When brothers Jake and Conor Allyn were growing up, they had something of an unusual family tradition.
Whenever they would go to the movies, their dad, Rob, had a tendency to choose something that wasn’t exactly age-appropriate for his young kids.
That’s how Jake came to perform a monologue from “Braveheart” in his elementary school talent show while the other students were singing along to Aaron Carter songs.
Child-friendly or not, the Mel Gibson epic that easily earned its R-rating instilled in the siblings a deep love of movies and inspired them to start making their own homemade films. As kids, they borrowed their parent’s camcorder to capture footage around the block. They even got savvy with special effects, setting off their own fireworks for dramatic flair.
Nearly two decades later, Jake, 30, and Conor, 34, are still making what they refer to as personal home videos. The only difference? Their films are being seen by a wider audience than just mom and dad. Plus, they can cast well-known actors like George Lopez and Andie MacDowell instead of having to rely on their next-door neighbors.
Their latest movie, “No Man’s Land” — which IFC Films opened this weekend in select movie theaters and on demand — was directed by Conor and co-written by Jake, who also stars in the film. The Western drama, set on the border of Texas and Mexico, grapples with issues such as immigration, family and culture. They hope audiences will come away with realistic and nuanced look at life along the U.S.-Mexico border, a region that’s become a political flashpoint ever since Donald Trump started ranting about building a wall.
“We’ve always been focused on the untold story rather than doing another version of something that’s been told 20 times,” Conor says.
Conor and Jake Allyn have worked together professionally on several occasions, but “No Man’s Land” marks the first time they’ve collaborated to the extent of writing, directing, producing and acting. The film, which Jake originally wrote years ago, is especially personal to the brothers because it was inspired by their own trips across the border with their father in the ’90s. Their dad was also integral in bringing “No Man’s Land” to the big and small screen, securing investors from both Mexico and Texas and offering invaluable creative input.
Rob Allyn may have inspired his boys to appreciate cinema from a young age, but he didn’t start working in the entertainment industry himself until later in life. Rob, 61, began his career as a political consultant in the U.S. and went on to advise presidents, prime ministers and parties in Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Indonesia. Shortly after Conor graduated college, he joined his father overseas. In their free time, they began writing an Indonesian-language film called “Red and White,” which spawned two sequels. All the while, Jake was studying at Cornell University and was on the receiving end of film snippets, behind-the-scenes clips and script drafts from his dad and brother’s movie in Indonesia.
“When that was over,” Conor remembers, “we decided heavily. We could go find the next political campaign to work on. Or we could do this movie thing.”
Once Jake graduated and Conor and Rob returned to the States, the three Allyn men dove head first into expanding Margate House Films, a family owned and operated production company. The moniker is particularly meaningful to the brothers because it’s named after the street they grew up on, which once serve as a backdrop for their home videos. Other titles from Margate House Films include the action thriller “Java Heat” featuring Mickey Rourke and “Rajah,” a period epic starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers that’s currently in post-production. Margate House Films also helped back Netflix’s Spanish-language musical drama “I’m No Longer Here,” which is Mexico’s international feature entry for the Oscars.
Hollywood is famously cutthroat, so it helps to have someone on set who knows what you’re trying to accomplish. For Jake and Conor, there’s an established shorthand that would be nearly impossible to replicate with another actor, director or writer. Though they are four years apart, they’ve always had a close relationship. Jake jokes, “We shared a bedroom longer than we needed to.”
That’s not to say it’s always smooth sailing during production. Like any other siblings, they’ve been known to bicker from time to time. “It’s tough,” Jake says. “The director needs to be… I don’t want to say emotionless, but you have to keep the ship running on set. You have to worry about everybody and everything.” He considers for a moment. “As an actor, I can be selfish in that moment.”
Be that as it may, the brothers are hard pressed to remember a time they got into a genuine professional argument. There have been moments of tension while working on films, to be sure, though usually any differences have been resolved by the last time they yell “cut.” “This can be a very contentious business,” Conor says. “There’s money involved and people really care about the integrity of the project. In our case, even if we’re really clashing — and we for sure have — we ultimately care about each other and respect to one another. That helps.”
Eventually, they aspire to join the pantheon of famous Hollywood filmmaking brothers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Mark and Jay Duplass and Josh and Benny Safdie.
“We definitely love the Duplass brothers because they do such a great job at making stuff together,” Connor says, “But they also do things on their own.” Similarly, the Allyn brothers hope to forge independent careers. “If we had to work on every script together, I think we’d put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” Jake says. “It would be tough to put all our eggs into each other’s baskets every single time.”
That being said, Jake and Conor expect to always be available to give the other feedback or reassurance. All three Allyns consider filmmaking a family affair. Yet getting notes from your brother is one thing. Your dad? It can be “extra challenging,” Conor admits with a laugh. “But we’re pretty used to it.” Jake concurs: “Honestly, the worst is when he’s right.”