Not all that long ago when Matt Sobel was attending a family reunion at his family’s farm in Nebraska, much like the one his 17-year-old protagonist Ryder (Logan Miller) does in “Take Me to the River,” he decided to conduct a bit of an informal social experiment. A rebellious teen from San Jose, California, he wanted to see how his relatives in the Midwest would react to him wearing a pair red short shorts.
While “Take Me to the River” goes on a wildly different course than what happened to Sobel in reality, based on a mortifying nightmare he had about being wrongly accused of a transgression in front of his entire family, those same short shorts can be seen in the film as well as the writer/director’s penchant for provocation. Unfolding at first as the story of a young man eager to spring on the rest of his clan that he’s gay, much to the apprehension of his parents Don and Cindy (Richard Schiff and Robin Weigert), the film pivots towards far more dangerous waters when they reach the farm of his grandmother (Elizabeth Franz) and a playful interaction between Ryder and his cousin Molly (Ursula Parker) ends in the young girl running from the barn, screaming with a blood stain on her dress. With no one sure of what happened between Ryder and Molly other than the two involved, anger fills in the void with past resentments reignited between Cindy and her brother Keith (Josh Hamilton).
Crafted with verbal precision and perhaps an even sharper eye, “Take Me to the River” finds a maelstrom in its modest trappings, watching as Ryder is cast out to the furthest reaches of the farm to collect himself as cold war between the rest of his family ensues. It is quite the arresting debut from Sobel, who graduated from UCLA with a fine arts degree and instills every frame of the film with both a sense of purpose and daring, allowing one to surrender themselves to nature, both human and agrarian, as its characters go in search of a resolution that may be forever elusive due to the way their geographic divide has shaped them over the years since Cindy and Keith first grew up together. Just a little over a year after its much talked-about premiere at Sundance, “Take Me to the River” is arriving in theaters across the country, opening this week in Los Angeles as part of its national run, and Sobel recently took a few moments to talk about the film’s striking visual approach, how it came alive in the hands of his actors and making the film on the same ground where he once wore the red shorts himself.
Very much so. It comes from a nightmare that I had, and the initial intent was to see if I could capture the visceral quality of it and put it in the film. That involved this semi-surreal, semi-uncanny feel to the whole thing, so one of the things that we decided pretty early on was that we wanted to send the audience mixed signals about how they should feel in a certain scene. So we’d have something that feels very strange and off-putting right next to something that feels very warm and welcoming, and right next to each other, I find those things make people pretty uncomfortable, [which was] how we approached that dreamlike quality.
You also portray distance in a really affecting way – between the characters and how they interact with their environment as well. Was that something that was also discussed from the start?
Yes. We spoke about the film beginning with a firm footing in realism, and then over the course of the film, as Ryder’s surroundings become more and more strange, the film [should] pick into this uncanny surrealism. As the motivations and situations of the characters in the second half of the film become more insidious and mysterious, I wanted the visuals to do the exact opposite – to become more and more like a child’s coloring book. The colors become more primary and the compositions to become more simple, [which] begins when [Ryder] goes back over to his uncle’s house on horseback, and then in the sunflower field is the first time we really spoke about pushing it in that direction.
And this was actually a farm that was in your family, right? Did you actually craft the film around that place?
It’s the house that my mother grew up in and I would go back to that farm every summer for a family reunion – that was when my dream was set. It just made sense to shoot the movie there. We looked at other locations that had more of an infrastructure for filmmaking that would double as Nebraska, but none of them felt quite right to me, so we decided to go with a place that I was intimately familiar with.
We definitely wanted to begin the film with what’s practically a cliché, incredibly bluntly with [Ryder] stating the problem, the setting and his intention all in the first line of the film. Our goal was to telegraph a different story to the audience than the one that we were about to show them. We wanted everyone to imagine that this was going to go the way that we’re used to seeing — a gay kid going to a family reunion and preparing to come out, and probably the whole family’s going to have a problem with it, but end up being eye-to-eye by the end — so that we could make the hard left turn that the story takes, when this incident happens in the barn, all the more shocking. Also, I wanted the sort of storytelling method to mirror our main character’s outlook on the world as he goes through a coming of age. He begins the story with a very black-and-white [way of] thinking of himself and his family — who’s right, who’s wrong — and ends the story with a much more muddied, nuanced and gray understanding of the situation.
