As would be the first instinct of many actors, David Call’s ears perked up when he first heard from producer Veronica Nickel there was a western in the works. However, it was soon accompanied by some mild disappointment.
“She’s like, ‘I want you to play the part of the husband,’” Call remembered to his dismay, believing he’d been saddled with a role that wouldn’t involve guns or horses. “I started reading the script and I was like, husband? I wanted to be the main guy…oh shit! How do I make this happen?”
While we wouldn’t want to spoil one of the many surprises in store for audiences with “Dead Man’s Burden,” the directorial debut of longtime producer Jared Moshé (“Kurt Cobain: About a Son,” “Beautiful Losers”) is in its very nature a shock to the system as a sincere oater, filled with contemporary nuance and honest-to-goodness grit. (Case in point: it’s rare when a film’s official Web site has a portion dedicated to the historical accuracy of the weaponry used.) Defiantly shot on film in the grandeur of the sparse New Mexico desert, the film centers on the Martha and Heck Kirkland (Clare Bowen and Call), a couple looking to sell the property left by her father to necessitate a move out to San Francisco where the missus believes running a hotel could be prosperous in 1870. But their plans soon change upon the arrival of her brother Wade (Barlow Jacobs), a soldier she was led to believe had died in the Civil War, setting off a wonderfully knotty battle of wits and eventually bullets between the trio as the story unravels some gnarly family ties in a wonderfully entertaining way.
From the first frame of the film, which sees Bowen’s tough, but diminitive Martha raising a gargantuan rifle to pick off a man on horseback who’s wronged her, to its very last, “Dead Man’s Burden” is quite the ride and as I learned from the film’s director and cast, who were onhand for the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, it may not have been easy, but it was certainly well worth it.
Jared, was directing something you had always been interested in?
Jared Moshe: I always wanted to make a western. I grew up watching [them] with my dad and the first one I saw was “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.” The first time I saw it, I hated it and the second time I saw it, I fell in love with it. From that point on, my dad and I watched western after western. I took college classes on them, so it’s always been a dream of mine to make a film in this genre. But my transition from producing to directing really came through working as a producer and I really didn’t know what a director was. I never went to film school. I knew I wanted to be involved in telling stories and at first, I thought I wanted to do that from a producerial capacity, but as I learned more and more about the industry, I decided to tell my own stories as a writer/director.
Barlow Jacobs: Jared produced a film I wrote and acted in called “Low and Behold” and any time you get to go through that process, your friendship is forged in the fire. Jared has always been just a phenomenal producer and so loyal to the film and when he told me [he was going to direct]…it was a surprise. “I’ve got this script that I’m doing…” I had no idea he had any aspirations to direct up until that point and I read the script in one sitting and was blown away.
Jared, in addition to westerns, you’ve said you have a great interest in the Civil War. Was that where this all started for you?
JM: I had a really good history professor in college, David Blight. He could just spin yarns about that period and really exposed me to how it shaped America in a lot of ways, but more so, just all the little personal stories. Actually, this story specifically with Wade, Barlow’s character, was inspired when I read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. There was a Union general, General Thomas, who was actually from Virginia, but decided not to stay with the Union. His family never spoke to him again when the war ended and he made a name for himself at the Battle of Chickamauga, which is part of the reason why that gets a call-out in the film.
Was this a daunting production given the scope? As the film wore on, I realized it was quite novel for an indie-sized production given that there were only three central characters and one location, albeit a large one.
JM: It was incredibly daunting. Deciding that you’re going to be stepping on camera for the first time and do a period piece in the middle of the wilderness with…what was there? There were snakes…
JM: Tarantulas, the road that we had to [use] get to the set…
BJ: Renegade goats.
JM: Yeah, renegade goats. The road onto set was two miles long and it rained, it became mud. When I set out to make this movie, I knew I wanted to make a western and I wanted to figure out how to keep the characters and locations limited and really use that landscape as a character. But I didn’t quite realize all the little difficulties that were going to mount —just going out versus shooting film in an environment where there’s no cell phone reception and if something goes wrong, you can’t just run across the street to Target.
Did all of you get up to New Mexico and wonder what you had gotten yourselves into?
Clare Bowen: It was so exciting. It was wonderful. You get to ride horses and shoot massive guns and work with amazing people every day. It was just the best fun.
David Call: In the mountains, it’s like this idyllic setting. It was definitely one of the hardest shoots I’ve done, just in terms of the amount of work that had to go in every day because we were on such a tight schedule.
BJ: And it was Jared. He put together an amazing team and when you’re going up there, it’s so hard, as Dave was saying, and the crew and that whole experience was so key. Then to have the cast [and crew] all living together, it just felt like a family and that’s a testament to Jared creating that atmosphere.
CB: A shoot like that could potentially be very uncomfortable because we had a sweltering day where we had to move the animals so they weren’t in the heat, then the next morning, we came back and it snowed during the night. Potentially, it would’ve been a very difficult shoot, but because we were all so well-invested in each other, we banded together like a family. That’s what makes that kind of shoot way more than bearable. [Also] with every good western, the landscape is a character in and of itself. It is its own creature and that brings you together as well. That whole existence out there in the time and when you come to shoot out there is difficult and slower, I think it just brought everybody together and gave it a richness that you wouldn’t find [shooting inside] a studio.
One of the things that’s so striking about the film is the way language is used – it allows you to be cryptic in some ways and more blunt and bolder in others. What was it like to write and what was it like to work with as actors?
