Adopt A Highway: A Search For Purpose In a Ex-Convict Story

Logan Marshall-Green talks making personal choices and writing for Ethan Hawke in his directorial debut.

Ethan Hawke in Adopt A Highway

Logan Marshall-Green gave himself a writing exercise when he sat down to pen the screenplay for Adopt A Highway, his directorial debut that premiered at SXSW Film Festival in March. “I was going to write a screenplay without any violence, without any sex,” Marshall-Green says.

The actor (Upgrade) turned writer-director wanted to explore fatherhood through a narrow lens, one void of toxicity. What started as an exploration of Marshall-Green’s own experience as a new father “without a handbook” then snowballed into a story about purpose. And for most, if not all, of the film, which stars Ethan Hawke as an ex-convict who is released from prison after two decades, vulnerability overshadows the male ego.

“It became all the more important to find the right actor,” he says. “Once we got Ethan, the rest is history.”

Hawke’s character, Russell Earl Millings, is a man content with working hard at a fast food joint as he slowly puts the pieces of his life back together. Everything changes when Millings finds an infant girl abandoned in a dumpster behind his place of work, with only a note that says her name was Ella. Hawke, a father of five, seamlessly transports back to a time when the prospect of caring for a child was new and frightening. The screenplay heavily leans on Marshall-Green’s fears and insecurities about being a new father and it touches on his relationship with his own dad in an emotional third act scene that pulls directly from Marshall-Green’s personal life. The film also asks questions of our criminal justice system, the three strikes law, and ex-cons who are re-entering society in the digital age.

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You can read a spoiler-free preview of the film from our initial chat with Marshall-Green at SXSW. In our follow-up interview below, conducted a week before the film’s Nov. 1 release date, we dive into the inner workings of Marshall-Green’s writing process, his working relationship with Hawke, and the themes in Adopt A Highway. Light spoilers ahead!

DEN OF GEEK: Russell goes against that type in that he’s pretty fragile when he gets out of prison, which is emotionally and physically conveyed by Ethan Hawke. How did you approach writing the character of Russell? What inspired you to give him the backstory of a non-violent crime?

LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN: I approached the character of Russell Earl Millings in multiple directions. First, I just used myself, my truth, because that’s all I knew. Not being a seasoned a writer, or as good a writer as I’d like to be, I’m dependent on truth. So in that, I knew that I was lost as a father. I became a father overnight, and I was absolutely in love with my daughter but I was terrified because I just simply didn’t have a handbook. And after looking online, very quickly you realize there is no handbook to being a father. And there aren’t a lot of instincts either, the way there are maternal instincts.

I wanted to write a story about a man who suddenly found a baby, and didn’t know what to do with it. I started to approach it in a different direction, politically. I always want to understand what the schematics are of the narrative. While I knew I did not want an indictment on the system, I also knew that we needed to understand that he missed a large part of his development because of going into prison for this three strike rule. Not only that, it interests me in the timing of the three strike rule back in the early ‘90s, because a lot of these gentlemen and women were going in for this 25 year mandate. Those 25 years are important 25 years. It’s the technology age.

That interests me, and a lot of it all became together. Then I felt with all of these items, I didn’t want them to become the character, and certainly Ethan was going to bring his own pathos to it, and his own understanding and he will elevate it. But I knew that I wanted a Buddhist nature in him. At the beginning when he gets out and expunged from the system, he’s without a plan. He only has eight items. When you jump a year later and you find him in this go nowhere job. You find a man who is still content. He’s not competing for your attention in every scene. That’s intentional. I want us to start to look at the male archetype without toxicity, without drugs, without drink, without rape, without explosions, without violence. Can we still root for that male without ego?

Did you find it challenging in your directorial debut to fill the story with tension and suspense while trying to stay true to your original thesis and avoid those worn male archetype tropes?

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Yeah. That’s absolutely, 100 percent my intention because it actually wasn’t my first script. I had already written something before that which was much more commercial, but demanded a lot more financial competence. It’s one of those cases where I wrote my second script to go make my first.

