Montana-raised twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith have emerged as the Big Sky Country’s most ambitious indie filmmakers by writing and directing a trio of smart, heartfelt films that focus on the fractured relationships of fathers and sons.
In 2002, The Slaughter Rule made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and quickly established the siblings as filmmakers who know how to rise above their modest budgets to deliver movies with big production values and even bigger ideas. Walking Out, their third and latest feature, doubles down on those aspirations with a harrowing tale of wilderness survival.
Gorgeously shot in Paradise Valley by director of photography Todd McMullen (Friday Night Lights, The Leftovers) and blessed with an exquisite score by Ernst Reijseger, Walking Out stars Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as an estranged father and son who set out to hunt moose and end up struggling—physically and emotionally—to survive the elements after a bear attack. It’s a quiet, less-is-more drama that hits home with unexpected urgency and intensity.
We caught up with Alex, Andrew, and Josh Wiggins at Sundance this past January.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’m curious—as brothers, how do you settle on a project together? What is that negotiation like?
Andrew Smith: We have a bunch of projects we want to make, and we’ve written scripts that haven’t gotten made that we’re still hoping to make, but I think the simplest answer is that the films kind of choose us. There are certain projects that just magnetize our ions towards them and Walking Out was one. We were originally hired by Rodrigo García to write it for him to direct. And writing for someone else is freeing because you can say, “Let him worry about that down the road.” It allowed us to make it a bigger story. But when he stepped away, we had to go back and write another draft, knowing the [exact] budget we’d be working with.
Alex Smith: Indie films are hard to pull off. Sometimes you get broken or give up or get defeated and it’s nice to have a partner that’s like, “Yeah, I’ll run with it for a little while.” You can let your mind relax while they chew on it.
Andrew: We actually read the story [“Walking Out” by David Quammen] when we were in high school. And it haunted us, really resonated for us. And so, taking it to the screen was a long, deep—marrow-deep—process of finally exorcising this ghost.
Alex: It’s something that a lot of people can connect to, in the sense of mending injured bonds and being with someone that you don’t relate with. I think that’s pretty prominent in our social climate right now. And the arc of the character is really compelling. He changes…. With each scene there’s a different character that builds, and keeps building, until the very end.
MM: What is your process for writing? Do you pass the script back and forth? At what junctures do you actually get together to work on it, versus the “I’ll work on this part, you work on that part” route?
Andrew: We’ve developed our process over time. At the beginning, we work hard to break things down structurally, generally, together in the same room, even though we don’t live in the same state. Sometimes it’s a lot of emails. Once it’s broken [down], one of us will write 10 pages, or a couple scenes, and then pass it on to the other, and he’ll re-write, then write ahead. So, this leap frog keeps on going until we’ve each taken a shot at pretty much every scene. Then, we get back together again and really refine things, make every word count.
Alex: I have a fancy word for it: I call it the palimpsest effect, where you’re just layering over each other. Things get distilled that way. I think that we used to fight more over the words, but now it’s about script notes. It’s gotten smoother over time. We know how to handle the process.
MM: Most of this film takes place in the wild, on a snowy mountain no less. If you were to give advice to a first-time filmmaker about the challenges of shooting under those conditions, what would you say?
Andrew: Having done this more than once, I would encourage them to do a lot of location scouting, really do your homework, because it’s all about access and you don’t want it all to look the same. You have to figure out different ways of attacking the wild. But also, build in a second camera for the entire shoot—especially in the digital age—so you have the opportunity to catch those geese when they fly overhead and you’re shooting a scene in a closeup. If that second camera is available, you can capture that stuff. There are a lot of stolen shots in this film because we had that built into our approach.
MM: So you were ready for those opportunities.
Andrew: Yeah, we insisted on two cameras for the majority of the shoot. Based on the experiences we had before [with Winter In the Blood] and the short amount of daylight available, we knew there was no way we could give those guys [Wiggins and Bomer] adequate time or takes with a single camera. So, we were shooting multi-coverage, sometimes with two cameras. Or sometimes we would stack a performance. But also, it gave us the freedom to break away and sometimes do second unit while we were rolling first unit.
