Drifter, Jack, pays a visit to an old friend Frank whose mundane life is upended after the two become involved in a strange and seemingly random murder and journey up to the Northern California Sierra in order to bury the body.
Hey Jon, thanks for talking to tNC, how is everything going?
Going well. Thanks for the interest in the film.
Having had your debut feature, Road to the Well, released this year have you been able to take a step back and let it enjoy this incredible ride?
A bit. The whole journey was so fraught with peril, taking over five years to complete, that you don't really have time to step back and take a look, so much as appreciate each milestone you hit - making it through post, getting into that first festival, getting it distributed, but then you're always right back to considering what the next obstacle will be, whether for this film or the next project and how it'll come about. Though I will say, being up in Donner Lake when we wrapped production, I have a very distinct and vivid memory of walking back to one of the cabins all alone, late at night, when all the booze was starting to come out to celebrate, fully grasping that we accomplished the near impossible. That's a moment I'll always remember.
The reaction to the film has been amazing with That Moment In calling it '...gorgeously photographed and well acted...' what has it meant for you to get this reaction for your film?
Everyone involved put in such an incredible amount of heart and soul that I honestly just feel relieved. To consider what so many gave to us in terms of money or time created an additional pressure where - at the very least - I hoped we'd make something well received.
Before the film's release did you have many nerves or apprehensions?
Absolutely. Going off what I said above, while I'm sure there'll be pressure for any individual or company providing me the resources for a production, there was an additional layer of responsibility in that I personally knew most of the people who supported us - people who invested, gave money, dedicated time, or even some vendors who saw the passion behind the project and cut us a deal, hoping it'd be worth it. Having never done anything even close to this in our lives, Tim and I had to ask people to just have faith that we could pull it off, with nothing more than a passion for film and a few years professional experience to guide us. It's when you start coming up against logistical barriers and it begins to affect that image in your head that the nerves really start grinding. You can't help wondering - how much further can this get from the original concept while still achieving what we set out to do?
Can you tell me a little but about Road to the Well, how did this film come about?
Most of the filmmakers I admire had all made a film in their mid to late 20s. I think Godard grew depressed over how far into his 30s he got without having made a movie. I started writing the script when I was a couple years out of college. My friend and our DP Tim Davis and I started at digital media studio Maker Studios in LA where we met and befriended Nick Mathews. He had a cabin up in Donner Lake and invited us to go up there one holiday weekend and it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to. One night Nick and I played a trick on Tim, leaving him out in the middle of the pitch black night to try and find his way back home alone, and while waiting for him in the dark cabin we began talking about filming a movie up there, following three friends. It was four months or so after that initial trip that I began seeing the story of a trio of friends heading up North, involved with this dead body, trying to contain the secret.
How did Jack and Frank come to life?
That relationship is based on a lifetime of close friendships and trios. I've been fortunate to have my best friend live near me over 15 years of friendship; where even calling him a brother is an understatement. I thought about the lengths I'd go to for him, especially if he looked to get in trouble for something he didn't do. It was really about taking that idea and the banter I've had with my closest friends and placing that within a more extraordinary situation.
How much did the characters change over the course of your writing your script?
Good question. Given what I said above, I'm not sure if they changed so much as evolved from that core image I had in my mind. Ideally I would cast my friends in the roles, but given that they've never acted a day in their life, I knew I needed to let go and allow for different interpretations. Barack, Micah, and Laurence were all so perfect for the roles, having the great ability to take what was written and make it completely their own, going above and beyond any expectation I ever had, all while developing an immediate chemistry. They brought all of the nuance that makes for any great character, pulling Jack, Frank, and Chris beyond some simple superficial ball busting banter and toward more depth and substance.
What was your most challenging scene to film?
The most challenging scene to film was by far the moment when Jack and Frank head into the cabin with the neighbor. We had only one day to shoot over 15 pages or so, in addition to being the hardest scene of the entire movie from a performance perspective. While we had a chance to read through a few scenes with Micah, Laurence, and Barack, Marshall had just arrived to set two days before, performing in that initial encounter when Jack and Frank are moving the suitcase down the stairs, but nothing much more than that. Because he lived in Texas, Marshall and I had talked on the phone a bunch of times and I could tell he was preparing for this unlike anything else, as he had actually memorized the entire fifteen page scene for the audition. I knew everyone would be exceptionally prepared, but by this point I also knew that the tiniest mistake could cost us dearly, as everything was planned down to the minute. I think everyone - from the crew to the cast, all working in a cabin in the middle of nowhere - knew that we were creating something very special in that moment. It was as though a machine was at work, with every single person operating at the top of their game and working toward something that we knew was next to impossible to achieve and somehow pulled off.
How much will the experience of making Road to the Well inform how you approach and make your next films?
