The Trigger, recently released onto V.O.D. from Ariztical Entertainment, follows a 19-year-old bisexual hustler, Eric Coyle (played by Slade Pearce), as he tries to set his life back on the right track. Fresh out of prison and only two weeks into his hard-earned sobriety, he is hitchhiking back to his familiar stomping grounds just outside Phoenix, Arizona.
We learn that he was granted early release after informing on his former drug dealer, Bennie. Eric is painfully aware that he only has a limited time before Bennie finds out what he’s done and comes after him.
The Trigger is writer-director Christopher Bradley’s debut full-length production from behind the lens.
Bradley says of Eric: “Just because a person is ‘failing’ doesn’t mean they’re unethical. It doesn’t mean they’re evil.
“When you’re facing any challenge, you might not find the answers the first time. You work and you work and you might have to try a different strategy. You hopefully succeed eventually, but … while you’re in the process of addressing the problem, you are not a bad person. I think that too many people these days are too quick to label someone one way or another, prior to that person having found their way.”
As an actor, Bradley is best known for his roles in such LGBT films as Leather Jacket Love Story (1997) and Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998).
“But I wanted to do more than be an actor,” he says of his gradual move to filmmaking. “This began around 1996. I was auditioning for a number of films and working on projects where I knew more about film structure than the director.”
He was increasingly frustrated with his limited options as an actor at the time, he says.
“I was mostly auditioning for beer commercials or for TV shows that I didn’t really want to do.”
Part of his dissatisfaction, he says, was that actors have to be hired before they can work on a project and, for that matter, directors have to find a way to finance the film they want to make.
“With writing, all you need is a computer and time – you have your artistic expression whenever you want, and there’s an enormous amount of freedom in that. … And after all this time, I’ve managed to make a film I’ve really wanted to make,” Bradley says.
He decided to get a degree in screenwriting from the University of California, Los Angeles, and graduated with a master’s in fine arts.
Because of the time he spent in front of the camera, he says, he has empathy and respect for all the performers with whom he works.
“I know often it is the case where you get all of the blame when something’s not working and none of the control. So, with my experience as an actor myself, I was sure to be extra kind to all of my actors here and treated them the way I had wanted to be treated when I was on that side of things.” he says.
Aided by Aiden Chapperone’s gritty cinematography, Bradley and his team have effectively captured the desolate feeling of life when you’re at the bottom with few, if any, options. The story plays out during the Yuletide season in a grimy, dusty desert town that seems nearly empty.
Eric, needing money and a job, looks up Tommy, a lonely, middle-aged gay man who was once his best john. Trouble is, Tommy is fighting for his own sobriety and trying to earn back the trust of his former boyfriend and business partner after having, at the height of his addiction, embezzled $50,000 from the pizza restaurant they owned together.
Eric looks for a sense of connection and security with his high school girlfriend, Heather (Julia Anne Severance), who is also 19 and an addict. After finishing rehab, she earned her diploma and made it into a small out-of-state college. Now she’s home on winter break and staying with her alcoholic father, who is dying of liver disease and close to being evicted.
Desperate to forge some idea of a family (if only for just a day), Eric contrives to talk Tommy into getting him a small apartment, a used car, and even a job at the restaurant by recklessly feigning that he is in love with him. Things quickly spin out of control when Bennie is finally brought in for questioning.
It’s an edgy, painfully human saga about addiction, recovery, star-crossed love, and the search for a better life.
Bradley’s inspiration for the film, he says, came from a portentous encounter that he had one Christmas Eve.
“I had something of a ne’er-do-well relative who was in and out of juvenile detention centers,” he recounts, noting that the boy’s family had left town while their son stayed behind with a “family” of drug pushers. They put him to work in the family business. This relative was arrested, and Bradley was called on to go visit him over the holidays.
“While I was there, there was another kid sitting next to me across from his mother, who was also visiting, and the kid is crying, begging his mother ‘Can’t you wait until I get out of here? I’ll go hide the dog someplace. Can’t you just find some place to hide him?’” Bradley says. “And she’s telling him – and remember, this was on Christmas Eve – that his beloved dog had bit somebody and she’s having it put down! So, this kid is just a wreck, and after dropping this bombshell, his own mother just shrugged and told him she had other things to do and other places to go, and just gets up and leaves!”
Shaken by what he was overhearing, Bradley then talked with the teen himself about his life, and the writer in him knew even then that this encounter could grow into a story for a film.
“When I got home, I was trying to understand – how does someone so young wind up where he was?” he says. “What could his home life have been like? Who would his friends be? I mean, he was the one in jail, but it also struck me that his mother was the perfect person to raise someone who would end up in jail! From there, I imagined ‘outward’ as I developed the character of Eric.”
