Bitterness can often arise amongst rivals who begin to develop their own distinct ideas on the way their society should approach life. That bitterness can become even more firece between adolescents who are so eager to secure leadership and control over the future of their community that their sense of morals don’t completely develop. That’s certainly the case between the main characters in filmmaker Matt Ogens’s upcoming adventure drama, ‘Go North.’
The thriller marks the narrative feature film directorial and producing debuts of Emmy-nominated documentarian, Matt Ogens. The helmer and producer also worked with writer Kyle Lierman on the screenplay for ‘Go North,’ which was executive produced by fellow documentarian, Academy Award-nominee, Morgan Spurlock. The adventure movie will be distributed in select theaters and on VOD this Friday, January 13, by Orion Pictures.
Set in the aftermath of an unknown catastrophe, ‘Go North’ follows a community that has been left without any living adults. The neighborhood has descended into a modern-day society that’s reminiscent of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ The children and adolescents are now being led by a small group of teen boys who were once the jocks who occupied the athletic and social upper crust of the local high school, who are headed by Caleb (Patrick Schwarzenegger).
Faced with the bleak despair of their situation, Josh (Jacob Lofland) and Caleb’s sister, Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark), band together to strike out on a dangerous journey into the unknown. They want to find out if their extended families are still alive, as well as hope for the future. Since Jessie leaves the community without telling her brother, Caleb and his vicious supporter, Gentry (James Bloor), embark on a relentless pursuit to try to capture the two runaways.
Ogens generously took the time recently to talk about contributing to the story for, as well as making his feature film directorial and producing debuts, on ‘Go North,’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how after helming and producing documentaries, he decided to work with Lierman on a change in genre. But the research Ogens does for his documentaries helped inform him on how to create the backstory for the feature’s characters, especially once he cast, and began working with, the versatile young actors.
The director began the conversation by explaining the process of collaborating with Lierman on the story for ‘Go North.’ The filmmaker “was working on a previous project that was shooting in Detroit when I became fascinated by all of these abandoned spaces there. I wasn’t just fascinated by them visually; I became interested in the history of Detroit and what happened to the people there.
“I come from a documentary background, so I always do a lot of research. Backstory and history are important to me, as they inform a story,” Ogens explained. “Growing up, I was always into books that feature dystopian stories, like ‘1984,’ as metaphors for life.” So he thought that Detroit would be a good setting for a dystopian story that was inspired by books like ‘Lord of the Flies.’
“So I connected with Kyle, who’s a talented writer. He’s really the main writer, but I usually closely collaborate with writers. Then I took over a lot of the writings, after Kyle wrote the first couple of drafts,” the helmer explained. “But Kyle was definitely the driving force. I’m very collaborative, as I like working with writers and DPs (Directors of Photography), as I think that makes the projects better.”
The filmmaker then discussed how in addition to contributing to the script, he also made his feature film directorial debut on ‘Go North.’ “I have directed documentaries, and have made two previous feature documentaries; one was called ‘Confessions of a Superhero,’ and the other was called ‘Meet the Hitlers,’ which was just released this past summer on Showtime. I also do a lot of commercials and branded content directing,” Ogens explained.
There are some similarities between the genres and formats, the helmer noted, “but there are also a lot of differences. I try to use authenticity in documentaries.
“In terms of this being my first scripted narrative feature, trying to get authentic performances” from the actors required a lot of differences in Ogens’ approach to directing. “In a documentary, the characters are the characters, and they are who they are. So I’m not trying to get a performance so much. But I am trying to dig deep, and get them to open up, and share their lives with me. But in a narrative, you’re obviously working with actors to get a performance.”
The filmmaker then admitted that ‘Go North’ was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not in a bad way-it was enjoyable work. But I felt that making my first narrative was the hardest thing I’ve done because on an independent film, you have to stick to your budget.
“On a documentary, you can work with a smaller crew. You have a subject who will always be there, so you can go back to them when needed at a low cost,” Ogens disclosed.
“But with a feature, you have actors who move onto their next project. The locations you use also go back to their owners, and the art direction doesn’t stay. So you’re very limited by time in a scripted feature,” the helmer further noted. “On documentaries, you’re not necessarily limited by time.” But feature and documentary films are similar in some respects, especially “story-wise, as you’re looking for emotional and narrative arcs and journeys,” he added.
Shooting the feature film independently did influence Ogens’ creative process on the set to some degree, especially since he also served as one of the drama’s producers. There’s more pressure of being both the director and a producer on a movie, the filmmaker explained. “You’re constantly changing hats between the creative side as a director, and the business side as a producer,” he noted.
“I was fortunate enough to have two good producers in Josh Gold and Jay Thames. So I had that producing support, but it was hard to switch hats and go back and forth between directing and producing,” Ogens also shared. “But when you’re making an independent film, the two jobs are always intertwined. The logistics and budget inform what you can do as a director,” the helmer further pointed out.
While the adventure drama faced some limitations during production, since it was made independently, ‘Go North’ wasn’t restricted in securing a top caliber cast in its up-and-coming young actors. Ogens explained what the casting process was like for the adventure drama, saying that he “was really lucky to cast Jacob Lofland, who played Josh, the main character. He was on my short list of actors who I wanted to play the part. He was really my number one (pick), so we went to him and his representation. He loved the script and said yes.
“So in casting that first lead, I was really lucky to get my first choice. I saw (Jacob) in some of his previous films, like ‘Mud‘ and ‘Little Accidents,’ and I thought he was great,” the filmmaker divulged. “There’s something that’s real about him. He’s a kid from Arkansas, so there was an awareness about him that I saw in his past performances.
“From there, we really went the traditional root through casting directors and agents. People were also pitching us actors. So we got lucky with the supporting cast, including Sophie Kennedy Clark, who played Jessie,” Ogens also stated.
The director also expressed his happiness with casting “James Bloor, who had only starred in one previous film before this one. He plays Gentry, who’s sort of the bad guy in the movie. (James) is super talented.” Ogens then mentioned that “Jacob’s manager also manages Patrick Schwarzenegger, and pitched us Patrick. I thought he was right for the role of Caleb, who’s Jessie’s brother.”
Like Ogens previously mentioned, while he mainly directs and produces documentaries, he feels finding the backstory for the subjects and characters involved in all of his films to be important. Likewise on ‘Go North,’ the helmer explained that once the actors were cast in the drama, he felt it was important to build the characters’ backstories and relationships with the cast. “We definitely discussed the characters’ histories a lot before we started filming. We did some rehearsals, and really got to know the actors once they got to the set,” Ogens noted.
One of the interesting aspects of the movie is that there are scenes during which Josh is remembering his last moments with his parents before the catastrophe occurs. His love for, and memory of, them provide him with hope that they’re still alive somewhere, which influences him to search for them. “Those flashback scenes with Josh’s parents were his memories and sense of family, as well as his safety and sense of belonging. Those elements informed his journey…which represented hope and family to him,” the filmmaker revealed.
Ogens also admitted that he doesn’t “know if completely learning about Detroit’s history totally informed the script and the characters. But for me, discovering things about the city to some degree was important, because the locations really were another character in the film.
“So understanding the city informed me as a director, even though the history wasn’t totally a part of the story. In fact, we didn’t even shoot Detroit for Detroit,” the helmer pointed out, as the characters never mention where they’re living.
“I just thought it was a beautiful setting with beautiful decay, in a way. Finding the beauty in the decay there” was beneficial to the story. “There is hope in the rebuilding of Detroit, as well as in the film’s story and characters.”
While Detroit served as the inspiration for the locations in the story, ‘Go North’ is set in a nameless neighborhood where Josh and his fellow teens live, like the filmmaker previously stated. “The locations really served as their own characters, like I mentioned before. So a lot of the pre-production process involved getting on the ground early, and just walking the city and seeing everything.
“The locations we ended up using were abandoned spaces. No one lived in them. The factories we shot in were abandoned,” Ogens divulged. “So it was almost like the whole city was a backlot. We couldn’t build that, or use visual effects to create that; we had to find places that were already like that, and truly exist.”
Once Ogens and his crew found the locations where they were going to shoot ‘Go North,’ they decided not to use a ton of artificial lights. “We used a lot of natural light, and would just supplement that. In this world, there isn’t any electricity, except in the flashbacks,” the director emphasized.
“So we had to be very careful to make sure that nothing felt like synthetic light. We had to make sure that either sunlight or moonlight was coming through windows. Or we would use flashlights and candles, to help create this mood,” Ogens shared.
“I think that really helped the actors get into this world. Since in the story, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t use a lot of electricity” as filmmakers, Ogens also explained. “So that would inform the actors and how they would perform in the locations.
“In terms of blocking, I also liked to let the actors move a bit, and give them a freedom in that process. So I didn’t often make them stand in a specific spot, and be precious with that,” the helmer also disclosed.
The filmmaker also spoke about working with his Director of Photography (DP), John Tipton, on the drama. Ogens mentioned how he knew the cameraman could capture the best camera angles of the real locations where, and lighting they used while, they filmed.
“John also comes from a documentary background, and we had worked together previously. I had met with a lot of DPs” for the feature film. “But then I went back to someone I was comfortable working with, and who I thought was right for this movie,” the helmer also explained.
“You don’t just cast actors; you also cast your crew. You have to figure out if they’re right for a particular project. I thought John was right for this film,” Ogens admitted. Tipton “understood, and was passionate about, the project. He’s really talented, and I think he’s one of the best documentary DPs in the world.”
In addition to the visual storytelling, the score was also a vital element in telling the characters’ journey in the adventure drama. In one scene in ‘Go North,’ Josh tells Jessie that he has missed listening to music, after they find a stereo that still works, and listen to a song.
“Music was definitely important,” the filmmaker shared. “Our composer, Greg Kuehn, is also someone I’ve worked with before he came on board this movie “I liked his idea of blending the music and sound design. There are moments where the music felt as though it was part of the location. The music would blend into sounds,” Ogens explained. “The songs also didn’t feel as though they would take over; they instead complemented what was going on in the scenes, both emotionally and visually.”
Now that production on ‘Go North’ is complete, the drama is set to be released in select theaters and on VOD this week. The director noted that he feels the On Demand platform is a beneficial one for independent films like this one.
“Audiences aren’t flocking to theaters to see small independent films as much these days, especially if there isn’t a decent amount of money allocated to advertising, marketing and PR. Of course there are exceptions, but having a VOD release can really help build an audience,” Ogens explained.
No that ‘Go North’ is being distributed, the filmmaker is going “into production on a new documentary series in February, which I’m executive producing alongside Ronda Rousey and Gotham Chopra. I’ll also be directing some episodes. The series is about the fight culture around the world,” Ogens revealed.
“I’m also developing a new feature documentary about a high school sports team. I’m just in the beginning phases of both, so I can’t say too much about them yet, but please stay tuned.” Ogens also mentioned that some of the commercials, branded content and virtual reality he directs can be seen some, and updates on his latest projects are shared, on his official website.
Watch the trailer, and check out the poster, for ‘Go North’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello