When you have to shoot a film in 29 days, across four seasons, and with the occasional surprise blizzard at 8,000 feet, it’s easier to do it yourself. Robin Wright reached that conclusion with her directorial debut, “Land,” in which she originally had no intention to star. It turned out that the list of actresses who could carry the film, secure the financing, skin game, and make themselves available across many months dwindled to a list of one: Her.
“It was gutsy,” said producer Allyn Stewart (“Sully”). “It wasn’t playing that romantic comedy. It was a taxing, intense, character.”
Wright, of course, is familiar with intense characters after six seasons as the formidable Claire Underwood in “House of Cards.” She also directed herself in 10 of those episodes. “I wasn’t looking to get some sleep, evidently,” she said. “It was so much fun to direct that show, learning while I was doing it. I had an incredible family of people at ‘House of Cards;’ we were together every day for six years. On the show, we didn’t have that much time to prep. It already had an established style and look and atmosphere to it.”
None of that was true for “Land,” in which a city woman facing deep grief retreats to a mountaintop and discovers that she isn’t as self-sufficient as she thought. When a winter hunter (Demián Bichir) stumbles upon her remote cabin and saves her from freezing to death, he also teaches her “the beauty of human kindness,” Wright said. “He allows her to feel and believe one can be resilient enough for newfound faith and hope for life beyond.”
When Stewart sent her the script by rookie screenwriter Jesse Chatham, Wright instantly saw the project as a potential directing debut and she pulled in her old writer pal Erin Dignam (“Loved”) to hammer out a shooting script.
“It resonated with what was going on in the world,” she said. “There were random shootings biweekly. I was thinking about people grieving and experiencing loss. Everyone deals with it singularly. This story is just that one’s person’s journey dealing with their grief, and choosing to do it in her own way and on her own terms.”
David Giesbrecht / Netflix
To direct a movie meant that Wright was the boss who set the tone and look and literally called the shots. “It is daunting because we’re not on a stage,” said Wright, who filmed on exterior locations outside of Calgary, Alberta — at 8,000 feet, where production designer Trevor Smith built a cabin from the ground up. A real-life mountain man taught Wright how to split logs, aim a shotgun, fish, and skin game.
“We are actually in the elements, living the movie we were shooting,” she said. “We’d be shooting a summer scene and the winds would come and dump snow. I’d jump into my other wardrobe and put the wig on.” Because she’s been acting since she was 15 , “it’s not as painful. It doesn’t take as much time to get there. You learn tricks, when you need it to be quick, with very full schedules every day.”
Weather forced production to shut down three times. “It was a survival course,” said Stewart. “Whatever you see on screen, we were living it every day. We had to plow the roads get to the set. There was nothing simple about it. The weather would change on a dime; we’d be sitting there, everything going great, then there’s 75 mph winds. You had to think on your feet. We were cold a lot. We spent a lot of time trying to stay warm. There was no VFX breath.”
To save travel time, Wright and Stewart opted to stay in trailers on the mountain base camp, which were subject not only to inclement winds and weather but also to bears looking for food. “It was exciting!” Wright said. “One day, one of the bears before hibernation got wind of us, grabbed a burger, and came back every day expecting more. We literally had the bear whisperer, who slept in his trailer on top of mountain with Allyn and me, with bear-caller devices to scare them off.”
One of the most refreshing elements of “Land” is while Bichir’s character seems to tick all the boxes of a Harlequin Romance hero — a handsome wilderness man who serves as her guardian angel — he’s not her love interest. “Right? It was a huge part of it,” she said. “Also, how do you guarantee that it’s going to come off as energetically as non-platonic? That was the dynamic.”
Wright said as soon as she met Bichir, she wanted him for the part. “Demián was born to play Miguel,” she said. “He’s a raw soul, one of the most soulful men I’ve ever met. We talked about who is he to her. He was her saint. He was an angel who came across her path and felt the need to help her… You can get through difficult times with the help of a beautiful human being.”
Wright knows that she is riding a wave that is allowing more talented women to take the director’s chair. “There’s a crack in the glass ceiling,” she said. “And we can bust it wide open, but it’s going to take more time. We have to find that voice for other female directors, and them for us. It’s been happening for a while and the capacity is there.”
Big Beach’s Peter Saraf and Leah Holzer financed the $7 million production and took it to Cannes in 2019 to sell a few territories, where Focus Features bought it for the world. They’d intended to submit “Land” to the Telluride Film Festival, but the pandemic slowed post-production. With Wright working remotely in Los Angeles, the movie wasn’t completed until after Thanksgiving. Focus urged the filmmakers to approach Sundance.
“They felt the subject matter of this film was perfect for what we’re going through right now,” said Stewart. “It’s human beings taking care of each other in adverse circumstances.”
“Land” premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 31, and will play in some theaters via Focus Features starting February 12.