Erin Elders: “I always try to keep things fairly loose and let the film find itself organically”

“The Cleaner,” now available on VOD, is a downbeat drama that follows a middle-aged house cleaner who gets caught up in a violent crime after being hired to locate a client’s estranged son. King Orba plays Buck, the cleaner; he also co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Elders who directed “The Cleaner.” Buck’s mother Sharon is portrayed by Shelley Long, an Emmy Award-winning actress for playing Diane Chambers in the comedy series “Cheers” in 1982. Lynda Carter, known for her leading role in the TV series “Wonder Woman” (1975-79), plays Carlene, an elderly retired singer, who tells Buck, ‘I don’t want you to clean my house. I want you to find my son.’

The cast also includes a trio of talented up-and-comers from A-list families: Eden Brolin, daughter of Josh Brolin; James Paxton, son of Bill Paxton; and Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright.

Most of the characters in “The Cleaner” are down-and-out trailer-park Angelinos—people living their daily struggle, trying to get through their days, with Buck living in an RV.

The film is Erin Elders’ directorial feature debut. In addition to being a filmmaker, he has written, directed, edited, and created music for dozens of projects. He has helmed music videos for artists such as Alanis Morissette, Iron & Wine, and American Football, as well as commercials and numerous shorts. His most recent short, “Penny Sucker” (2017), was screened at the Palm Springs International Short Fest. He also edited the documentary feature “Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker” (2017).

He co-wrote the screenplay of “The Cleaner” with his leading actor King Orba who began his Hollywood career in the early 1990s as a prop master; over the years, Mr. Orba worked with some of the best talent in American and European cinema. Director James Mangold noticed his abilities and cast him in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), utilizing the actor’s skills in several scenes alongside Academy Award winners Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Mangold also recruited him to portray a Spanish smuggler in “Knight and Day” (2010), starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.

The principal cast of “The Cleaner” with, top row, Eden Brolin, King Orba, Shelley Long. Bottom row, Lynda Carter, Shiloh Fernandez, Luke Wilson.

Mr. Orba said in a short phone interview that “The Cleaner” is basically about relationships; there are many wonderful characters in it, there’s the relationship with Buck and his mother, but also everyone that Buck comes across, like the new neighbor and the character played by Lynda Carter. “His willingness to help her is driven by his own needs to understand his role as a son,” he says.

From the original draft, the script went through a lot of changes, and when they transitioned from the final draft into shooting the film, he got to spend quite some time with Shelley Long, which was very important; they talked about a lot of things, even personal things, and they really got a chance to open up to each other.

As a veteran prop master and an actor with close to thirty screen roles in feature films, he’s still combining both careers. “As my resume as prop master grew, I started getting bit roles in films that I was working on, through the director, producer, or even through the actors,” he said. That is not uncommon in film history, so he got an agent and realized that all those years being very close to actors as a prop master, working closely with directors, and watching actors through their process, that was a priceless training ground, something they don’t teach you in acting class. So he started getting more and more roles, more and more dialogue, and because he had spent so many years on numerous film sets, he felt very comfortable behind and in front of the camera. He felt at home.

In a second phone interview, with Erin Elders, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed “The Cleaner,” Mr. Elders also pointed out that relationships in the film are le fil rouge.

Mr. Elders, can you tell something about the screenplay and how it came about?

In 2014, I had directed a music video that King Orba starred in; it was shot by Jeff Tomcho, my longtime cinematographer. After we had finished it, we said, ‘We should make a movie together!’ So it first started with the idea of, ‘Let’s make something,’ and then we had to figure out what kind of a story we wanted to tell. At the time, my uncle—who is very much the inspiration for Buck—was living with my grandmother; he was also her caregiver. In that relationship, I saw how that caregiver dynamic changed their relationship, so that was the initial inspiration for the mother-son relationship and the characters of Buck and Sharon. For the other mother-son relationship with Lynda Carter’s character and her son—that one wasn’t inspired by any real-live event—we wanted to have a mystery aspect in the story. Her character is more inspired by a film like “Blue Velvet” [1986]. I always love David Lynch, his dream world, and his dreamy mysteries. It’s great to make these movies with those out-there characters.

You know precisely how to get the most out of every shot, of every angle, of every line of dialogue. That makes it a fascinating film, right?

When Buck sets off on this missing person’s case to find a client’s missing son, that echoes back to his own life when he gains some perspective. The film is really all about the relationship between these two mothers and their sons. Since this wasn’t a big production—we just tried to make it all happen with limited resources—the intimacy of it felt appropriate. It is kind of a family drama about this group of characters who are living in this community, and at the heart of that is the central mother-son relationship of Sharon and Buck. As the story unfolds, friends and family are also entangled in this whole thing.

What we see up there on the screen, is that also what you had in your mind, or did you maybe have to compromise?

I always try to keep things fairly loose and let the film find itself organically. I had certain things in my head, or how they should be, but as we were making it, I tried to be open and present in the filmmaking process—improvise a little bit, or see what is working and go with that. I am also a firm believer of letting the edit of a film find itself. I wasn’t too strict, like, ‘I did it this way, so it has to be this way.’ I like to be surprised and see if it’s working. So we kept it pretty loose.

You have assembled a very impressive cast.

Yes, and this is my first feature, so I’m very grateful that I got the chance to collaborate with such an incredible cast. It was very inspiring to learn from Shelley Long or Lynda Carter. That was a life-changing experience. Both of them seemed to like the script a lot.

“The Cleaner” (2021, trailer)

I also like the humor in the film. It’s very subtle, but it’s there, like with the business card, for example.

There were dark crime thriller elements, but there was also some humor in it and a general lightheartedness. We just had a screening at a film festival—that was the first time that we watched the finished film with an audience—and it almost felt like a comedy. The audience really laughed. I wasn’t expecting that because the humor is so subtle.

The idea of Buck pedaling a bike to work is also quite original. In Europe, people use their bikes constantly, but it’s pretty uncommon to see a bike almost as a character of its own in an American film.

Narratively it makes sense, and it became interesting when they put a basket on it. And, when you think about it, you almost forget the bike culture of Europe. There’s a lot of cycling in the U.S. too, but it’s not the same—I have done some extensive amount of traveling in my twenties when I was a musician in a previous life. I toured in Europe and when you are in Amsterdam or in Sweden… you see a lot of bikes [laughs]. So I’m glad it’s an interesting part of the film.

You just said “The Cleaner” isn’t a big production. Was it easy to get this film made?

It took us a couple of years to put the funding together, but John W. Bosher and Chris Charles of Throughline are great. They’re not only logistical producers, but they’re also very creative, so we were able to keep moving it forward.

Phone interviews
King Orba; October 9, 2021
Erin Elders; October 12, 2021

THE CLEANER (2021) DIR Erin Elders PROD Chris Charles, John W. Bosher, Faust Checho, Kate Grady SCR Erin Elders, King Orba CAM Jeff Tomcho ED Matthew Prekop MUS Brad Oberhofer CAST King Orba, Shelley Long, Eden Brolin, Shiloh Fernandez, Luke Wilson, Lynda Carter, Soleil Moon Frye, Mike Starr, Hopper Penn, James Paxton