SXSW always has a fairly high nerd pedigree, with genre films, broad comedies, and outrageous midnight movies often claiming much of the spotlight. But you can see just as many wonderful, small-scale dramas at the Austin festival (we saw "Beginners" there for the first time last year, for instance) and it seems to be a good place where these types of films can be nurtured alongside the splashier SXSW fare. One of these movies in 2012 is "In Our Nature," a kind of outdoor chamber piece starring Zach Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery and Gabrielle Union. We talked to first time writer/director Brian Savelson about what it was like pulling together his debut feature, paying homage to couples-going-to-a-cabin-in-the-woods movies, what the movie has in common with French dramas, and what it's like having his "big premiere" at SXSW.
We started by asking how the film came together. Savelson is a noted commercial and music video director (for bands like Band of Horses) who, unlike a lot of young filmmakers, has an extensive background in theater. "The first piece was connecting with Anish Savjani," Savelson explained. "He produces the Kelly Reichardt movies and after I saw 'Wendy and Lucy' I was really impressed with how they did so much with so little and I really loved the spirit of the movie. Next was the cast, which was incredibly important. It became finding the right people for the roles. That was a long, long process." The casting process would have been difficult for anyone, but Savelson's inexperience made it even tougher. "For a first time feature director there are a lot of challenges in convincing people you can pull something off on a big scale," he admitted. "Without having to speak or meet the person, it's difficult to win them over."
Still, he managed to nab a pretty phenomenal cast, but not without some trial and error. "I think early on it was very much my intention to win people over who were on the fence," Savelson said. "But then I learned that it's a better approach to grab people who were really interested and excited as opposed to try and convince someone who has some interest and try and transform that into excitement." That's what made the actors that were ultimately chosen so exceptional: "With the whole cast, they were really excited for the roles. They all wanted to talk right away and all had a lot to say, and it was clear from our first meeting that there was a mutual excitement and respect."
Savelson had reasons for casting everyone – with Jena Malone, who plays one half of the film's core couple (with "Friday Night Lights" alum Gilford) it was the desire to take an actress who had previously done, as he says, "young, young roles" and make her more mature ("I thought it would be really interesting to see Jena be the adult in the room"). With John Slattery, the idea was to riff on his silver fox "Mad Men" persona in a subtle way. "Here we get to delve really deep into his relationship to his family and his younger girlfriend," Savelson said of the tweak, noting that he had seen Slattery on stage before much of the country fell in love with him on television.
But the most interesting casting, in our minds, was that of Gabrielle Union, as Slattery's young girlfriend. The set-up for "In Our Nature" is fairly simple: Malone and Gilford are a young Manhattan couple who arrive at the family lake house, assuming that they'll be alone for the weekend. Of course, Gilford's father (Slattery) and his father's young girlfriend (Union) arrive and trouble immediately starts. It's a movie not of big blow-outs but smaller scuffles, and it was a real joy to see Union's name pop up in the credits, as she doesn't get the chance to shine in a leading role as often as we'd like.
"Obviously I felt with her that she hadn't had the opportunity to do a role like this and I was really excited she was into it," Savelson said. Her casting also helped to shake up a fairly well-worn set-up. "I felt like this film is a familiar story and I wanted it to go in directions I had never seen before. It was important to shake it up. I kind of wanted the fourth person to be someone who you wouldn't expect. Even though the role is understated, that is something that I haven't seen her do." And even though he hates the terminology, Savelson said, "It was really exciting to introduce a mixed couple and not make it a thing."
When speaking about the inspiration for "In Our Nature," Savelson said that there wasn't any specific thing he was drawing on, even though there have been countless films with this set-up. "I don't think there are any specific movies," Savelson said. "I think more than anything the thing that excited me was to do something interesting with it, because you seen it so many times." He admits that the set-up could have easily gone in a different direction. "Often two couples go off into the woods and it's a horror movie," Savelson says. "And in fact watching some of those, even though this could not be any further from a horror movie, did provide inspiration." Savelson says that Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count On Me" also supplied some inspiration, because it "showed that the smallest moments between people are the most interesting and have the widest impact on their lives." He also says that, after showing the film to someone, they had an interesting interpretation that he couldn't quite shake. "Someone mentioned, after seeing it, that this feels like a young hip version of 'On Golden Pond,'" Savelson said, referencing the 1981 Henry Fonda/Katharine Hepburn old folks drama. "My first reaction was 'Oh no!' But after thinking about it, maybe they were more right than I wanted to admit."
Given Savelson's background in theater, the small cast and the script's focused scope, it's easy to imagine the film as a play. But Savelson said that was never the intent, that it was always about capturing small-scale emotions on a very big screen. "While pulling the project together, a lot of people said, 'Why don't you just do this as a play?'" Savelson admits. "But what was always most interesting to me about this story were those tiny little moments that you lose on stage – glances of anger or embarrassment, that make up the film. The funniest moments, too, are reactions and non-reactions. So the interesting part was always taking it out of a theatrical place to emphasize these tiny little moments that keep it very subtle."
A big part of that subtlety was the earthy cinematography by Jeremy Saulnier. "I was inspired by French family dramas. The camera often doesn't move a lot. It takes a very beautiful place to frame the scene, and let's the actors play. And if that means the actors walk out of frame for a moment, that's okay," Savelson said. From the very beginning he was trying to create a mood of intimacy and closeness. "Part of the goal of always letting the audience in as subtle and personal [a way] as possible. So we start out in the back seat of a car like you were really in the back seat of the car and slowly we get closer and closer."
And the first audience to feel this intimacy will be at SXSW. "In Our Nature" will have its world premiere at the festival, which Savelson couldn't be more thrilled about. "South by Southwest may be my favorite film festival," Savelson says, sounding genuinely tickled. "It's such a positive festival and I really feel like it does a great job of celebrating film. I think that Austin audiences will do really well with this film, as well. I'm super psyched." We think audiences will do really well, too. "In Our Nature" premieres on Saturday afternoon at 5 PM at the Stateside Theater.