Henry Alex Rubin directs the drama/thriller feature film, Semper Fi which follows Cal (Jai Courtney), a respected cop and sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve. Before his deployment, Cal's half-brother (Nat Wolff) finds himself in a fight where he accidentally kills a guy and gets sent to prison.
The title of the film, “Semper Fi” is a Latin phrase (semper fidelis) which roughly translates to "always faithful", and is the motto of the United States Marine Corp. What led to your decision to focus on this specific branch of the United States Armed Forces?
I grew up with a friend that joined the Marines, so I learned from him about their culture and ethos. After fighting in Fallujah, he got the phrase “Devil Dog” tattooed on his forearms. That small detail in part inspired the main character of Cal (played by Jai Courtney), who has a tattoo that reads “Semper Fidelis.” The dozens of vets at Walter Reed Hospital, who I had met and interviewed while making “Murderball,” also inspired the character of Jaeger (Finn Wittrock).
What inspired the story behind Semper Fi, and what was it like to collaborate with fellow co-writer Sean Mullin on the screenplay?
I had met Sean at Columbia University, where he was studying film. He had been a former Artillery Captain in the Army. Like my friends, Sean’s friends showed their love for one another by endlessly busting each other’s balls. I loved it, and that style of humor forms a lot of this film’s comedic elements.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
It was refreshing to witness the loyalty, friendship and brotherly love between the main group of Marine buddies (Oyster, Callahan, Jaeger, Milk, Snowball) who are honest, fiercely loyal, supportive and emotionally vulnerable with each other. What were your favorite scenes to shoot, and what was your process behind directing the cast when filming on location?
I wanted to capture the actors’ real friendship and incredible chemistry, so I encouraged them to improvise around the script we’d written. I set up two cameras and tried not to get in their way. Two scenes that were completely improvised, for example, happen when the guys make fun of Jaeger for wearing cologne and when they decide to flip a dumpster over for no reason. These are the kind of things my friends and I have done, and I wanted to capture the joy of it onscreen.
Semper Fi stars a remarkable young and talented ensemble cast, including Jai Courtney, Nat Wolff, Finn Wittrock, Beau Knapp, Arturo Castro, and Leighton Meester. What was the casting process like for finding the right people to play each role?
Elia Kazan always said a director should go take a walk with an actor before hiring them. I would suggest having a few drinks with them too! Beyond that, I also tried to watch everything they’d ever done. There was always one performance that made me want to hire them. I saw Jai in “Felony”, Nat in “Palo Alto”, Finn in the “The Big Short”, Arturo in “Narcos”, Beau in “The Signal” and Leighton in “Country Strong.”
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
What films and/or directors have had the biggest impact on you as a filmmaker?
Definitely Ken Loach, Robert Altman, and John Cassavetes.
What’s next for you?
I love the idea of combining action and drama onscreen. It’s exciting to me to merge these two genres that we’re mostly used to seeing one or the other of. I want to keep making movies that would normally feel “genre” into ones with stories, characters, and dynamics that feel real.