Alex: The main thing to remember about shooting in places that have few comforts is to have a really good crew. You’ve got to have non-complaining people who are excited to be there, and are going to put in 12 hours without throwing a fit. Including your talent. People take their cues from the actors and from the directors.
Andrew: Also, feed your crew well.
Josh Wiggins (JW): From an actor’s perspective, its definitely [helpful] to take advantage of your environment. If you’re miserable, just store it, then unleash it when the camera starts rolling. It helps a lot to not be in a studio that’s nice and warm when you’re in three layers and need to act like you’re miserable.
MM: Where there any unexpected challenges? And how did you deal with them?
Andrew: Well, we had a blizzard hit us that was unscheduled, so we had to roll with that. The most beautiful shots of the film actually came from that day. We basically just said, “Well, we need snow for this day,” and the actors were game to change it up.
Alex: The cast was so good. They were off-book on the entire script as far as I could tell. They could jump ahead of schedule if we needed them to.
MM: Which of you is the guy who rolls with it when things start to fall apart? Do you modify each other’s behavior?
Andrew: Which of us is more of the calm in the storm? You know, were both pretty non-effusive, outwardly calm people. I’m more volatile in general, but I don’t know about under pressure situations.
JW: From what I saw, everything ran smoothly and whenever there was a crisis, so to speak, we had people on the crew who were used to that environment and were very quick to fix anything you needed.
Alex: Part of your job as the director is to be in both the micro and the macro at the same time. So you have to be looking at the little picture—the now—while keeping in the back of your mind, the big picture. We know it’s sort of a war against the circumstances, and it’s also a sum of your compromises. If you panic, it feeds the whole set an energy. So you have to be a bit zen and roll with it, embrace the accidents . We knew we were going to get something great, and some of the best shots in the movie are from those accidents.
JW: It’s all about the story. There were parallels between shooting the movie and the actual story itself. You’re trying to reach this goal and there’s something blocking your way and you have to adapt, and sometimes, a better product can come out of that.
MM: So the act of filmmaking became a metaphor for your film.
Andrew: Right, I think that every time we’ve made a film, it does that. It seems like the way to keep going is to give yourself some outs. We had other people freaking out, so its good that we didn’t. We had producers, ADs freaking out—their job is to freak out. And your job is to say, “OK, I’m busy here.”
Alex: Luckily, it’s all about what you capture in that box. Everything else is noise. Just stay focused and you’ll get what you need.
MM: What’s your casting process?
Andrew: Because we had so few cast members, or characters, it wasn’t like we did auditions or had a casting call or anything like that. Josh was recommended to us and Alex had already seen his work in Hellion, so our casting process was mercifully brief.
JW: It was a Skype call and that was about it. They just talked about their vision and that was about it.
MM: The reason I ask is because chemistry can’t be manufactured. It either happens or it doesn’t, and I wonder how much of that is on your mind, because the connection between father and son in this movie is everything.
JW: Matt grew up about 10 minutes away from where I live now, which is a very small town outside Houston. So we had that to immediately bond over. We didn’t actually meet each other until the first day of shooting, which helped to retain the distance the characters feel with each other. But we clicked pretty fast.
Andrew: The movie basically rests on Josh’s—David’s—shoulders. You make the wrong choice and your movie is done, you know, doesn’t play. So it was a roll of the dice in a way, because we didn’t audition him. But his take on the material was spot on. We had seen Hellion and knew he could just hold your heart in his hand. Matt came a little later and, again, it was just a conversation. He really read between the lines of the script and understood his character in a way that no one else had talked about it.
MM: The script for Walking Out is very terse, only 82 pages. And you take a very stark approach to the dialogue, which is usually used to connect the narrative dots. So you have a lot less to work with on set. And there’s a lot of marching through the snow. While you’re in the thick of shooting, how do you establish the pace of your story?
