A claustrophobic tale of family relationships in the wilds of Depression-era America, Redland is an astonishing debut, the result of a collaboration between American director Asiel Norton and Polish writer-producer Magdalena Zyzak. After a rapturous reception at the Raindance Film Festival, Eleanor McKeown met up with Norton, Zyzak and lead British actress Lucy Adden to discuss their experiences shooting such an intense piece of cinema.
Eleanor McKeown: The film has an incredibly accomplished feel to it but none of you had ever worked on a full-length feature before. How did the project come about and what inspired you to make the film?
Asiel Norton: I grew up being a film junkie and always wanted to make movies. My childhood was very similar to the film itself – I was born in a cabin up on a mountain. It was a very, very rustic upbringing with no television, but my parents were into movies and we would drive to a small university town about 45 minutes away to watch old, classic films. I used to make little movies when I was a teenager and also did a lot of acting so I felt like I had a natural ability to edit and an intuitive understanding of acting. What I really wanted to know was how to make a good visual. I decided to study at photography school in order to learn that, and afterwards I attended film school.
Magdalena Zyzak: My background was mainly in directing but I’m also a fiction writer and I’m currently working on my first novel. Some of the stories in the film came from my own background and experiences in Poland, but I think our idea was to create something more universal.
EM: But the film is also specifically American, being set in Redland during the Great Depression.
AN: The original inspiration for the film came from a single vision I had of a guy wearing a hat, with the rim of his hat shading his face, and shooting his rifle. His attire was Great Depression-era clothing. The idea for the whole film came to me as that image. I don’t know if I saw the film as American. Some people see it as an avant-garde Western and it was certainly influenced a lot by American Gothic literature, like Faulkner, but we were also influenced by world cinema. Some of my favourite directors are European, like Bergman and Tarkovsky. When you’re making a film, so many things influence you, it’s not always easy to define them. I think everything that you absorb in your life is there. The film had a lot to do with my own background and my family. For me, it was a combination of my own life, creative influences, and lots of philosophical and spiritual influences too.
EM: The film’s narrative takes its structure from the literary tradition of the ‘holy fool’. The child-like character of Mary-Ann, who is the daughter of the family, is pivotal in creating change and driving the action. Lucy, how did you prepare for such an important and intense role?
Lucy Adden: I didn’t know all the background to the holy fool tradition – I think if I had, it might have been harder to play! I was just thinking about her for myself. I thought of her as a child-like character. She obviously has this depth and wisdom to her but she’s not really aware of it. I tried to play her very simply. She doesn’t really know much about the world or anything going on outside of her own little sphere. When I read the first page of script, it just hit something in me. I don’t know if it was the way it was written or the part, but it just tapped into something. Magdalena, Asiel and I were obviously on the same wavelength.
MZ: It’s odd because when we were auditioning, Lucy arrived with this floral dress on and this long, long hair. We thought she was just perfect! We had originally been thinking of a different type of person to play the part, someone more earthy.
LA: And then I came in, like a little forest elf! (laughs)
AN: Yes, I had imagined someone more like an earth mother type but, when we found Lucy, we realised we wanted the character to be more of an otherworldly spirit. These things work out. With filmmaking, you always have to think about what will work better because things are changing all the time. A lot of the time, you’re hoping for and setting up the conditions for the ‘happy accident’.
EM: Did any other characters change through the casting process?
AN: The character of Charlie Mills [Mary-Ann’s lover and father of her aborted child] changed quite a bit too. We hired a different actor originally, who was more comedic. Because the film was very visual, we had extensive camera tests and kept using Toben Seymour, the second unit director, because he was always around. I’d be watching the shots and thinking, ‘Oh my god, Toben’s so fucking handsome!’ I ended up auditioning him and we switched actors!
MZ: During the shoot, Toben was always in character, always in costume. He would jump in front of the camera and improvise while he was shooting footage. Even when you’d talk to him on set, he’d always be talking to you as Charlie.
AN: Yes, even for ages after the shoot ended, he kept wearing the costume! We’d meet up with him in a bar and he’d be wearing the costume (laughs)! Actually, Toben and TK Borderick [who wrote the original music for the film] created a bluegrass country band based on the character… Toben would perform as Charlie Mills!
EM: The physicality of the film makes it at times extremely uncomfortable to watch. In particular, there is a very lengthy death scene, which is incredibly claustrophobic. Did you want to create a particular reaction in the audience?
AN: One of the main reasons for that scene was because I wanted to show that dying isn’t easy. Although I wasn’t thinking of this at the time, it’s like how Alfred Hitchcock dragged out the murder scene in Torn Curtain because he wanted to show that killing someone is hard. I did the same thing with this. While we were writing the script, my dad was dying of cancer and he died before we shot the film. It was a very brutal death and took forever. Most films take one quick shot for a character to die – I didn’t want to do that. Some people said the death scene was too long but I would never, never cut it. I wanted to make it longer. I think even if my hero Stanley Kubrick had come back from the grave and told me to cut it, I still wouldn’t have done it!
EM: Towards the end of the film, an incestuous relationship develops in the family. The handling of this storyline is unusual in so far that the sex appears to be consensual. It caused quite a strong reaction at the Raindance Q&A session. What were your intentions with this?
AN: Well, when you make a film, you want to hit people – you want to hit them intellectually, you want to hit them viscerally and, at the highest point, you want to him them spiritually. Basically, you want to hit them on every level but hitting them viscerally is very important. We weren’t aiming to shock but there’s a natural tendency to create conflict in order to create something dramatic. I think that storyline came not from me, but from the story itself.
MZ: We never planned to write about incest, it just organically happened.
LA: To me, it felt like a natural part of the family’s fight for survival.
AN: Yes, life was running out within the family so it had to find a way. In that sense it’s not something shocking, it’s just how life is. The film is about life as a powerful force. This particular bit of the story was the final stage of that.
EM: There has been a lot of critical praise for the look and feel of the film, which is extremely unique. How did you go about creating this effect?
AN: The way we shot was very free. We’d think, ‘oh that’s a great tree! Let’s improvise a scene around it’. People don’t really tend to shoot movies like that! Everyone working on this film loved movies and because we kept the enthusiasm going, it became this really creative process. As a director, I’m very demanding and I love all aspects of filmmaking. I’m hands on with everything. It can drive people crazy! When we worked on the sound, I would sit in with the sound guy, David Bartlett, and pick the creak of a door opening, and that’s not normal at all. He’d worked with all these big directors, like Tarantino, but he’d never experienced that before! David said if he’d chosen a door sound and just played it to me, I would probably have accepted it, but I told him, ‘That’s why I’m here – I want to choose that door sound!’
Interview by Eleanor McKeown
Read Eleanor McKeown’s article on Redland in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with John Hillcoat about his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!