The filmmaker also said that several of his friends who were recovering addicts had told him that when someone is grappling with his or her own addiction, helping someone in active addiction can make things worse.
“There are times when well-meaning impulses actually enable addictions to intensify, and I wanted to make a film specifically about navigating that,” he says. “Explicitly, where is that line where helping someone becomes enabling them?”
This question comes up in the complex relationship that Eric’s girlfriend, Heather, has with her alcoholic father.
“Heather has to make a very tough decision about just that – who she’s going to help and what she needs to do to see that she doesn’t get dragged down herself.”
Bradley says that although he isn’t sure there’s a right or wrong answer to this, he certainly wanted to “live in the question” in this story.
A key element of the film is how all of its characters – no matter what situations life throws at them – are committed to maintaining their sobriety. Sometimes, particularly for those unfamiliar with the recovery process, their actions may seem a bit extreme.
Take how, for instance, at one point, Heather arrives at her father’s house, where she’s been staying, to find it padlocked and her dad drunk, just sitting in the driveway. Sneaking in and quickly packing a few things to take back to college, she prepares to leave all the recent pain behind her once and for all. Her father confronts her, asking what is going to become of him if she leaves. All she can do is hug him goodbye before driving off to what we hope is a solidly sober and better new life.
“I learned there’s a saying around most of the 12-step programs that advises ‘not to regret the past, nor to shut the door on it,’” Bradley says, “which is what I wanted to illustrate. When Heather is leaving, she takes some pictures her dad offers her. This is as if to say she will not regret the past but must still leave to save herself.”
Bradley says the challenges of limited time and money were among his greatest obstacles in making the film. But in at least one situation, those scarce resources led to innovation. Recalling a pizza restaurant in Mesa, Arizona, where he initially planned to film, he says, “We needed a pizza place in the movie. Everything was so tightly put together to save money, and it was one of those situations when we didn’t have the ability to reschedule. We had to shoot it on that day.”
However, when they showed up to prepare the restaurant for filming, the manager told them that it had been rented out for a wedding and they hadn’t remembered to tell the film crew. He and his production manager were furiously looking for a substitute location when they chanced upon a coffee shop that closed at 7 p.m. The owners allowed them to shoot there, as long as they were done by 7 a.m. the next day.
His production designer, he said, “was running to the Dollar Store or any other budget store she could find, furiously buying up checkered tablecloths or whatever else she could find to make this coffee shop look more like the place we had planned on using. She had to convert this new place into a believable pizza joint in about two hours – but she did it!”
Such last-minute challenges were both the most exasperating and the most invigorating parts of the project, he said. “I’m thrilled to say that every case where that did happen, we successfully worked it out and got everything in the can … a little bit over budget maybe, but definitely on schedule.”
Even through post-production, he said, little surprises kept popping up.
“After we finished the first cut of the film, I showed it to my investors, and they felt that the ‘event’ which the characters keep referring to (and which essentially drives much of their actions), really needed to be seen on-screen,” he says.
The sequence involves a brutal revenge hit that required some additional creativity in order to make it believable. Fortunately, Bradley’s past experience came in handy.
“I was a handyman for years to make money between acting jobs, so I knew a lot about fabricating things,” he says. “For this scene, I thought about devising a rubber shovel — something that looks good, but is soft enough that, were an actor struck with it, no harm would be done. But in the end, I feared if it should fall apart on set, we’d be completely screwed.”
So instead he settled on building a life-sized dummy. When any feigned violence was required, he had the actor switch places with the dummy.
“The character has a pillowcase over his head, so I figured this would be entirely doable if we could make it believable enough,” he said.
He got a black track suit and shoes for the dummy that matched the character’s costume. To make a false head for the mannequin’s body, he duct-taped together two child-size bicycle helmets. He used fishing line to add to this illusion, pulling it to make the “victim” cringe.
“I would defy anybody to tell the difference between which parts are a real person and when it’s the puppet,” he says. “While I was working on it, I had it hanging in my carport, and I know that more than a few of my neighbors had to be wondering what I was up to.”
Bradley says: “I primarily made this film for a gay and lesbian audience, but also for anyone who is new to sobriety and just now addressing their addictions. I hope it finds its audience. On the time and the budget we had, I wouldn’t change anything. I couldn’t be more proud of it!”
The film has been released to Ariztical Now, a new subscription streaming platform that has a strong library of LGBTQ titles, as well as platforms such as Amazon Prime. It’s also available on Ariztical on Demand.
Only a digital release is planned at this time for the movie, but an expanded DVD release may be forthcoming in September or October. For more information or to watch the official trailer, go to https://thetriggermovie.com/ or like “The Trigger Movie” on Facebook. To follow Christopher Bradley on Instagram, check out https://www.instagram.com/cbradleywriter.