Sundance Interview With: Matt Sobel

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Matt Sobel is a writer and filmmaker. In 2014, he was named one of the “25 New Faces of Indie Film” by Filmmaker Magazine. His debut feature, Take Me to the River, had its World Premiere in the NEXT Section of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Nebraska-set drama, which stars Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff, Ursula Parker, Azura Skye, and Josh Hamilton, was received to significant acclaim and continues to tour the international festival circuit. In attendance at Sundance, Matt Sobel spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about shooting a film on a cattle farm, working with professional child actors, and how Jurassic Park changed him forever. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: I know you’ve already been asked about the Nebraskan farm where you shot Take Me to the River. I’m just wondering if it’s a working farm where things are grown and land is tilled, et cetera.

Matt Sobel: Yes, the owners breed cattle there.

SM: There is one amazing shot in the film of a cow laying in the shade of a truck.

MS: They breed those cattle for sale to slaughterhouses as well as for selling to other cattle farms for future breeding. It’s actually an Angus farm, very high quality beef –

SM: Not Wagyu, though?

MS: *Laughs* No, the cattle are more for people who want to breed purer lines of Angus into their own herds. They’ll either come buy the cattle or sperm samples from the farm where we were.

SM: Did shooting your film on the grounds mean disrupting the functionality of a high-end Angus cattle farm?

MS: There was one time when our production designer, Maggie Ruder, cut down a piece of a barbed wire fence that did not look like it was being used. It was next to this shack-thing [that appears in the film] so we needed to get rid of this section of decrepit, used wire. So we did while the cows were feeding during the night, and in the morning, they were everywhere. Apparently their feeding trough was right next to that location.

SM: An important element of that farm in the film is the sense of enormity, like it stretches on endlessly along the river for who knows how many acres. Is that an illusion you tried to create through wide angles and landscape shots, or was that set really so huge?

MS: It really is that expansive.

SM: You manage to make the place feel massive, yet isolated.

MS: There is everything and nothing there. The nearest small town, which [the crew] stayed in, had a population of a thousand people or less. It was thirty minutes away from set. I thought it was important that the landscape was made completely of flat fields broken only by these homes that have windbreaks in the form of trees planted around them. They kind of look like stages. All the locations were totally real…in fact, the farm on which we shot is actually my family’s farm. I had been to all the places in the film and chicken-fought on that river.

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SM: Hopefully not like the kind of chicken-fighting done by the characters [Ryder, played by Logan Miller and Molly, played by Ursula Parker].

MS: Why hopefully not? *Laughs* Just kidding. I did have an experience once where a girl and I were playing around in this muddy water. Her parents came over and were like, “Don’t play there, that’s bad water, it’s stagnant.” And when they pulled her out of the river, there were all these leeches on her legs. As she was pulling the leeches off, there were red lines starting to run down her legs *Makes trickling motion*. I remember thinking that that was such a visually arresting image; I think that’s where the idea of [Molly’s] period came from.

SM: Some of the shots of the landscape are truly striking and they remind me of another recent film, strangely: Into The Woods [dir. Rob Marshall, 2014]. The image of a windbreak surrounding a farmhouse in a proscenium-like crescent has this fairytale quality. The houses start to take on this alternately decrepit and beautiful sense that’s buried in American mythology.

MS: We wanted this film to have a fable-like quality. There are scenes that seem closer to realism at first, but then we start to lean into this uncanny, perhaps a bit surreal, fable-like place. The sequence that was really important to me for this was where [Ryder and Abbey, played by Ashley Gerasimovich] are riding through a sunflower field. They would come up over a hump; then they would stop, and point, like “There’s the house.” Someone asked me what the point of that scene was: why would you have them stop and point when they are obviously on their way to the house already? I structured it like a scene out of Lord of the Rings or something – like “There’s Mount Doom!” So we shot it like we were shooting Mt. Doom, but it’s just a sunflower field.

SM: For me, that sequence begins when Abbey comes to pick Ryder up from his family’s house, and then there are two extended, long shots of the field. I had the same question about why you were lingering there, but when [Ms. Gerasimovich] points, you realize what a mystical aura she has. Her acting changes the entire tenor of the sequence from the moment she comes to get Logan’s character.

MS: That might actually be my favorite scene in the film. I find it hilarious. If you’re watching it for the first time, you might be a little baffled by it, but the more times I watch it, the more I just laugh because she is so funny.

SM: She has a unique stilt to the way she speaks – pauses in particular places, for example.

MS: She actually came in to read for the part of Molly, and she read the scene in that manner. I thought she was absolutely perfect, not for Molly, but for the part of her sister.

SM: She and Ursula Parker play two of the four children of the characters played by Azura Skye and Josh Hamilton, and all six of them appear in a pivotal scene together. The four girls are all golden blonde, becalmed, and wise-looking – they have this mystical pallor. I read in the credits that you worked with a children’s coach. How did you get that kind of energy out of the kids?

