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Filmmaking as Catharsis: “Redland” Director Asiel Norton

Filmmaking as Catharsis: “Redland” Director Asiel Norton

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.

“Redland” (USA, 2008)
Director: Asiel Norton
Cast: Lucy Adden, Mark Aaron, Sean Thomas, Kathan Fors, Bernadette Murray, Toben Seymour
As a family struggles to survive in rural isolation during the Great Depression, their daughter’s secret affair begins a journey into the unknown.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

Man, I really grew up loving movies from a very young age, ever since I can remember. My parents were really into movies, so film has actually played a very important role for honestly as long as I can remember. There are glimpses of images that I remember from very early in my childhood. Seeing the leopard for the first time in “Bringing Up Baby,” seeing Peter Sellers as Clouseau pretending to be a sailor with the fake parrot on his shoulder in “Return of the Pink Panther,” the cowboy riding the bomb in “Dr. Strangelove,” or any number of scenes from “ET,” like ET’s glowing finger healing Elliot, etc. I grew up in a very isolated circumstance, in a way not too different from that of the characters in the film. And my dad used to pack my whole family up, there were 6 of us, into a broken down old pickup that should seat six, and we would drive down to the local University about 30-40 minutes away, and watch classic movies. It was always a big deal, and the experience was very important to me. I really grew up on classic American movies, and from a very young age, because of my parents I knew many of the great old masters of American cinema like Howard Hawkes, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, Orson Welles, etc. I knew all the old movie stars from a very young age. Then in later adolescence I started branching out and watching more international film. I’ve just always been a film enthusiast. So filmmaking seemed natural from a very young age, from probably around the time I was in third grade. In terms of evolving, I don’t know, I guess what’s more interesting to me, is how much I see movies the same as I did then. I don’t think I ever grew out of that love and wonder about it. Just that magic of cinema. Being in a darkened room and looking up to a huge glowing screen, as a kid you take it almost as worship, you idolize what you see, and I still feel the same. It’s just magic. The fact that there is so much work and artistry to it, just adds to that magic.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

“Redland” came from an image I had of a man in a hat firing a rifle. Film ideas come to me in images. So that image of a man in a hat firing a rifle just came into my mind, and I just started to wonder who this guy was firing his rifle, and why was he doing it, And I thought, “He’s a hunter. He’s feeding his family.” And then I started to wonder who his family was, and Magdalena, the film’s co-writer started to come up with ideas. We’re both interested in Eastern European art, film, and literature, and in Russia, there’s this archetype of the Holy fool, an odd, often mentally challenged girl, who has a kind of connection to God, who brings about great change in those around her. So we thought we should make the hunter’s daughter a sort of Holy fool, a kind of spirit. Also, like I said, this world actually in a way isn’t that far fetched from the way I was raised. I was actually born in a wood cabin, up on a mountain adjacent to the one we shot on, and my family didn’t have television, and had limited electricity. Our water actually came from a nearby mountain stream, and in the summer, when the stream ran low, we would have to ration water. We raised chickens, rabbits, and sheep. My mom would actually make us clothes from the wool of the animals. So the whole thing sort of just came together out of that. Also while we were writing my dad was dying of terminal cancer, and he actually died in a pretty painful manner, so I was really asking pretty basic questions about existence and the nature of life. So I think the film, is a kind of metaphoric retelling of my childhood and my family, and my grappling with the ultimate mystery of life. And to me, it was just an important, passionate, cathartic process.

But in terms of the actual making, I think the main excitement is just creating a film. I really love movies, and love movie making, so making the whole thing unfold is very exciting. Every element is exciting. There’s tremendous ups and downs, and the whole thing’s like an emotional roller coaster. It’s what life’s all about.