Alex: The shooting script had more words than we actually shot, and the movie has a lot less words than we actually shot. There’s a lot more dialogue in our dailies, particularly for Matt’s character. Matt was kind of gabby.
Andrew: It’s funny because the film found its pace through a long edit process. Our first assembly was quite long. I would say a lot of the challenge is that if you’re hiking, you don’t really chat chat chat. You’re going up a hill. So there’s a bareness because of the endeavor that they’re under. We stripped it down and tried to make less is more. Everything that Cal [Matt Bomer’s character] teaches David in the first half of the film flips. David turns around and then uses it to get his father down the mountain. We got rid of everything that wasn’t essential to that.
Alex: Some of the strongest lines are the ones you take out. And that’s even more true when you have these incredible actors. Because they do so much with their eyes or a gesture, that the line becomes completely redundant.
Andrew: I think one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie was the scene where David says one word. “Click.” He says it several different times, and it [captures] what is happening inside of him, as opposed to [conveying that] with words.
MM: Talk to me about your editing process and working with your editor. How does that conversation evolve?
Andrew: It was a complicated edit because we did it in multiple places and all three of us weren’t always together. I live in San Francisco and Alex lives in New York, so we did some editing where I was on Skype, watching the cut and in real-time trying to respond as if I was in the room. There were several weeks of that. We would experiment. It largely worked, but it also caused a few issues. Sometimes it felt like I was meddling with all of the daily work those guys were doing. Michael Taylor was our editor and he’s based in New York. In the initial concept, we were going to cut the film in New York. And Michael is amazing. Once he’s in, he’s like a dog on the bone—he was 100 percent committed to us. He was a script supervisor for a long time before he was an editor and he’s edited like 40 features. He understands how a film works, but comes at it from image. He never looked at the script, he would just cut by instinct and then we’d say “Well, he needs to say this line.” He has an impressionist way of cutting, especially his first few passes, and it really frees you up from all your thinking because he’s working purely with what we captured.
JW: When you have a good editor they say they can make or break a movie or a performance. They can either make you look really good or really bad. Luckily, Michael is so talented.
Andrew: Also, Michael was on set cutting for the second half, because we broke the film [shoot] into two halves. It was great to have him there because he was able to catch things that we missed and say, “We need this shot,” or, “There’s a key shot of Josh that we missed.” Thank God for Michael because he was able to say, “We need this shot so I can cut it this way.”
Alex: That’s the other key advice I’d give: have your editor on set.
MM: Let’s finish out with a slightly different kind of question: It’s 25 years from now, and you’ve had the careers you’ve wanted and you’re looking back on this project. What’s the thing that still sticks with you about it?
Andrew: Remember what snow used to feel like? [Laughs]
MM: I’m laughing with sadness here.
Andrew: This film taught me to trust the process and get out of the way. We’ve learned to be a little bit simpler with our film style and the complexity of storytelling. This story forced us to become more spare, and I think that suits our films really well. I would try to lean on this film in the future: “Alex, remember what happened when our films got simpler and more bare?”
Alex: We had a motto with this movie which was an “intimate epic.” That it’s two people in the woods, but it’s a giant adventure. Hopefully, in 25 years, that still resonates.
JW: It’s a story about finding bonds between different circumstances, people who have different lines of thought. I’ve said it before, but its really applicable to our society right now. I think that’s a kind of timeless message, because it seems that there’s always going to be two sides that are pitted against each other. But if you take the time to really experience something with someone, you can cross those bridges with that person.
Alex: Just to dovetail with what Josh said. These two characters are, at first, really alien to each other. But by the end, they’re as close to each other as two people can be. And I think if we could just put people from the city and people from the country together, and have a bear attack them, this country would solve all of its problems. MM
Walking Out opened in theaters October 6, 2017, courtesy of IFC Films. All photos by Stanislav Honzik, courtesy of IFC Films.