Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell
Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: a hollow shell of a man, sitting alone in a mostly empty room, writing in a journal, accompanied by a voiceover narration. Yes, you’re watching a Paul Schrader film – more specifically, you’re watching Master Gardener, the third film in Schrader’s unofficial “man in a room” trilogy. The first was the excellent First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawks and dealing with a man’s crisis of faith in a doomed world. The second was 2021’s The Card Counter with Oscar Isaac as a gambler hiding from the world and his past. Now, with Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton stars as a man caught between his regretful past and his future.
Below is my conversation with Dylan Query, the director and co-writer of Cold Cross, a dramatic Western film being screened at Indy Film Fest. We talk about shooting a period film in Indiana, and the research process involved in making the film. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Cold Cross started out as a short film, correct?
Dylan Query: That’s right, Cold Cross started out as a short film titled Cold Creek, and we used that short film as a pilot, so to speak. We used the pilot as a proof of concept, a proof of quality, of what a small, local team can produce. And we used that to generate a lot of money, locally, from a very small town where very few people know or care about the film industry. But we were still able to prove to people that it was worth investing in, and we raised $20,000 completely locally. We’re super proud of that and we’re super proud of the support that we’ve had from friends and family and members of the community. But it definitely started out as a short film, but it grew to be so much more.
BS: So was the plan always to make it into a feature eventually?
DQ: No, I don’t think so. I would like to say it was according to plan, but as these things work, it was by complete accident. My film partner, Jacob Steineker, had never been part of any film production before, he’d never acted before, and we had worked on a very small short film that I hired him for, and he became so inspired by that one project that he came back to me a few weeks later and said ‘hey, I have this script for a Western. Would you be interested in making it?’ And by recognizing that the process had inspired him, I wanted to encourage that. So I didn’t grow up a Western fan – it’s not really my interest – but I couldn’t say no. I said ‘yea, let’s do it’, and that’s how Cold Creek was born. And from there we won some awards, including an international award at the Pop Con Film Festival in Indianapolis. And from there we had enough interest in the local community and our fans, and they wanted something more, so that’s how Cold Cross was born.
BS: Was there anything difficult in expanding that short film and making it into feature length?
DQ: Yea, there’s a lot of complications, but my team are amazing problem solvers, and Jacob and I worked closely together to develop the story and expand it. The difficult part of that is doing something that’s within our capability. I think a lot of people will write scripts and they’re not thinking about what resources or locations they’ll have available. And so what was interesting with Cold Cross is that it’s a neo-Western style film, but it’s set in the frontier. We had a lot of friends and family with property, so it was very easy for us to think ‘hey, we can talk to this person and film on this property’, and that cuts down on cost and travel, so little things like that and problem solving, but working within our means. I think that was really key. But that’s not to say there weren’t things that we wanted to do that, to be honest, we didn’t know how we were going to pull it off. But like I said, I have an amazing team, and we were able to think outside the box and create a Western right here in Indiana.
BS: So what is it that you like about the Western genre?
DQ: That’s an interesting question. Like I said, Jacob is the Western buff. I grew up not really liking Westerns at all; in my juvenile ignorance I considered them to be very boring. But when I started working on Cold Creek, there was something about it that I grew to really like. I liked the simplicity, I liked the option of utilizing a lot of natural light to make the film feel more natural, like it’s out in the wilderness. I really liked that aspect of it. I like these classic revenge stories, and Jacob took this kind of cliche, classic revenge Western and we tried to morph it into something more modernized. A lot of things that people have said when they watch Cold Cross, they say it’s a Western, but there are a lot of modern techniques that they didn’t expect. I think that was actually because, with me being the director and cinematographer, since I wasn’t a western fan growing up, that was actually our benefit. We were able to blend old with new and create something fresh.
BS: Speaking of the look of it, the film doesn’t look like a lot of traditional Westerns. When people think of Westerns, they think of big, expansive prairies or deserts. What made you want to utilize the Indiana landscape?
DQ: I tried to limit myself with how I was influencing myself. What I didn’t want to do, when I first started this project, was to start watching a bunch of Westerns because what would happen is I would essentially be influenced by these other films and I would start stealing things unintentionally. So I tried to limit myself a little, but there were certain things that I wanted to explore. One thing that we really enjoyed was the Hatfields versus McCoys, which feels like a Western but it’s set in the same time period as the Wild West. We just really liked that, and it was within our capability to film in the frontier, so to speak, in the Midwest. It was our way of making a Western slightly different from your normal Western.
