True to its title, “Live Cargo” catches the pulse of its vibrant Bahamian setting from its opening frame, a scene of waves rocking back-and-forth in black-and-white that serve as a kind of hypnosis, the same that Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Keith Stanfield) are experiencing as they’re carried away to the islands, though neither is particularly excited to be there. Recovering from the loss of their newborn, the couple retreats to the hideaway that’s been in Nadine’s family for generations, taken in by Roy (Robert Wisdom), the island patriarch who essentially became her surrogate father, only to find that it isn’t only their relationship that’s threatened to be torn asunder, but the island itself as the locals grapple with the fallout from the unexpected arrival of a group of Haitian refugees who wash ashore during a storm, bringing to light the tension between Roy and Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze), a rival captain who has been running a human trafficking operation with Roy’s ships and the help of his assistant (Sam Dillon).
While there’s intrigue aplenty as anxieties rise higher than the tide, the assured hand of director Logan Sandler, who co-wrote the script with Thymaya Payne, guides “Live Cargo” admirably as a thriller that may appear immediately as monochrome but shifts quickly into varying degrees of grey. Embedding Hemingway and Stanfield, two leads you already have trouble taking your eyes off of, in an environment where it truly feels like anything can happen, whether it’s an impromptu street parade of dancers and bongo drummers known as Junkanoo or the constantly shifting alliances between those residing on the island, the film proves to be intoxicating, apt to swallow you up in cinematographer Daniella Nowitz’s glorious use of the widest framing possible. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sandler and stars Dillon, Hemingway, and Stanfield spoke about filming in the unpredictable climes of the Bahamas, filming with live sharks, and doing more with less as actors. (Note: We spoke to Sandler and Dillon and Hemingway and Stanfield separately, but edited these interviews together for your reading pleasure.)
How did this come about?
Logan Sandler: I grew up spending a lot of time in the Bahamas. It’s such a special, magical place, almost indescribable when you’re there, and I wanted to try to capture that ever since I began making movies. In 2013, there was a Haitian human trafficking accident adjacent to the island, that a family friend had actually stumbled upon, and going back and hearing the stories of how the island came together to help the Haitian refugees really inspired me to tell a story that involved that. The film isn’t only about that, but it really started my process of writing a film.
How did the actors become involved in this?
Logan Sandler: Keith and I did a short together, “Tracks,” that I did for my AFI thesis a couple of years ago and he had lived with me for a short period of time when he came to LA, so I wanted him involved from day one. I just think he’s a tremendous talent.
Sam Dillon: And actually, we met through Keith [because] Keith and I worked on a film four or five years ago, and when Logan had the role, Keith said, “I know just the guy.” We were friends from the jump.
Logan Sandler: I had seen Sam in a Spike Jonze short that he did a couple of years ago, and ever since I saw that short, I just knew he was the character. Coincidentally, I was showing the short to Keith, and he was like, “Wow, that’s crazy. I’m actually really good friends with him, I just came off a movie with him a week ago. Let’s just e-mail him right now and see if we can get him on board, and then it happened. Then with Dree, I had seen her work in “Starlet,” and her agent gave her the script, and she fell in love with it, and we ended up Skyping for about an hour, and we just knew, just on basic vibe level, that we could collaborate, and take the project where it needed to go.
Dree Hemingway: I just liked the relationships that were all intertwined throughout the movie and watching everybody try and build something, like [how my relationship with] Keith’s character was [about] trying to grow and trying to heal.
Keith Stanfield: I liked Lewis because he knew that he was taking something really big into his hands — a life — and although there are moments in the film where he’s not that courageous, when it comes down to something that matters to him immensely, he builds up that courage. It’s okay to be fearful, but courage is moving in that direction regardless, so I had tremendous respect for him.
Dree Hemingway: A lot of it was just really having faith in the island and the crew and the people we were working with because we were such a team too.
Sam Dillon: We actually shot some of the movie in Bimini where [Dree’s] great grandfather Ernest Hemingway, had spent a lot of time.
Dree Hemingway: The fishing port that we were staying on had all these pictures of Ernest there and it was where he liked to deep sea fish. It was cool, and definitely a bit of a family takeaway, which was nice.
Logan Sandler: It was real full circle, almost like it was meant to be.
Sam Dillon: It was definitely a homecoming — just the energy down there, it felt special.
Did the feeling feed into the film? Since everyone was away from home, I imagine the focus on the film was intense.
Sam Dillon: It fed in really beautifully, because we were all essentially living together at this same resort, and we became one big family. [Everyone on] the island, being how small it was, was really supportive and it was like a community that all came together for this movie.
