A young woman in a dimly lit room surround by other keno pool players, stands contemplating her next move.

Oscar Winner Tom Schulman Doubles Down on Directing

Film Interviews

In life, billiards and filmmaking, you’re lucky to get one opportunity to take your best shot. If a second chance comes around, you have to make it count. This is not only a driving theme in Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman’s new film Double Down South, it’s a lesson he’s learned first hand.

“I remember my agent called me,” Schulman says, recalling the night in 1997 when his directorial debut, 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag, opened to a dismal reception from both critics and audiences. “I picked up the phone, and he said ‘Ten years.’ ,” Schulman says. “I said ‘What?’ and he said ‘That’s how long you’re gonna be in director jail.” The dark comedy, which stars Joe Pesci (Goodfellas) as a mafioso named Tommy, who loses a bag full of the severed heads of recently executed mobsters that he’s supposed to be transporting to a crime boss, became an infamous bomb. It was a career setback for the Oscar-winning writer of the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, as well as the hit comedies What About Bob? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. “8 Heads was kind of a miserable experience for me,” Schulman says, explaining that budget problems and unpredictable weather resulted in the film getting out of control during shooting, and corners being cut. “You’ve written something that’s essentially a farce, which has to play as a very tightly scripted comedy, and if you lose some piece of it, you’re done,” Schulman says. Still, he refused to give up on his dream, and another chance to call the shots behind the lens was never far from his mind. “I trained to be a director,” Schulman says. “I was determined that I was gonna try at least one time to have a good experience doing it.” While it took a little more than twice as many years as his agent predicted, that experience finally came along with the independently produced drama Double Down South, which made its premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in October 2022, and opens in select theaters and video on demand on March 1st.

Tom Schulman smiles at the camera.
“I was determined that I was gonna try at least one time to have a good experience doing it.” Photo courtesy Level 33 Entertainment.

Double Down South takes place in the Deep South, and begins with Diana (Lili Simmons, Bone Tomahawk, Gotham), a billiards player with a mysterious past, walking into a pool hall and catching the eye of the owner, Nick (Kim Coates, Open Range, Sons of Anarchy). Nick makes his living running keno pool games with high stakes illegal gambling, and he sees in Diana an opportunity, molding her into a hustler who uses her sultry charms as a secret weapon in a male-dominated game. Diana has some secrets of her own, however, and a few trick shots that no one sees coming. Schulman grew up in the American South, in Nashville, and he frequented a local pool hall in his younger days. “Back in the corner was this big gambling game,” Shulman says, “And it left an impression. And there was a woman that came into that pool hall who was a sharpshooter. She played every game up there including keno. She was older and attractive… and she left an impression on me, too.” It was roughly 40 years later, during the height of the pandemic, that these memories started to shape themselves into a story. Aside from the memory of the enchanting pool player, Schulman had another motivation for focusing on a female protagonist. “My wife said ‘Why don’t you write something about a woman? Can you?” Schulman says, admitting that all of his previous films had been, in his wife’s words, ‘very male oriented.’ After creating the character of Diana, Schulman had to find just the right actress to embody the role. The director had seen Lilli Simmons on the Cinemax series Banshee, and was impressed enough with her presence to give her a screen test. “I thought she had a combination of vulnerability and toughness that that made me believe that this person could survive—or even thrive—in the world of keno pool,” Schulman says. “And she was the only person that I met that had that quality.” While Schulman found a lot of joy in creating a story based around the game that was such a big part of his youth, there were more crucial elements he wanted to bring to the story than just a knowledge of the sport. “You have to know more than the ins and outs of the game,” Schulman says. “You have to understand the psychology of the characters. And I think we’re all sort of schooled in that because we’ve lived through a little bit of everything in our lives.”

As the 72-year old writer-director looks back on the ups and downs of his prolific career, he finds himself identifying with the underdog protagonist he created for Double Down South, who makes the most of a second chance to come out on top. It’s been over three decades since he won an Oscar for Dead Poets Society, but Schulman is still following the advice of his most iconic character, John Keating, so memorably portrayed by Robin Williams, and seizing the day.

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