BS: You make a good point about not wanting to steal other filmmakers’ styles. If I was to make a film, I would want to make it look like a Scorsese film, but then I’d be labeled as a Scorsese imposter. So it’s important to develop your own techniques.
DQ: I agree, when I studied at Ball State University, there’s a small film community there, and I would constantly have people asking me ‘have you seen this’ or ‘you should see this.’ I just try to limit myself because what a lot of people in my craft tend to forget is that films are a distraction. I’d much rather be out there honing my craft, creating my own style for my own projects, instead of watching things that other people have created. Some people might disagree with that, and that’s fine, but I think it’s important to develop your own style, and that’s how you differentiate yourself from the people around you. It’s very easy to copy Tarantino or Scorsese when you’re submerged in all of their content.
BS: What was the most difficult scene to film, either from a practical or emotional standpoint?
DQ: There were two particular scenes that were incredibly difficult to film. The first scene was probably the night chase action scene, in the middle of the film. That particular scene was very difficult for us, not just because of the lighting, but because that was a full, packed day for us. We were filming from dawn to dusk that day, and past that. We started filming around 6am that day, and trying to get as much done as possible, then the night scene came. So we were filming from the break of day until about 2 or 3am. I would say that we were very close to pulling a 24 hour day. By the end of the day though, we were at each other’s throats and we were grouchy, but we finished what we needed to, and that was awesome, but it was very difficult trying to cram that much into one day. I think if I could go back, I would probably have split it up, but on paper I thought it would work, but in reality it didn’t really work the way I wanted it to.
Additionally, I’d say the final scene of the film was very, very difficult. Jacob, with this being his very first feature-length film, and his first writing opportunity, watching him grow throughout this process is something I’m incredibly astounded and proud of. We filmed Cold Cross almost completely chronologically, so what you see is, whenever you see Jacob at the beginning of the film, you’re seeing an early actor. And what’s great about that, is his character is kind of portrayed as being young and ambitious but kind of ignorant about the reality of the world. So as he continues on throughout the film, and as Jacob gains experience as an actor, you’re seeing that level of depth increase in the character itself. What’s amazing is you get this sense of character development with William McCarthy throughout the entire film, and a big proponent of that is that Jacob’s depth as an actor is increasing as the film goes on. And that culminates in the final scene, where Jacob literally gave it his all, and it’s by far the best acting that he’s ever done. It’s in this final scene where things are the most tense and tragic. There was actually one moment during that scene where Jacob had pushed himself so far, and to be honest I think this was a fault of mine as a director, I could have managed him a little better, but there was one moment where he pushed himself so far that right after I said cut, he collapsed. He was clutching his left arm, he couldn’t breathe, and it was a very scary moment, and after that I said ‘OK, we need to be careful.’ It was a slap to the face for me because whenever your talent is in their role, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they’re acting and you might think that they’re just acting their role, but if they’re really into it and getting into this sort of Method acting sort of style, there’s stuff happening internally to them as well, that you have to try to be aware of. That was an eye-opening experience for me, to try to be a lot more observant and aware of my talent and what they’re putting themselves through. But the results speak for themselves; that final scene is just jaw-dropping for us. I hear it from a lot of people, that that was their favorite scene. I owe a lot to Jacob for his efforts and consistent diligence to grow and improve as an actor, it was very profound.
BS: What went into the decision to shoot the film chronologically?
DQ: There were a few exceptions, but we tried for the most part to do it chronologically. We did it that way because we were employing certain tactics like Jacob growing his hair or beard out. We were trying to get this sense of time progressing and I think it was just easier for us to do things chronologically, but it was difficult. We did this thing over the course of two years, so trying to get things to match up scene to scene was sometimes difficult.
BS: What kind of research went into the writing process? There must have been a great deal necessary to get period details right.
