Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Magic Valley” Director Jaffe Zin

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Magic Valley" Director Jaffe Zin
Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Magic Valley" Director Jaffe Zin

TJ Waggs, a high school student living in the small town of Buhl, Idaho, carries the burden of a terrible secret on his shoulders. And he’s not the only one having an off-day: A local fish farmer confronts a selfish neighbor that has carelessly poisoned his crop, the shifty county sheriff neglects his duties and uses his patrol car for his own personal gain, and a mom is too busy fussing over the family dog to notice her missing daughter. To make matters worse, two preschoolers playing in the fields have chosen an unusual playmate—one who is the common thread linking all these characters together.

Writer-director Jaffe Zinn’s atmospheric vision is a ruminative look at a bored and numbed town on the verge of a wake-up call. His keen voice also speaks profoundly to the disconnection of community and the decline of morale in a struggling recession-worn American society. Paced and shot with restrained elegance, highlighting a standout performance by rising talent Kyle Gallner, Zinn’s “Magic Valley” strives to capture who and where we are before the next defining moment happens. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“Magic Valley”
Primary Cast: Scott Glenn, Kyle Gallner, Alison Elliott, Brad William Henke, Matthew Gray Gubler, Will Estes
Director(s): Jaffe Zinn
Screenwriter: Jaffe Zinn
Producer(s): Heather Rae
Co-Producer: Laura Mehlhaff
Executive Producer: Paull Cho, Nina Foxx, Jeff Pies, Russell Friedenberg, Philip Larmon
Cinematography: Sean Kirby
Score and Sound Design: Steve Damstra, Mads Heldtberg, and Peter Albrechtsen

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE 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.]

Responses courtesy of “Magic Valley” director Jaffe Zin.

An active childhood imagination…

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that everything I was seeing while playing was part of a movie I was filming, as if my eyes were the lenses to a movie camera. I had an ongoing story in which I played the character of Red Ace, a time traveling bandit who was fleeing through time from a group of space pirates. I used to put knives, chains and homemade nunchucks on the trampoline and then jump around and dodge them as if I was dodging blows from the space pirates. I’d imagine that I was filming an action scene.

In other words, I’ve always looked at the world around me as if I were seeing it on a screen. That said, I didn’t have a camera or any other film tools available to me growing up, so I initially got into art and storytelling via drawing and painting. I still draw and paint, but my style in those mediums differs substantially from my film work so far.

Inspiration from specific images…

Ideas usually come to me in the form of very specific images. When this happens, I decide if I’m imagining a drawing project or a film project. With “Magic Valley,” there were two images that sparked the idea: a pond full of dead golden trout and the image of two young boys finding a body in a field.

Although I don’t want to go into too much detail in regards to those images, I knew that they were connected thematically by the idea of suffocation.

Working with a DP…

In the past I’ve shot all of my own stuff, but I’ve never been totally happy with it and wanted to work with a DP on this one. I saw the documentary “Zoo” that my DP Sean Kirby shot and was totally blown away by his work. Luckily I was able to meet with him and he agreed to shoot “Magic Valley.” We talked quite a bit prior to filming about the look I was going for and my reference points. By the time we were shooting, we had our own language for how we would do specific scenes. I would say “Let’s shoot this Malick style” or “Let’s bust a Bela Tarr here” and Sean would immediately get what I was going for.

Shooting with economy…

I had storyboarded the entire movie and Sean and I went over the boards quite a bit prior to the shoot, but from day one (of the initial 18 day shoot) it became apparent that it was unrealistic to get even a fraction of the shots I’d thought out in the amount of time we had. The movie takes place over the course of one day, from sunup to sundown, and the locations are almost entirely exterior…a bit of a challenge when there is only around eight hours of daylight to begin with in Idaho during late October.

This just meant that we had to be very economic with our shots and really figure out what was most important to telling the story, which was a bit of a challenge since the movie wasn’t exactly a story driven narrative to begin with. Thus, the major struggle during the shoot was figuring out the best way to balance getting what was necessary for the story, but also capturing the desired mood, which I felt was equally important.

Trying to secure funding…

Finding funding was probably the hardest part for me, not just because of the usual obstacles facing independent filmmakers, but also because it’s really difficult for me to justify asking people for money for my art. I understand that investors invest because they hope to make money, or because they’re into a project, but it’s rough knowing that these people are taking a gamble on you. With film, you’re entirely reliant on other people’s money, which is a constant struggle, both in terms of finding it and asking for it.

Excitement on set…

I almost blew my hand off with an M-80 firecracker, which I was actually really excited about. There’s a scene in the movie where some high school kids are making themselves pass out and I’d originally planned on having the actors actually do it. Everyone was kind of freaked out to do this, even though the explosive was supposed to be a dummy, so I volunteered. I used to blow stuff up all the time when I was a kid.

Long story short, the dummy rounds got mixed up and the one we lit ended up being a live round. I picked it up and threw it at the last possible moment and it blew up roughly three feet away in the air. It was a super close call. The rest of the crew was really angry about it, but I was secretly pretty excited. It was nice having that familiar level of danger present again.

Future projects?

I have two scripts ready to roll that I’m extremely excited about. One is a dramedy called “Winter All The Time” that’s loosely based on the Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early 90s. It was just insane, with guys eating each others’ brains and burning down churches. The script is somewhat based on actual events but places the story in a sort of alternate reality.

The other script is for a horror movie that’s like a cross between “Black Swan” and “House of the Devil” and revolves around a girl studying Butoh, which is a really strange, dark and beautiful dance that originated in Japan in the 60s.

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