“You’re the only good thing I ever did,” Will Patton’s character Adam says earnestly to his teenage daughter in Sweet Thing, through a blaze of booze wearing a Santa Claus outfit. Like many moments in the film, it’s an intoxicating mix of touching and tragic, powerfully intimate but also hard to watch.
Patton has long been a familiar face on the Hollywood circuit since classics such as Gone in 60 Seconds, Armageddon and The Postman, but he’s also sprung up in multiple indie projects in recent years, including Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Minari and now Sweet Thing, playing a chaotic alcoholic, trying, and mostly failing, to look after his kids and keep his s*** together.
By look and feel, Alexandre Rockwell’s (In The Soup, Little Feet) film, which predominately follows the exploits of Adam’s two kids (played by the director’s real-life kids, Lana and Nico Rockwell) as they set out as fugitives across Massachusetts, seems straight out of the late 90s indie scene: it has a raw, freewheeling and semi-improvised sensibility, and a lo-fi monochrome aesthetic that’s simultaneously comfortingly nostalgic and refreshingly new. Plus the real-life connections and impressive talent of Rockwell’s children bring an unmistakable authenticity.
It’s already won recognition at Berlin and Quebec film festivals and promises to steal more hearts with its understated capturing of the everyday struggle and innocent bliss of childhood.
We spoke with Will Patton about working with the director’s two kids and wife on set, sweating through his Santa outfit while shooting in a condemned building, Quentin Tarantino’s thoughts on the film, and the sense of hard-won joy he hopes viewers will take away.
Hi Will, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with The Upcoming. We were absolutely blown away by Sweet Thing. What was it about the script that initially attracted you to the project?
Well, I knew Alex from a long time ago. We’d done In The Soup and we have a long history together. I’d seen Little Feet, which is the film he did before Sweet Thing with his kids, which is also a beautiful, beautiful movie – you should see it if you like Sweet Thing because it’s them at a little bit of a younger age. It’s really great. And he asked me to do this and we’d been looking for something to do for a long time. And I just liked it, you know? Alex always has so much joy and enthusiasm around his work that he’s kind of irresistible.
What about the particular character of Adam? How did you see your character?
Well, I have a lot of references for that man, that character. And I feel that, in the end, both in the script and in real life, I felt like I became true family with Lana and Nico. I miss them now when I don’t see them because we became so close. It felt like we were living it. And it’s all very intense when you’re doing these things for very little money. It heightens everything; you’re surviving each day. There’s a lot of enjoyment but a lot of struggle too – which is kind of how Alex’s movies are. They’re so full of joy, but they don’t avoid the difficulty of life, let’s say.
What were some of the most difficult moments for you to film, playing that character?
I remember when we were shooting inside the house, which was basically some kind of condemned apartment building – I don’t quite know what it was, but there was no air in there! – and I was in a Santa Claus suit. It was the middle of summer, if you can imagine. I remember at one point Nico turning to his dad and saying, “You know, Dad, you’re really asking a lot!”. I was struck by that because we were working these crazy hours and there was no luxury involved, let’s put it like that. And then Alex is so brave – he’d suddenly hire for my best friend some guy who’s working down at a refrigerator store in the middle of town or something, someone that we’d never met! So you had to deal with the spontaneity and craziness of that.
What do you think the film has to say about people like Adam, who has a good heart but is struggling to keep his head above water?
I think for anybody who’s got trouble with alcohol or drugs, there is hope in there. I think the film really, really does explore that. And that’s one of the things that attracted me to it. Without giving anything away, there is some kind of breakthrough for him and for them, in terms of just learning how to deal with it in a way that, I believe, is hopeful.
You mentioned working with Rockwell’s real-life kids Lana and Nico – Lana, in particular, displays an incredible talent for such a young actor. What was it like working with them and inserting yourself into a family dynamic in some respects?
Lana is just really a wonderful person and felt immediately like kin to me. That part of it felt easy. I felt we were able to connect and become partners in the work pretty well.
