“Dead Man’s Burden” premiered at the L.A Film Fest to excellent reviews and and plaudits for first time director Jared Moshé and his cast: Clare Bowen as the fierce Martha, David Call as her husband Heck, and Barlow Jacobs as her long lost brother Wade. Our review said the film “is worth the watch for its sheer beauty, but it’s also a slow burner of Western tragedy that hails many new talents to keep an eye on.” It’s a slice of filmmaking that harkens back to cinema’s past, and reminds you why shooting on film needs to be preserved. We sat down with Moshé, Bowen, Call and Jacobs last week to talk favorite Westerns, shooting in New Mexico and historical authenticity. Here are some of the highlights and insights from the wide-ranging conversations below.
Shooting on 35 mm was never in question for this low budget indie.
As director Moshé says, since the film was a Western, it had to be shot on 35mm because, “that genre is so much a part of our cinematic history, people automatically have things they have to see in order for the film to work, and shooting on film is one of them. They need that wide sense of space and depth that I just don’t think you can get on video, at all.” The New Mexico landscape where they shot was more than just a location, and deserved to be captured on film because “the landscape and the sun are characters, the wilderness is major story element, and I think it’s really important to be able to capture that in a way that’s really beautiful.”
Shooting on location in New Mexico helped everyone, especially the actors inhabit their characters and story. Not to mention the authentic costumes, props and sets.
Barlow Jacobs said one of the best parts about being on location was that, “you’re seeing it the way it was seen by the people we’re portraying and there’s something really unique about that.” The costumes and props affected, “even the way you move, the ways the clothes were cut,” which was something that Clare Bowen also mentioned, saying, “what you’re wearing, it’s so heavy, you’re wearing three layers of underwear as a woman– it’s ridiculous. But everything has a weight to it, everything has a purpose to it, it’s all very deliberate.” The extreme fluctuations in the weather in New Mexico in October also “brought out that sense of survival, what you had to do. When the will to live takes over. I don’t think that you can fake that. I think that we were really privileged to be out there,” said Bowen. For David Call, the environment provided as sense of quiet not found anywhere else, “just having the quiet, at night and in the morning and on set, to exist in that world without any distractions.”
A great deal of preparation and historical research went into the performances before the shoot began so that the characters were fully inhabited before cameras rolled.
Moshé described the importance of this long preparation saying, “all of us knew the characters that they were playing intimately, and they trusted me to know them equally as such. So that when we got out on location, we’d rehearsed, we’d talked about, and everyone was able to really inhabit it in the right way. By our first day of shooting, the script evolved to the point where Heck Kirkland was David and couldn’t be played by anyone else.” Call described Moshé’s inspiration for him: “…one thing Jared said in the beginning of the process was, if these characters are archetypes, Wade is John Wayne and Heck is Clint Eastwood. And that performance style, that amount of weight that he can carry with doing very little, was a big influence.” Call also spoke about the sense of stillness and restraint he brought to his performance, drawing on Heck’s backstory, “Heck was a very violent person, and he doesn’t need to put anything on. There’s a sense that he doesn’t need to be threatening because he knows he’s threatening. Also, because he’s with his wife and he’s trying to put that life behind him, he’s also keeping a lot of that in check, and so he’s somebody, who is, to a certain extent, containing his impulses at all times.” For Jacobs portrayal of Wade, he mentioned that, “with any role, one of the first questions I ask, is what’s this character hiding? What’s the thing he doesn’t want anyone to know? And in Wade’s case, there’s just so much, he has so much baggage, post-traumatic stress that’s probably never been dealt with from the Civil War, coupled with the fact that his family disowned him, and he’s by himself in all of this, and in the way that he’s developed this maybe even skewed view of justice to justify all the decisions he’s made that are very counter to what he was told or taught growing up. How do we show the slow unraveling of this character?”
For Bowen, the historical research helped to ground her character of Martha, whom she describes as, “a bit of an extreme, in [that] that’s what happens when you’re put in a survival situation. She’s a creature whose natural instinct is to nurture, she’s actually quite a sweet thing, but her nest has been blown open.” With a Civil War buff for a director, Bowen relied on Moshé’s knowledge to make it real for her, saying, “it felt wonderful to have somebody like Jared at the head of all this, with such a massive knowledge of the Civil War and Westerns in general, just a mad history buff, and to be able to turn to him and go 'what about this, can you tell me about this?' and for him to go 'Yeah!' and then tell me about it for half an hour.” For Aussie Bowen, this knowledge “was really important because a character like Martha could have gone in a totally different direction. I’m tiny, I’m holding a really big gun, and she’s really extreme. She could have gone rocketing off into space. And it didn’t, it stayed really grounded because Jared knew his stuff.”
The cast was each assigned different classic Westerns to watch for performance, while “Dead Man’s Burden” itself is influenced by different elements of different Westerns.
Moshé described the breakdown of the influences in “Dead Man’s Burden,” saying “there were certain Westerns that the film was more based on, ‘Winchester ‘73’ and some of the dynamics there. ‘The Searchers’ in the use of the landscape, ‘Unforgiven’ in terms of story structure, and then a little bit of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ in incorporating the larger elements in a more personal story. Each conversation with all of them was all very different. For example, with Clare, I had her watch 'The Unforgiven,' which is a movie about a woman on the frontier.” Call spoke about the influence of Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” on his research for Heck’s backstory, “I imagine something similar to what happens at the beginning of ‘Outlaw Josey Wales,’ happened to him. During the Kansas-Missouri border wars, abolitionists or Jayhawkers were coming over from Kansas into Missouri, Missiourians were going into Kansas, and it was this very violent, tit for tat, eye for an eye kind of world, if somebody comes in and murders your father and your brother and manhandles your mother and your sister, at that time in that place, you have to fight back, or you’re gonna die.” Moshé added on to the comparison, saying, “Heck’s story, in a weird way, begins at the end of that film, and what’s so tragic about his character is that he’s put his past behind him, and her action at the beginning of the film, causes him to devolve, and he’s doing it all out of pure love.” For Jacobs' influences, “anything Jason Robards did,” even venturing out of the the Western genre: "‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ was a big one for me. It wasn’t thematically the same, but I was looking at different performances like that that were so quiet, and that’s to the extreme, but that had such an impact on me the first time I saw it. So much of it is the moments in between dialogue that are going to make or break a performance.”
Writing and speaking in a traditional Western lingo came easily to both Moshé and the cast, but the utmost importance in the script was to bring a sense of realism to the dialogue.
Moshé had “done a lot of research and thought a lot about how I think these people would speak. The cadence felt very natural, and I knew where I didn’t have it right, where I’d go back and back and back over a line, trying to figure out how to say it that way.” Call, who has read a lot of flowery, verbose Western scripts, found that this script had “a nice balance, where the language was definitely of a period, but I never felt like I was forcing long run-on sentences to work.” Bowen mentioned that “There’s a similarity between the Australian dialect and Southern, there’s a laid back quality to it. It’s comfortably accessible to an audience, and they are just having a yarn, it doesn’t have to all be be epic or period,” and Jacobs echoed these statements, saying “it felt very subtle and very real and authentic.”
The Western is still a vital part of American art and storytelling, and still has a place in the moviemaking landscape.
Call expounded on this question, saying, “the Western is something that’s never really going to die, because like filmmaking itself or like jazz, it’s such an essential American art form, and part of our mythology… it’s important for people to continue to mine that territory because that time period represents the dream of America, it encapsulates all this great American drive and ingenuity, but it also represents the beginning of the end. You get so many sides of the American coin. The rapaciousness, but also the bravery, the nobility, brutality.” And Moshé asserts that, “there’s a hunger for them, there’s an audience."
The cast are huge Western fans, of both the classics and the obscure, and the so bad it’s good variety.
Moshé: “Ballad of Cable Hogue,” “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Once Upon A Time in the West.” Also, “Unforgiven.”
Bowen: “I don’t have one, but I’ve got to say I’m really excited to see 'Django Unchained.' I know this is completely off, but I loved 'Maverick,' I couldn’t help it. I know, I know, it’s bad but I loved it.”
Call: " 'Unforgiven,' of course, I love ‘Josey Wales,’ 'The Proposition,' I really like some obscure Leone, there’s this one you can find on Netflix called 'Duck You, Sucker' that is incredible. Rod Steiger plays a Mexican bandit, but it’s just the most dirty, disgusting performance you’ve ever seen, and James Coburn is an IRA bomb maker who somehow ends up in Mexico and teams up with this bandit. It is probably his most stylistically extreme… it’s just so bizarre and so funny and off the cuff.”
Jacobs: "I’d say 'The Proposition,' is just a film in general recently that I loved. 'Zachariah' the rock and roll Western with Don Johnson. If you can get it, it’s two handfuls of fun."