JM: From a writing perspective, just the genre of the western, everything is expressed through action, so when I was writing it, I really had to think about how these characters would respond. No one would ever open up and have an emotionally feely sort of response, so I tried to set it up that none of these characters would ever come out and answer the question they were asked. Then coming up with the dialect, I read a lot of history and watched a lot of westerns and tried to find something to balance between the two because it’s always really tough when you have a period piece. You can go super authentic and people don’t understand what [is being said] — there’s a scene where Three Penny Hank says, “I swan,” which is a way of saying I swear back in the day. When I was getting notes, everyone was like, what does that mean? Just that one little word. So I had to be very careful, so it felt authentic, but also it was a way that it was understandable.
DC: Jared did a really, really beautiful job with crafting the language and there definitely was the period feel to it, an authenticity to it, but I never felt it got overly flowery. I never felt like it was making a meal of anything in my mouth, which a lot of the time [happens] with period stuff. I feel like writers tend to go overboard because we don’t really know how people spoke. All we have to go off of is letters and books, so the writing tends to be a lot more flowery. This was a really great balance of language that was both period-appropriate, but also felt casual in a way.
JM: That reminds me, there’s actually a Web site that lists pages and pages and pages of western terms. I tried to avoid all of those.
CB: Like I was talking about, I really enjoyed the landscape and I think the language that [Jared] used in writing, there is a real bluntness to it as there is a bluntness to our environment and our situation. At the same time, the audience has access to us through our honor, the humanness of us and how flawed we are, but I thought it was great how [Jared] captured that.
BJ: I liked the way it was an inadvertent history lesson. There were different aspects of their life in moments that felt really organic in the script — the way of talking like we’re not going to last the winter, “We have to stay here.” You’ve got an idea of what it would’ve been like to be in that time and how brutal an environment that is without it feeling like exposition.
CB: It’s not all epic, it’s everyday stuff.
BJ: It’s the same things that you deal with today. It felt oddly contemporary, and especially right now where we are within our culture, so it’s like the same issues in a different time period.
Since westerns have a long tradition about speaking about the period they’re produced in, do you feel this is a contemporary allegory as a whole?
JM: In a larger scope, I think a lot of the divisions in this country come from the Civil War. They were whitewashed over as part of Reconstruction, so I wanted to explore those divisions through this family that was literally ripped apart by the war and see it in a personal light. Someone came up to me after the movie and said it’s a Greek tragedy. It’s not a Greek tragedy because a Greek tragedy is about fate and the Gods are controlling it. This is more of a Shakespearean tragedy where each of the characters have a choice and they make the choice to stick to their ideals or their beliefs, what they want in a way, more so than the people who are in front of them. I feel like [in] our country that maybe you all got to think about the people and not just what we believe to be true.
There are a number of instantly iconic scenes from the film, some that are new such as seeing Clare’s Martha Kirkland firing a shotgun and some that may be familiar to fans of westerns when you see Barlow’s Wade McCurry standing outside the Kirkland’s doorway – how much do you want to play with touchstones of other films and yet somehow make it your own?
BJ: We had a field day because Dave and I, our friendship was forged through the research of the characters – doing the guns, learning about black powder. Dave was the one who taught me how to do it because he took lessons for it, so we’d go regularly to shoot guns. But you’re aspiring to make something your own and I think as much of it came out of the history of what [these characters] would do [in real life], because so many westerns have missed the mark on that. Our production designer Ruth De Jong and costume designer Courtney Hoffman just helped create this world so that the clothes you’re wearing and the tools you’re using around the house just made it feel like you couldn’t help but be a part of that environment.
DC: It was so nice to do a western that was so historically grounded. There’s so many films in the genre that while [they’re] period, it becomes a genre unto itself. There’s stylistic choices that happen in a lot of western films that aren’t really grounded in their history. [You’d notice] a gun like that wasn’t invented in 1870, it didn’t come along for 10 years and they never would’ve used it. I’m a huge history buff, so that was like really great for me was like what type of gun is this? Where did it come from? How would he hold it? Well, he would actually have it on a crossdraw because if you’re riding a horse, you need to be able to do that. Jared directed very conscious of a lot of the western conventions — like this type of shot is here, it’s like this here — then trying to make that your own.
BJ: To have a writer/director who has an encyclopedic knowledge of history, it was so valuable because he could just say immediately, “No, that’s not how it would be.” Jared can talk to you forever about film, but he’ll talk you to death about the Civil War.
CB: And that was such a privilege to have that kind of knowledge behind us and a wonderful costume department and set designers. They created that environment for us where…I’m a tiny little person and it’s a really badass thing to be able to hoist a big gun at somebody. But that’s gun is really heavy and the clothes that I was wearing…I don’t know how much that thing weighs, but…
DC: Oh that gun weighs like 13 pounds.
JM: [to CB] It was about as tall as you, wasn’t it?
DC: Yeah, it was about 5’1”.
CB: Yeah, David taught me to shoot it. I’ve shot guns before, but nothing like that. That made me feel like a force to be reckoned with. But to make it believable that a tiny little creature is holding a freakin’ hand cannon at somebody’s head and pulling it off …I don’t know, feeling the weight of our environment and the weight of even what she’s wearing and her surroundings and this huge implement that she has to use, I felt safe.
JM: You were the one holding the gun.