Hanging out with Conor Byrne is like visiting Movie Nerd Disneyland, and you'd better have your adventure cap on. Just days after winning a Cannes Lions Young Director Award for his short Foureyes, the 25-year-old filmmaker is a fountain of infectious enthusiasm and encyclopedic entertainment history, eager to share the artistic philosophies behind Brudder Films, the production company he and his older brother Tyler formed in 2009.
"We're obsessed with the craft of filmmaking," Conor says, "and the idea is to make movies that honors the 'highbrow class clown' aesthetic -- broad comedies with mass appeal, but done in the smartest way we know how."
Since its inception Brudder has produced a number of lighthearted, affectionately satirical short films that trade on whimsy, nostalgia, and what Byrne readily admits are "archetypes of Americana" to tell their stories. Painstakingly stylized and rapid-fire funny in the vein of Frank Tashlin, Brudder movies often resemble live-action cartoons - but, much like their animated counterparts, a closer look at Conor's work reveals how cheerfully he subverts expectations of broad comedy's emotional impact.
Foureyes, Byrne's most ambitious short to date, follows the young Bobby Bowersox (Moonrise Kingdom's Jake Ryan, "a boy genius") as he adjusts to his first pair of glasses while struggling with the challenges of puberty and his newfound interest in girls. The emergence of Bobby's "second sight" as he investigates the mysteries of sex provides an endearing coming-of-age metaphor, but the film's uniquely detailed presentation is what really sets it apart. In the 13-minute Foureyes we discover a suburban universe awash in primary colors, hilariously exaggerated as seen through the eyes of a child (and sometimes terrifyingly, as when Bobby realizes his sister has her period), a loving parody of twentieth-century American culture. The movie's playful mishmash of elements from various decades -- 1950s-style Leave It to Beaver parents, a funky 1970s house, 1980s TVs and VHS tapes -- is intentionally designed to provoke a sense of timelessness. We've hit Fantasyland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland in one fell swoop.
Watch the full film here:
Conor confirms, "This stylized world we created for the film is mostly based on going through puberty in a bygone era -- an age before the advent of the Internet." Bobby undergoes a tortured search for Playboy centerfolds, porn videos, and any other bounty that can be gleaned from Sex Ed or his father's secret stash. This is an experience any child of Generations X and Y will remember well, but the online instant access to information has made such perilous feats irrelevant for modern youth.
I have a vivid memory of when I was in fifth grade and you know when they're about to give you a Sex Ed lesson in school. Everybody knows and it's on the board, they call it Health or Family Time or something, and we tried to recreate that in the movie with one of those really old TVs being rolled out and then the lights shut off and they put on The Video. [Our whole filmmaking crew] realized that experience had made such an impact on us.
Given Byrne's background, it makes sense that a Sex Ed video marked a major milestone; he confesses that film in general has effectively shaped not only his life trajectory, but his parents' and brother's too. Born in suburban New Jersey to a commercial producer dad and an actress mom (who appears in every Brudder project), Conor and Tyler grew up visiting their parents on film sets and learning movie magic tricks. But a more familiar legend foreshadowed the boys' eventual career path; watching Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991) a Peter Pan sequel starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, inspired a Pre-K Conor to stage his own retelling of the story.
"I played Peter Pan," he recounts, "and I made Tyler play every other part and work the camera too. And that's sort of how the partnership still works, I guess."
Now the division of labor is split more along the lines of Tyler as producer and Conor as director-writer ("Tyler's more outgoing, always the personable handshaker, and I was the stereotypical nerd who'd go through a boatload of movies a day, writing and researching"), but their bond remains strong as ever. Both brothers attended Wesleyan University, where they studied with renowned film historian Jeanine Basinger, which Byrne calls "a dream":
Her classes were like an ongoing living history of movies that Jeanine knew firsthand... The attention to detail she had in analyzing these different scenes and picking out different devices that a director used, what effect they had on an audience - that level attention was very well suited to my own meticulousness. I still have my notebook from her comedy class; it's like my Bible. She used to say, "Every great filmmaker defines his approach to cinema on his own terms." That's an inspiring and motivational quote for me, to stay true to your medium on your own terms, and audiences will embrace that. Always embrace what your own approach is, and define it for yourself.
While Conor defines his medium somewhat breezily as "audience-friendly fare," there is also a genuine pathos to Brudder projects, usually concerning themes of loneliness, identity, and disconnection. I think of the wannabe Santa Claus who frightens children in Merry, the mother desperate for her son's approval in Headbanger, Sarah Dooley's perpetually single scientist in Peonies. The Byrnes may be courting us with jokes, but they also want us to think and to care. And via their trademark visual time-traveling, they ask us to wonder, "How might society move forward by looking back?" Is it audience-friendly? Absolutely. Should it be taken at face value? No way.
Even during the making of Foureyes Conor and Tyler had to do their share of fighting The Man -- in a good old-fashioned Frank Capra manner, naturally. They shot the film mostly in their hometown of River Edge, but fell in love with the neighboring town of Oradell's classic baseball field. Cue a major campaign to overcome Oradell's strict regulations against location shooting, including both Byrnes storming a town meeting with an impassioned speech about hometown boys bringing culture to the New Jersey they love. "We beat 'em!" Conor exclaims, punctuating the memory with a fist pump.
They couldn't save everything, unfortunately -- the house of Foureyes' Bowersox family, set to be demolished by a developer in the summer of 2013, was completely leveled two days after shooting wrapped. "It was our last chance to memorialize the house on film before it was renovated to a big McMansion," Byrne states. "This new version of suburbia." So life imitates art, mirroring the childhood innocence in Foureyes that no longer exists in today's world, at least not in a recognizable form.
Funnily enough, Brudder marketed Foureyes online before playing at film festivals.
The goal of a short film is to get your work out there and get as many eyes on it as possible. [Festivals are] very competitive. You get rejected from three or four and you start to wonder, "Is anybody going to see my movie?" It's very powerful and important for any short filmmaker to release it on the Internet. I've had a great experience releasing it into the wild.
Since being selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and a featured Short of the Week, Foureyes has picked up definite steam (not to mention the Cannes win). It recently screened at the Nantucket Film Festival, and odds are good there's more attention still to come.
But happy as Conor is with what he's accomplished thus far, he's restless to begin the next adventure. "Brudder's trying to do more commercial work. It's a chance to try things out. Ultimately we want to make our own feature films. I need to get better so the ideas that I have in my head will flow more seamlessly to the screen. With experience comes storytelling prowess. There's always room for growth."
No argument here, though one would hope the brothers Byrne will hang onto their youthful optimism even as they manage the inevitable growing pains along the way. For now, we can at least enjoy the fanciful, memorable, intelligent strolls down the middle of Main Street they're providing. The trip to Brudderland is well worth the price of admission.