DQ: Absolutely, and I think there were a number of things we could have done better, but with our limited budget, we put a lot of effort into props and locations and costumes. We were able to find websites where we could purchase authentic costumes and props. We also turned to friends of ours who are owners of old-style navy revolvers and things like that. All of the gunfire in the film is actually black powder pistols, we’re not using blank cartridges, it’s just black powder without any projectile. So that was really fun and it creates an amazing effect on screen that you just can’t recreate with special effects, or at least not with our budget. As far as the details, I defaulted a lot to Jacob on that. He’s very knowledgeable about what is accurate and what’s not. My expertise was the technicality of production, and Jacob’s expertise was the time-period accurate details, so sometimes we’d be setting up a certain set and I would be setting up a lot of the gear and Jacob would go in and take a look and make adjustments, add certain props, and do what he could to make the set feel more authentic.
We also were in this constant revisionary process with the script. We were editing the script prior to each production day, making very small changes, and I think that was to our benefit. We were consistently improving and updating the script as we went on, and one of the things we would update was adding in little details to make the environment feel more authentic.
Cold Cross will screen at Indy Film Fest on April 23 at 4:00pm at the Kan-Kan Cinema in Indianapolis.Buy tickets here.
Below is my conversation with Wendy McColm, the director, writer, and actress of Fuzzy Head, a psychological thriller being screened at Indy Film Fest. We talk about the challenges of acting in your own project, and the real-life influences behind the film. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Did you always plan on acting in the film?
Wendy McColm: When I write a movie, I don’t really think about who’s going to act in it, if it’s going to be me or not. But it’s based loosely on my life and my experience, and I think, in my head, I was doing perhaps my last hoorah as an actor. The film ended up taking so long to make that it ended up being a great thing, not just for me as an actor and creator but just, in the end, the healing process of what the film is based off of. To act in those experiences was very surreal. I think, for my next film, I’ll probably have another main actor just because I love watching people acting on screen, and when I’m on screen I can’t really watch behind the camera as much. I have to do one take, go look at it, and maybe do one more, but I usually spend all my time directing the other actors.
BS: You mentioned that it’s based on your real experiences. Can you talk about that a little more? The film has a very fragmented reality, and becomes very surreal in parts, so what is based on your experiences?
WM: The childhood trauma, relationships with family and my mother and sister, and relationships with people and friends. How you run into people in real life and how you interact with other people, and how you’re able to take in other people, and how you can do that after you’ve grown and healed versus when you’re living in a trauma mind. The main character, Marla, is living in a trauma mind of PTSD; I had PTSD and developed PTSD when I was 24 or 25 from living in an abusive relationship, and I dealt with that without knowing for 3 years, and dealt with it while knowing for 3 more years. It feels just like the movie. When you say surreal, I say very real.
BS: Was making the film therapeutic for you?
WM: Yes. Very therapeutic. I didn’t know how it would be, but that’s the only reason I kept getting this signal from the universe saying “you have to make this”, and I didn’t really want to because it’s a drama and I don’t make dramas. But I’m also not a fan of repeating a style, I think it’s boring. I think it’s good to try all kinds of different things, and it was a challenge, but I think it came out great. Dealing with my own personal trauma though, I don’t know. If it works with someone else’s script, I’d like to put my own vision and knowledge of healing and empathy to that, I’d love to do that. But as far as writing my own drama again, I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. It was definitely a fast track way to find out how to do a drama, and the pain that can be involved in making something so deep.
BS: Which aspect of making the film did you enjoy more? Do you like writing, acting, or directing?
WM: I always enjoy the directing on set the most. That’s why we do it, I think. I like writing because it’s a nice outlet, but I could easily write a poem or a song or something, and go perform, and have instant gratification. Writing a movie for a year and nobody knowing where you are and having no accolades – not that anyone needs accolades – it’s kind of nice to share what you’re doing. But when you’re under a rock, you kind of wish people knew what you’re doing. Writing can be fun, but directing is definitely the most fun because you’re working with a team and you’re experiencing your vision coming to life from the page. The best best part is working with the other actors, and seeing what they bring to your script. That’s so thrilling
BS: You’re working in this movie with a lot of established and newer actors. Did you get any advice from Fred Melamed or Alicia Witt or Richard Riehl or anyone else?
