Thu 2.5.2015

Building a Story from an Emotional Dilemma—How Take Me to the River Got Made

Last week at Sundance I caught up with first-time filmmaker Matt Sobel to discuss his fascinating debut feature Take Me to the River, which stars Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton, Richard Schiff and newcomers Logan Miller and Ursula Parker.

Called “a tantalizing Southern gothic” by Indiewire, the film tells the story of Ryder, an artsy teenager who travels from California with his parents, Don and Cindy, for a family reunion in Nebraska. Upon their arrival, Ryder’s impish nine-year-old cousin, Molly, leads him to a barn to show him a bird’s nest. What happens behind barn doors makes Ryder the sudden target of suspicion and unearths a long-buried family secret.

What was your process getting your film off of the ground as a first-time filmmaker, in terms of piecing together financing, taking the project through labs and assembling your team?
I wish that I could tell you that I had a good plan and it worked, but it didn’t. It actually all fell apart two months before we started shooting. We had only one cast member, Robin Weigert, two months before shooting and no money and no crew. At which point, I called all of my friends from Binger Filmlab, which I went to in Amsterdam to develop the story, and just put out a cry for help to hook me up with people who were trustworthy and knew what they were doing. Every person I worked with on the crew came from a connection at Binger Filmlab. Literally every person. If I hadn’t been able to draw on those resources, because I didn’t go to film school so I didn’t know anybody, then the film definitely wouldn’t have happened.

Why did you choose to set the film in Nebraska and shoot in Nebraska?
My family is from Nebraska. The house in the film is my family’s home and it’s their horses and Josh [Hamilton] is actually wearing my uncle’s shirt. But, to be clear, the drama of the story is fictional, just the setting and the atmosphere [are based on their home].

Is the culture clash of going from an urban area back to Nebraska something you experienced first-hand and something that you drew from?
Yeah. I mean, there is a culture clash, but the most notable thing about it is the conspiracy of silence that happens when you step into that environment. There are certain topics that everyone must agree to not speak about. Otherwise, the cordiality of the family reunion would be totally devastated, as in the film. So, it’s an interesting kind of truce that we make when we arrive. My dad is Jewish and he really shrugs off inappropriate Jewish jokes when he’s there that he wouldn’t if we were here. And because I’ve been doing it my whole life when I go there, I don’t know what to say about it other than I learned that process just from visiting so many times before I even really realized that I was censoring myself.

Did you always plan to include gothic and surreal elements in your story?
I never wanted to use the word surreal, because you think of Dali and melting clocks and stuff. I like the word uncanny, which I thought until I actually looked it up means strange, but it actually means familiar yet strange at the same time. So, I would describe it to the people that we were working with that it’s as if you walked into your living room, a space that you know intimately, but all of the furniture’s been slightly rearranged. And that’s the feeling that I wanted the film to lean into as we went forward. So I feel like the beginning half is much more grounded in realism, and very slowly and hopefully subtly, we kind of take away the pieces to arrive at this uncanny, slightly surreal place.

Was that something that was always part of your plan?
Oh, absolutely. I wanted to end up there but I wanted to lean into it so slowly that there was no moment where you suddenly felt like, “oh, we are in a different movie.” But that the process creeps up on you and suddenly you realize that you are in a place that you don’t recognize at all.

The characters appear to have complex backstories that extend far beyond what you see on the screen in a way that really serves the story. Is that something that you encouraged the cast to bring to the table?
I think that the story lends itself to jumping to certain conclusions about the backstories that are not implicitly stated. That’s something that in the writing I very much wanted to uphold. I actually love the experience of reading often more than watching films because it asks that we co-create the story right along with the author, and I wanted to find any opportunity that I could to bring that collaboration into film. We did that by leaving negative space in the narrative and these backstories are great examples of that. In terms of the discussion with the actors, we all had our own ideas about what happened and we agreed collectively on some basic facts. But then I would also have private conversations with Robin and Josh about what they believe really happened and what was the cause of the problem between them when they were children, because I think it’s also kind of interesting that 35 years later they believe different things. And it’s very true to life in that way.

What films did you draw inspiration from for this project, especially in regards to tone?
I love Badlands. I love Dogtooth. I love Picnic at Hanging Rock. And basically everything that Michael Haneke ever made. Specifically for the way the story is structured and functions, The White Ribbon, I would say is the one I was most interested in, in that it kind of asks the audience to look at themselves after the film is over and ask how much they inserted their own predilections into the story. Because I feel that when you can make an audience engage in that way, they’ll remember it.

What was your biggest challenge during production?
The biggest challenge was the fact that I was so familiar with the place. It was literally my family’s home and a working farm, so it was a great asset but also a huge challenge because if ever there was a problem on set, my family members, who were literally living in the home while we were shooting, would come to me. So I was sort of acting as producer/director/writer but also locations manager. The information overload was the challenge.

Tell me about your casting process
Robin was on the project almost six months before we shot. But that’s it. Everybody else we did not lock in until… Logan [Miller] was probably the next, but Josh, for instance, we didn’t lock him in until one week before we started shooting and three weeks before he had to be on set. That was very stressful for me. Because I knew how important the casting decisions would be. And I was honestly freaking out about it. But our casting directors Sig De Miguel and Steve Vincent really worked their asses off those last couple of weeks to make sure everybody was out there.

How has your festival experience been so far?
A total whirlwind. I have been coming to Sundance since I was 13 to see films. The first film I ever saw here was the premiere of Memento at the Library Theatre and the first thing I said when I went up to introduce the film was that 14 years after that to come full-circle and be here is literally a dream come true.

What’s your advice for first-time filmmakers?
All of us have ideas that are interesting. I understand a certain type of writer’s block, but I don’t quite understand when someone says, “I don’t know what to write about,” because we spend our days thinking about something. Those are the things that we are interested in. And I think that the advice about how to turn that into a story is to really peel back the layers of that thing that you’re interested in and find the core emotional dilemma at the center of it and build the story out from there. Too often we’re writing a story and think about the artifice of something when actually the emotional core of it is what we’re interested in. So, in this scenario, I wasn’t actually interested in a family reunion as much as I was interested in a feeling of discomfort. So, all of the decisions I made when writing it were not about a plot, were not even necessarily about characters, but it was about how to create and sustain that feeling of being uncomfortable. And it was just because I decided at the beginning–I want to make a film about this feeling.

Lee Jameson / Film Education Manager