Dree Hemingway: You have this notion that, “We’re in the Bahamas and it’s really warm and beautiful,” which it is, but there is a little bit of a culture shock and the people [there] taught me more than anything.
Logan Sandler: With [the actors] a few doors down, if there was something I wanted to go shoot with [Sam, for instance], it’s like, “Knock, knock, all right, Sam, let’s go try something out.” That’s what was exciting about the movie is that we did have a set script, but we were also able to act off our intuition and go out and capture things that were real and alive and breathing.
Sam Dillon: A lot of it felt very real and it’s hard to not get into that mode when you’re out there in this completely new place. Just the energy from the locals and the island itself works so well, it was just so genuine.
What was it like to shoot in the middle of a junkanoo dance?
Logan Sandler: It was one of the more difficult things that we had to do. It’s like a festival parade that they have down there in the Bahamas, and we actually had to go the mayor of the island — like the actual government of the Bahamas — to get all the costumes and the gear, and setting it up. It was done very officially.
Sam Dillon: And that was just a taste. When they do it in the big island in the south, it’s huge.
Logan Sandler: Yeah, very big. That was a crazy scene, just shooting it, I remember Sam was like coughing because we were so close to the fire and getting that close, it’s actually really taxing on your body, so everyone was having to take breaks.
Dree Hemingway: That fire was so hot, and Logan’s like, “Dance around it!” And the Bahamian people were fine and then there’s us Westerners, but it was really fun. Some of the scenes that we got ourselves into were really amazing and freeing-feeling. A lot of this film felt like it was capturing feelings.
Sam Dillon: It was a lot of fun. A lot of people really turned the energy up and everyone was having fun — crew and family members — jumping in, dancing, and playing instruments. It was just so cool.
Did the weather actually cooperate, or did you just get lucky?
Logan Sandler: No, it cooperated, we had a Doppler radar literally on my phone and my producer Ty Paine’s phone. We would see the storms coming in and know that we had a certain amount of time to capture certain shots before it was too close and became dangerous, so it was very much planned. We were shooting in hurricane season as well and the weather changes there so often, it felt wrong if we didn’t include any weather in the movie because it just wouldn’t be accurate to what it’s really like to be down there.
How did the aesthetic for this come about? Not just the black-and-white, but the full use of the frame.
Logan Sandler: The colors are so rich [in the Bahamas], they’re very overwhelming when you begin to photograph them, and I wanted to audience to really focus in on the characters and not be distracted by, “Oh, the water is really blue.” Everyone knows the Bahamas has blue water, so that wasn’t something that I was trying to get across. When you begin to make these images in black and white, it almost carries this spiritual mystic quality and [the wide and tight framing] was to create this poetry of faces almost as they’re juxtaposed against the massive environment that is engulfing them. [Sam’s] got an amazing face, so we just have to frame him close — it’s just too great. He doesn’t take a bad photograph.
For the actors, because you get so much from your expressions, is it difficult to just be quiet and still?
Sam Dillon: We discussed this a lot before going out there and filming, how the lack of dialogue was so important. We prepared a lot. I spent a lot of time alone on the island, hanging out, just doing my own thing, just being quiet, because normally I’m not. I’m high energy and loud, but really it was just so important for [the character] to be almost like a pet — just to sit back and speak when spoken to. Some days, it was hard, but mostly, Logan really prepared me for that. He really put me in the right direction, and I really understood the character pretty quickly.
Logan Sandler: We thought of the film as this ballet, where the gestures and actions would give the audience the information they needed.
Dree Hemingway: Some of my favorite moments in films are the ones where nothing is said, and those are the heart-clenching moments that really grasp you and I think it’s an art to be able to do less and let that be okay, not only for the actors but also for the cinematographer to be able to not make it about big emotions or facial gestures, and just let something be.
Sam Dillon: It did get a little difficult sometimes, because of my natural tendencies, like moving my mouth or blinking, so I really had to focus on just staying still, and almost emotionless except for the eyes. Logan would always tell me, “Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes.”
Keith Stanfield: It’s a cool luxury that we have in cinema, to have a group of people working on bringing you this peace because if we were on a stage and I was mad, I would have to get you to know I was mad. On the screen, it’s much more intimate because you are able to register what you are feeling and let that translate later. That’s why I love this art form so much because there’s much more that can be implied by simply the way I look at you versus me coming up and saying, “I hate you.” Me just feeling it, and you capturing me feeling it, is a beautiful thing. That’s what this film does a lot of, stylistically, is just capturing that feeling.
Dree Hemingway: [Logan’s] definitely a great actor’s director, as well. He really figured out how to fit himself to work with each individual actor, I’m somebody who if I don’t understand a line will argue it for a really long time. I like direction, but not forced, and he would never give me his idea of how Nadine should be. Instead, it’s like, “How do you feel?” “This is my idea,” and then it’s a collaboration. Everything he did with every actor was a collaboration.
