The Challenges of Writing a Road Trip Film: Interview with the Writers of 'Half Brothers'
This is an exclusive ScreenCraft interview with Half Brothers writers Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman. Half Brothers is currently in theaters.
Half Brothers tells the story of Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez), whose father, Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa), abandoned him and Renato’s mother in Mexico two decades prior when he left to find work in the United States and never returned. When Renato, who’s now a successful Mexican aviation executive, gets a call from his dying father in Chicago, Renato reluctantly goes to America to reconcile with his dad. He’s shocked, however, when he discovers he has a half-brother, the quirky and sensitive Asher (Connor Del Rio). They are forced on a road trip together, tracing the path their father took from Mexico to the U.S.
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How to write a road trip film
Written by Eduardo Cisneros, known for 2013’s Instructions Not Included, and Jason Shuman, the film is a heartfelt road trip movie about a broken family trying to heal. The film blends its often very broad comedic tone with an authentic immigrant experience in a way that feels fresh and often quite funny.
The story uses Cisneros’ own immigrant experience as a jumping-off point. Cisneros was born and raised in Mexico but then spent a few years in the U.S. adjusting to the American culture.
“There were things that surprised me, being away from home,” says Cisneros. “It got me thinking about when I was a kid growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. My dad had to move to Mexico City for a job where he spent a few years and it was a challenge for our family, but he had to do it to provide for his kids. I’m the youngest of five. At the time I didn’t understand why something like that would happen. When I became an adult, also on my own, away from home, I started to think what it felt like for him. That was the seed, the kernel that got me thinking about the subject of empathy. It is the central piece of the architecture of the comedy and journeys,” he says.
Of course, the half-brothers in the movie are polar opposites, a trope that is often seen in road trip films, with Renato being the closed-off, uptight brother and Asher being the goofy, free-spirited one. The two struggle to find empathy for each other, creating a tension that helps propel the story when the plot sometimes feels contrived.
But Shuman admits, writing a road trip film is deceptively difficult.
“I think there’s always huge challenges for screenwriters in doing road trip movies,” says Shuman. “It seems like it would be easy, the plot is always moving forward because the actual characters are moving as opposed to sitting in a room – they’re always on the go. We actually found in our research those can be the most complicated movies to write. You have to be very specific with what you throw at them and what the beats of the journey are. If you have a false beat or a stop that doesn’t feel organic to the movie it can throw the whole pace and tone off.”
Cisneros agrees, adding, “Every stop [on the road trip] has to have a purpose in terms of revealing information but also provide a good, fun set-piece and bonding of the brothers organically.”
How to set the tone of your script
The tone of the film seesaws between the characters’ emotional pain and wacky, situational comedy that involves stealing an adorable baby goat, but it never goes too far in one direction. To find this balance, the writers studied Italian films.
“Eduardo,” says Shuman, “would show me a lot of Italian cinema that influenced him – Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful – being some of the influences behind Instructions Not Included,” says Shuman. “So we were really inspired by movies that could shift and have these funny set pieces and then five minutes later, 30 seconds later, get very serious and somehow shift back again. It’s a difficult tone to keep juggling between but felt when done successfully, can be a fun journey for the audience. Audiences today try to stay ahead of the story, trying to see where things might go. We wanted to take them on an emotional journey that would be fulfilling with some twists and turns they didn’t see coming – so that means changing up the tone when you’re least expecting it.”
When the scenery is a character
One of the visual highlights of Half Brothers is the lush, nostalgic scenes set in Mexico. It was critical for Cisneros to show the country he remembers from his own childhood. Shuman agrees, saying, “One of the most powerful things was to portray the beauty of Mexico. Renato loves where he is from. That he was from this town that was magical, and beautiful and colorful, and has wonderful people, full of life. That isn’t the Mexico you see in movies like Traffic and Narcos.”
Shuman and Cisneros shared this advice for screenwriters:
“We have a lot of little mantras we say to each other all the time: Don’t get it right, get it written first,” Shuman says. “We find that rewriting is always more fun to us and is a lot easier than staring at the blank page. We always encourage writers – wherever they are in the process, to just fight through and get that first draft done so you’ve got a script and then you can go back and change it. But we’re also big structure professors. We don’t start our screenplay until it’s well ironed out. A good structure, like a good home, you want to build that foundation. But don’t spend a year writing one draft. Get it written and then go back and do your work.”
How to write a road trip movie
Cisneros’s advice is not to chase the marketplace. Instead, he says, “Write the story that excites you because it’s really tough to write. I’ve trained as a musician and done other forms of art, but I find that writing is the most difficult as you’re doing it. I think the reward comes more after you finish.”
Shuman and Cisneros are currently writing the script for a Latinx remake of 1986’s Short Circuit.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards