Though it is largely set in a fleabag motel in a dusty corner of Arizona, you can never quite place “The Frontier,” which is a considerable part of its allure. Filmed in lusciously grainy 16mm, Oren Shai’s feature debut bursts with color, its cast of shady characters all threatened to be exposed in the harsh desert sun as the motel can count the bandits behind a $2 million heist as guests and the owner (Kelly Lynch) has recently hired Laine (Jocelin Donahue), a new waitress for the motel diner whose tucked-away bloodstained blouse suggests she’s got something to hide as well. But what illegal activity has transpired beforehand is only gradually revealed, particularly when a local cop (A.J. Bowen) starts poking around, and while “The Frontier” draws on noirs and potboilers past for inspiration, it has a modern sensibility when it comes to building suspense, giving each character their due as well as a motive to check out of the motel after a long night with the stolen cash, though many would be lucky to simply leave with their lives.
During its premiere last year at SXSW, Shai and cast members Donahue, Bowen and Izabella Miko, who revels in slipping into the fine linens of Gloria, the wife of the British gangster Flynn (Jamie Harris), sat down to discuss the film, which is making its LA premiere tonight at the Egyptian Theater and is now available on VOD, and dish on its inspirations and what it’s like to have characters with secrets to keep to themselves.
Oren Shai: I was introduced by a mutual friend, to my writing partner [Webb Wilcoxen] at a screening of a movie called “Frankenhooker”…
Izabella Miko: Now we’re all wondering, “is my character based on Frankenhooker?” It could be …
Oren Shai: No, you were more of a Gloria Grahame in the script, which is good. But [Webb Wilcoxen and I] sat down, and we both had very similar sensibilities, wanting to make a hard-boiled crime film. We just started writing and there were some ideas he had and some ideas I had, and they went together well. It took a couple years to write the script, but we finished it and then we started to work on getting it made.
Izabella Miko: When I saw “Condemned,” I was so impressed by [Oren’s] style and his vision of storytelling and it was so great to see a strong female lead in that. And there’s another great female anti-hero in this — a thief stealing from even more hardened criminals. You don’t really see that these days, so it was special.
Jocelin Donahue: That’s also part of what makes this film special. You really don’t expect all of it to just go so wrong, and it just keeps getting worse and worse in terms of what one would expect. There’s something old school about that, and I don’t know if you like those Tarantino – Lynch comparisons…
Oren Shai: [laughs] No, I’m happy with those.
Jocelin Donahue: Those are pretty good — that’s what I feel. Oren had such a strong vision for the film. Obviously, it’s very stylized and for me, that’s so important because there is something about going to the movies, and seeing something beautiful and move you at the same time. That’s what old films were about and that’s what this is about too.
A.J. Bowen: When [Oren] sent me the script, the first thought that I had was that it’s so stylized, and I needed a code ring to read the script. I’m used to making movies with people multiple times, so after the first movie, typically you’re like, “Okay, now I know how to read this. I know why I’m here and I know how to interpret this.” But since we didn’t really know each other, we met and what was going to be a 30-minute meeting just to talk about the script turned into a three-hour discussion of not the script so much, but mostly movies and sensibility. It was like a really epic speed date. When I read the script, it reminded me of two movies that I’m really fond of — “The Third Man” and “Bus Stop,” which I brought up towards the end of our conversation, and [Oren] happened to have a look book. He just opened it up to a page that had a still of “Bus Stop” and I was really excited to re-read the script with that in mind. I knew the DP [Jay Keitel] – we’re friends and he’s a really talented DP who’s hardcore about shooting on film, and I’ve been wanting to work with Jocelin again in an environment where I wasn’t getting my eye gouged out by her, so hearing about the cast that came on board [after], I thought, “Wow, this is really cool.” And it was fun… it was really cold.
Izabella Miko: There’s a lot of desert stuff outside and when you watch it, you have no idea that we were literally freezing. I thought, “I’m dying inside.” At one point when I was laying there on this cold, cold pavement [during] an incredibly long scene, I wasn’t supposed to move and it was all dialogue. I cried a little bit and that’s what people don’t know that actors go through — not that this is so, so hard, a lot of jobs are way harder — but it’s interesting to see that you can’t tell that we were freezing. It just looks stunning. And that one location, so many films were shot there.
You do get to have it both ways with a throwback look and a contemporary feel. Is this an interesting world to create?
Oren Shai: Yeah, and I’m not even sure that I would necessarily use the word contemporary in the sense [though] I wanted to appeal to a contemporary audience, and I’m not really looking at those movies [from the past] and saying I want to do a throwback — it’s more like these are the type of movies I like. It’s not trying to be a homage to Noir, it’s trying to be just a noir that could have been made back then, but now. In terms of the influences, it takes from things like “Kansas City Confidential” which has a similar-ish plot with the idea of a bunch of criminals coming to one location, and 1970s noirs like “The Long Goodbye” and “Night Moves” and Robert Altman’s “3 Women,” which were huge. I agree with you that there’s definitely “Blue Velvet” in there, and other influences I can’t escape, but it’s a very natural progression. It wasn’t like this is what it needs to be, it’s just this is what we’re doing.
Jocelin Donahue: It’s great as an actor to have a secret to play — Laine’s a very mysterious, opaque character, and she’s always trying to keep up appearances, but no one really knows what she’s running from or who she is. To always have that [secret], and to try to keep it even in scenes where you’re trying to get something from the other actors — trying to play the other characters off of each other, and seeing the dynamics between [Jamie Harris’ character] Flynn and Gloria, and trying to mess that up for them — it is great to have that dramatic irony where you know something that the other characters don’t.
Izabella Miko: Gloria was very transparent, which was actually really fun for me to play because she was like a child in a way.
A.J. Bowen: I think that the morally grey zone is the best role for an actor to live in. They’re the most interesting type of characters because you have to make sure that you’re not, as a person, passing judgement on their behavior or actions. I always say that my main job is defense lawyer for my character. In terms of secrets, I just remembered one, and it wasn’t even really a secret. We’ve talked about all these different movies for reference points, but the largest one for me was a movie that came out a little before this movie was taking place, so my character would have seen it — “Walking Tall.” It was his favorite movie, and he definitely thinks of himself as Buford Pusser [played by Joe Don Baker]. It completely impacted the way that we had Officer Gault look and the way that he moved — that literally led to the red shirt that Gault wears in the movie, because [Oren and I] talked about it back and forth. That ended up being a secret and there’s no relevance, other than for me and Oren, but it puts things down in a path and then impacts everything else like how you’re going to see other [characters]. For Gault, he definitely thinks he’s the smartest person whenever he’s in a room, and the way that he inadvertently acts [because of that] — where he’s fascinated by everything — is ultimately what leads to him figuring [things] out because he’s so interested.
“The Frontier” will be screening in Los Angeles on November 19th at the Egyptian Theater and is now available on VOD and will be available on iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, Hulu and Blu-Ray & DVD on December 6.