Blending excruciating feelings of alienation with the menacing threat of what piercing intrigue can turn into, writer/director Matt Sobel’s “Take Me to the River” is an assertive, competently executed and brilliantly calibrated debut feature.
The film, which premiered in the NEXT category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is deceptively economical in scope, but carries a deeply affecting emotional punch to the gut. Every instance that superficially appears harmless conveys underlying messages about what the characters’ internal conflicts are. It’s tension wrapped in sunshine waiting to blow up. Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay teen who shows up at a family reunion sporting an outfit that in LA or New York might be considered trendy, but in these parts is a scarlet letter. From that initial interaction, his every action and interaction is judged from a perspective laced with suspicion. An incident involving his younger cousin Molly puts Ryder even in a more compromising position. Trying to explain the circumstances of the occurrence and his innocence opens a heavy box of resentment and secrecy that the family is aware of, but decides to overlook.
MovieMaker sat down with Sobel to discuss the audacious first feature and its fascinating sensorial effect.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Take Me to the River explores troubling subjects in a sensorial manner that truly keeps you on the edge of your seat without cheap thrills. Where did the premise come from?
Matt Sobel (MS): The idea for the story came from wanting to make a film about a visceral sensation before a plot. I had a nightmare where I was falsely accused of something at a family reunion. I woke with this feeling of extreme anxiety. My favorite movies are ones that really leave some sort of feeling in my body rather than a plot in my head. I thought that’d be kind of an interesting starting point to write a story about a feeling; I hadn’t really seen that done before. I thought about it in that way, so the plot actually came out of that feeling.
MM: It’s not a very open-ended film in terms of the conclusions each viewer can reach. There is no big speech revealing every detail or putting the pieces together for us. Was this tonally an important aspect of the story for you?
MS: In keeping with the truth of my actual family, it’s very difficult for Midwesterners, especially of Germanic or of northern European descent, to express their feelings because they are traditionally more reserved about their emotions. I see this tendency in myself as well. There is a bit of a conspiracy of silence that happens whenever there are feelings of resentment within a family. People don’t talk about it; they talk about anything but that. I also think it’s dramatically interesting to put people in a room when there is clearly an elephant in the room as a problem, but the last thing they want to do is talk about it. It lends itself to intrigue.
Robin Weigert and Logan Miller in Take Me to the River
MM: Can you talk about your specific visual choices, particularly the color scheme? Ryder, the main character, wears colors that no one else in these town wears and the outdoor environment is almost idyllic in the midst of so much quiet drama.
MS: There is this idea of the uncanny, which I though just meant strange until I did a little bit of research. But more specifically, it actually means that something is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, or that it’s welcoming and off-putting at the same time. The cognitive dissonance of these two effects simultaneously creates a very strong visceral sensation, which is what I’m interested in. With a story that’s so insidious, the idea was to actually pictorialize it, almost like a child’s coloring book. That’s how I went into it with my cinematographer. I would say, “I want to shoot the barn dead on. Totally flat. Bright colors,” because your first inclination might be to shoot in a very horror-film way, so we though that by doing the exact opposite we could make it more interesting and potentially more disturbing.
MM: More technically, what sort of conversation did you have with your DP, Thomas Scott Stanton, to achieve the precise aesthetic you envisioned for the film?
MS: I told him right off the bat that I didn’t want to use back light and shallow depth of field to make things pretty. I thought that things should be pretty based on their composition and their colors, in keeping with the child’s coloring book idea. As far as the technical aspect, he is a tech wiz and I am not. I’m more familiar with film cameras than with digital, but there are things that I like and compositions that I thought appropriate for this film: for example, center-frame subjects that are almost a bit dopey or clumsy. They are very simplistic compositions, but I thought it was an interesting air for how complicated and layered the motivation of the people in the story could be.
MM: Was there a long location-scouting process to find the timeless places where the story takes place?
MS: That is the farm that my family grew up on. Everything is real—all these places I really went to when I was a kid. The horses are my cousins’ horses; even the costumes that the people are wearing are my family’s clothes.
MM: That’s incredible. Did this closeness and personal connection to the setting make the moviemaking process easier or more challenging for you and your team?
MS: It made it both. The advantage was that being so familiar with the place, I had a real sense of smell for what the atmosphere needed to be in the film to make you feel like were there. I knew the sounds of the insects that I wanted. I knew the way that the colors were supposed to look there and how vivid they were. But it was also very challenging because this is not a film set and we were way out in the middle of nowhere. There was zero infrastructure for shooting a film. Basically, my mother, father and I were the locations department. The chain of command was a little bit screwy. If there was a problem with the house that we were in, which my family was living in while we were shooting, they would come directly to me instead of going to a locations manager. It was a challenge because there was a lot to take in.