Now, on most of my inclination, most of my instincts are exactly that. I came up in the ’80s with Predator, but I also came up in the ’80s with The Year of Living Dangerously. I am the dichotomy of a theatre guy who’s not accepted in with the jocks and a jock was not accepted with the theatre crew. So, for me, it was about, if I’m going to make a film and write a script, let’s go after the area that isn’t so confident; that has more fears. Let’s write from that truth. I needed to know I could pull from that honesty.

When we last spoke you talked about how you wrote the role with Ethan Hawke in mind. How did he put his personal touch on the character once you actually got on set?

The movie exists and works because we let Ethan and those babies exist. That’s a terrifying concept on the day of photography. Even the greatest babies are the hardest when you’re shooting and when you’re writing things like Russell Milling’s leans over Ella, the keys fall out of his shirt and she reaches up and grabs the keys.’ You’re dealing with a lot of luck, therefore you’re dealing with a lot of preparation and time.

When you have an actor like Ethan who is already a father of five, one of the greatest performances is his ability to make it look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing; just letting the camera roll on Ethan as he so beautifully, in character and sometimes out of character, draws the baby back. He was so available to her and that’s the magic you’re seeing on screen. It is what’s written, but there’s also this relationship that Ethan formed with these two girls that I could never have imagined I would get this story that I got so clear.

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There’s so much that Ethan brings to the table every day. His ability to lead by example in a tiny little motel room with an independent, bare bones crew and yet make everyone feel like they are a part of something special every day is another attribute. There are too many I can go through, but as I said before, one of the greatest things a director can do is hire Ethan Hawke.

Life can be incredibly harsh for former inmates re-entering society. It can be even harder for someone like Russell who has no family to fall back on – but he ultimately finds a rock in Ella. Is an underlying commentary in the film about how prison affects the family unit?

Family would not a theme on my whiteboard if I’m being honest. Fatherhood was but family or the family unit and what it does for us is not necessarily an interest. I would replace family with purpose–that was theme that I worked in. That is something that he gives Ella when he finds her and she gives right back to him immediately. And there’s a lot of love in that. Love is also a theme. But what is our purpose? How old are you when you no longer can seek purpose? Is there no longer purpose for someone who is 60? No. You can find purpose at any stage in your life. Just like there’s no premium on creativity. Creativity begets creativity. There’s no premium on purpose. It’s just a stigma.

Did you go back and forth over how long Ella would be in the film? We don’t spend a lot of time with her, but you feel her presence when she’s not on screen.

Yeah, she’s act two. She’s the love relationship. She’s the act two love interest. So structurally the word I consistently use with my departments was unfinished. It’s okay to feel unfinished. That is what you’re seeing. You’re seeing a traditionally unfinished relationship. You’re seeing an unfinished thought, where he’s trying to say what he thinks he should say at the grave of the dead parents because he traveled all this way. But guess what? It’s not going to happen that way.

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And guess what else? It’s not going to happen that way either. And that’s what happened to me when I visited my dad and finally made it to his grave after so many years and traveled so long, and thought I was going to have this great American play moment and I did not. I didn’t know what to say. I felt stupid. I just took a nap. It’s unfinished. Our thought processes are unfinished. The way that Diane looks almost back at Russell when he’s pulling away on the bus, but we don’t get to see her eyes… it’s unfinished. That’s much more appropriate to what life is. We’re just a bunch of unfinished thoughts and people, we’re never finished. We’re never complete. We’re always looking for purpose.

There’s a noticeable change in how certain shots are lit over the course of the film. You see the sun peaking through in that final scene and its seems as though Russell has found purpose and fulfilled it. Did Russell find what he was looking for?

Cinematically we do something hopefully that is unnoticeable, but we actually after act two move into a whole new ratio and we go anamorphic. So his horizons literally broaden, and the colors deepen, you know what I mean? That’s a big choice we made to always carry both lenses because we were always shooting out of order. And so that when Russell makes the decision to run. Suddenly he’s on the bus and we are now moving in a much different ratio with a whole new expanse. And I hope that answers your question because it absolutely is essential.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a series which is yet to be announced, but it’s a good one and that’ll be coming out next year. I am putting the final touches on my next script so I’m hoping to put back in front of some eyes. It is definitely not Adopt a Highway. And who knows, maybe you and I’ll be talking about that script, an action film, in the very near future.

Adopt A Highway is now in theaters and available on-demand.

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Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias. Images courtesy of Blumhouse.