WM: You know, they didn’t really give me any advice. They just trusted me and they know that I’ve made a good amount of films and commercials already. The greatest thing about everyone hired, new or seasoned actors, is they were really down for the experience and the ride. When you read the script, I’m pretty sure it’s obvious to everyone that you’re not in for a normal project. You’re in for the unknown, and I think that’s thrilling to people. Most of them, they were just there to support and to take any turn we wanted to take. And I’m eternally grateful to them for that because they didn’t have to do that. They just brought it 110%, so just them showing up 110% teaches you enough.
BS: Was working with them intimidating at all?
WM: With Richard, he’s so sweet right away, so he made it very comfortable for me. I’ve wanted to work with Fred for over 10 years. That was very intimidating but I also think he was trolling me a little bit because he wrote in his contract that he needs A/C, so I don’t think he was serious, but sometimes he’d walk by and be like “if the A/C goes out, I’m gone.” [laughs] And that was so much pressure! We still reach out on facebook sometimes, but obviously he didn’t want it to be hot, and comically enough, the place that we got had central A/C but it turned off halfway through the day. And I had to send out people to Home Depot to get window A/C units, and they were dripping water on the floor and I was freaking out and we were trying our best. It’s just one scene but it worked out well, and he was so excited afterwards. With Alicia, it was intimidating at first to work with her because I kept wondering how she would interpret this mother character. We started with such a sweet scene and I didn’t want to push her too much out of her choices, but I wanted to see what else she could do. So that was intimidating to be like ‘well, what about this?’ They were pure professionals. They’re willing to take direction and are willing to see what happens. The last thing you want, because I’ve been an actor that didn’t get direction before, and the last thing you want is to look stupid in a movie. It’s nice if you have a little direction.
BS: To go back to your performance, it’s a very vulnerable character and a vulnerable performance. You had to do several nude scenes, and obviously you have your own personal connection to the material. Were you nervous at all to put yourself out there like that?
WM: I think I was ready. Nudity doesn’t bother me, I think in the last 7 years and the healing from PTSD, I started to realize all these societal norms and how it’s important to embrace yourself no matter what. It’s part of what I want to show as a creator and as a person. If I’m in front of the screen, that’s important to me, and there’s no safer way to feel completely seen than on camera because it’s a fourth wall. It took me a while to realize that that’s what drew me to film and theater in the first place. You can be angry and win an Oscar, but if you’re angry in real life, you’re a monster. It’s pretty interesting. I think the only thing that scared me about baring my soul was the societal norm that you’re a monster or mean or bad if you have any feeling other than happy or neutral. So showing that to people who are used to seeing comedy from me was a little scary for me.
BS: I think it’s safe to classify Fuzzy Head as a psychological thriller. Are you generally a fan of those kinds of films?
WM: No, it’s not what I lean to. I had to find a way to give some sort of thing people can connect with. Because I’ve seen movies about trauma and I just don’t feel like it hits, and for me as a creator and as a human, something that can be taken in a little more easier. When you go “full trauma”, I don’t know if that’s digestible for people. And this film isn’t easy on the mind by any means. I’ve had people in the audience say they want to leave in the first 20 minutes, but I took a risk in sculpting the film that way. Because with trauma or victims, most people do leave and I was willing to take that risk for the outcome of the ending. Some people have said they wanted to walk out but it’s the throughline of the psychological thriller that keeps them there for the ending, which is what you want. I want them to grow with the main characters, and growing isn’t easy. I had to find a way to keep them wanting to stay there and grow, just like a real life experience.
Hundreds of Beavers will screen at Indy Film Fest on April 22 at 10:30am at the Kan-Kan Cinema in Indianapolis.Buy tickets here.
Below is my conversation with Mike Cheslik, the director and writer of Hundreds of Beavers, a silent comedy being screened at Indy Film Fest. We talk about the various influences for the gags in the film and the challenges of shooting in the Wisconsin winter. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Was Hundreds of Beavers always intended to be silent? Or did you get to a certain point when you were writing it when you thought it would be better silent?