MM: You took part in screenwriting workshops as part of the writing process. What particular elements of the screenplay were the most complex or the ones that required more attention and rewrites from you?
MS: I actually wrote the first draft of it pretty quickly in about month and never went back and changed the structure. The structure is actually very simple, but that was very intuitive. The things that I did go back to were shaping the backstories of the characters: to flesh out the relationship between Cindy and Keith, the brother and sisters, and to figure out how to allude to things in order to make people jump to conclusions without definitively saying one thing. That process continued into the editing room. I’d say that about only 75 percent of the dialogue that was shot is still in the film. We cut about 25 percent out because we would first cut an entire scene out and then add back in line by line to see what was the minimum amount of lines needed to convey the emotional beats. That’s because every line that a character says in the film is a line that we can’t come to on our own as a viewer. That was the maxim that we worked with.
MM: Tell me about working with your cast, specifically Logan Miller and Ursula Parker. Did working with a young actress like Parker in a film with such a delicate subject affect your directorial process?
MS: Logan, who plays Ryder, was completely on the same page with me. I had been talking to him for almost a year before we started shooting. We looked at many people, but I felt like his intuitions were naturally in the right world. I felt like I wouldn’t have to micromanage him, which was important because he is in every scene. If I had to micromanage him, especially in the scenes where multiple characters needed to give great performances within one shot, it would have been a disaster. He needed to be able to be set loose. Sometimes I didn’t have to actually direct him. Working with Ursula, who plays Molly, was a much more hands-on process. She is an actress who’s been in a number of things, most notably in Louie, where she plays Louie CK’s daughter, but I think that working with a child actor is completely different than working with a trained adult actor, because children are at their best when they are not acting at all . Every scene had to be a game of some type. Logan really helped me because he was her scene partner in most of these scenes and he was able to make any of these situations into a little bit of a game. I would tell her a secret before a scene—“Try not to let Ryder know your secret in this scene”—and then I’d tell him, “Try to figure out her secret.” They were actively doing something new in the scene each time, not just reading the lines.
MM: Tension is a defining quality of the film. How did you shape the screenplay and performances to achieve this unnerving atmosphere throughout?
MS: I think that, maybe unlike in most thrillers—if you could call this a thriller, the tension is not necessarily created by the setup, but rather by what is actually happening in the scene. When I was working with Josh Hamilton, who plays Keith, my most common direction was, “Show me less. Be less creepy. Don’t let Ryder known what you are thinking.” The less you could tell what he was doing actually turned out to be creepier.
MM: Nothing bad actually happens; it’s the possibility of something bad happening that becomes more frightening. It’s an involving experience that plays with expectations and our perception of the truth.
MS: Yes. Of course, I’ve lost the ability to see the film for the first time, but I imagine that if you don’t know where the story is going you might really think the worst. In a way I’m interested in that as well because it implicates the audience. The audience is just as culpable as anyone else at that family reunion who didn’t see what happened in the barn but assumed the worst. As audience, when we don’t know what’s going to happen, we also assume the worst. That’s something that I’m interested in, and points back to your earlier question about why I left multiple open narratives. It’s because this demands audience participation in the creation of the story. I’ve had experiences in films where I feel like I’m a part of the story and that the conclusions I’m jumping to and the fear that I feel are like characters in the story. I think that’s a very enjoyable moviegoing experience, although it might be stressful at times. The result is a film that you think about more.
MM: How difficult was it to get financing for an intimate film like this? What was the process of getting it funded like?
MS: Very difficult. We had many financing strategies that ended up not working. Several producers passed through the project at different points with different ideas about how to make the film at a higher budget. In the end I decided that the only way it could really happen was on a smaller scale on my family’s farm in Nebraska. I ended up funding it largely myself and finding the financing through private equity investors.
MM: Would you say the circumstances were better because you had more freedom?
MS: This is my first film, so I haven’t had the experience of having a financier looking over my shoulder. I can only imagine that it was easier this way. It also came with a lot of difficulties, because we didn’t have a producer who was overseeing everything—that responsibility fell on my shoulders too. I felt like I had freedom, but I was also overwhelmed.
MM: For your next project, would you like to do something bigger in terms of scope? What are you currently working on?
MS: I want to do something bigger—not meaning a bigger budget, but meaning more ambitious in story. I’m working on science-fiction film, which is unusual for me. I don’t usually like science-fiction films, but I set that as a challenge to myself—to write a film of a genre that I don’t usually think about. It’s set in China, and is about orphan sisters who are recruited by the Chinese Sports Camps to be trained as high divers for their Olympic team. It’s science fiction because the story takes place on the eve of the evolution of the next species after humankind. If anyone on earth is going to evolve into a more advanced species, it might a team of Chinese high divers. It started out as a funny idea, but then we started taking it seriously. MM
Take Me to the River premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. Images via Thomas Scott Stanton.