It is with some surprise that Jenella Fern Shreaves (Leven Rambin) shows back up in Howell County, even on the occasion of her father’s funeral in “Lost Child.” Leaving years before to join the army as a way to escape the Ozarks, full of crawling critters she couldn’t stand of both the insect and human variety, Fern doesn’t receive many thank yous for her service upon her return, having burned most bridges, including that with her brother Billy (Taylor John Smith), when she got on a bus and figured she’d never look back. Still, no matter where she runs, she now can’t escape the memories of war, making her old home only as treacherous as anywhere else and having grown up there, the familiar threats are actually of some comfort since she’s dealt with them before.
However, about a half-hour into “Lost Child,” the unknown presents itself in the form of Cecil (Landon Edwards), a young boy Fern finds alone in the forest with no trace of family to speak of, and it’s then that the film announces that in spirit, if not with a title card, it’s a Ramaa Mosley film. For those lucky enough to have caught her 2012 debut “The Brass Teapot,” you will know what this means. After previously telling the tale of a young couple (Juno Temple and Michael Angarano) who discover a magic kettle that begins to fill with money every time they endure physical pain, Mosley and co-writer Tim Macy have crafted a story steeped in Southern Gothic lore, drawing out Fern’s internal demons while suggesting there may be real ones out there to fear as well and once again confirming Mosley’s considerable gift for making the unbelievable feel a part of a very real world.
Filmmakers who can so effortlessly blend fantasy and reality don’t come around often, but while that’s often because it’s such a specific skill, in the case of Mosley, it is also because her work hasn’t been as given as much of a chance to breathe, something I can attest to personally after being a part of the first audience to see “The Brass Teapot” when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011. Screened far away from the central downtown hub of the festival at the Isabel Bader Theater, it felt a world away from the star-studded galas that the festival is known for, and to my own shame, a subsequent interview with Mosley was squeezed in between others during a busy schedule on a couch in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, giving short shrift to the the quite literally fantastic comedy she had clearly poured everything into, only to see it get lost amidst a sea of higher-profile films with far more marketing but far less passion behind them.
It was later on that I discovered what a devastating experience this had been for Mosley, who I last remember smiling broadly as she handed me a faux, homemade $100 bill she used to promote “The Brass Teapot,” and while the director has kept busy making commercials in the interim, it would’ve been a great loss to cinema if the disappointment of her debut had prevented her from making a second feature. Fortunately, Mosley may be even tougher than the gritty folks she showcases in “Lost Child,” making a lean and mean character study that manages to be wondrous at the same time as Fern learns not to be so afraid of the unknown once more and as a result, takes the audience someplace new. Shortly before “Lost Child” hits theaters, Mosley spoke about making her way back from the muted reception to her first feature, setting up a production with many locals who had never worked on a film before, and working with the young child Edwards on an unforgettable performance.
After “The Brass Teapot,” I was waiting for the big studio — Marvel or Universal Studios — to contact me and make my next movie, but that wasn’t happening and I just was frustrated and depressed. After a few years, my husband was just like, “Let’s just go use our savings and go make a little movie.” Even though “The Brass Teapot” was definitely a little movie, what I made next was really, really small and I knew I was going to have to do it in a small town, so we could have the support of the community. So my writing partner Tim Macy said, “Let’s go to West Plains,” because his dad lives there. I had been looking at other towns across the Ozarks, but when I landed in West Plains, it was like immediately obvious that that was the place. People were so welcoming and the landscape itself is so beautiful – the woods and the hollers – so it just drew me to it.
Besides the central trio of actors – Leven Rambin, Jim Parrack and Taylor John Smith – I understand most were locals, though you wouldn’t know it. What was it like to get that mix?
When I first went to make it, the whole plan was going to be I was going to [be the cinematographer], we were going to shoot it only with local people and it was really going to be the three of us – my husband, myself, my writer and the local talent. We didn’t even dream the dream of having Leven Rambin or Taylor John Smith be a part of it. I have been directing for 20 years now and I’ve done a lot of commercials working with real people, so I have a real love of working with talent that’s never been in front of the camera and helping them to take on a character and express themselves and I knew it was going to be instrumental making the movie. It really was. From the antagonist Sid Carl to our lead actor [Landon Edwards, who plays] Cecil, we cast these incredible local people who had never been in anything, let alone the front of a movie.
What led you to pursue the more established talent?
It was because I gave the script to my friend Gina Resnick, who I had been connected [with] for a number of years, ever since “The Brass Teapot.” We wrote the script really fairly quickly in five weeks and I headed out to the Ozarks and like I said, this was part-therapy and obviously a lot about just making something creative and getting it done. So [Gina] heard what I was doing and when she read the script, she [said], “Hold on. Let me see if I can get you some more support and get you a casting director.” When she started sending the script out, people really started responding to it and all of a sudden, we had a number of incredibly talented actors wanting to come on and support the film.
What sold you on Leven to play the lead?
When you go into the Ozarks and you’re making a small movie where you have no trailers or a big production team, everyone from your production assistants all the way up to your actors have to be really willing to go in, because essentially it’s like saying “We’re going into the jungle on a hike and you’re only allowed to bring this backpack full of things.” So are they going to want to go on that adventure? In this case, I wanted to find an actor who was really capable of doing the hard work and who had done training and who could access the emotions they needed to access [with] range and depth. That was Leven. From day one, she understood that we had a Port-a-Potty and a crew of a total of 12 people and we were living out of a dorm and she embraced it. She did her research and she brought every tool that she had to embodying this role, and what I got was even so much greater in her because of her incredible commitment to authenticity and to really investigating and doing research.
