Austin Film Fest preview: Indie thriller The Living blurs line of good and evil
If you’re looking for some thrills this weekend, look no further than the 2014 Austin Film Festival. Among the narrative features screening is The Living, an original, thought-provoking thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Written and directed by New York-based filmmaker Jack Bryan, The Living opens the morning after a night of drinking that ended in violence. Teddy (Fran Kranz) awakens to discover he has severely beaten his wife, Molly (Jocelin Donahue). As the couple attempts to come to terms with what happened, Molly’s brother Gordon (Kenny Wormald) — provoked by feelings of shame — begins his own journey of retribution.
The Living uses the issue of domestic violence to explore themes around family, loyalty, love and consequence, blurring the line between good and evil. It is the first feature produced by the New York-based independent film production company, Shooting Films, comprised of Bryan and his producing partners Laura Dubois and John Snyder.
CultureMap spoke with the Shooting Films trio about the film, storytelling, snagging the actors of your choice and how to make a quality film on a budget.
CultureMap: Talk a little about the production process and working with a team like the one you've created through Shooting Films.
Jack Bryan: You have to have your core group that you can sort of work with, otherwise its very hard to get things rolling. Outside of Laura and John there’s [Aleksander Kosutic] my director of photography who I use for everything, and the line producer I’ve worked with for years, so we start with that as basis.
Laura DuBois: Being an indie producer you have to be a one-stop-shop. You have to do your own branding, your own marketing, your own financing. Then you make your film — which is kind of like your product in the business since — and then sell it, get it out there to the public and distribute it. My passion for this came from wanting to create really incredibly moving stories that engage people, and I think that the three of us share that goal, and that’s why we’re sort of bonded in that way.
John Snyder: As Laura mentioned, it's kind of about how you are at reacting to things. From a producer standpoint once we’re on set and filming its just about fixing everything that’s going wrong, and putting out fires. We’re just really fortunate that we’re such a great team. We work well together, complement one another’s skills, and work in a very effective and efficient way.
LB: I totally agree and I actually think that we have an incredible production story in terms of making the movie - I wrote this three page journal and read it out loud the other day and it was just insane the things we were doing. When you work with such a low budget, stuff is going to go wrong. Every day was critical to keep production going and Jack and our (director of photography) also did a great job of always keeping the high production value in mind in all of their creative decisions, which is why our film looks so great.
CM: What were some of the specific issues you all faced during the making of The Living?
LD: We had this generator truck, and it had two gas tanks: one for the truck and one for the generator. I think we just filled up the wrong tank one day and didn't realize it, because we ended up running out of gas on the highway. We had a shoot that day, so we had a tow truck come and tow the generator to right outside of the church where we were filming, and we just pulled cables and hooked the generators up.
JS: That was probably one of three or four trucks that broke down when shooting. I used my AAA card to tow all of them.
LB: So we were running off of our broken generator truck but we were still shooting. It's just about doing whatever you can to make the production run no matter what.
Jack Bryan: It's really a combination of planning and also being able to think on your feet and adjust. For example, the film originally took place in Montana and Texas. It wasn’t until I saw a friend's film that was shot in Pennsylvania and thought, "Oh I [can] get the look I was going for here, I can make this work."Also with the actors, we made a very specific point of saying this actor has been in these kind of films, so that’s probably what they're being offered. But if we offer them something a little out of their range, something very different from anything they’ve ever played before, then we have a much better chance of securing that actor. That’s how Kenny worked out, and Jocelin and Fran.
CM: Speaking of the cast, the narrative approaches the difficult subject of domestic violence in a unique way in terms of how the characters respond. What made you want to explore the issue of domestic violence in this way?
JB: I have a very visceral repulsion to [domestic violence], so I think because of that it really interested me. For me, I think like the worse thing I could think of would be to wake up one morning and realize I had beaten up my girlfriend. I kind of wanted to use that as a jumping off point, but like anything it became something different; it became much more about [Molly's] story and her decision. I felt like every time I saw a movie about domestic violence it created a very clear moral picture, and I really wanted to do away with that as much as possible ... I didn’t want anyone to disrespect her choice.
CM: It requires viewers to have an open mind about these characters, especially Teddy. How did that affect the casting of his character?
JB: [With Teddy] if you get a guy who doesn’t play nice or feel like a nice guy then that character is just dead to the audience, because then he’s like this evil, horrifying thing. So I wanted a guy who feels kind of like a nice, pleasant dude. Where you go, "I could see myself hanging out with that guy." Fran [Kranz] brought that to the character.
CM: It definitely creates some moral ambiguity.
JB: I think it's almost jarring for people. As viewers we're so used to characters making decisions we approve of. I also think it's completely valid to disapprove of [Molly's] decision, but I would say it's a decision that in the real world is happening as often as not. The benefit of making an indie film is that you don’t have to conform to these very clear notions. You want to be interesting and you want to have the story that moves, but there's nobody sitting over your shoulder saying you can't do that, in terms of the story. I really wanted to create a tight thriller with an interesting story that hadn't been done before.
The Living screens at the Austin Film Festival on Saturday, October 25 at 8:30 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater. It screens again the following week on Thursday, October 30 at 9:30 pm at the Imax Theater. A Q&A will follow each screening; Bryan, DuBois and Snyder will all be in attendance.