We all wish we could hold onto the exploits of youth, but as Philadelphia-born filmmaker Keir Politz explores in his first full-length feature, the temptation to relive younger days can be a dangerous one.
The people who try to “straddle” their younger and older worlds “end up leading a rather dysfunctional existence, and ultimately they crack at some point,” Politz says.
“Detonator,” written, directed and produced by Politz along with professional partner and fellow Columbia MFA Damon Maulucci, follows Sully, a former punk rock frontman. When a volatile figure from Sully’s gritty past intrudes on Sully’s new life – his partner Karen, their five-year-old son and an affordable rental in the Philly ‘burbs – with a promise to pay back money owed, a violent night in the city engulfs the new family man as he tries to get back home.
“We all have somebody like that from our past, who we want so badly to connect with as an adult, and we want so badly to enjoy these romantic ideas of ourselves as younger people,” Politz explains. Because his protagonist is having trouble settling into a typical adult life, his visitor “trips a wire.”
A Northwest Philly presence
Politz and Maulucci’s film was a few years in the works, and was shot locally over the course of 22 days in July of 2011. Areas like Kensington, West Philadelphia, Roxborough and Manayunk provide the backdrop for the action, including many venues that Philadelphia punk-scene aficionados will recognize.
“I wanted to use this as an opportunity to show a side of Philadelphia that you don’t normally see in media,” Politz says.
The 37-year-old filmmaker grew up just off Roosevelt Boulevard in the Lawncrest section of Philadelphia. He attended high school at St. Joseph’s Prep on Girard, and with multiple screenwriting fellowships, completed his MFA from Columbia University in 2008. He currently teaches screenwriting at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Manayunk with his wife of eight years and their two young children.
Manayunk served as production headquarters for “Detonator,” and locals may recognize a variety of locations, including Caplan Bagels at Ridge Avenue and Domino Lane, though in the film, due to time and the constraints of a small budget, it’s a stand-in for New Jersey.
The midsummer shoot was challenging as the 2011 temperatures soared mercilessly high –and even nights in the city refused to cool down.
“It’s a bad way to introduce people to Philly,” Politz admits of sweaty days for the cast and crew. “It was a rough shoot but everybody made it through.”
While Politz always imagined the film as set in Philadelphia, he and Maulucci originally set out to make it in Los Angeles because of their industry connections there. “We thought, we can write it for Philly and shoot it somewhere else,” he says. But they soon realized that something wasn’t right.
“We pulled the plug on it, regrouped, and started production again” in Northwest Philadelphia.
Using punk rock as soundtrack for transition into adulthood
Maulucci wasn’t the only longtime associate to join Politz for the project. Executive Producer David Jacovini was a classmate at St. Joseph’s, leading actor Lawrence Michael Levine (an accomplished director in his own right) graduated from Columbia with the directors, and a former student of Politz’, whose role in the local punk-rock arena has led to over a hundred concerts mounted in his house, appeared in the movie as well as helping the filmmakers get acquainted with the real-life scene.
Punk music plays a key role in the film, and not just because of the characters’ stories. Politz himself is a longtime fan of the genre, and sees it as a sort of metaphor for the pains of growing up. “There’s something very immediate and just raw and passionate and youthful about punk music,” he says. “But often it doesn’t age very well. You see these old punk rockers and they either sold out for money or became bitter or they’re not around anymore.”
To help walk that line between an escaped youth and the life lens that “evolves” as you age, for the soundtrack the filmmakers teamed with local punk satire legend Joe Jack Talcum of The Dead Milkmen, who got their start in 1980s Manayunk.
“They were actually one of the few punk bands who didn’t take punk rock so seriously, and really kind of turned it on its head, which I thought was awesome,” Politz says of The Dead Milkmen. Now, as a songwriter, Talcum is a true “troubadour” who was “able to allow his heart to evolve as he got older.”
Instead of clinging to past glory days, “it’s finding this more mature and evolved version of yourself that keeps the spark of youth,” Politz says. “Moving into adulthood and older age, it’s not the march of death.”
For now, the details about the official “Detonator” premiere are still under wraps, but Politz can say that it’ll be appearing at a “large film festival” in March. After that, he’s hoping a run at multiple festivals can help position the film for future distribution, and in the meantime, screenings are in the works for the New York and Philadelphia areas.