Had they been born in a different era, it would be easy to picture mischief makers Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn running around in the 1960s making movies with Super 8 cameras, or as ADHD-saddled millennials posting digital videos of their childish high jinks to YouTube. This is a pretty fair description of filmmaking brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, who spent a good deal of their Florida childhood plotting no-budget movies with their seven siblings pressed into service as actors and crew. Now grown up, the Nees (“The Last Romantic”) haven’t let go of their youthful ambitions any more than the protagonists of their new film, “Band of Robbers,” have. Drawn from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the movie, which the brothers wrote and directed together, lovingly re-imagines the author’s famous scoundrels as modern-day adults — Tom now a cop, Huck just out of prison — still obsessed with finding that elusive treasure. Adam, who plays Tom, is the actor in the pair (“Drunk History”), while Aaron also works as a motion graphic designer (PBS’s “American Experience”). With several TV projects and an original big-screen sci-fi thriller screenplay in the works, the brothers Nee spoke with Signature on the eve of the film’s release.
SIGNATURE: Your dad read you these books in your childhood. Do you remember being struck by anything in particular?
ADAM NEE: Hearing these stories about these kids who can sort of do whatever they want and get into these crazy adventures is the type of thing that just really sticks. We had those Tom and Huck fantasies ourselves, from that time on.
AARON NEE: Yeah, we had this crazy idea that we were going to try to make movies. [laughs] We started doing them as little kids together, and they were awful. For some reason that didn’t deter us.
ADAM: When we made movies as kids, Aaron always played all the main characters. We made a movie called “No Man Is a Killer,” and Aaron was No Man the killer and the hero.
SIG: It’s pretty audacious deciding to riff on someone as revered as Twain, and with such iconic characters. Did the fact that he was such a joker himself give you the license you needed, or did you not even hesitate to muck around with it?
AARON: The idea for this movie originated about ten years ago. It was really daunting how ambitious it was. Not only because of how revered the material is but because of how much precious material there is. It’s way too much to put into a movie. Characters like the duke and the king and the Grangerford Family, and other terrific vignettes that are in those books — we wanted all of them. The decision to modernize it and have these characters transitioning into adulthood was an important part of giving us a space and a world that allowed us to fashion the movie into something that was its own thing. Because if we went to do a straight-up adaptation, we knew it was just going to be a not-as-good telling of the story.
ADAM: Twain’s humor was something that was a big part of the inspiration, because we grew up hearing this as kids and those stories were always so funny to us. And they’re funny in a very strange tone, where it can be very irreverent and even silly at times, but then cross over to very dark places and things that are very introspective and thoughtful. A lot of the Tom and Huck adaptations that we’ve seen through the years always hover in a more broad, PG kind of range that doesn’t get as funny as Twain was and doesn’t go as dark as Twain was. So that was one of the inspirations for us, too, was to try — even though we’re changing it so much by modernizing it — to be truer to Twain’s tone than anybody else has been.
SIG: Was there a moment when the tone clicked for you? Because you clearly wanted to bring in some of the more serious context of Huck’s book, but also stay fairly whimsical like Tom’s.
AARON: There was a broad picture of the tone, but it was something we had to be thinking about and sensitive to throughout the process. It was the kind of thing that could really easily slide too far one way or the other. So we were constantly having to check ourselves to make sure we were balancing the absurd and the more sober elements, that one didn’t derail the other.
ADAM: The jumping-off point for this idea really revolves around the “Band of Robbers” man-cave scene, which is in the beginning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom gets his friends together in the middle of the night in the cave, and everything he says is so funny, but it also includes him saying that they’re going to kill people and cut crosses on their chests if they tattle-tale. Having adults say that all of a sudden establishes the world, where it feels like it’s just so funny but you also have to ask, Are they really serious? And that creates such a strange tone that I wanted to have carry through the film.
AARON: That was very much an anchor in that whatever world we fashioned it was a world where these characters could have these kinds of ideas and say those kinds of things, where we could have adults still holding on to the same kind of childish fantasies that you find in those books.
SIG: Was there a scene that was most challenging in terms of finding that tone?
ADAM: Muff Potter telling the guys about the treasure is one of the first moments where people are talking about treasure as grown-ups and it feels like it might be a real thing. That’s tricky stuff, because it could get really silly really fast. [laughs] Shooting that Muff Potter sequence was one of the first things we shot, so we were like, Oh, man, is this going to work? It took a lot of finessing to really hit that tone.
AARON: That was the thing from the beginning of writing it that was most intimidating is these childlike ambitions of going after treasure that were so central and important to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, because it felt like we could easily lose the audience. But we felt like, that whimsy and adventure and childlike fantasy is part of the joy and excitement of this story, so we really wanted to try and keep that.
SIG: Are there examples of writers or filmmakers co-opting classic literature that you like or admire or think work really well?
ADAM: We didn’t talk about these movies when we were working on this, but in hindsight “Scotland, PA” is an interesting movie that does a good job of modernizing “Macbeth.” It’s very funny, but there are stakes to it. Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” is a great movie. But what we were looking at were more movies like “Boogie Nights” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” where you have characters that can be incredibly funny and say crazy things but then are involved in scenarios that are life-and-death and you feel great tension. [“Boogie Nights”] has such an amazing tone that goes all over the map and you never feel like you switched to a different movie. It’s a movie and a tone that we were definitely looking at as: If we can emulate that even fifty percent, we’ll be on the right track.