It will completely change how I approach and make new films. Tim and I had made a few short films here and there growing up, but nothing worth submitting to any festivals, and so this was very much an experimental approach to filmmaking. Given all we had learned from watching and talking about films, could we create something decent? Seeing some of the risky blocking end up working out in post was one of the most thrilling moments of the whole production. Seeing other blocking fail miserably, forcing our incredible editor Angela Latimer to save it was quite another. It makes you want to take all you learned and try to make something better the next time around.
Being an independent filmmaker what where/are the challenges you faced making this film?
Pretty much every step of the way was an extraordinary challenge, with each chapter getting more and more difficult. First is the script which took six months with revisions and second guessing extending all the way up through the edit. Then raising that first quarter of the budget took almost a year, to Kickstarter which was the worst experience of the whole journey in having to annoy people for money, to the actual production that was plagued with obstacles, never getting to exactly what we had in mind, and then the disappointment of festivals, etc. It really never ends. There's this perfect image in your head that you can't reach and by the time production's in motion you just fall further and further away. So it's a constant fight to try and remain as close to that idea as possible.
"Editing is very important part of the process, I believe films are actually made work in the editing room, this is how I explain it to my non film makers friend…"
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I have made a few short films, but I have never been the one who was always filming something. That was much more Tim and his lifetime of interest capturing and experimenting with images. We always made silly videos throughout high school and college and I tried to make some serious stuff that was terrible and I think what you quickly learn is how difficult - and expensive - it is to film something of the quality you're seeing in your head. When people talk about just getting some friends together and shooting some videos, I think it's an insult to all of the actors, editors, DPs, production designers, make up artists and everyone else across the crew who spent their lifetimes perfecting craft in order to work together and elevate a piece of content. There's always a place for making that type of content, but in terms of achieving a "cinematic" experience, you quickly realize how many craftspeople it requires.
What the first film you saw that made you go 'yeah I want to do this?
I've always been envious of Tim's which is Magnolia - which was the film that inspired him to go out to LA and try and make movies. Mine is Jaws which I know is a pretty generic answer, but it's the movie I most associate with youth and that sense of excitement a great film could give you back then. I recall my mom calling me into the house for the night during the summer, sad I had to say goodbye to my friends, and then seeing Jaws on TNT and forgetting everything, completely enraptured.
Do you think filmmakers need to continue to push the boundaries of their art form?
Yikes - this is a very loaded question. I feel like an asshole but for a better answer I'd check out my website yellowbarrel.org where I write about this idea from time to time and could probably provide a more substantive response. I do feel that we're kind of in a bizarre and paradoxical cinematic golden-dark age - on the one hand more movies are being made than ever before and mainstream cinema is as great as it's ever been, but in terms of voice, there really hasn't been that many new filmmakers to enter into the mainstream with a unique worldview per the likes of PTA, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, the Coen Bros, etc. I was recently writing about the documentary De Palma in which he mentions struggling to come up with new ideas for thrillers, which are so heavily reliant on the camera showing you information.
I had recently watched What Lies Beneath and while it starts off as a pretty good nod to Hitchcock, it then descends into a mess of an ending. And I think that's because there's only so many ways to tell a classical thriller story and most of them have already been done. That trope now needs to be inserted into other genres or have significant revisions in order to work, which Tarantino, Kubrick, and PTA have epitomized, making it even harder to breathe fresh air into the genre. Point being - there seems to have been some limits reached in cinema, mostly founded on the economics of middle class films falling apart, leaving little room for more distinct voices to fully express themselves and push those boundaries with an adequate budget.
Though in saying that I think The Florida Project is one of the most original films I've seen in years, in terms of seeing a voice behind the story and a particular worldview, so I'm excited for what else he does. Lynne Ramsey is also a very exciting filmmaker who's doing fresh stuff and I couldn't be more excited for her latest project. Ruben Östlund has had two strong films come out which are unlike anything I've seen. It just seems like it's getting harder to find these types of filmmakers. I think the boundaries are going to be most pushed on television and VR/AR, which I've been reluctant to say for so long and have finally accepted. That's where new experiences will come from.
If you could describe Road to the Well in 3 words what ones would they be?
That's too hard.
Do you have any advice for any up and coming filmmakers?
The best advice I can offer is to keep your head down, focus on the work, and don't let the rejections or failures get you down. When you're growing up in the suburbs or a small city or rural area, it's so easy to think your passion is unique and entitles you to a fast track, when in fact, there are a literally thousands of people just like you, all competing for those few spots and in an age when the middle class of film is vanishing, those spots are fewer and far between. Success becomes such a matter of chance that you're forced to ask yourself whether you enjoy the work-itself, and if there was only a 10% chance you'd be successful, would you keep going out or simply enjoy the craft? I love writing and am confident I'll do it for the rest of my life. Or at least that's the excuse I tell myself when the going gets rough.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
That's tough to say, as I'd hope that everybody takes away something different. I guess I'd also hope they'd be challenged by some of the ideas it explores, or maybe just distracted for a hundred minutes or so. If the story were to linger with someone for a while after the film had ended I consider that a successful viewing.