Alex Pettyfer made his directorial debut with the dark family drama Back Roads at Tribeca Film Festival on April 20. The film, adapted from the book by Tawni O’Dell, follows the story of a young man left to take care of his three sisters on his own when his mother goes to jail for killing his abusive father. Layered with pain, abuse, and love, Back Roads is a lot to tackle for any director, especially a first-time one, but Pettyfer was up for the challenge. In fact, he’d been enthralled by the story the moment he read the novel several years back. “I actually read the project about 10 years ago as an actor and I just purely came from a place where I wanted to see the film be made,” he told me on the Tribeca Film Festival red carpet. “I was attracted [to it] because it was very rich in the material and very dark.”
And the tale only grows darker from there with affairs, shocking family secrets, and an ending you won’t see coming. “The thing that I’m attracted to is realism. This is a real story with real people and it’s a family drama at the core of it,” Pettyfer said, about his love for real human stories. “It’s very heavy, very heavy, and I think you have to be very prepared.”
Watch my interview with Back Roads director, producer, and star Alex Pettyfer, below:
Looking back at Pettyfer’s career, he’s had quite the acting resume — known for his work in films like Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, I Am Number Four, and Magic Mike, just to name a few. But to take on Back Roads was going to find him tackling something a bit different: not just directing for the first time, but also acting and producing, and doing it all at once. So what was that like for him? “Stressful,” he laughed. “Very stressful. But you know what? When you come together as a filmmaker you come together with the group of people that are a part of it. The creatives. For me, to collaborate with people is the most amazing gift that we have. When you’re an actor you’re really on a solo journey, [but] as a filmmaker you come together with people and that’s what’s beautiful.”
Lucky for him, he had a cast compiled of people dedicated to supporting him through this journey. “Because I had just directed my first feature, I was so aware of the process and so aware of everything [Pettyfer] was going through. It felt nice to be able to be a support system in that situation,” actress Jennifer Morrison told me on the Tribeca red carpet about working with a first-time director. “I knew exactly how to be there or be an extra support for certain stresses or things that were going on because I’d already been through it. I also knew exactly what I needed to do to be over prepared […] so that he could have as much space as he needed to deal with every other problem that he was dealing with.”
Watch my interview with Back Roads actress Jennifer Morrison, below:
And that support from peers is very much appreciated. “I felt like when I was shooting Sun Dogs Michael Angarano did that for me because he had just done his first feature. He was so supportive and so wonderful and so it felt nice to be able to pay it forward and do that for Alex,” she added.
Morrison revealed that she’d also been a fan of the novel for years, but it was Pettyfer’s vision that really sold her on the project. “I read the novel, loved the novel. Alex reached out and was interested in me playing the role,” she said about how she got involved in Back Roads. “I was fascinated just from the character from the novel perspective and then once Alex spoke about his visual plan for the film and his vision for the film and the creative team he was putting together I was just so blown away by his passion and his attention to detail and what he put into it to make this all come together. So from the point that we had that conversation on I was just 100% in. I was really blown away by his passion and his vision.”
Newcomer Chiara Aurelia, who plays one of Pettyfer’s younger sisters in the film, just knew that she needed to be a part of the film after reading the script. “From the moment that I saw this script and I started reading about Misty and all the other amazing characters in it, I was attached. I was enraptured. I had to be a part of this project,” she told me on the red carpet. “And then I met Alex and I saw his vision and I saw how it all came together and created this beautiful project that showed all of these difficulties in this family. It was amazing.” Outside of this project, she revealed to me that she just booked a role on TNT’s Deadlier Than The Male, which begins filming in New Orleans this summer.
Man With A Plan actress Hala Finley, who plays the youngest sister, added: “We felt like a real family and we felt like we were actually living their life.”
Watch my interview with Back Roads actresses Chiara Aurelia and Hala Finley, below:
Even through all the dark themes within Back Roads, Pettyfer was able to keep a lightness and positivity on set which allowed the actors to really get into their characters. “There’s a lot of really heavy issues and all of characters are going through some really complicated dark just dark moments in their life,” Morrison told me. “But I think there was an incredible levity on set because of the way Alex directs. Because of his energy and how kind and supportive and warm he is with everyone. It was always a very light and loving and safe atmosphere [which] I think made it possible for us to explore those darker corners and feel like we had a safety net.”
As a new director, I asked Pettyfer to share the easiest and hardest parts of making a film. “There’s no easy part,” he laughs. “But the hardest part of putting it together? I guess it’s the same Hollywood story. I think its hard to find financing, you know it’s hard to find stories like this to be told. Adrien Lyon spent a long time trying to put it together and I would’ve loved to see his version. He’s an amazing filmmaker. He’s the reason why I fell in love with this film. He wrote the movie. Just economically, we worked with a micro budget compared to what it was, so I think that’s always the case.”
He adds that he hopes new emerging video platforms will help with that and give creators more opportunities to bring their work to life: “I think that’s amazing that we have platforms like Netflix and Amazon and hopefully now iTunes soon to be able to bring content like this and filmmakers get the opportunity to make good stuff.”