Was this a case where you might have had dialogue in it that you then stripped out, or was this pretty spare to begin with?
Logan Sandler: It was pretty spare to begin with. It was a very visual script from the get go, and being in hurricane season on an island, the script evolved and changed organically depending on the shooting situation. That’s where the beauty of the film for me rose from was being open to change. For instance, we had wanted to shoot a storm scene to coincide with the boat crash, but you don’t know when it will happen. All of a sudden, it didn’t even register on weather.com or anything, but this storm appeared out of nowhere, and we were just fortunate enough to capture it. It was literally on our second to last day [of production], and we needed this to happen because we couldn’t just make a storm, so we were waiting for this certain type of storm — almost a hurricane — to happen, and then it did, so that whole sequence, we were very lucky that we were able to get it.
Keith Stanfield: The environment really pushed the whole project. We were just pawns in God’s bigger scheme. When we came here, we became part of something that was much bigger than us and I think it humbled us immediately to step into the shoes [of these characters]. It was beautiful in many ways, but even the not-so-beautiful things had a beautiful lesson to be learned, in just the environment alone, let alone the story.
Logan Sandler: Something that I had told the cast and crew was not to fight the island, because you’ll lose. Really, you just have to listen to the island, let everything be, it’s island time, and go with the flow.
For the scuba diving scene, was that your first time shooting on water?
Sam Dillon: That went surprisingly well.
Logan Sandler: I had never shot on reefs with sharks, or anything like that, ten miles out into the open ocean, but we had a great underwater [cinematographer] Peter Zuccarini, who has done “All is Lost” and too many other films to even name. He’s just a master and we storyboarded everything out prior. He can hold his breath for four minutes, I believe, and he just nails it. I don’t even know how he does it. Being with such a pro, we were in really good hands, and he was able to really guide us.
Sam Dillon: Jack of all trades. He was making sure everybody was safe. He was keeping an eye on the sharks and operating the camera.
Logan Sandler: He’s like one of a kind, for sure.
There’s a song called “Tired Pussy” that mischeviously plays in one of the bars. How did that make it into the film?
Logan Sandler: All of the songs that are in the movie are songs that you would hear down in the islands in that bar, and you hear the same songs over and over again. It’s literally like there’s eight or 10 songs. We just thought that that song was perfect. We had heard it in that bar a few times, and it was just too good.
Sam Dillon: It was so perfect for the scene, it made that scene just that much more uncomfortable because [Nadine and Lewis] literally just tried to have sex, and then there was a song about a girl not wanting to have sex.
What was the premiere like?
Logan Sandler: It was great. It was exciting. It was great just for me to have that, all of the actors come. None of them had seen the film yet, so just being able to see their expressions after the movie, and hear their thoughts was really rewarding for me.
Dree Hemingway: That was so scary. My friend had an e-cigarette next to me and kept shoving it in my mouth, and I was like, “Thank you, I love you.” I ate a lot of popcorn, I drank far too much caffeine and kept stealing somebody’s Twizzlers.
Sam Dillon: It was nice to have the whole Bahamas family back together again. was almost like a little family reunion. Lots of crews showed up as well. It was just really sweet to see everybody.
Keith Stanfield: It was cool to see it finally, being such a large crew, and see the vastness of how beautifully it was shot. I had certain ideas about it, but seeing it big made me appreciate the cinematography and direction.
Sam Dillon: It was amazing, it was awesome. I had a bit of an idea of what I was in for, but it was mindblowing. I didn’t see that coming at all. It was great. I was really, really surprised at how much I made it in there, too.
Dree Hemingway: You know what was funny? Throughout the movie, I had a really hard time for this film, detaching from the moments before the scene we shot, and after and during — all the subtext that had nothing to do with the movie that was going on. It was like a amazing trip down memory lane that made me really nostalgic and really miss the island and the people there so much. That goes on with any small community that you get wrapped up in, but I miss that tight-knit [feeling] of all of us hanging out. The amazing thing about working on a movie is that you are so human — you wake up and you’re in a bad mood and everybody sees it, or you’re happy, and it’s okay. It’s like being in a relationship, where they just know you, and you’re completely transparent.
Logan Sandler: It’s been a journey. We shot this film a year-and-a-half ago in September, and you have these set ideas of what you think it is to make a feature, and they just keep changing and evolving. Every day something happens where something occurs, so it’s exciting. It’s definitely an adventure.
“Live Cargo” opens on March 31st at the Cinema Village in New York and the Arena Cinelounge in Los Angeles.