Frank Grillo and John Swab Discuss the Stylish Movie Little Dixie

Feb 6, 2023

Some of the most interesting directors aren’t just the genius auteurs immortalized by critical adulation and countless awards, but rather the prolific masterminds who can still inject a personal style into the mainstream. This was more common in the classic studio system, which often suffocated filmmakers into homogeneity, but nonetheless produced directors who could turn any traditional Hollywood script into art — Nicolas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Sam Fuller. In Japan, director Seijun Suzuki was doing the same thing, warping his yakuza and sex worker movies into little hidden gems despite their obvious populist appeal.

John Swab seems to be one of those directors. Working at a rapid pace and with comparatively little money, Swab has developed a unique personal style that shines through even the more traditionalist aspects of thrillers like Ida Red and Body Brokers. His recent film Candy Land was his Branded to Kill, if we’re sticking with Suzuki, and announced him as a strong aesthetic presence despite budgetary limitations. He’s followed that up with Little Dixie, a stylish thriller that hearkens back to the colder-than-cool ’60s classics like Point Blank and Tokyo Drifter. Swab and star Frank Grillo spoke with MovieWeb about the film.

John Swab Gives Little Dixie Some Bite


Little Dixie follows Grillo’s character, Doc, as he tries to survive a nasty entanglement. A former special forces operative, Doc is a middle-man between a drug cartel and corrupt politicians who take their dark money. When a brash governor (Eric Dane) decides to stir things up and ignite a war on drugs, Doc is caught in the crossfire. His daughter is kidnapped by a psychotic weirdo from the cartel named Cuco (Beau Knapp), and in order to get her back, Doc is tasked with a political assassination, taking out the governor himself.

The result is an aesthetically cool, lean, and violent thriller that wears its influences on its blood-stained sleeve. “I love these kinds of movies, and my producer Jeremy also loves these kinds of movies,” said Swab. “We’re action buffs, you know, crime film buffs. That’s what we grew up loving, and what inspired us to make films […] I’m not caught up currently on what is coming out as much as I probably should be. I like to kind of keep going back and mining the past, and revisiting things, and kind of learning what influenced my favorite filmmakers.”

“In doing that, I became a huge Peckinpah fan. I became a huge Melville fan, a Godard fan,” elaborated Swab, “and just looking at those kinds of movies, and reflecting on them, and then kind of looking at the landscape now and seeing what’s not being represented now that was in the past, or maybe what is being represented but in a way that I don’t really connect to. This kind of hard-boiled, ‘man on a mission’ story is as old as time, but in recent years, it’s kind of lacking the bite or the balls, for lack of a better term, that I feel movies like Rolling Thunder, or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or Friends of Eddie Coyle had, this extra element of grit and grime to it.”

Frank Grillo’s Doc Is a Violent Man on a Mission


As Swab mentioned, the ‘man on a mission’ story is practically classical; what was Odysseus, if not a man on a mission? Like the aforementioned Suzuki and Fuller, Swab took this traditional storyline and sliced it up a bit. “When approaching Little Dixie and scriptwriting, it was like, how do we take this relatively classic structure of a script, and keep that structure,” explained Swab. “I wanted to keep it classical, with a three-act structure and told in a very traditional way, but keep it where people could look ahead but not have any idea what was gonna happen.”

Related: Little Dixie Review: Frank Grillo Leads a Stylishly Brutal Thriller

One of the ways in which Swab sets Little Dixie apart from the pack is through its protagonist, Doc. He’s a damaged man who has become desensitized to death over many numbing years as a special forces operative, and his ruthlessly efficient methods as he drops bodies in order to get his daughter back make him much more ethically questionable than the antiheroes most audiences root for.

“It was kind of this fine line,” said Swab about his character being beyond good and evil. “I feel like Doc’s character, and a lot of these characters in past films, it’s almost a gift and a curse — they’re so good at killing and being these kinds of savages that it haunts them, and it excites them in a way. So I just thought, if you’re gonna go there, you might as well go all the way.”

Doc is much more like Alain Delon’s titular character in the Melville film Le Samouraï than the kinds of suave antihero protagonists audiences usually see. Doc is a quiet killer, internally enigmatic and morally compromised. Swab elaborated:

With Doc, Le Samouraï was probably my biggest influence for this movie. I love Frank [Grillo] so much. I love to work with him, I think he’s a fantastic actor, probably a better actor than he lets himself be. And I told him when we were getting into this, I was like, “I want you to say as little as possible in this movie. I think it would be really interesting to just exist, and have you just be this samurai on a mission.” And he was all about it. I think those quiet moments are what makes this film cool, and gives it that kind of gloomy-doomy energy that it has.

