Cinema City 2008.
In the cold, winter light of a rural Mississippi Delta township, a man’s suicide radically transforms three characters’ lives and throws off-balance what has long been a static arrangement among them. Marlee is a single mother struggling to scratch a living for herself and James, her 12-year-old son, who has begun to stumble under drug and violence pressures. So when the opportunity to seek safe harbor at a new home arises, she grabs it, though the property is shared by Lawrence, a man with whom Marlee has feuded bitterly since James’s birth. With circumstances thrusting them into proximity, a subtle interdependence and common purpose emerge for Marlee and Lawrence as they navigate grief, test new waters, and tentatively move forward.
Golden Berlin Bear, 2008 Berlin International Film Festival
Grand Jury Prize, 2008 Sundance Film Festival
Cinematography Award, Directing Award, 2008 Sundance Film Festival
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
I saw Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" at the New Loft, an arthouse in Tucson, when I was 19 or 20. As I watched in awe the existential poetry of that work I was overwhelmed by an compulsion to make films. I knew that what I was experiencing was an important emotional intuition, not to be ignored, but I had no idea at the time how to give it form. So I studied architecture. It took me many years to find my way back to that place.
Have you made other films? How did you learn about filmmaking?
When I graduated I put my education to use designing architecture for studio films, and eventually art directing. This interested me for awhile but I grew frustrated with the absence of artistic substance in the studio system. As this frustration intensified, so did my own writing activity. In 2001 I shot several scenes from a stillborn feature script and assembled them in a vaguely cohesive manner to attract the interest of investors who might finance the project's completion. What I learned in the process was that I had no desire to complete the film. I threw away the script but walked away with a fairly sound technical education and a strong desire to start fresh.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
The Mississippi Delta in winter is a cold and austere flatscape - almost lunar. Vast cotton acreages are fallow and devoid of human activity. The flatness is interrupted only by occasional hardwood outcroppings, which are grey and leafless. The skies are steel and saturated with rain. There is an energetic resonance in the Delta that moves me, especially in the winter. It is something that I cannot easily articulate but has to do with a sense of sorrow, and the dignity of endurance in the face of sorrow. It's quite palpable. I have twice attempted to create a narrative with the primary objective of conveying some essence of this fundamentally tonal phenomenon. I aborted the first attempt because I was clearly missing the mark. "Ballast" is the second attempt. I'm hopeful that some of this tone has been conveyed with this iteration.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
Since the project relies heavily on authenticity of place there was never any question that Delta residents would portray the characters. I appealed to several Baptist churches for assistance, discussing the project first with the church pastors, then the congregations. I cast several people this way. Notably, Mike Smith, who plays Lawrence, is the son of Reverend Smith of the New Zion Baptist Church in Yazoo City. I met Jim Myron Ross, who plays the boy, James, at the Canton Boys & Girls Club. Tarra Riggs, who plays Marlee, and Johnny McPhail, who plays John, responded to open casting calls.
I wrote a script but have always been frustrated with the inherent artifice of scripts. I realized early on that I wouldn't show it to those I would ultimately ask to be the characters. Instead, we embarked upon several months of rehearsal. We began with psychotherapy-like sessions that focused on relationship dynamics. When it seemed like we were accessing something truthful with this approach we began to discuss scenario. At all turns, the individuals cast in each role contributed their own expression and idiom to the process.
In production, the cast were encouraged to respond with spontaneity to anything that struck them as emotionally relevant within the general parameters of a scene, which by virtue of the rehearsal process had become second nature. When something interesting was happening in the sky a mile away we jumped into a car and initiated a scene in the middle of it. If we were driving to a new location and came upon a sea of geese in a field, we climbed out and improvised a scenario amongst them. I was compulsively aware of climatic conditions - rain, cloud cover, wind, sun phenomena - and manipulated narrative to maximize them. We shot handheld with available light in existing locations and were able to move very quickly.
Lol Crawley, director of photography, was my essential collaborator. He was vitally entwined with every creative aspect of production, photographic and otherwise. His inexhaustible passion and insight transformed the material.
One and a half years of editing to make sense of what was recorded.
What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
What are some of your recent favorite films? Or all-time favorites, if you wish to share that?
"Silent Light" is a miracle.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Success as a filmmaker probably has something to do with being restless and dissatisfied and perpetually interested in peeling away one more layer to get a little closer to some essential human truth. That would also be my goal.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
I'm very superstitious.