You’ve actually said before that you had a much more antagonistic outlook towards the relationship between Ryder and his mother Cindy when it was on the page, but the actors softened it. Was it interesting to see what you had written take on a life of its own in that way?
Absolutely, because Ryder and Cindy’s relationship is definitely inspired by my mother and I. Quite often when I was writing the script, I would call my mom and sort of improv a scene with her, and I would write down some things that she said. The thing that [Ryder] accuses [Cindy] of, regressing in her speech and speaking like she’s not from California [once the family is in Nebraska], those are real things that people say and probably what my mother said.
In terms of [Cindy and Ryder’s] relationship, it’s probably a little bit too close for comfort for a 17-year-old and his mother. I mean, they’re camping and she’s out there trying to tickle him when he’s 17 and really wants to be his own man, not really knowing how and when to draw the line between them, and that’s all based on life. I was an only child as well, and I think that is pretty common with only children. Of course, it was great to see Robin and Logan bring their own take to it. I know that Robin brought a lot of her mother to the role as well and Cindy ended up being a hybrid of my mother and her mother.
About six months before we started shooting, Robin came on the project and we spoke regularly about elaborating the backstory in different drafts of the script. The draft that she read when we began was markedly different than the one that we ended up shooting and she’s an incredibly intelligent person, let alone an intelligent actor. Seriously, she could write philosophy textbooks if she wanted to, and she had quite a lot to say about the topics of childhood sexuality, the role that shame plays in adults [in admonishing] children for what is a natural exploration of our bodies and what that does to people, and the way it has played out in this family. Her input was really invaluable.
Did a lot of thought go into the red shorts that Ryder wears? It’s such a striking image, particularly in contrast to his surroundings.
I can’t really say what came first. I don’t know if I had a symbolic idea of what I wanted red to mean in our story yet, or I just bought red shorts, but what it ended up becoming was that there’s this tie between [Ryder’s] shorts and the bloodstain on [Molly’s] dress in the barn where they both sort of met for the first time, in my mind, and all those things are red, and we were very interested in foregrounding these primary colors – the blue sky, the green field, the red shorts, the red barn, the red bloodstain. All those things were really important – very vivid and prolific – to us in the production design and color grading.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting for you?
Oh, boy. The most memorable was when we were shooting the family reunion when the shit hits the fan [right after Ryder and Molly emerge from the barn], because the background actors didn’t have the script, so they didn’t know what was about to happen in the scene. I had rehearsed it, walking through the scene with the principal actors to get the blocking right before the background actors arrived and then while the principal actors were in hair and makeup, I placed the background actors and told them roughly, “There are going to be people running through here, so just don’t get in their way.” Then when we did the first take, that’s when we combined all the elements, so it was a little bit more like live interactive theater than a pre-rehearsed scene, because the people who are at these tables are just watching this action that was going on around them. Robin later confessed to me that it made her feel very naked and humiliated to be going through this sort of emotional upheaval in front of all these people who didn’t know what was about to happen, which I think served the story, because she’s supposed to feel incredibly naked in that moment. That was a very interesting day, but I was really happy that we ended up doing it that way.
Some of them were, yes, but the reality of it is that we needed too many background actors to stick exclusively to family members. A lot of them were from the local town. We put an ad in the paper and had a local casting call at the high school, and a lot of those folks came out too, but some were my family.
Now that you’ve spent time with it on the road, have your feelings changed about what you made?
At the time that we had the premiere, I had already done extensive feedback and test screenings, so I pretty much knew what to anticipate in terms of reaction. We showed numerous versions of the cut to different groups of people for the better part of four or five months. But what I was very pleasantly surprised by was how many doors the movie has opened for me in my career. I knew our film was going to be unpalatable for some and a difficult film even for those who are into this kind of thing, and I was pretty stunned at how many opportunities there were for future projects in a much more mainstream world as well. Now I’m working on a film [“The Scorpio Races”] with Focus Features that is very different than this one, but I’m equally interested in. I just never really expected this to be the entrée that it’s turned out to be.