Displaying a genuine feeling for his characters and their distinctly Midwestern surroundings, writer/director David Nordstrom makes his feature debut with Sawdust City, set in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. On a snowcapped Thanksgiving, while most families are comfortably settled around the dinner table, Pete and Bob, two brothers who haven’t seen each other for years, are searching the town’s bars for their estranged father. Over the course of the day and into the night, the two walk and talk their way through a succession of watering holes, VFW halls and their own complicated history, one that cuts far deeper than simple sibling rivalry. [Synopsis courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival.]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Narrative Feature and Documentary Competition at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Directed By: David Nordstrom
Executive Producers: Denny Densmore, Helen Nordstrom , Chuck Nordstrom
Producers: Mike Ott, Frederick Thornton
Screenwriter: David Nordstrom
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Editor: David Nordstrom
Cast: David Nordstrom, Carl McLaughin, Lee Lynch
Responses courtesy of “Sawdust City” director David Nordstrom
Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?
These two brothers who haven’t talked in years get together on Thanksgiving to track down their estranged, alcoholic father.
OK: Now tell us what it’s really about.
Drinking and talking. Some brawling.
Beer and camaraderie…
Same old story, I suppose. After film school I wrote a couple of scripts and had various meetings about them that went nowhere. I was about to write a third when I got pretty depressed. Getting anything funded started to seem impossible, and I was dying to get a film into production. So, I decided to write something I could shoot with only the help of friends and family.
That Christmas I went back to Wisconsin where I’d wanted to shoot a film for some time. My little brother and I decided to walk across the whole town on New Years Eve, stopping in bars to drink and warm up. An old friend came along whose brother had just gone to prison, so the conversation was pretty heavy. At the same time, the beer and camaraderie balanced things out with a sort of giddiness. We talked and philosophized about everything along the way, met all sorts of fantastic characters. Plus, it was really cold, like 20 below, and it seemed to lend this urgency and drama to the proceedings. When I got back to California I started pounding all the raw emotional experience into a narrative.
Also, for a while, I’d wanted to direct Carl McLaughlin in something. He hadn’t acted before but he’s a natural performer. People were always mistaking us for brothers, so once I had established a story about brothers, casting him was a no-brainer.
The offbeat elements of setting…
We set out knowing what the biggest challenge would be: little money, little time. But the whole production was designed to turn those challenges into strengths.
For a couple years I worked as a screener for Sundance, so I saw a lot of no budget filmmaking from all over the country. Mike Ott and I spent a lot of time watching them to see what worked and what didn’t. And we saw a lot of passionate amateur films with these gritty regional flavors you don’t normally see on screen. It inspired us to play to the offbeat elements of a setting.
What we didn’t have in terms of control of the environment we made up for in authenticity. We didn’t have a large crew, but we had the overwhelming support of the locals. We didn’t have to pull permits or anything. I’d just call up the police and tell them we were shooting in a general area and they’d say “Cool.” It was such a welcome change of attitude, and it really freed us up creatively.
We tried to craft a sturdy narrative about something we can all relate to–family. I feel that the best way to be universal is to be as specific as possible. So, even though there is much in the film that’s specific to the region, I hope people from all over can relate to it in an intense way.
I think running from influence is a losing battle. It’s going to happen, consciously or not. I find it’s better to just embrace it and make it work for you. So, there were a lot of films I re-watched and thought about during pre-production.
Those were conscious influences. For me, the fun part has been discovering the unconscious influences after the fact. Conscious influences were: “Husbands,” “Mikey and Nicky,” “The Last Detail,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “American Graffiti,” “My Dinner with Andre,” “Naked,” “Mean Streets,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” If I did have any unconscious influences, they were probably “The Searchers,” “The Third Man,” “Cries and Whispers,” or “Deadhead Miles.” As of yet I’m not conscious of the rest.
In January, I acted in David Fenster’s second feature “Pincus,” which should be surfacing later this year. Right now, I’m editing Mike Ott’s new film “Teenage Wasteland.” As for my own projects, I’ve got a couple scripts that would require larger amounts of money. So, for right now I’m writing something else Small Form Films can produce. You know – another film where our moms make the sandwiches.
Check out these prior participants in the Los Angles Film Festival, courtesy of SnagFilms [Disclaimer: SnagFilms is indiewire’s parent company]
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