Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own.
In this edition, director and co-writer Steven Piet and co-writer Erik Crary discuss the personal and cultural resonance they found in the small town of Lodi, Wisconsin, where much of their slow-burn thriller Uncle John was shot.
Nestled in the real estate just north of Madison, Wisconsin, there is a picturesque town called Lodi, a.k.a. “Home of Susie the Duck” since 1948. At the moment, the population is somewhere around 3,000 people. It’s surrounded by rolling hills, farmland, woods, lakes and some dramatic cliffs thanks to the Ice Age. Spring Creek, a small, gentle stream, winds its way through the middle of town, past a permanent stone basket designed for duck making. Whichever mallard sets up shop and lays her eggs in the basket becomes “Susie” for the season, and shit gets crazy from there (in as much as several waterfowl-themed events crop up that the community turns out for and supports local causes through).
Uncle John is not about Susie, ducks or any explicitly named small town. However, all of those unique, wholesome factors that went into a town that would establish Susie as its icon were a direct influence on our film—and are the reasons why the personality of a town like Lodi is interesting to comment on.
Logistically, there was never a question that we were going to shoot a large portion of the film in and around Lodi. Erik grew up there, has parents and extended family based in town, and half of the credit scroll reads like the local phone book. Thematically, it’s also part of a setting and world we are both perpetually interested in. Steven is from the Midwest as well, born and raised on the south side of Chicago. We grew up pretty differently, but still both feel strongly connected to this region of the country and the specifics that come with that. Relatively speaking, there are not that many stories set here, which is a shame because its beautiful and ever-changing with extreme seasons. Beyond that though, the proud, hard-working, cordial and reserved characters that make this section of the country famous for its work ethic also come with a lot of depth available to explore.
One of the biggest ideas that sparked the story of Uncle John was about the contrast between big city and small town life. Though a city seems far more exciting and dangerous, it can also be largely anonymous and filled with the trivial problems of the self-involved. On the other hand, a small town seems like it’d be a permanently peaceful haven, but can breed just as much darkness as any city—and because everybody knows everybody, personal reputations carry a lot of weight and folks are up to speed on each other’s business.
In the film, the story opens as the titular John (played by John Ashton) is mid-murder on the shores of a quaint, rural pond. He immediately moves into cover-up mode, but any disappearance in a small community is big news. He has to keep cool and maintain normalcy while simultaneously navigating the local gossip scene spawned by his act. Meanwhile, his nephew Ben (Alex Moffat) is leading a smooth-sailing life in Chicago, filled with hip friends, snarky jokes, and multiple resources for gourmet coffee. Things get hairy when Ben suddenly shows up in John’s world as suspicions are heating up.
That general plot could take place in any number of different regions, and would play out very differently depending on its location. For us, it was incredibly appealing to explicitly set it in the Midwest in a small town like Lodi. Finding a well-liked, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy like John is not difficult there. Having access to his world as he worked through it all was something we found fascinating. MM
Uncle John opens in theaters September 18, 2015, courtesy of FilmBuff.