Mike Cheslik: Well, it’s hard to remember the exact origins because it was 4 years ago, and the movie just grew out of bar talk, which slowly turned into coffee meetings, which eventually turned into a real project. Ryland [Brickson Cole Tews] and I, who went to high school together in Wisconsin, had just completed Lake Michigan Monster, and we were in the middle of festivals on that movie. That movie ends with a large, silent, animated sequence that’s kind of in a 1920 or 1930s style of live action, and we were able to do that for very cheap. Ryland directed that movie, but I got a lot of free reign on the storyboarded end sequence of Lake Michigan Monster, so with Hundreds of Beavers, the plan was really to lean into all these kinds of animated non-talking sequences. And the film just kind of grew into a full feature-length, entirely gag-driven comedy from that. So we wrote it in the beginning of 2019 and did all the storyboards that year, and the plan was to make something only we would do, which was this totally gag-driven, storyboard-driven physical comedy that’s got a thousand or fifteen-hundred effects shots, but also showcases Ryland’s ability to stand in the cold.
BS: When you’re writing a silent comedy, is it easier to watch other silent films, or did you find yourself watching more modern comedies?
MC: That stuff’s already in our heads from a lifetime of watching cartoons and silent movies and video games. So we didn’t really have to go back and comb through source material when we were writing – it’s just already been in there for years. We had a two page treatment and drew a whole bunch of storyboards out for that. We’d print them out and bring them out in the woods and we’d just cross out each shot as we’d go.
BS: I got a lot of Looney Tunes vibes while watching the film. Would you say that was an influence on you guys when you were coming up with the gags?
MC: Absolutely. And we didn’t even have to go back and watch those because they’re just so ingrained in everyone’s brains. But I do remember there was a Wile E. Coyote when an Acme rocket fails and comes back a few scenes later as a callback, and I just loved the idea of spinning all of these plates. So most of the writing was just spent trying to make this little web of gags that would come back and pay off in a cuckoo way.
It was really all about taking that self-serious wilderness survival story and spoofing it in the way that the Zucker’s spoofed various genres. It was below zero degrees for, like, 8 straight days at one point! We put so much post-animation on it that it looks kind of fake, but he was really out there. We shot for 12 weeks and I’d say 9 of that was outside in the snow. The physical comedy and the Looney Tunes thing was something that we love and felt nobody else was going to do, and you’ve gotta stand out if you’re making an indie comedy.
BS: You mentioned the abundance of jokes and gags that you had written and storyboarded. Were there any that didn’t make the final cut?
MC: Only two. Otherwise, pretty much every single idea we had is in the movie. And when you watch the movie you’ll really realize that these are guys that didn’t say no to any idea. It’s all in there, pretty much.
BS: Were those two jokes cut out because of practical reasons or time constraints, or was it something out of your control?
MC: We shot both of them. One of them, I was told by everyone that it wasn’t funny, so I removed it. The other one was Ryland trying to keep warm by putting a bunch of sticks in his coat and he basically looks like a giant bat suit full of sticks, and then he falls over and can’t get up, and he’s trying to get back up for a minute. We loved it, but it just slowed down the pace at the beginning. Otherwise, everything is in this movie. There were not any other ideas that we had and discarded. It’s all in there.
BS: I’ve got to ask about the costumes. Where did they come from?
MC: They were manufactured by our friends, the Chinese, who make all our costumes and clothing and props, and even the cameras and lenses! It was sent over by Mascot USA out of Beijing. We had a translator working with us at one point who helped us add an extra tooth for the beaver costume, and the costumes are not in good shape nowadays. They survived two winters with tons of different guys in them, and they’re smelly and moldy and torn apart. But we still take them to film festivals and try to entertain the crowds!
Hundreds of Beavers will screen at Indy Film Fest on April 22 at 4:30pm at the Kan-Kan Cinema in Indianapolis.Buy tickets here.
It’s always refreshing to see a film about grief – a subject that’s entirely too popular today – that approaches its subject in a unique and interesting way. Juniper is one of those films. It centers on Mack (Madison Lawlor) as she retreats to her family’s cabin after the recent and unexpected death of her younger sister Natalie. Unbeknownst to her, her childhood friend Alex (Decker Sadowski) – a party girl who lives freely without worry – and Alex’s best friend from college Dylan (Olivia Blue) show up to support her. While Mack appreciates the gesture, she clearly wants to grieve in her own way, in her own time, but Alex doesn’t seem to get the hint. Old conflicts resurface, along with new ones, and the film poses an interesting question: is there a right or a wrong way to grieve? First-time director Katherine Dudas directs the film with an intimacy that’s befitting the subject matter, and the dialogue feels improvisational but impactful. The screenplay is credited to the three above-mentioned actresses and Dudas, which suggests each performer was given the freedom to write their own dialogue, and their confidence in their characters’ inner lives easily comes through in the final product. That Juniper is Dudas’ directorial debut shows an even greater confidence in and familiarity with her collaborators.