You do such a strong job of creating the world around her performance as well, particularly in the sound design where you could really feel the nature all around her and also mixing in the echoes of PTSD and war. How did you go about that?
That was incredibly important to the whole film and we worked with an incredible composer/sound designer [team] Chris Maxwell and David Baron. It was very important to me from the beginning to the end that the film had the sound of the Ozarks, which is filled with so many insects and the sound of the wind going through trees. And there’s sound, but in some cases, also an absence of sound and we played with really utilizing captured audio as a score. There’s a lot less music in this movie than there was in “The Brass Teapot” because we wanted to really create a sense of place through the auditory senses, so we did a range of things from spending a lot of time out in various parts of the Ozarks, just recording the audio to creating music in the studio that wasn’t is not made up of tone and notes.
While “The Brass Teapot” was pretty grounded, you could go bigger with some of the fantastical elements since it was a comedy. Was it any different doing a drama?
I really wanted it to be a character-driven story and we obviously wanted it based in honesty and truth and genuine emotions [in both], but “The Brass Teapot” was more in the range of “Witches of Eastwick” and “War of the Roses” [with] heightened feeling [whereas] with “Lost Child,” the intention was really to create a sense of reality from the very beginning. Tone was crucial, and I tend to like films that are tweeners. I don’t make it easy on myself. I don’t just do a drama. I do a dramatic thriller that makes you think it’s a supernatural film. I tend to like complex films and those are not actually easy to pull off well, but the mystery, the legend, and the folklore [of the Ozarks] was so important to us because both Tim and I love to use those as metaphors.
In this particular case, those [stories] become metaphors for the way people treat others. There’s xenophobia and in parts of the world and especially our country right now, people look at other people, whether they’re a different skin color or a different ethnicity or nationality, as being dangerous, so that’s why [you see it through the eyes] of a child who is abandoned. So many children are abandoned in this country and then no one adopts them – it’s so backwards [where] kids who need homes and have been mistreated should be taken care of, but instead they’re looked at as troubled or damaged, and I was really drawn to using this element of the folklore, and you could say it’s fantastical, but it was really a way to get to something true, which is that we tend to be afraid of things that we don’t understand or know.
That was an incredible process. Landon was from Cabot, Arkansas and he had never acted before. A local casting team called Breakthrough Casting had done a lot of my background casting for “Brass Teapot,” so I invited them to work on this film and they flew out to the Ozarks and traveled around, essentially putting up flyers everywhere saying, “We’re making movies. We’re looking for young children. We’re looking for adults. Come and audition.” Landon’s mom saw the poster up at the local school and just decided, “Oh, I’ll bring Landon. He’s always joking around at home. Maybe he’d be interested.”
When he came in and I saw that tape, I was just struck by him. First of all, the Ozark accent is so specific and so strong. Second of all, he’s a kid who spends his days climbing trees and hunting – his grandfather has spent such a huge amount of time taking him out into the woods. So we invited him to callbacks to meet with me and working with children, especially children who haven’t acted, [you learn] you’re not dealing with people who are going to understand how to use the tools as an actor to use actionable verbs to create emotion – it just doesn’t work that way. To some degree, you can use some basic directions like, “Okay, you’re running – just run.” But in general, the best way I have learned to work with young children is to have them access memories and feelings that they can then call upon in scenes that have intensity.
There’s two things that I do – one is to have them do what they normally would do, [which] in Landon’s case was running, climbing trees, cleaning the house – when we interviewed him, we talked about his day. He talked about how he wakes up early, does the chores and makes his sister lunch. This is a child who is helpful and independent, so I worked with that. Then I asked him, “Tell me about anything that has made you sad. Tell me the times you felt abandoned or lost” and he talked about his cousin, who he’s very, very close with who took him hunting and had to move [away]. I realized from there, we could access this memory, and I do this in a way that’s respectful. I get permission first. We talk a lot about why it’s important. I don’t just use it like recklessly to cause upset, but during the filming, we would utilize these memories that were distressful for him and he was a partner in it. From the beginning, he understood that it had to feel real to be able to embody Cecil and he had no other tools but his life experiences to do that.
So it was remarkable to work with him because he wanted to be the character of Cecil, he wanted to portray him and he was willing to use things that were really real and personal to his life to portray the emotions necessary.
What’s it been like traveling with this and putting it out into the world?
It’s been really great. My first film wasn’t successful and obviously that’s a great festival – I love TIFF, but I didn’t get a chance to connect with audiences. It’s a buyers’ market and mostly those are the people I was interacting with, whereas with this film, I’ve gone to so many beautiful, small festivals in the area where our film was made and across the Midwest and people have just responded to it so positively. Everyone from veterans to people who worked with children in children’s services has come up and talked about what it meant to them, so it’s been a much more personal process and very, very meaningful.
When I set out to make this film, I didn’t know it would ever show at a festival, honestly. We were making it for $15,000, so the idea of a festival was like a pipe dream, and to be able to have audiences see the film is exciting because we went into it with a spirit of play. Let’s make it for ourselves. And in filmmaking, there’s so much pressure when you make a movie because of the expense that goes into it, so unlike songwriting or painting, you don’t get to just practice. That’s what this was. Let’s explore some important ideas that we wanted to talk about and then ultimately the fact that the film was able to go to festivals and get a distributor and now go into theaters is really a huge gift to all of us.