Frank Grillo on His Surgical Performance


“This is something the director and I had gone through,” added Grillo. “This is a guy who has seen everything. He’s pretty much seen everything. And he’s seen all the worst parts of human behavior. So take away the sentiment and the sentimentality of what he’s got to do, and he’s like a surgeon who’s going in to perform heart surgery for the 3,000th time. It’s almost emotionless to the point where he almost looks bored. Because that’s what it is. The one thing that gets him charged, obviously, is his daughter. So there are glimpses of a guy who’s got an emotional life, but otherwise, this is a guy who’s really cocksure about how to get the job done.”

“I know it’s a trope, antiheroes, and special forces or CIA or what have you,” continued Grillo, “but the reality is, I know a lot of these people. They’ve become just like a mechanism of a bigger thing, and killing really isn’t a moral or immoral choice. It’s just what they’re forced to do, what they’re trained to do, and Doc is no different. You saw it every time he pointed his gun, there was nothing emotional about it.”

“Even cutting [a guy’s] head off, it’s just almost mechanical, and that’s what Doc is,” said Grillo. “It was fun to play that because, for me, I have to keep everything inside. Whatever emotion I show, it’s kind of just in my eyes.”

Little Dixie Makes You Feel the Violence


Beyond the character of Doc, Little Dixie also stands out because of its abrupt, realistic use of violence. It’s the kind of violence that audiences actually feel, which is disturbingly absent in a lot of thrillers and action films which have conditioned audiences to shrug off murder. James Bond and John Wick have huge body counts, but viewers don’t really feel the weight of that, because the violence is pure entertainment.

“I appreciate movies like John Wick, where it’s pretty much like gun porn, just this crazy, almost comic book-esque violence,” explained Swab. “The craft of it is unbelievable, what those guys do. But in terms of actually feeling the violence — I don’t feel it. Personally, I appreciate movies where the violence is handled more like No Country for Old Men, or in a movie like Sicario or in ZeroZeroZero, where you feel it. It’s jarring how quickly it happens, how abrupt it happens, and how quickly you move on from it. I’m not really a gun porn guy, and I don’t think Little Dixie has a bunch of flash with the violence. I’d like to think it’s pretty brutal and feels pretty, like, on the ground.”

Related: Exclusive: A Psychotic Hit Man Grabs a Drink in Little Dixie Clip

That approach to violence is reminiscent of the less sensationalized action of the films Swab loves and is inspired by. “There’s something I love about ’70s films in particular, where it just feels like the bare minimum in terms of parts and emotions,” said Swab. “It’s very primal in a way, and you can feel the heartbeat of those filmmakers in those movies because they really were doing everything to make them. There were small budgets, and they were kind of experimental films in a lot of ways, compared to the movies that came out right before then. So I was hoping that would kind of permeate into this.”

The Small Budgets and Big Names of John Swab Films


Swab is well-acquainted with small-to-mid-at-best budgets; like Fuller and Suzuki, he’s able to churn out highly stylized films at a pretty rapid pace despite comparatively little financing and somewhat short productions. His work and the environment he’s cultivated alongside producer Jeremy has brought in a variety of great actors (Grillo, Peter Greene, Melissa Leo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Josh Hartnett, Michael Pitt, Ron Perlman), many of whom return for multiple films.

“I think what attracts [actors] is kind of, for lack of a better word, the culture that Jeremy, my producer, and I’ve created around these films,” said Swab. “We’re well aware, and self-aware, of what we’re trying to do — we’re trying to make movies at an elevated level way above our weight class. We couldn’t do it without great actors. So I think it’s kind of a give and take, where they’re getting to dive in and kind of be handed great characters, and what I think are good stories, and have a lot of freedom that they wouldn’t have on bigger films, and they get to really collaborate.”

“I don’t stifle anybody in the collaboration on making these films,” added Swab. “I’m very interested in working with them, and as evidenced in the repeat customers we have, I think it’s proven to be a successful creative and business model. We love to have people back; it just makes our lives easier, and we become friends with them. These things are hard enough to make. So it’s nice to make it with your friends.”

Grillo and Swab’s Next Movies


“I think John and I love the same types of movies. We love the same types of characters. I just like the way he writes. I think he’s probably one of the most talented today, and now he’s being discovered,” said Grillo. It looks like Swab is already in the process of making several movies with his friends. “But I can’t get enough.” Grillo continued:

We were just doing a movie in Puerto Rico together. We did a movie [One Day as a Lion], and Scotty Caan wrote a great script, with J.K. Simmons and I, and John directed, and then we’re gonna go do another one. And so he’s starting to attract real talent that, like me, just loves what he writes and loves the way he puts movies together. This guy makes great movies for two million bucks. They look like $20 million movies. So he’s onto something huge, and I think this is going to be a guy that, down the road, everyone is going to want to work with.”

Produced by Roxwell Films in association with Three Point Capital, Paramount Pictures is releasing Little Dixie in select theaters, on digital, and on demand now.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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