, everyone’s just trying to figure the thing out in regards to understanding the dynamics and what the film is going to be like. “Does he know what he’s doing?” “Do I know what I’m doing?” “Do they know what they’re doing?” “Am I gonna get what I need?” All that’s happening. And then Cathy came on on day four or five, and she completely changed the vibe. It was just the spirit of a veteran, a pro, and a legend coming in. And she made it so fun. She brought so much levity and fun, and all of a sudden, everyone, myself included, were just like, “Okay, this is fun. We are going to have fun doing this. We are going to have fun playing these scenes out and shooting these scenes and getting these moments and trying different things in each take.” She just brought so much, and everyone learned a lot from her.
Every one of them brought that, you know? David Proval brought that in such a big way. It was so fun rehearsing with him. It’s just fun. They always say in theatre, “it’s called a play, not a drag.” It’s playing! And they all really brought that level of play. The young actors did, too, but it was pretty magical when the veteran actors came on.
Flinch really has a throwback feel. Was that something you were going for? It feels like an ’80s film to me in all the right ways.
Yeah, definitely. I definitely was going for that. I think of it as a late ’80s, early ’90s vibe.
It kind of feels like an Abel Ferrara film to me, like King of New York.
I love King of New York. Christopher Walken is incredible in that movie. So good. I love the era. I love the ’90s, and I love crime movies from the ’90s. I think it was just an amazing time for film. I’m a big fan of the crime genre, whether it’s noir movies from the 1940s or heist pictures. And I love synthwave music. It’s just great music, and I knew I wanted a synthwave score. I’ve been listening to the composer, Miami Nights 1984’s music for years. I really listen to him a lot. It’s just so cinematic to me. The music tells a story, and it really defines the character. It’s character music. So I knew I wanted him to score it, and obviously that’s gonna give it a kind of ’80s vibe.
I also like movies that have sort of an ambiguous time frame. I remember when I was young and I watched Pulp Fiction for the first time, there was something about Pulp Fiction that felt old. It didn’t feel like the ’90s. I was like, “Is this the ’70s?” No, it’s not the ’70s; it’s contemporary, but it could be the ’70s. And then this other movie, It Follows, does that in a funky way where there’s this random moment where she’s using some strange technological device that just doesn’t exist in the time. It doesn’t hit you over the head, but the time isn’t specified. In this film we have Instagram, but then there’s an old TV from the ’90s. It keeps it a little ambiguous, and I like that.
I saw Buddy [Durress] in Good Time and I was just like, “This guy is one of the great crime actors.” That was just my thought. “This guy is like Peter Lorre. He’s like Joe Pesci.” He’s one of those actors that just has great character.
Let’s talk a little bit about Tilda Cobham-Hervey. She’s amazing. She’s a talented actress with the ability to steal every scene she’s in. What was the process in casting her? Did she audition?
I knew I wanted Zovatto. I’d done a lot of research trying to find a young actor that I believed was a killer. Someone I thought was tough. Because a lot of actors…I would not buy them playing a gritty tough guy. Ever. And it’s really hard to find a young actor who’s got that. But I saw it in Zovatto. I wanted him, and we got him. Then his agent represented Tilda and he said, “Hey, meet with this girl. She’s a client of mine. She’s really talented.” He sent over her reel, and she was amazing. You could just see it immediately, like, “This girl is an incredible actress.” She also had this look that was like a classic movie star, like someone you’d see in a noir film from the 1940s.
So no, she didn’t audition. I just saw her reel and I thought, this girl is amazing. Then I met with her, and we just talked. And I was like, yeah, she’s it.
That’s amazing considering how palpable the chemistry between she and Zovatto is. It’s remarkable that you cast them both without having auditioned them together. Because finding that kind of chemistry is rare even then.
I had Zovatto meet with her. He wanted to as well. I didn’t go to the meeting. I thought they should just meet. By that point Zovatto and I were already pals, and I trusted him. He’s a smart guy. He met with her and I was like, “What do you think?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, she’s great. She’s it.” So they met, but we didn’t do any chemistry reads.
Let’s talk about Buddy Durress. He’s great in the film. I understand his going in and out of jail during the production caused some problems.
