“I’m trying to make films for the quiet places of our hearts,” explains Aaron Wiederspahn, director of the independent feature The Sensation of Sight. “I hope that people will find something in them that is personal; something that speaks to the interior of their own individual space.”
Don’t misunderstand—Wiederspahn hasn’t made an abstract, experimental film. But what has resulted from years of effort is a winding drama of epic proportions and certainly not something that many first-time moviemakers attempt. The choice, Wiederspahn says, was clear from the beginning; He knew he must take the difficult route if he was to really bring his first feature screenplay to life. In the end, that means a movie that revolves around six main characters looking for resolutions to their shared problems. Among them—and the man at the center of it all—former teacher Finn, played by David Strathairn. Rounding out the cast, the writer-director landed an group that includes Jane Adams, Daniel Gillies, Joseph Mazzello and Ian Somerhalder. From the estranged father and son to the son’s problems with the law and his own young family, from a mourning brother to a lonely mother, the relationships Wiederspahn created weave a complicated tale of loss and rebirth.
Like the misplaced souls of its story, The Sensation of Sight has gone through a period of uncertainty and, after many festival screenings, ended up with a rather unconventional distribution deal. It is this and more that Wiederspahn explains to MovieMaker on the occasion of the movie’s DVD release.
Mallory Potosky (MM): The overall look of the film is very bleak. What was the aim in lighting and setting it up that way?
Aaron Wiederspahn (AW): I wouldn’t describe the look of the film as bleak. It’s simply the time of year when fall is transitioning to winter. The air is colder, the color fades, the days are shorter. Since the story I was dealing with addressed such issues as grief and loss, my intent was to utilize this seasonal transition as a backdrop for these lives of quiet desperation. Generally speaking, these times of the year tend to heighten depression and quietude, and it is often these times that the difficulties of our days manifest themselves. I thought it was an honest approach to the film’s subject matter.
MM: There are many main characters that the story revolves around, but each one of them lives a life in melancholy and the audience doesn’t really find out the cause of this melancholy until near the end of the film. The characters talk in circles and ask many questions—never leading on to what the mysterious melancholia might be that is affecting everyone. Why make the audience work for the answer?
AW: Isn’t that the way of life? Don’t we often circle around the real issues at hand? For me, it is very important to attempt honesty in every stroke that I make, and I try not to take lightly the pain a mother may feel when she loses a child, or when a husband loses his wife, or a father abandons his family and other such grave concerns. I think these are all very complicated matters, not easily discussed. [With the movie] I’m attempting to exercise the same kind of compassion and patience with my characters that I should with my own friends and family during those weightier moments of life.
MM: This is your first movie—why did you choose to start your moviemaking career with such an epic story? Oftentimes first-time moviemakers hear that to get their movie seen it should be short and concise. Yours is a winding road that leads the audience on a journey through the heavy emotional situations in the lives of the six or so main characters. What made you choose to go against the grain?
AW: I’m not interested in being the flavor of the week. Sometimes I wish I were; it would definitely be an easier path. But, these are the things that concern me, these matters of life and death. Why must we live? How should we live? The issues that we don’t always want to look at, yet are inevitable. These are the things that greatly matter to me. I also believe they matter to others as well, it just takes time to get that conversation going. One source of inspiration for me was the psychologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. It’s a fascinating look at American culture and our ever increasing inability to look at the inevitable.
I wanted to begin here so that people would catch a glimpse of what I was about. My hope is that there are those who will travel with me as I progress throughout my career, constantly attempting to get better at what it is I’m trying to communicate. Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and others of their ilk are the pillars of filmmaking for me. I want to spend my career trying to achieve and even eventually go beyond the spirit of what they were about. But, it’s important to note, that even though my subject matter may be perceived as bleak, there is always hope. I’m searching for the beauty in the struggle. I’m searching for the hope. But, how will we ever find that if we never take a patient gaze at what it is that’s ailing us?
MM: The Sensation of Sight features a cast of recognizable actors and actresses. How important was it for you to cast people that the audience knew? What did these professional actors bring to the script that you wrote?
AW: I try to only work with whomever is right for the role. Obviously, there is great pressure from the industry to have a “name” attached to a project. But, my aim is only what is right for the work. Fortunately, I was able to take this leap of [making] my first film with a very loving and talented cast. They all brought wonderful thoughts and ideas to their characters. They were quite free to discover who these characters were and it was my job to gently navigate. One of our main goals was to have as open communication as possible, and if that happened, then we would be free to discover. It was a great experience to make this film with them. Hopefully we all walked away from it better artists in some way.
MM: As it was your first movie, can you describe the first moments on set when the actors first began saying your words?
AW: It was joy, absolute joy. Flesh was now being put to words that had been locked inside my head and found their way to paper. These characters were people who had come to mean a great deal to me and here they were before my eyes. I hope I never lose the love that I currently have for this creative process—the moment when word becomes flesh.
MM: Distributing and releasing this film has taken on a nontraditional route. Can you explain how the movie is being released to theaters and on DVD?
AW: We basically spent a little over a year traveling the festival circuit, then did a small self-release in New Hampshire, where we shot the film. It was during that time that we fielded a few offers from some smaller distributors and decided to land with Monterey Media. They did a small rollout distribution in some art houses around the country, including a limited run in New York City. As a matter of fact, it is currently playing in Denver and Santa Fe and will be coming to Seattle starting September 10. Also, September 2, it was officially released on DVD. You can get it on Netflix or Amazon or many other [Websites]. I hope it’s a film that finds its way to those who it was made for.