MS: The child’s coach did a lot of great work with the three younger girls; but most of our time together went into working with Ursula. What we wanted was for the children to be like real child-presences but you can’t use language that’s as direct as that when coaching them. The youngest one – who’s just trying to eat her food while Ryder is singing –

SM: Every time you cut to her, she’s fidgeting!

MS: She was always doing something completely adorable. That was our B-camera that caught those moments.

SM: When I was in film school, I was taught that there are three major things to avoid when shooting your first feature: working with children, working with animals, and working in water.

MS: *Laughs* Well, I knew about children and animals, but I didn’t know water.

SM: Granted, you have made some short films before this, but you worked with all three of the worst possible items on your debut. It must have been terrible.

MS: It was – it was awful. Children on horses? Never again. Every time I make a film with child actors I say, “never again,” only to find that I’ve written them into the next one. In fact, my next film is going to be all children. I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself, but I’ll never put a child on top of a horse again. We had a shot list for all of the scenes involving a horse and we had storyboarded them. We wanted to shoot everything with the horses in one day. But it became clear from Shot One that day that none of what we had planned was going to work. We just had to shoot whatever we could get and then go forward by shooting what we’d need to fill in the story holes. It was complete chaos with those horses.

SM: Despite the horses, you actually have worked before with professional child actors. Did you feel equipped to direct them this go-around?

MS: I met the children’s acting coach, who’s an amazing person, in Amsterdam. We spoke at length about different techniques we could use to make sure the children in the film were present. The hardest thing in the world is trying to get them to rehearse something. Ursula actually came with her scenes already rehearsed, so the first thing we had to work on was breaking the rhythm which she had gotten used to reading the lines with. The first step towards that was to play catch with her while she was shooting the lines; and the faster or slower I threw the ball, the more I was able to change her rhythm of delivery.

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SM: In your interview with Scott Macaulay, I read that you were inspired to make films by Spielberg when you were young. What’s changed for you as a filmmaker between those first influences and now, when your first feature is premiering at Sundance?

MS: I think there were three seminal film-watching moments in my life…or actually four. The first was Jurassic Park [dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993], obviously. I had to go see it opening day. Obsessed. The next time I felt that my entire conception of filmmaking changed was when I saw Mulholland Drive [dir. David Lynch, 2001]. Then I was in my “David Lynch phase.”

SM: I’m in my second one in five years right now – I’m about halfway through Twin Peaks [1990 – 1992] as we speak. So I know the feeling.

MS: The next [big moment] was with Caché [dir. Michael Haneke, 2005]. That one started me on the experience of making Take Me to the River. There’s that scene in Caché where [Majid, played by Maurice Bénichou] slits his own throat. The visceral sensation that that scene elicited in me was like touching a nerve I didn’t even know I had. It was so shocking that I thought, “I want to make something that makes you realize that you have a nerve ending you weren’t aware of.”

After that was Stalker [dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979]. I think it might be my favorite movie right now.

SM: The filmmaker Rick Alverson, whose movie Entertainment also just World Premiered here, said in an interview about forty minutes ago with Noel Murray that he was also inspired by Stalker. For both his and your film, I see strong continuities with Tarkovsky’s work and with Haneke’s. One common element in particular is the ambiguity of whether certain acts happened in certain ways that drive drama. This has been something I’ve seen confuse people with Haneke’s films –

MS: Do people actually get confused by Haneke films?

SM: I’ve spoken with people who absolutely do not understand what they saw or even what they think, especially in a film like Caché or The White Ribbon [2009] where you can blink-and-miss the “answer.” Now that your film has premiered, do you find that people are able to work through and understand the ambiguity in it?

MS: I think audiences more than understand it: they co-create it. That is what I’m most interested by in filmmaking in general. We have become pretty used to films being passive experiences. We sit back in our chairs and we let them hit us over the head, cascade over us. We don’t feel the need nearly as much as we should to lean in, look closely, and start to imagine the things that are happening outside the frame.

An interesting thing happened to me after I first saw The White Ribbon. About fifteen seconds after it ended, I realized that I was a part of that story – I was as culpable as any of the townspeople. I had been blaming people and pointing the finger without full information.

SM: That sounds very familiar.

MS: That’s what all the family members do at the reunion [in Take Me to the River]. They don’t see what happens in the barn, and neither do we. So when the adults come in and start talking about chickenfighting as something to be shameful about, that is people assigning shame and blame to something that is completely natural. With this film, I’d like to be able to put the mirror in front of the audience at that point and say, “We are responsible as well.” If all I could do was to make people lean in and look a bit more closely, and to feel invited to inject their own suspicions into the story, that would be success to me.

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