I saw Buddy in Good Time and I was just like, “This guy is one of the great crime actors.” That was just my thought. “This guy is like Peter Lorre. He’s like Joe Pesci.” He’s one of those actors that just has great character. Again, some of these great actors from the ’90s—the Steve Buscemis of the world.
Buddy has this distinctive look that makes you know he’s going to be an interesting character before he even speaks.
Oh, yeah! There’s something amazing about Buddy, which is that he’s completely unaware of himself. That’s why he’s so good on camera. It’s the same reason why an animal or a child is always so good on camera; because they’re not self-conscious at all. They’re just so in the moment, so present. He’s got that. So you just put a camera on him and you just get gold. But I knew I wanted him to play the bad guy. “This guy is born to play a villain.” I also thought he would be interesting as a really rich kid. This degenerate type of wealthy, despicable, privileged, violent, awful guy. I thought, I would love to see Buddy play that. Someone with wealth who is just no good.
So I went after him and got him, and Buddy is… People know the stories about him. He is who he is, and we had to deal with it while making the film. I knew it going into making the movie because I found out. At first he and his manager told me that after like four days of filming he was going to have to have to go back to New York for a photo shoot. I was like, okay, fine, we’ll shoot for four days and he can go back to New York to do his photo shoot. And then, about a week in, he said it was an audition. So then I’m thinking, is this a photo shoot or an audition he’s going back for? And then I finally got it out of him one day on the phone that he had to go in front of the judge for violating his parole. And he’s telling me, “Look man, there’s a ninety-nine-percent chance I’m not going back to jail.” I’m like, “Oh, my God!” I spoke to a lawyer and the lawyer was like, “There’s a good chance he’s going to jail. If he goes back, he’s gonna go to jail.”
So I was like, oh boy, what do I do? And I decided to just do it. I was like, “You know what? Fuck it. I am going to shoot Buddy for four days, let him go back and see the judge, pray to God he doesn’t go to jail and that he comes back and we will continue filming with him. In a worst case scenario, if he goes to jail, I’ll recast it and I’ll shoot those four days.” It would have been expensive, but what the hell? It’s too good an opportunity not to have him in this movie. I really wanted him, so I did it. And after like day one of filming, Buddy was so thrilled with this role and the movie and what he was doing that he was just like, “Fuck it. I’m not going back. I’ll deal with the consequences later. I don’t care. This is my role, this is my fuckin’ movie!” And he stayed and didn’t go back.
He finished the movie and then after he went back he went to jail for not showing up. Then he got out, but then he went back in for doing something else. I didn’t know at the time, so I’m trying to find him to finish because I needed him to do all this ADR for the movie. But I couldn’t find him anywhere. Couldn’t reach him, nothing. So I flew to New York and went to the address where his checks used to get mailed to. I knocked on the door and his mom answered. She was like, “Oh, he’s in Rikers Island.” He’d committed grand larceny or something. So I went to Rikers and saw him, which was pretty amazing. This was pre-Covid, but you could just go into Rikers and meet anybody. I didn’t know that. Literally you could just find anyone’s name at Rikers and go there and show up and say, “I’m here to meet this person.” They’ll just bring them out and put them in front of you! [Laughs.] I had no appointment to see Buddy. I just went to Rikers and man, going to Rikers is a trip. It takes like an hour to get in there. It’s a pretty incredible journey to go in there. I recommend everyone does it. They should do field trips to Rikers, just to see what it’s like. Just like, “This exists.”
So we helped to bail him out. His mom was trying to bail him out, and we threw down on the bail to get him out so we could finish the movie.
Looking at the finished film now, what aspects would you say you’re the most proud of?
At this point the thing I’m the most proud of is the fact that people are liking it. People are following the social media and commenting. Today someone commented that they’d seen it in the theater twice already. That’s incredible. These movies really come out of nowhere. It’s just an idea. “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” Then you put all of this money and people and resources together to tell the story, and then you put it out there. For people to comment and respond and say, “I love that movie. That movie is my jam,” or for people to say, “I love this movie. I’ve seen it twice already…” That’s the greatest. Even if it was just one person—one random person I don’t know and have no connection to—who went and sat there and watched this thing and enjoyed it… That’s the greatest.