Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.
“Godspeed” (USA, 2009)
Director: Robert Saitzyk
Cast: Joseph McKelheer, Cory Knauf, Courtney Halverson, Ed Lauter, Jesse Ward, Hallock Beals
An intense, dramatic thriller set in the lingering light of the Alaskan midnight sun.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?
When I was very young I was into comics and started out more as an aspiring artist. But I got frustrated because the images couldn’t move! I think my best friend and I would create little sketches based on films we loved. To be honest, I can definitely remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark” being the moment when I knew how powerful this medium could be. Even as young as I was, you could sense a mastery of the craft in Spielberg’s direction. It was so different than anything I had seen before, and that was that. I wanted to make movies.
So, since I was very interested in film when I was so young, I never hesitated to actually study that in college (San Francisco State University). It was definitely an interesting place to study because of its more “avant-garde” roots. I never felt like my voice quite fit in. I wasn’t totally “traditional narrative” and I certainly wasn’t full on avant-garde. I liked elements of both and kind of fell in between.
It was really the French New Wave and particularly American films of the 70’s that probably had the biggest impact on me, and still does in many ways.
How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?
Joe McKelheer and Cory Knauf, who are of course the two male leads in the film, are also the two main Executive Producers. They had been working hard for some time on a genre project ever since they met on the last film they worked on called “The Hamiltons.” I hadn’t made a true genre film and I thought that this would be a great challenge for me, so that was the initial spark of interest in coming aboard this project. I had some very specific ideas and things I wanted to try, and thankfully Joe and Cory were very receptive to those ideas. What came out was this crazy film called “Godspeed.”
How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?
I approached it much like my last film. I don’t care for much rehearsal because I really want the actors to have a certain “freshness” when the camera turns on. Too much rehearsal can make the material stale and I don’t like blocking unless we’re on the set we’ll be shooting on. It doesn’t make much sense for me to block without having the actual physical environment around you and the actors – especially something like this where there’s a lot of physicality between the cast, as well as very large spaces to work in! I do like to have a lot of discussion about the script and how each of the cast see their character arcs in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish, and how they fit into the project as a whole.
In terms of the photography, besides a net behind the lens, my DP Michael Hardwick and I went for a very naturalistic, almost traditional way of shooting. On the last film, “White of Winter,” we were almost exclusively hand-held. On this one, we were quite the opposite.
Because of this way of shooting, it’s great to try and have more days scheduled, but on this kind of budget, it’s almost impossible to do that! I learned that you’re only here once, and you’re only going to get this one chance to capture these shots, these performances, especially if you’re in a place like Alaska where we can’t just re-schedule because it’s LA and we’ll be able to get everyone together a lot easier.
I really think that you end up spending more money and being unhappy with the results when you try and cram in a lot shooting in such a short schedule. It sounds like a “luxury” for an indie film to shoot this way, but I think next time I’d like to push more for this kind of schedule no matter what. There were some very long, tiring days! And guess who gets the stink eye in the morning!
What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?
Some of the locations, as beautiful as they were, weren’t that easy for a small production to access and deal with. It was a very demanding production – physically and emotionally because of the setting and the fact that the scenes are so intense. We shot entirely in Alaska, in real locations. We’d be drained not just from the physical act of shooting, but also because of the material!
Shooting in Alaska isn’t very easy or cheap in the summer – it’s peak time for tourists. Joe McKelheer is an Alaskan native, and it was truly the kindness (and maybe pity) of his close friends and family that made it possible for us to finish the shoot successfully.
Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?
I think the best one for me was when a young moose walked right through our set while we were shooting in Anchorage. You know, it’s not often you have a large, wild animal just casually stroll right through where you’re shooting. As far as we were told, moose can certainly be dangerous! In fact we had another moose “incident” when Cory got out of a truck I was driving to see about a dog that looked lost on the side of a road. Suddenly a moose (way bigger than the other one) came out of nowhere and began moving toward Cory and the dog. Well, we all yelled for Cory to get back into the truck since that moose looked like it was definitely going to make a move! It was a little like in “Apocalypse Now” – never get out of the boat, or in this case, never get out of the truck!
Thankfully we never had a bear incident, which would have been very scary for us out-of-towners. The Alaskans thought we were funny, we of the “Lower 48.”
What other genres or stories would you like to explore?
I’d really like to do a comedy. We did have an intense set, but I tell you we certainly were a bunch of comedians off camera. Courtney and Joe are very, very funny people. You wouldn’t guess it from the characters they play.
It would be amazing to make a real, true Western, with all the great sets, horses, and costumes! There are absolutely Western elements in “Godspeed” and even in my last film, and it’s a genre I absolutely love.
What other projects are you looking to do?
I’ve got another screenplay called “Comfortable Skin” which is set primarily in France. It’s a strange story about a French woman and an English woman, and I’d really like to make this the next feature. Unfortunately it isn’t a comedy. Or a Western. But maybe I can convince some people to take a trip to Paris this time.