When I sat down to talk with Brian Savelson a day after his film premiered at SXSW, he was admiring my analog tape recorder when to his mild chagrin, I had to bring up that his film was in digital. If it seemed like a dig, it wasn’t intended as one since the crisp cinematography of Jeremy Saulnier illuminates the good old-fashioned relationship drama that’s at the core of “In Our Nature.” A four-hander requiring particular dexterity on the part of its cast, the film stars John Slattery and Zach Gilford as Gil and Seth, an estranged father and son who embark on the family’s retreat in the Northern New York woodlands with their girlfriends Vicky and Andie (Gabrielle Union and Jena Malone, respectively) in tow for a romantic weekend, unaware that the other will be there.
As if the country home were a Rubik’s Cube, Savelson constantly contorts the configuration of couples from Seth and Andi, a pair of vegans on the verge of leading less carefree lives as they enter their late twenties, and Gil and Vicky, who have established themselves professionally yet remain unsettled in their personal life, into all other permutations to confront the issues they haven’t been able to on their own over the long weekend. While things certainly can get tense between the quartet, there’s also a grace that emerges from “In Our Nature” as its characters cut across their different ages and backgrounds as they begin to understand each other. The warm dramedy is the first from the writer/director, who first made a splash at Slamdance with the animated short “Counting Water” and has since gone on to direct music videos for the likes of “Band of Horses” as well as producing the recent revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, and during the festival, he spoke with us about making that leap in addition to the real headaches of working in the woods, why he wanted to make a drama so intimate as a film, and when he was able to let out a sigh of relief during "In Our Nature"'s premiere at SXSW.
You’ve made an animated short and worked in the theater during the past few years, so how did you decide to make a feature film?
It’s interesting. Four characters in one location and lots of dialogue — while we were putting it together, people were asking why don’t you just do this as a play? I hope it’s evident now watching the film that my whole interest in making a film like this was to pull it out of a theatrical place and really focus on these kind of minute details — the nuance, the subtlety that takes place between people, the glances, the passing expressions of anger, humiliation or whatever it is that you can’t see onstage. So it was interesting for me to do something where it felt like it was the same theatrical trajectory, but it was very cinematic, very much about the closeup.
You’ve taken great pains to say this isn’t autobiographical.
Right, I keep saying the wrong thing about that. It just digs the hole deeper and deeper.
So how did you become interested in the story of these two couples?
It just started with the house, which is the fifth character in a sense. The first image in writing the script was this house and it’s funny because now I can’t even picture what that image was. All I can picture is the actual house we shot in because I looked at it so much while editing, but it was that same house and there were four people in it and at first, I didn’t know who they were. Then it became clear for whatever reason that it was these two couples that accidentally ended up there and they were both at pivotal moments in their lives. Somehow, the father/son thing came out of that and then I added this family element, which becomes more central. Setting limits like that – we’re in this house, two couples, a father and son – really helped develop all the tension and ultimately, it became a character study of four people, who they are equally.
Those four characters cover a lot of ground in terms of age, gender and race. Was that always there or did casting help shape those dynamics?
I had some of these actors in mind while writing these parts and what was most interesting about this casting process was taking these actors who I have long followed, but hadn’t seen them do these roles before. That was really exciting to me. Jena always plays a young role and [it] was interesting to see Jena and John Slattery [together in a scene] and Jena was the mature one. And John, of course we know as the slick Roger Sterling [on “Mad Men”] and here I felt we got to see a kind of sadder side of him and I’m excited to see like his [character’s] past come out. Gabrielle hasn’t gotten to do a role that was like this and I hope maybe now she’ll do more of them because she really was fantastic. Zach obviously is one of the most loved characters from “Friday Night Lights,” but we haven’t seen him play the kind of Brooklyn musician who’s having a hard time. With all of them it was about taking care of actors who I really, really appreciated and giving them roles that we haven’t seen them do before, even if it’s a subtle shift.
As a producer of theatrical productions, is it different pulling everything together for an indie film?
They’re definitely more similar than different because in both instances, you need to assemble a creative team and you need to get money to do it. Obviously, the chicken and the egg [situation] is I need to get a great cast for this, but in order to get a great cast, I have to have the project financed and in order to get the financing, I need to have a great cast. That’s always going to be the cycle that you have to somehow figure out. The difference is that for film, the commitment you’re asking for from your cast and crew is very short. It took us three weeks to shoot this, so I really only needed the actors for three weeks and a couple of days to rehearse whereas in the theater, you need more than that just to rehearse. You need a month of rehearsal at least and then a couple months of running time, so putting together a play, you really need people to commit for half a year whereas putting together a film you may only need one month.
It must have been an intense experience if during those three weeks you were all living together in a secluded place in upstate New York. Did that help inform what went on during shooting?
Absolutely. It all sounded great. It’s like we’re going to go up to this beautiful place right next to Woodstock — a gorgeous pond, a beautiful house. This is where people go to vacation. Then after a week, you’re like, this is not summer camp. Half the people have poison ivy. Someone got bit by a tic. We’ve been working for 18 hours a day. We’re sick to death of each other and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do and we’re all stuck here. So it was a more strenuous shoot than I had imagined, but I think that actually works to the film’s benefit because it comes out onscreen. You actually feel the tension there and that’s great.
There’s a great line in the movie where Zach’s character says, “The city tricks you into feeling like you’re not alone.” Do you think the natural setting exposed things?
That line almost got left on the cutting room floor, but I’m so glad you liked that. This is a film about New Yorkers who go up to the country every weekend and what happens when you take these city people who are so distracted normally and have so much going on and stick them all together in a place where they’re forced to connect. In a sense, there’s a double entendre in the title [since] they’re exploring the natural environment, but their own nature is also what we’re exploring. With each of these characters, a question that gets raised I hope is whether or not there’s anything that can be done about these relationships. All these relationships are fraught with a lot of criss-crossing tension for one reason or another — a father and a son, these two couples, between the girlfriends. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done about a broken relationship. John has a line at one point about not saying something because there’s too much to say. There’s a question for me about that.
How do you feel the premiere went?
It all feels like a culminating moment. Of course, it’s terrifying the first time you have an audience see a film. You have no idea what they’re going to do, but there’s an early scene when [Andie and Seth are] just pulling out of the parking spot [where they’re pinned in on a narrow street] and it goes on for a long time and when everyone got it, I thought oh, thank God, because that’s something I thought maybe in Texas, people may not get this. But everyone was there with it and I thought, they’re going to get this movie. And they did. People were there along for the ride.
“In Our Nature” does not yet have U.S. distribution. And stay tuned for our interview with Gabrielle Union about her breakout performance in the film next week.