Swampscott-bred director Bryan Buckley, once dubbed the “King of the Super Bowl” by The New York Times for helming more than 50 big game ads, set out to conquer a new kingdom with “The Bronze”: feature filmmaking. It opens Friday.
Buckley’s feature debut centers on Hope, a vitriolic, past-her-prime Olympian (Melissa Rauch) who coaches a young gymnast despite the threat she poses to Hope’s local-hero status.
For Rauch, star of the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” the movie, which opened last year’s Sundance Film Festival, presented a chance to play drastically against type. For Buckley, a self-described “filmmaker who’s never taken a film class,” it provided a chance to do something different, spicing a story about his favorite subjects — underdogs — with jet-black comedy.
Although Buckley will fly back for the film’s New York premiere this week, he’s been in South Africa filming “Where the White Man Runs Away,” adapted from Jay Bahadur’s nonfiction bestseller, “The Pirates of Somalia.”
Having earned an Oscar nomination in 2012 for the Somalia-set short “Asad,” Buckley, 52, sees his next film as a follow-up. Speaking over the phone from its set, he discussed “The Bronze,” “Where the White Man Runs Away,” and surprising parallels between the two.
Q. You’ve got a crazy week coming up.
A. Yeah, it’s a lot. But you’ve got to support the film. I missed the LA premiere, and so I was like, ‘I’ve got to do New York.’ It’s like a child — even on post-production, it was like a year when all was said and done. To not go there and be a part of it would be strange.
Q. You’ve lived all over Massachusetts. Tell me about your upbringing.
A. I was born in Cambridge, raised first in Sudbury, and then we went north to Maine and New Hampshire, then back to Swampscott for high school. My family’s all up in Swampscott and Marblehead now.
Q. Growing up, did you know you wanted to direct?
A. I was just hell-bent to be in advertising in my early 20s, to work at an ad agency and then I got to the agency and I was like, “Wow I don’t like this at all, this is not fun.” I tried screenwriting and that was completely a disaster. So that was my earlier 20s. I never saw myself as a director; I never got that. I mean I liked writing, but I didn’t seem like the director type. It took me two years to say I’m a director — like, that’s really weird, who says they’re a director?
Q. “The Bronze” is a comedy with serious moments. How did you strike that balance?
A. I didn’t want to shoot a stupid, broad comedy. I saw this as like “The Fighter” — one of Boston’s finest — using the comedic elements of something like “The Fighter” to ground the rest of the comedy. Because it’s so over-the-top, if I lean into that too much it’s just going to become that we’re laughing at ourselves and we think we’re really clever. That’s completely irritating. Rather than that, you set it in a very real world.
Q. There’s an acrobatic, over-the-top sex scene in the movie. Was that tough to ground?
A. When you get into scenes like the sex scene, I treated it very seriously, in terms of having an edge to it. It’s all hand-held, and very grungy in terms of its execution. The lighting, the choreography — I saw it more as a dance. Rather than have a lot of very funny gags and cutaways, make it one artistic piece, treat it artistically, shoot it grungy, and you end up with funny.
Q. What’s it like to be shifting your mind-set back and forth between “The Bronze,” about gymnastics, and a film about piracy?
A. They’re different films but, to me, they both deal with underdogs. One’s an entire nation, and the other’s an individual.
Q. Barkhad Abdi, a Somali actor who broke out after being cast in “Captain Phillips,” has a role in your new film.
A. He’s the perfect example of someone who was given an opportunity. . . . I’m so excited for him on this, because he’s playing opposite of his character in “Phillips.” He’s almost against himself in a weird way. . . . We saw one side of him that was really good, and I’m excited to see this other side. . . . [Actors] get pigeonholed — that’s the problem in Hollywood. It’s hard to go against type, because you won’t get financing. No one can see that vision.
Q. Similarly, Rauch, who co-wrote the script for “The Bronze,” wanted to depart from her “Big Bang Theory” personality.
A. When I look at Melissa, I look at her in awe. She makes my job very easy. . . . She’s a very gifted person, and I’m excited for this film for her, because people will really see her a different way.