Boldly indulging in matter-of-fact humor that questions the nature of fate in both provocative and approachable ways, as you struggle to garner control of your destiny from what may have always been a predetermined outcome, can be a harrowing experience for many people. But first-time feature film writer-director Zachary Sluser powerfully approached spiritual understanding, as well as how one person’s actions grippingly influence other people’s lives, in his new independent drama, ‘The Driftless Area.’ The filmmaker, who based the movie on Tom Drury’s novel of the same name, never passed judgment on the author’s characters, and always treated them with dignity, as they humanely explore how everyone’s actions inadvertently influence the lives of the people around them.
‘The Driftless Area,’ which had its World Premiere during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, follows a blossoming love affair that causes a ripple effect in a quiet town. After his parents’ death, an affable bartender, Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin), returns to his childhood home, where he falls for the enigmatic Stella (Zooey Deschanel), a stunning woman with an elusive past. At the same time, Pierre finds himself pulled into a cat-and-mouse game with an incompetent yet destructive criminal, Shane (John Hawkes). Braced with a duffel bag full of cash and unyielding optimism, an unveiling mystery sets Pierre down a path that will determine all of their fates.
Sluser generously took the time to talk about writing and directing ‘The Driftless Area’ during an exclusive interview over the phone during the Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the fimmaker discussed how the visual and auditory elements of the neo-noir metaphysical romance, including the cinematography, production and clothing designs and score and sound designs, created a timeless backdrop for the story, which helped infuse an inspirational relatability into Pierre and Stella’s struggle with their fates; and how his experience at the Tribeca Film Festival was fulfilling, as the drama received a positive reception from the audience.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new dark-comedy-drama, ‘The Driftless Area,’ with Tom Drury, after you co-wrote the short film, 2009 short film, ‘Path Lights,’ together. What inspired you both to work together again on the script for the feature?
Zachary Sluser (ZS): The process was wonderful. I can’t imagine working with a better and more generous collaborator and writing partner than Tom, especially considering that the script is based on his wonderful book. While we were collaborating as screenwriters, he was always open to finding the best way to adapt the book. Even though he’s an amazing writer, I never felt intimidated; he really trusted me from the beginning.
Tom was very interested in how the script would be different from the novel, and was excited to see how the film would be put together. We would pass information back and forth and work on our own and together. We even wrote and changed things on the set, and made slight revisions while we were editing. So Tom was very much a part of every phase of the film.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the movie is based on Tom’s book, how closely did you stay to its story as you were writing the script for, and directing, the film? How much liberty did you take in changing details in the book to make the screenplay more cinematic, while staying faithful to Tom’s story?
ZS: Initially, I was always the one who said, “We can’t change or cut that aspect.” But Tom was the one who said, “Maybe we should try it this way.” Now that I have known him for awhile, I know he’s always editing his work, so that he can find a better way of doing things. He’s an incredibly open-minded thinker, writer and collaborator. He understands that the more work you put into things, and the more you question things, the more you can discover. That’s really important in writing a script.
I love the book so much that I was always trying to find ways to defend keeping things from it in the screenplay. But eventually, I tried to take a page out of Tom’s book, and figure out what was best to revise for the film.
SY: Besides co-writing the script, you also made your feature film directorial debut on ‘The Driftless Area.’ Was it always your intention to helm the movie as you were penning the script? How did writing the script influence the way you approached your directorial duties, particularly as a first-time filmmaker?
ZS: One of the great things about writing a script that you’re also going to direct is that you’re already working on the thematic elements and tone that you’re trying to get across as a storyteller during the writing process. So when it comes time to move into production as the director, I’m trying to stay true to those initial intentions. Whether I’m casting the actors, working with my DP (Director of Photography), Daniel Voldheim, the composers and editor, or I’m figuring out solutions with my producer, Keith Kjarval, it’s all in an effort to stay true to the spirit of the book, and the truth we included in the script. That process helped me prepare, and reminded me what drew me to adapt this book.
SY: Speaking of the actors, ‘The Driftless Area’ features a diverse cast, including Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, John Hawkes, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza and Frank Langella. What was the casting process like for the film?
ZS: Well, Tom and I made a short film from one of his New Yorker short stories, called ‘Path Lights.’ Through an actor friend, I met John Hawkes, and he played the lead in the short film. Even at that time, Tom and I both felt he was perfect for Shane in ‘The Driftless Area.’ I told John that, and he said, “Well, let’s wait and make the short first, and make sure we enjoy working together.” (laughs) We did end up having a wonderful time together on the short, and became good friends. John was the first one on board for the feature, and really believed in the script, as well as in me and Tom.
We then began to put together the rest of the team, including Anton Yelchin, who was our first choice for Pierre. I think he’s a unique and an incredibly gifted young actor. He’s very empathetic, sweet and likable, and at the same time, very thoughtful and intelligent. As soon as we met and discussed the script, I saw how his mind worked-he’s constantly working to better understand and prepare, so I knew he would be the perfect partner.
The same was true with Zooey Deschanel. As soon as we sat down and discussed the script, we agreed that this could be an awesome opportunity to remind audiences about the stellar work she was doing in independent films, like ‘All the Real Girls’ and ‘The Good Girl.’ Now that she has such a big fanbase with her comedy work on TV with ‘The New Girl,’ I think this film was a really great opportunity to remind people what a great actress she is overall.
I’m so fortunate to have all these actors in these roles for my first film. I think it’s a testament to Tom’s book, as well as the world Tom created. The actors were really drawn to the story and the characters. As soon as we met and started discussing the film, we began developing like minds.
SY: The movie explores the notion that the characters’ versions of reality may not be the actual reality they witness, as mystery and revenge dominate their lives and memories. What was the process of working with the cast to showcase that people aren’t always who they appear to be, in the film’s story and character development? Were you able to have any rehearsal time together before you began filming?
ZS: With some of the actors, we had a good amount of time to sit down and go through the script together. We asked the questions that needed to be asked of each other, and went through the continual process of discovering who the characters are.
These actors are such incredible performers, and even some of the younger members of the cast have been working for a long time. So they would come to me with ideas. It was all a matter of making sure our choices were staying true to what was at the core of the story.
We were able to have a little bit of rehearsal time with some of the cast. We didn’t have time to meet with all of the actors before we began filming, so we had a lot of phone calls beforehand. We made sure we trusted each other’s instincts.
SY: Speaking of the cinematography, which you mentioned earlier, since the drama isn’t presented in chronological order, what was the process of working with Daniel to capture the camera angles you wanted to preserve that aspect of the narrative?
ZS: Well, ‘The Driftless Area’ is a wonderful backdrop for this story. It’s a region that formed in the Midwest as the glaciers moved around. It looks like what the whole Midwest looked like before it became flat. There are long, rolling hills, and it has this timeless quality that shows the stubbornness of the land. That’s such a wonderful backdrop for a story about people struggling to control a possibly pre-determined universe. The backdrop is really indifferent to their struggles.
Daniel and I really had that inspired idea that the camera would be a little more objective and measured. We didn’t want to rush everything-we wanted everything to be a little more static. Daniel also does beautiful work with natural lighting, and makes it very stylized.
SY: Since the film is set in a small town in the title Driftless Area of Midwestern America, what was the process of working with the film’s production designer, Tony Devenyi, to emphasize the characters’ lives there?
ZS: Tony , who was our talented production designer, worked well with our great costume designer, Maria Livingstone, as well as Daniel and our music supervisor, Joe Rudge, who chose songs that we really like. We were trying to create this timeless quality to the world. It’s contemporary, but not specific to 2015. So in finding the right color palette for the clothing and buildings gave it a certain age. Including that history in the film was really important to us, so it was a true collaboration between all of us.
SY: With the film being a neo-noir romantic drama-comedy that focuses on the characters’ realities in a dangerous world, what was the process of also developing the sound and score, in order to emphasize the diverse aspects of their lives?
ZS: We were very fortunate to have Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans score the movie. I became a huge fan of their work after I saw the movie ‘Enemy.’ I realized the people who composed that dramatic score also worked on such films as ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ and ‘The One I Love.’ I then thought they would be perfect to once again capture the classical and timeless qualities for this movie. I thought they would also be able to create something unique and strange, and they did, so we were very lucky to work with them.
The work of Joe, the film’s music supervisor, was all about finding these old country songs, and exotic music in general that played well around Zoe’s character. He incorporated diverse music, including rock and jazz songs, into the movie, but all of the songs were about 50 years old. It was important that the music had this AM quality to it.
Our sound designer, Zach Seivers, really helped each scene to life. He created this surreal mood that was grounded in this natural and realistic environment.
SY: How did filming ‘The Driftless Area’ independently influence the way you approached your writing and directorial duties-do you think the process helped add creativity to crafting the film?
ZS: Well, I don’t know of any other way, because I’ve only made short films, and this is my first feature. But filming independently means that the production was really a product of our producers, including Keith and Aaron Gilbert.
I was very fortunate to have a partner like Keith, who understood what kind of movie I was trying to make. He also understood Tom’s novel incredibly well, which showed well in how he budgeted and scheduled the film. He also protected the film through the challenges of production. Keith was always there to protect the quality of the film, and what we were going for.
Again, I don’t know what it’s like working at a studio. But when you can trust your producer to have your back, and offer good ideas at every stage of development, from writing the script to shooting and editing the movie, that’s a good place to be in as a filmmaker. Independent filmmaking is a good place, if you have the right producer.
SY: Speaking of the short films you have previously written and directed, including ‘Path Lights,’ how did they influence the way you approached writing and helming ‘The Driftless Area?’
ZS: Well, the last short film I wrote, ‘Path Lights,’ was also an adaptation of Tom’s work. I worked with both John and ‘The Driftless Area’s sound designer, Zach, on the short.
Then when it came down to making the feature, Tom and I, as well as Zach and I, had developed a very easy shorthand, and we became very trusting of each other. Working with John on the short really taught me a lot about how to work with, and trust, actors. I also learned what conversations and directions were helpful. I’m really fond of him as a collaborator. Short films are really good practice for making quality features.
SY: Also speaking of the editing process, what was your collaboration process like with the film’s editors, Sam Bauer and Tom Cross, to balance the visuals and score with the story and characters’ emotions?
ZS: The editing was a lot like the writing process. I think this is probably true for every movie, but there are things that you think are important or moments to treasure when you write and shoot them. But then when you get into the editing process, you start thinking, this is what’s working, and that’s what we still need to include. Also, you see what else can get that same feeling across, and what aspects you can let go. So it’s just a matter of balancing things, and hitting the right mark to create the pace we wanted. That comes from finding the right collaborators to make the film with.
SY: What does it mean to you that the movie had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival? How have audiences who have seen the movie at the festival responded to the story?
ZS: The experience at the festival has been amazing and fulfilling. Our premiere was very exciting, and we received a very warm reception from the audience. Everyone at Tribeca has been incredibly supportive, and have been real champions of our film.
We thank them, and we’re happy we were able to share the movie with audiences at the festival. The viewers I have engaged with after the screenings, whether during the Q&As or who came up to me afterward, found the film to be very thought-provoking, entertaining and humorous. They seemed to be looking for less convention films that at the same time had romantic elements and genre themes about them that are operating on a deeper level. I have nothing but good things to say about the audience.
Written by: Karen Benardello