Speaking of confidence, it’s a trait that Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game has in spades, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not. It’s the true story of Roger Sharpe, an aimless young man trying to find purpose in his life. As you might have guessed, his passion is pinball, which just so happens to be illegal in New York in the 1970s. Mike Faust (West Side Story) portrays Roger as a kind of lovesick puppy; it’s not that Roger is a pinball prodigy per se, he just can’t see himself doing anything else. His paths cross with Ellen (Crystal Reed) and their romance is a nice highlight to an otherwise boilerplate David versus Goliath story. First-time writers and directors Austin and Meredith Bragg clearly have a reverence for Roger’s story, and it comes through in the film’s framing device, where the real-life Roger breaks the fourth wall and essentially narrates his own story. It’s a charming conceit that will likely work for most but came off as forced more often than not to me. Still, it’s a harmless good time and provides some authentic emotional resonance.
Two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ve already gotten our fair share of fiction and nonfiction films about the early months of 2020. Bad Axe is another of those films, but poignantly told first-hand through the eyes of director David Siev’s family. The film begins as the first lockdowns were ordered, and David’s family’s restaurant – which his sisters help run – is thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. David also digs into his father’s traumatic upbringing in Cambodia’s Killing Fields and how his immigration to the US has shaped how he runs his family, for better and worse. But as if being a restaurant owner during the pandemic is difficult enough, the business sits in the titular Michigan town, in the heart of Trump country, which begins treating the Siev family differently. From the BLM protests to the mask mandates, David’s family, especially sister Rachel, remain outspoken even if it means alienating themselves further and risking their business. The film could use some narrative cohesion, but otherwise it’s hard to find many faults with such an honest portrayal of a subject the director is obviously close to. This is a tight-knit family that you can’t help but root for.
Bad Axe will premiere as a Special Presentation courtesy of IFC Films at the Heartland Film Festival on October 15 at 2:45pm. Buy a ticket here.
No matter how you look at it, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945 was a horrific tragedy. Whether you’re Japanese or American or German or any other nationality, there’s an inherent sadness when so many lives are lost in an instant. But watching Paper City as an American, there’s an extra tinge of regret, because it was a catastrophe that was needlessly executed. The documentary explains in the opening moments that the American military had ceased the targeting of Japanese military locations and had begun randomly targeting civilians. One hundred thousand people were senselessly and horrifically killed, and the documentary seeks to tell the stories of the few living survivors, and their crusade to hold the Japanese government accountable. Director Adrian Francis rightfully keeps the focus on the survivors as they fight to not only erect any kind of monument to the event, but receive reparations from the government for what they perceive as an avoidable tragedy. Paper City could have expanded beyond its 80 minute runtime by exploring the government’s reluctance to acknowledge the survivor’s plight, or the views of a younger generation that didn’t experience the trauma firsthand, but regardless, this is an emotionally impactful documentary.
Sentenced is a documentary that will open your eyes to an aspect of life that most of us take for granted, and for that, it’s an achievement. If you’re able to read this review, you live amongst the majority of Americans that the film speaks to. It’s an eye-opening look at a failure of the American system that we don’t speak often enough of, and it does so with a heart and tenderness that’s sorely needed. Directors Mark Allen Johnson and Connor Martin portray the daily lives of American adults that struggle with literacy in an intimate, often heartbreaking way. How they got to where they are today is often a result of horrific trauma or, in some cases, simple neglect from their parents or educators. At only 69 minutes, the film could do better to deeply explore the American systems that failed them, but its mere existence should be a clarion call for action or, at the very least, empathy.
Women Talking may be the simplest film of the year in terms of its concept, but it undoubtedly one of the most complex of the year, and it’s that conflicting push-pull that makes it one of the best of the year. Its simplicity lies in its setup: it takes place mostly over the course of a day or two, in and around a barn. But where it shows its complexity is in the discussions its characters have, the fascinating way its characters are written, and the conversations it will surely elicit after the credits roll.