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

Every stage of filmmaking is different in terms of it craft, so in the nuts and bolts of making, every stage has to be approached differently. I would say that production is a little more intuitive, and pre and post are a little more intellectual. The first person we hired for the film was Zoran the DP, because the look of the film was very important to me. And we would meet and talk, watch movies, look at photos and paintings, I think we went to the Getty Museum, and we really worked hard to create the look of the movie. We wanted the look of the film to be dark and antiqued, with a lot of texture, a bit like Rembrandt. For me a film really works, or is great, when every aspect of the film is all telling the same story, all working toward the same goal. So since my narrative is about organic life at its most basic level, I wanted to create a narrative that tells that story, and I wanted an acting style that reflects it, and I wanted the look of the film to be alive itself. I really wanted a lot of grain, so that the film was actually breathing, and moving, and alive. And then later I wanted to edit a certain way, and make it sound a certain way, so that every aspect of the film, technical and otherwise is working toward the same aim. So anyway we worked forever to get the look of the film right, did a bunch of camera tests, etc. and we came up with a very long difficult development process that literally we were told that nobody had ever done before, and got all theses specialty lenses from Panavision, and we actually got all of it for free. Anyway I also rehearsed with the actors for a month or maybe two before shooting started to plan that out. In production I really wanted to be free, to shoot what I saw, if there was an amazing sunset, to turn the action towards it, or shoot a different scene altogether that captured that sunset, or if I had a great inspiration, to stop whatever we were shooting and shoot that inspiration. That was hell on the AD, and the crew sometimes grumbled, because people really aren’t used to shooting that way. But I would say, when we nailed a really difficult shot or something that nobody planned on, or got a great take of something with that sun setting, everybody would get excited, everybody would enjoy it. And we stayed on schedule, and almost all our best stuff came from those spontaneous actions. Anyway, I could go on and on about this, because I really love the filmmaking process, but that would probably be boring for the reader…

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

Honestly, everything in filmmaking presents it own challenge. Just like everything in life does. I think any time you want to do something good, it ’s always hard, I don’t care what it is. If you want to make a good chair, or do anything else effectively, it’s very difficult. If it were easy then everybody would be good at everything. I think the main difficulty that we suffered through was lack of money, because we really didn’t want to make something that appeared cheap, or suffered through lack of funds. We wanted to make something that would stand up technically against a thirty million dollar movie.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

There’s so many. Getting the cabin was interesting. Getting the right looking, well-behaved hunting dog was interesting. Every movie dog we looked at was too cute and well manicured. The dog we did find and use, actually wasn’t a film dog at all, but some homeless guy’s that the line producer came across when were location scouting. And it was amazing cause the dog was kind of wild, but man could he act. When the camera rolled, it was amazing. He would hit his marks, when a gun fired he’d stay calm. Even, and I’m not lying about this, when a scene wasn’t going well, an emotional scene say like the beginning miscarriage, and the actors weren’t bringing it, he’d start to bark and go crazy and scare everyone, and then the intensity would go through the roof. He was like the Marlon Brando of dogs, I swear to God. Another story is in casting, it took us like two months to cast the film right, but the little boy in the film, the younger brother, Paul, was originally cast with a different actor. And the two days before we were to start shooting, when all the crew had already left to go up to location, and I was about to leave, we find out that the kid we were using was homeless, and living in a car, and the people we thought were his parents, were not his legal guardians at all, and maybe he was kidnapped. We have no backup for this part. So I start swearing at the agent, for not checking on his clients. Then he says that he has a nephew that lives in the Smokey Mountains that would be perfect for the part. He can get the kid on a red eye, and we can audition him in Los Angeles the next morning, then get up to Northern California that evening, and start shooting him the next day. So we agree. We are praying that this kid is okay, cause good child actors are notoriously hard to find, and we didn’t have anyone else. So the kid flies to LA on a redeye without any adult supervision, the agent picks him up, and drives him straight to our audition, and he ends up being great, much better than our original actor. He then jumps in our car, and we take him up to set, and start shooting Monday. There’s a similar story, minus the homelessness, with the guy who plays Charlie Mills. He wasn’t originally cast. He’s actually a very good friend of mine who was the second unit director. We used him to replace the original casting. So he actually shot 2nd unit in costume, and then would just jump in front of the camera and act. And he was actually better then the original actor. There were tons of obstacles like that, that kept arising, but every time, something would fall through at the end, something serendipitous that would allow us to continue, and most of the time, they were beneficial.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I recently wrote a western that I want to shoot. In terms of long term though, I don’t really see films that I want to do in terms of genre. I don’t know, there’s no genre that I like above any other. I just love movies, and any genre, or any type of movie can be done well. So I don’t think to myself, “Oh, I’d love to do a horror film,” or “I’d never do a musical.” If I get inspired to write something, then I write it. Or if something crosses my path that I’m excited to shoot, then I’ll shoot it.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I have a few scripts that I wrote that I’d like to shoot. Like I said, I have this western that I really want to shoot, called “The Bandit Blood Welks.”. I also have another script somewhat more akin to “Redland,” almost a companion piece that I’d love to do. In all actuality, I created “Redland” as the first part of a loose thematic trilogy, so eventually I want to return to that world and complete what I started. One other thing that I really want to get to is a kind of Sci-Fi/Fantasy script, a world savior myth that I’ve been working on. So there’s a pretty long list, its just getting the production money to come through, that’s the challenge.

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