News Column

'The Motel Life': Willy Vlautin thinks the movie has 'a really good heart' -- and 'the drinking is realistic'

November 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 05--Willy Vlautin's busy with his own projects -- he's going into the studio next week to record an album with his band, Richmond Fontaine, and has another new band, the Delines, with Sean Oldham and Amy Boone, and a novel out in February, "The Free," that he thinks is his most ambitious. There's horses to feed and books to read, more than enough going on without worrying about "The Motel Life," a movie based on his first novel.

"What did you think of it?" Vlautin asked.

He can't help it. The novel is like his first child, set in Reno, his hometown, and about two brothers who had it tough growing up but never fought, like himself and his brother John. If you put your life and your heart into a book the way Vlautin did with "The Motel Life," and it became a movie starring Emile Hirsch and Dakota Fanning and one of your idols, Kris Kristofferson, then you'd care whether it was any good and what people thought. You'd care a lot.

Luckily for Vlautin, who had nothing to do with the production and only visited the set once, "The Motel Life" is a winner, a low-key independent movie that makes inventive use of animation by Portland's Mike Smith in fantasy sequences that enliven the downbeat lives of Frank (Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff). The plot and structure of Vlautin's novel make it to the screen more or less intact, and so does the spirit.

"I think it's got a really good heart. You can't ask for more than that. It knows what it wants to be," Vlautin said. "You can tell they worked really hard on it. It feels like a Reno story, and I thought the drinking was realistic. My brother and I both thought so. We drank enough beers in the morning."

He's relieved. You never know how a movie is going to turn out, and "The Motel Life" took a couple of detours on its way to theaters. The first option was held by Guillermo Arriaga, the Mexican screenwriter of "21 Grams" and "Babel" and "Amores Perros," what Vlautin, a horse-racing fan, called "a trifecta of pretty amazing movies."

"It was fun because he's a larger-than-life character but I was never really certain that he would make it," Vlautin said. "He was really nice to my book and was a big supporter of it. I think he bought it more to help the book out than anything.

"He's a good talker. That's one thing I've learned -- Hollywood people know how to (throw manure around) better than anybody I've ever met. And that's fun. There's so many moving parts that you have to really believe it's going to happen and you to tell everyone around you it's going to happen or you're sunk."

By the time Arriaga's option lapsed, Alan and Gabe Polsky were interested in "The Motel Life." The brothers produced "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans," a movie with the one-two wacko punch of director Werner Herzog and star Nicolas Cage. The Polskys bought the rights to several well-known novels and were attracted to "The Motel Life" because it's about brothers and loyalty and moving forward. Vlautin drove them around Reno and showed them the places where the novel is set and before he knew it they were the ones moving forward, getting a script written and signing Hirsch and deciding to direct it themselves.

When Vlautin heard from friends in Reno that the Polskys had opened a production office, he figured it might really happen. All he asked is that they let him take a look at the script and listen to his suggestions about music.

"They wouldn't have to listen -- they could be watching TV while I was talking -- but it would make me feel better," he said. "I'm a big movie fan. I'm not confident enough to navigate writing screenplays. It would be a waste of my time. I believe in the novel more than anything. I don't really want to get involved in movies except as a fan. I just sell it and hope for the best. "

There's a scene in one of Vlautin's favorite dive bars, the Elbow Room, and another in the Halfway Club, his favorite restaurant. He met Kristofferson on set but when someone said "oh, Willy a musician too," Vlautin got all nervous and had to get out of there. Kristofferson was so friendly and kind to everyone, so considerate to a child actor in a scene with him, that Vlautin was awestruck. There's some people you don't need to hang out with, he figured. They're just too cool.

The soundtrack doesn't have Willie Nelson or Calexico, two of Vlautin's choices, but it does have songs by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt and a closing number by Richmond Fontaine that sounds just right over the credits, not buried in a bar scene or something. For Vlautin the best part was flying home from Reno after his set visit, thinking about how a story that came straight from his heart was helping other people.

"When I came back here, it was the first time I ever felt good about myself, because I was making the town money," he said. "My mother was not a real big fan of the arts. I always felt bad about writing and being in a band, and coming home I felt good about helping out this town that I really do love so much. I've always loved Reno a lot. I felt good for a couple of days -- there's guys working and making money and my favorite restaurant in the world is gonna be in a movie, and I had a part in that."

-- Jeff Baker

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