The film definitely has a kind of improvised quality to it. Was there improvisation on set or is it actually just very cleverly crafted to look spontaneous?
I think we said the lines that were in the script. But we did a lot of other stuff, too, that wasn’t in it. And Alex is very much open to that kind of thing. So, in a way, we never quite knew what exactly was going to happen and things would be created while the camera was rolling. It’s always pretty exciting when you can just play and put yourself out on a limb and see what happens.
The whole look and feel of the film seems to hark back to late 90s indie, with its lo-fi, monochrome aesthetic. What do you make of that style, amidst all the blockbuster Marvel and DC films that are coming out at the moment?
Yes and it almost seems more beautiful. I mean, it almost seems luxurious, like a better picture in better quality, just in terms of the way the substance feels, the way the texture feels. It feels like something that you would have to spend a lot of money to get.
The film has not only been met with praise and accolades on the festival circuit – apparently even Quentin Tarantino said it was one of the most powerful new films he’d seen in years. How does it feel to know it’s had that kind of reception?
Well, it’s good. I mean, Quentin and Alex kind of came up together: In The Soup won at Sundance over Reservoir Dogs, so they have a connection that goes way back. I think they were even roommates at one point. But I’m glad Quentin said that – that doesn’t hurt!
You previously appeared in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey – there is some common ground between these films, especially the young, vulnerable yet tough female character coming of age. What do you think it is that appeals to you about such movies?
I don’t know, I don’t know what appeals to me, only that I know it when it does appeal. I mean, Andrea is so brilliant and so wonderful and she has the same kind of bravery and the “not doing anything anybody’s telling her to do” kind of thing that Alex has. Both of them are very improvisational and that’s always interesting to me, to be able to play like that.
Although the film does touch on cycles of abuse and the reality of growing up in poverty, it does ultimately have an uplifting, joyful feeling. What do you hope viewers will take away from it?
I hope that there’s a kind of a hard-won joy and hope that comes out of it. In a way, Alex’s movies are kind of like having a party: they’re really, really fun. But he doesn’t avoid how difficult it is to sometimes feel like you’re having happiness or joy. So I think it’s got that.
How do you think it hit at this particular moment in time, amid cinema being on hold for the last couple of years and the political situation, especially in the US. Where do you think films like this sit in terms of opening audiences’ eyes to the reality of how life can be for others, while also getting an injection of hope?
You know, I think one can feel when a film’s heart is in the right place. And I think that’s always good politically more than an overtly political movie. I think something that comes at it from a more oblique angle is more politically helpful than something that comes out from a political angle. Both Andrea’s film and Alex’s film both have that, I’d say. I think Andrea’s film American Honey is very political without being overtly political.
Last year you were also involved in the stunning Minari. Did you expect that film to have the impact it did? What was the experience like for you?
I knew how amazing Isaac was, I had worked with him before. He’s made some good films, so I knew it was going to be good. But I didn’t really know it was going to be as successful as it was, because, see, he was making something that was just completely coming from his heart. And that can succeed or it can disappear. But it succeeded. So it’s great that it did.
How do you look back on your career and all those roles you played? Do you feel now you’ve got to the stage where there’s a kind of pleasure in just picking whichever roles you want?
Oh, heck, I don’t know! That’s a hard one to figure out. I mean, I just keep trying to find what I like and what seems to connect to something for me, whether it’s guys working on an oil rig going into outer space, or drunk with some kids in a movie where I’m working with the director’s real kids, you know? I don’t know. I think it’s whatever excites me in a way.
Do you already know what you’re going to be working on next?
Yeah! I’ve been working on this series called Outer Range with Josh Brolin, and it’s really great. I just finished that. Now I’m in England working on this new series called Wool, which is also extremely interesting.
Well you arrived just in time for our incredibly late summer so lucky you! Thanks so much for your time and your contribution to this wonderful film.
Thank you. I’m glad to talk to you.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on the 9th September 2021.
Sweet Thing is released nationwide on 10th September 2021.
Watch the trailer for Sweet Thing here: