Passionately following your instincts, and allowing your intuition to guide your choices, even when the people around you are urging you not to allow your emotions dictate your decisions, is a powerful resolution that often allows people to truly pursue what they want in life. That visceral resolution is a motivating factor for the main characters and actors in co-writer-director Sam Hancock’s upcoming independent mystery film, ‘August Falls,’ which is based on the novel, ‘Looking for August,’ by Matt McKay. Actress Fairuza Balk and actor Charles Baker are prime examples of following their instincts, in an effort to infuse their respective characters with an emotional relatability. Not only did they enjoy shooting the movie independently on location, as the entire cast and crew strongly embraced the story and filmmaking experience, they also portray two characters who are strongly driven to investigate and debunk the belief that someone close to them committed suicide.
‘August Falls’ follows Anna Ellison (Balk), a woman who will stop at nothing to discover the truth of her estranged son August’s (Justin Fix) disturbing death. The police, concluding the tragedy to be a suicide, offer little solace. In her attempt to make sense of her loss and grappling with feelings of guilt, she moves into August’s apartment. There she meets Jonas (Baker), the building’s superintendent. Though guarded at first, Jonas and Anna form a tentative bond, a shared longing for love and company in a desolate world. Convinced that her only child did not die by his own volition, Anna seeks out the people and places he had known. Her investigation brings her and Jonas into the dark corners of a criminal underworld, where she is forced to confront the true nature of human cruelty.
Balk and Baker generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘August Falls’ during a break in their shooting schedule from the mystery film, which shot entirely on location in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Among other things, the actors discussed how they were both drawn to the film because they not only felt compassion for their characters, but also wanted the opportunity to work with Hancock, as he proved his talent with his first film, ‘Being Us;’ how some writer-directors are so attached to their scripts, they don’t encourage the actors to truly develop the characters, but Hancock enjoys collaborating with his cast, and allowed them to embody their roles; and how filming movies independently on location facilitates a strong connection between the actors and crew, as they all bond together to make the most realistic and relatable film possible.
ShockYa (SY): Fairuza, you play Anna Ellison, a woman who will stop at nothing to discover the truth of her estranged son August’s death, and Charles, you portray Jonas, the superintendent of August’s building. What was it about your respective characters, and the script and project overall, that convinced you both to take on your roles?
Fairuza Balk (FB): The script was what really pulled me in, and I had an immediate infinity for it. I had great compassion for the character (of Anna). Also, the ending isn’t a typical ending whatsoever, and it’s a look at life through this woman’s eyes at a story that’s not typical.
Also, for me, the role was quite different. People have tended to see me as an actress who has played edgier, darker roles. That’s something that as much as I’ve enjoyed exploring, isn’t necessarily the one thing I want to do. Anna is different for me, and has been a challenge in a very wonderful way.
Also, I saw Sam’s first film, ‘Being Us,’ and I really enjoyed it. I’m also a huge fan of Alanna Ubach, who’s in, and producing, our film. I’ve always wanted to meet and work with her, so it all worked out perfectly for me.
Charles Baker (CB): For me, it was the script and story, which is always the first thing I look at. I was really able to identify with the character of Jonas, in the same ways that Fairuza hasn’t been able to explore on other projects before. Like Fairuza, I also play a lot of dark characters, so this is a welcome change for me. It’s something I’ve been transitioning to, in order to play someone who’s a little more like myself, at least emotionally.
So the script drew me in, because Sam solidified himself as a really good director with his first feature. Also, the opportunity to work with this great cast was what drew me to this project.
SY: How did you both become involved in the mystery film? Were you both able to speak with Sam, who you both just mentioned, before you accepted your roles?
CB: From what I understand, the film’s casting director, Gabrielle Evans, had me on a list of potential actors for a different role. But somehow it got mixed up, and I ended on the bottom of the list for this character. From what Sam told me, when he saw my name on the list for Jonas, he was immediately drawn to the idea of going against type, and going a little more real with it. So he reached out to my manager and we discussed it. They sent me the script, and I jumped on the opportunity.
FB: For me, they sent me the script as an offer, and that’s how they approached me. (laughs)
SY: What have your experiences of working with Sam, who is directing and co-wrote the script, been like on the film? Do you both both prefer working with helmers who also pen the script?
FB: It’s interesting, because every director is so different. Sam is honestly very wonderful to work with. He has a great work ethic and attitude. He has a huge excitement, passion and love for making films, and that’s really refreshing. Since he’s younger and this is only his second film, he has that huge dynamic of excitement about being there. At the same time, he has a great depth of feeling for the characters, since he was a writer on the project.
Sometimes when a director has also written a piece, they can be a little harder to work with. They aren’t as welling at times to be open to working through it-they get married to the material as it is in its original form. That’s fine, and often times it works very well.
But with Sam, he really likes to work with actors, and have them embody the characters. He also likes them to work with, and at times adapt, the script, to what feels natural for them in character. That adaptability and versatility makes it that much easier for me, as an actor, to really embrace and embody a part.
Also, having previously worked as an actor in films, he knows everything you need to know about each bit of it, so that’s very helpful. I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and hope to have the chance to work with him again. Not only is he a great director, he’s also a very lovely and wonderful person.
CB: Yes, I second that-he is a great guy to work with. I also love the fact that he’s trained as an actor, and then came into directing as a side job. Then he turned into more of a director. So he can speak to us more in the language of our people. (Both Baker and Balk laugh.)
So he’s able to help us find what we need, which is a little easier. He lets us explore the material without beating it to death. He doesn’t want to work it too much, and he lets us find some natural moments. It’s a beautiful thing, because it’s very freeing and lets you forget that you’re acting, an lets you be, without letting you focus on too many little details. A lot of times, you end up getting a lot of better little details out of that.
So I really enjoyed working with him. Like Fairuza said, he’s extremely passionate, and really knows his stuff.
SY: ‘August Falls’ is based on author Matt McKay’s novel, ‘Looking for August.’ Were you both familiar with the book before you began filming? How does acting in a movie that’s based on other source material compare and contrast to starring in a film that has an original screenplay?
CB: I hadn’t read the book (before we began filming), and wasn’t really aware of it.
FB: Me, neither.
CB: Matt McKay, who wrote the book, is often around set. He’s very trusting with the material, and is very open to changing things to fit the screen. It’s really nice (having him on set), because he’s really grateful and happy to see his work being done. He’s not as rigid as some writers may be about it.
SY: The story features several emotionally driven plot points, from Anna’s difficulty of accepting her son’s death, and her developing relationship with Jonas. Are you both able to relate to your characters?
FB: It is easy to sympathize with Anna, and I am empathetic for her.
CB: In this particular case, and it isn’t always the case, the human experience has been my preparation. Like Fairuza said, Anna is easy to be sympathetic with, and that’s pretty much my character’s job.
Fairuza’s so good at what she’s doing that I don’t have to work at the emotional aspect. I just have to watch her and suspend my disbelief, and everything else is taken care of, emotionally. So that’s pretty easy, as that’s more of my nature. I easily empathize and sympathize with people, and I think that’s why I act, so that I can express those emotions, in a freer way.
SY: Justin Fix plays the title character in the mystery film. How much time did you both spend with Justin on the set? Since the movie focuses on Anna’s quest to find out what happened to her son after his death, do you have any scenes with Justin?
FB: No-the film takes place after he has already passed. So I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to meet him before we began working together, but I did meet him on the set. He is a lovely young man, and quite a dedicated actor. It was very easy for us, and we hit it off right away.
SY: The movie (shot) its principal photography entirely on location in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Do you both prefer filming on location? Does shooting in real locations help with the story’s authenticity?
CB: Yes, and we were actually talking about how much we enjoy doing the locations when we first got here. It gives us an opportunity to explore new places that we normally wouldn’t be able to go to on our own.
I love shooting on location, but it’s a double-edged sword for me. I have kids at home, and they get angry with me when I leave at a month at a time. But on this case, it’s close enough that they’re able to come visit while we’re here.
I’ve loved it so far, as it’s a really beautiful area. I just moved to California from Texas about a year-and-a-half ago, so I’m getting to explore parts of the country that I’ve never seen. I’ve also gotten to take my family to places they’ve never seen, and I get a lot of kudos for being the guy who gives them that opportunity. So I love it.
As far as shooting goes, it helps to be where it’s happening, because it takes away that need to use your imagination. You can use your surroundings as inspiration, and that works great.
FB: Yes, I would agree with that. Also, living in Los Angeles, it helps to be on location, because it separates you from what you’re used to. The locations they have found have been really interesting.
There’s one building in particular that we were using where a lot of the film takes place, and it really has its own character. It’s ancient and old, and used to be a hotel. It’s really an interesting place.
Oakland and Berkeley are interesting, beautiful cities. I definitely think they add a flavor to the film. So many films are shot in Los Angeles. So having it be in a different place definitely affects the look of the film, especially since the light is unique to each city. I’ve really enjoyed being here. Like Charles said, it lends itself to your work, in general.
SY: ‘August Falls’ (was) filmed independently. Does shooting independently allow you more creative freedom in building your characters and the story? How does filming independent movies compare and contrast to making studio films?
FB: I don’t know if there’s necessarily a difference between a film being shot independently or through a big studio that would give you more or less independence creatively. I think that really comes from the director you’re working with.
But I love making indie movies, and having a small crew. Indie films are fun in the fact that you’re there because you really want to be there. (laughs)
CB: Yes, definitely.
FB: Indies aren’t necessarily a money gig; you’re there because you love the piece. On this film, especially, everybody really wants to be making it. They’re very excited about making it. It’s the first film in a long time that I’ve been on where absolutely everybody is genuinely excited and passionate about it. It’s really a lovely change to come to work and everyone’s smiling and happy to see you, and exited to get going on the day, everyday. (laughs) It’s been really unique and fun in that way.
You hope that all films are going to be like this one. You hope you’re going to have a great experience and meet some wonderful people, and really work it. You hope that magic’s going to happen, but it doesn’t always happen; it’s actually quite rare.
I do think that indie films can facilitate that environment, especially since all of us are on location. So we’re like a big family here, doing this project. It gives a more unique experience than say, if we’ve been shooting in L.A., New York or somewhere where we all live. It gives the traveling circus feel of it, and that’s why I really love making independent movies-in those ways, they definitely are different.
CB: I feel pretty much the same way. The one thing I find differently between independent and studio films is a lot of time in indie films, it’s more of a team effort.
They don’t have enough people doing all of the make-up, hair and costumes. So we all have to be a little bit more responsible for that, too. We have to keep track of what we’re wearing in a scene. We don’t just walk into our dressing room, and have our outfits hanging there, ready to go. We go in there and discuss our outfits with our costume designer.
It reminds me of the theater I grew up in while in Texas. There’s theater in your background there. Everyone’s like, oh an extra shirt, lets give it to the bad guy. (laughs) It’s exhilarating and keeps you on your toes, thinking about the whole process. I like that, but also like doing the opposite in studio films. But indie films bring you back to your roots of doing this because you love it.
FB: Yes, definitely. Obviously we take on all the projects we do because we love them. But on indies, you forgo certain luxuries and privileges on a studio film. You kiss those goodbye happily, and embrace what you’re doing. Both of them are worthy, and have the better and less of things. But on indies, like Chris said, you embrace them as team efforts.
CB: Team work is important to me. So being part of that team, and feeling like you’re more than a walking, talking prop to the rest of the group, is nice. (Baker and Balk both laugh).
SY: Fairuza, the police declare August’s death to be a suicide, which offers little solace to Anna. In her attempt to make sense of her loss and grappling with feelings of guilt, she moves into August’s apartment. Do you think her decision to further investigate her son’s death is driven by her guilt that they were estranged? How does her grief drive her actions and motivations?
FB: Well, I think that is a part of it, but I also think there’s a great deal of mother’s intuition. As much as she was estranged from August, she knows her boy. She raised him for half of his upbringing on her own. So they were very close when he was younger. Before she’s even arrived, she feels like this is wrong. Once she does arrive, there are too many things that don’t add up. It’s blatantly obvious to her that this wasn’t him, and he didn’t jump.
It’s a terrible thing to have that certainty, and be convinced that somebody didn’t take their own life, and that there’s something awry. It’s terrible to not have anybody listen to, agree with or believe you. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t get anyone to see that this is just wrong in every way.
She’s driven by love. I’m sure there is a part of her, in regards to them having lost that bond, that is an element of that, but love is intuition. She feels that this isn’t what happened in her bones. The more she looks into it, the more she feels that way. She has more certainty that that wasn’t the case.
I think that for a lot of us in life, there are elements where everything is pointing a different way, but you feel a certainty about something. You know in your bones what’s going on, and she can’t ignore that. Everyone’s telling her she’s acting nuts and she has to accept that it is what it is, and people do nonsensical things. They’re telling her that we can’t always understand human behavior. But as human beings, we’re trained to trust those intuitive feelings.
With Anna and her son, they had too strong of a bond. So she’s unable to separate herself from the feelings of not accepting his death as a suicide, and being able to move on.
SY: With Anna being desperately searching for the truth behind the death of her son, and being both heroic and flawed in her pursuit of the truth, do you think audiences will also be able to relate to her plight, and examine their own assumptions about the nature of justice?
FB and CB (at same time): I think so. (Both laugh)
FB: Without giving too much away, I definitely think the audience will be able to relate to her and August. He’s such a dynamic and amazing spirit, and he was a shining boy and young man to Anna. I think the audience will want to also find the answers-well, at least I hope they do! They will, if I’ve done my job! (laughs)
CB: I agree. I really think the story will really resonate with people, whether they can actually directly relate to it or not. I think there’s a little bit of the story in everybody, somehow, as there’s some type of loss or need for closure in everyone. So I think a lot of people will relate to this film.
FB: There are certain things that can’t always be explained. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope it will. For a great many of us, as we go through our lives, and as we evolve and age, we have to learn to embrace the fact that it isn’t always under our control. Life is going to go the way that it’s going to go. It’s about finding the inner strength and light inside of you, and learning to trust that to guide you through the difficult times. People learn that not every story is a fairy tale. (laughs)
Written by: Karen Benardello