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Lee Ji-eun, Lee Joo-young, Bae Doona, Im Seung-soo
They say that you never truly know what love feels like until you’ve had a child, so what happens when you have a child that you don’t love? This is the central question to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker, the Japanese auteur’s first film set in Korea, which still manages to feel of a whole with his filmography at large.
Below is my conversation with Ryan Whitaker, the director and writer of Surprised by Oxford, a film that’s making its world premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival. We talk about the challenges with creating chemistry between stars, filming at Oxford University, and adapting a dense source material. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Tell me how you came to the project? What was it about Carolyn’s story that spoke to you and believed you could turn it into a movie?
Ryan Whitaker: It was almost five years ago when I read the book and first talked to Carolyn about the rights. The book was recommended to me by my mom and my sister, who thought I would like it because it touched on a lot of things that were interests of mine: British culture, the city of Oxford, and the Inklings, writers like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. They were right, I just fell in love with her story and thought it was a beautifully written book, and I immediately began thinking about what this story could look like as a movie. It was a bit of a challenge because it was an almost 400 page memoir with a lot of characters, so it was really about chipping away at the marble and finding the movie hiding within. I loved Carolyn’s story, I loved that it was a coming of age story, a romance, and a spiritual journey. It was all of those things at once.
BS: How much involvement did Carolyn have once the movie was greenlit?
RW: Carolyn has been nothing but supportive and collaborative from the beginning. I knew things were going to be smooth sailing when she read the first draft – which I was terrified to share with her because of all the things I had changed, which you have to do when you’re adapting a story like this – and she responded positively to it and has been nothing but supportive ever since. She’s remained involved, not directly, creatively speaking, but I would call her a close collaborator. She and Kent were on set for production, and she has a cameo in the film. It’s been a great working relationship.
BS: Were there any details that she helped with, from the Oxford atmosphere?
RW: The University of Oxford is a very strange place, if you’ve never been there. If you haven’t been there or toured, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not one college, it’s a bunch of different colleges in the city of Oxford. The layout of the colleges is unique, in that there’s little walled gardens throughout the city. You have the quad, and the porter’s lodge at the front, and almost every college has a chapel and a dining hall. They’re all similar but they all have their own character. Getting those details as accurate as possible was really important to me. Carolyn was there in the early 90’s, and the film is set in the modern day, so it was a combination of talking to her about what it was like then and how much it’s changed since then. That town hasn’t changed much in a couple hundred years, but we also talked to students who are there today, trying to make it as accurate as possible.
BS: Was there a creative reason to set the film in the modern day, or was it a logistical concern?
RW: It was purely practical, just a budget consideration. The question that I asked was, “does this film need to be set in the early 90’s?” Beyond the fact that this is when Carolyn was at Oxford, it would make more sense that it would be set in the modern day, and it would allow our budget to go further. There were very few things in the story that needed to be updated. For example, there’s a text message that Carolyn sees on Kent’s phone, and in real life, that was an email – in the early days of email. Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything in the story that dictated that it had to be set in that time period.
BS: Speaking of shooting on location at Oxford, how difficult was it to get access to those historic locations? Were there many hoops that you had to jump through?
RW: The original plan was to shoot between terms, in the summer, when classes aren’t in session. We didn’t quite have our financing together, so we ended up pushing it into term time, which made it a little more complicated. Honestly, it really came down to some sheer luck, but then also really great people on the ground, working very hard to secure every location we needed. We were very lucky that we got access to all the locations that we did. We were able to shoot almost everywhere that we were able to, so it was logistically difficult, but you’d never know that from seeing the film, all the chaos outside of the frame.
BS: I know I’d be very nervous the entire time that something would be broken or misplaced. There’s a lot of delicate decorations that would make me anxious.
RW: By far, not only the most expensive location, but the most logistically challenging was the Bodleian Libraries, which are some of the oldest libraries in Europe. We shot upstairs in the Duke Humfrey room, which only deans and students have access to. A few films have shot up there, some have shot downstairs in the Divinity school, but the Duke Humfrey room was the library in the first Harry Potter movie. You can’t touch anything. Every single book has an alarm. You can’t take water on that floor. The gag about the ink pens not being allowed in the library came from a conversation with Carolyn. They’re very particular, so we had some locations like that that required a lot of tip-toeing around. You really don’t want to be the guy that destroys an original Shakespeare folio, or something like that.
BS: How did you come to cast Rose as Carolyn?
RW: I had first seen Rose in a film called Finding You, that my producer Ken Carpenter had done in Ireland, and Ken had said ‘what do you think about Rose in that role?’ So I went and watched that film and found her to be really likeable, the camera really loves her, she has a really great presence on screen. We got together and talked about the character, and I got a really great feeling that she could inhabit this role. The character is a bit of a complicated character, and I needed to cast someone that could somehow be unlikeable and likeable at the same time, and someone who could handle the intellectual side of the character in a way that didn’t feel precocious. I just had a feeling that Rose could do it, and it ended up being a great experience working with her, and after she was attached, it was just about how we build the best possible cast around her.
BS: That character has a steeliness to her that makes you understand how she could be so apprehensive of someone else, but there is a kind of openness that Rose really brings to it.
RW: The messy nature of the character is what I always thought was interesting. Casting is so important because if you cast the wrong person in that role, you don’t want someone that’s only unlikeable. Or at least unlikeable and un-relatable. If the character’s going to be unlikeable, they at least have to be relatable, and I think that’s what Rose really brought to the role.
BS: Rose and Ruairi’s chemistry is really great together, which is really crucial in a romantic comedy, or even a romance. Did you do anything to foster that chemistry or did it just come naturally?
RW: There was very little time – I’m trying to remember back, now – but Ruairi was one of the last people we cast in the film, actually. There wasn’t a lot of time, but I think they did spend some time together before we started shooting. Which was important to me, and to them, just to be around each other and develop a rapport. I do think that helped, but it was a restrained schedule.
BS: It’s not something where you can just put two people together and expect sparks to fly, so it worked out in the end.
RW: And even if you do all the work, whether it’s rehearsals or sending them off to spend the day together, it still might not work on screen. It’s always a bit of a gamble and we were very fortunate that the chemistry was there between the two of them.
BS: You mentioned earlier that you’ve always been a fan of classic literature, which forms a backdrop for the film. Were you worried at all that some of the dense, more academic books wouldn’t translate to general audiences? How did you go about making these people seem so smart but making it relatable?
RW: I realized early on that the most important thing was that the audience doesn’t have to know the literary references. The most important thing is that the audience has to believe that they do, and so that was a guiding principle to me. There is some “inside baseball” in this film, and you may not know the ins and outs of it, but the most important thing is believing that the characters do, so I hope we succeeded on that front. There were certainly even more literary references in earlier drafts of the script, which came down to a practical question of, how much can the audience handle? That was certainly something we talked about, but I just felt from the beginning that, if you know all these references, great. That’s wonderful, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the story.
BS: The romantic comedy can easily be formulaic in its plotting. What are some of the difficulties that you came across to keep this from being formulaic?
RW: Actually, I never saw this as a romantic comedy, I saw it more as a coming of age story. Part of what was unique about Carolyn’s book is that it wasn’t just a romance, it was also a coming of age story, it was a spiritual journey. It was all of those things at once, which I think is unique and I wanted to retain in the telling of the story. It’s easier said than done, and that was one of the more difficult aspects of the adaptation, was finding a way for those storylines to feel like they’re happening simultaneously and they’re all connected. So I guess the answer to the question is that the subversion of expectations was almost built in from the beginning just because it was a very unique type of story.
Surprised by Oxford will screen at the Heartland International Film Festival on October 12 at 7pm at the Deboest Lecture Hall at Newfields in Indianapolis.Buy tickets here.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke
The ever-reliable Toby Jones, playing the longtime projectionist of the fictional Empire Cinema, opines that our brains perceive static frames of film as moving images which “creates an illusion of life.” Perhaps it’s a little harsh to say this sentiment could be an accurate tagline to sum up Empire of Light, writer and director Sam Mendes’ latest film, but there’s a lifelessness to the proceedings that holds the film back from greatness. Mendes has now written the screenplays to his two most recent films, and neither one has particularly struck as impactfully as he likely intended. Indeed, Empire of Light shares a handful of similarities with 1917: elegantly crafted production design, stunning visuals, and powerful performances, but a lackluster script that only scratches the surface of who the characters really are.