'Maryland is America' say the makers of new cross-country road comedy

Auteur-actor Ryan O'Nan and Pikesville-bred producer Jason Berman bring 'Brooklyn Brothers' to Baltimore

  • Ryan O’Nan wrote, directed, and stars in the made-in-Maryland road comedy, “The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best,” as a rock musician who can’t even pull off a gig as a singing moose at a kindergarten class.
Ryan O’Nan wrote, directed, and stars in the made-in-Maryland… (Jory Sutton, Handout photo )
November 05, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

At the start of "The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best," a New York musician loses his girlfriend and his day job, then botches a gig as a singing moose in a kindergarten class. In desperate straits, he partners with an eccentric motormouth performer who relies on kiddie instruments like kazoos. Along with a sassy female rock entrepreneur, they embark on a tour that ends with a battle of the bands in Los Angeles.

With a slew of original songs and two lead characters who could take turns in an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt, "The Brooklyn Brothers" aims for a blend of farce, music and heart. This rock-and-road comedy-drama zig-zags in tone — and in direction, too. It goes all over the map, from New Jersey to Iowa to San Diego.

But the principal photography took place entirely in Maryland.

With a tight crew and committed co-stars (Michael Weston and Arielle Kebbel), the writer-director-star, Ryan O'Nan, strove to bring the zest of an inter-state highway spree to an 18-day shoot that stayed within state borders.

Ocean City and Berlin doubled for San Diego, thanks partly to a homeowner who had just the right interior for a sunny suburban house — and also happened to raise palm trees. An art-installation space in Station North became an Iowa outpost of Theta Beta Potato, the coed and inclusive anti-fraternity fraternity. The Windup Space turned into a New York coffee shop. Downtown saloons and clubs, like the 8x10 in Federal Hill, opened their doors to the Brooklyn Brothers. And on the last day of principal photography, a section of Billy V's Rock Bar in Pasadena got its wall coated with newspapers to become the "Viper Bar" somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Like any low-budget labor of love, it was an all-hands-to-the-pump operation. But major credit for bringing it to Maryland and pulling it off on schedule and on budget goes to first-time feature director O'Nan and to his Pikesville-bred producer, Jason Berman. And Berman aims to come back, soon, with a feature that could star Charles "Roc" Dutton, Danny Glover and RZA.

O'Nan, 33, a singer-songwriter himself, spent much of the 1990s going all over the country and getting nowhere in particular as part of a punk-rock band. But in just a few years of stage, film and TV work, he has amassed an impressive, eclectic group of credits. At one end of the spectrum, he acted in a classic theater challenge, Chekhov's "The Seagull," in New York, with Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming. At the other end he wrote for the ultra-contemporary "Skins," MTV's American version of a hot British TV series. He starred as an Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress syndrome in "The Dry Land," which went to Sundance; it comes out on DVD on Tuesday.

For O'Nan, "The Brooklyn Brothers" is personal.

"Being a musician can be such a fulfilling experience," he said last week. "You have this medium in which you're able to process all your hopes, dreams, failures, pain — and it's so immediate. You just pick up your guitar or your keyboard and filter all your demons through it."

In "Brooklyn Brothers," O'Nan wants to rock out all the mood swings of frustrated musicians with characters "who are at the point in their lives where they have no more excuses. They have a few more years to figure things out. They have to make some serious choices about what it means for them to carry on."

Imbuing the movie's cockeyed odyssey with a seat-of-the-pants, expansive feeling was central to O'Nan's vision. Berman, who had also worked on "The Dry Land," convinced O'Nan that the director could achieve a varied look and a raw, eclectic ambiance by filming in Maryland. When O'Nan looked around last spring, he agreed.

"I felt embraced, and I found everything I needed, from rolling farmland and urban sprawl to towns that are like tiny little nuggets," he said. "And a great crew."

According to Berman and his fellow producers, Maryland didn't just serve as an ace backdrop for "The Brooklyn Brothers." Filming here enabled O'Nan to bring the movie in at a cost of $600,000 — even with supporting actors like Melissa Leo, Christopher McDonald and Andrew McCarthy. Berman knew he could get the show on in Maryland because of the local talent base and his own regional connections.

Over dinner at Billy V's Rock Bar, Berman said, "If you're going to make a low-budget independent film, it makes sense to go to places you know, where you can draw on additional resources. And what better place than where you grew up?"

Several of Berman's co-workers stayed in his parents' guest house. The production established headquarters in an empty office in his father's real-estate business. While in Ocean City, the cast and crew stayed free at the Princess Royale and the Princess Bayside hotels, owned by Berman's grandfather. Because the producers kept the budget under $625,000, they qualified as a low-budget production for the Screen Actors Guild and paid all the actors, even Leo, low-budget scale: $933 a week or $268 a day.

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