Bruce Thierry Cheung had been scouting locations for his solo feature debut “Don’t Come Back From the Moon” when he came across a bar in California’s Imperial Valley that unexpectedly offered more than an ideal setting for his film’s climactic scene. A veritable oasis in the often scorching hot desert, Cheung had struck up a conversation with one of the bar’s patrons Jeremiah Noe, while scoping out the place for the scene in which his central character Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg) realizes the cyclical nature of his family’s shaky history in the region from talking with his uncle who had fled from it himself.
“I was looking for non-actors to fill out some of the world and one of my producers suggested, ‘Hey, why don’t we audition Jeremiah for this character [of the uncle],’” recalled Cheung, shortly before the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “Our DP [Chananun Chotrungroj] pulled out her [camera] and we improvised. I told him about the character and some themes of the film – fatherhood and abandonment of children — and he did a cold audition for me that was so stunning when I came out of that, I knew we had to cast him.”
Cheung has always been known for his strong eye, serving as the cinematographer on many of James Franco’s directorial efforts in recent years, but the casting of Noe represents more than just recognizing someone being right for the crucial role, a gamble that pays off like many others in the frequently daring adaptation of Dean Bakopoulos’ “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” which may survey a barren wasteland in which fatherless teens run rampant in search of direction, but suffers from no such aimlessness itself. Centering on Mickey, whose father (Franco) has left town and his family behind — or as the locals say, “gone to the moon” — in search of work, the film has the burden of quantifying absence rather than presence as Mickey finds a kindred spirit in Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), a young woman who plans to hitchhike to find her dad before the pull of her peers reels her back in. Observing a different kind of family forming within the community, one where the adults tend to have far more apprehension about the future than the young, Cheung captures the exhilaration and fear inherent in having to grow up fast in a place where time would seem to stand still.
The writer/director recently took the time to talk about the opportunity he found in a capturing a place where it’s so difficult for many to find it for themselves, as well as how he elicited lively performances from a young cast and the color that set the mood for the film.
It happened one day on set, we were shooting a film [that] James Franco was directing and he gave me a copy of Dean Bakopoulos’ book “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” during one of our lunch breaks. I read it and I fell in love with the characters and the world of the book — this abandoned town that has been left behind by America as it keeps growing — right away. When I was reading the book, it made me realize at the time that I was the same age as my father was when he had his first child, which was me, so the book really made me think about myself and whether or not I was ready to become a father like he was. I really wanted to explore how it feels to take full responsibility and those feelings of fatherhood, so I spent about two years developing the script. Because I’m a cinematographer, I would develop it during my free time and about a year-and-a-half ago, everything lined up and we were ready to shoot it. James Franco came on as an executive producer, his production company came on and helped put the movie together and we were able to find a role for Rashida Jones. When she came onboard, we were able to secure financing for the film and then we made it out in the Imperial Valley.
It seems like the Rabbit Bandini productions have a certain infrastructure. What is it like to work within that?
Yeah I feel like every Rabbit Bandini production is very different. This project is a much smaller scale than the other projects we’ve done in the past through the company, so I felt very lucky because I was given a lot of creative freedom to cast the film and to shoot locations and to set the pace of the schedule. The budget was so small that it [felt] like lower stakes, so we had more creative freedom to pursue a vision, which I felt very blessed by and Rabbit Bandini is a very director-driven production company. They really support directors and advocate for them too, so I felt very supported. How we shot it was also very run-and-gun out in the desert and we relied on the generosity of the people in the community and also the generosity of our collaborators.
Was this actually a place where there were a lot of abandoned places already or did you have to create some of that environment?
One of the things I learned in film school was one of the most important things you should do as a filmmaker is choose the right actors and choose the right environment, especially when you have limited resources. If you choose wisely with those things, everything else comes alive. So we spent a long time scouting, looking for the right place to film in, and we eventually settled on the Salton Sea because it offered a community and world that was texturally right for the script. There was a lot of production design involved, but the world was very abandoned already. We shot in Bombay Beach, a resort town in the 1960s [that] because of environmental shifts and economic shifts was eventually abandoned, but the people that still live around there are great people to make the movie.
Dean was credited with as a co-writer. What was it like to adapt this with the actual author?
Fantastic. He gave me so much freedom with the adaptation because his book is set in Michigan in a Rust Belt town, but because he was really open to us shifting it to a desert farming community in California. He was really open-minded about it because he knew that I still wanted the characters and the themes of the book and collaborating with him was great. I remember during the editing process he had a couple roadblocks regarding the edit and the voiceover, but he was so accessible, I could e-mail and call him and he’d make suggestions and give voiceover options so quickly, it really helped the movie and gave it more meaning.
The kids are so natural in this, was there a key to getting those performances?
Every actor was different and in pre-production and when we weren’t shooting, we had a lot of deep talks about our personal experiences. With young actors, I prefer to direct from the heart versus intellectually, and because we had a lot of talks about our personal lives and feelings we were feeling in their youth and my youth, we connected that way and it helped elevate the movie and gave new ideas on how to approach things. I wanted to encourage their point of view [for the final film] and sometimes they have interesting ways of behaving naturally that is so great to capture, so as often as possible I made sure to make the equipment invisible so they could just be. We [also] had a very tight schedule so there were a lot of days where we were under the gun so to speak, in terms of like time, and as a director, I try to stay calm in those situations. I don’t want the actors to feel that stress and I feel lucky and grateful that the cast was comfortable enough to open up while working on the film.
Knowing your cinematography background, how did you figure out the color palette for this?
Yeah, I remember the skies were so pink and gorgeous and around sunset and when my cinematographer and I saw that, we wanted to build the whole look of the film based on that [since] that’s my memory of being out there. And it was something that we didn’t know what it was until we found it, but we saw that pink sky and started making decisions based on it. When we have [a defining] color, the [other] colors should rhyme with it, like shades of blue that rhyme with it or shades of pink. During the color correction, we gave the film a very 1980s, Super 16 feel and tone, which was a nice contrast to the pastel tones we were shooting with, and it all came together. We got a very generous grant from Panavision that allowed us to have great cameras on the project and if it wasn’t for those cameras, I don’t think we would’ve been able to capture the sky in all its radiance or the textures on the set.
Did you have a strong sense for the score early as well?
Oh yeah, Johnny Jewel is one of my creative heroes and I was so nervous about asking him to collaborate with me because his music means so much. We had met a couple times before and we had some great talks in the past, but I reached out to him to collaborate on this project and he was excited about it. His music was able to reveal shades of the characters that were maybe a little bit hidden, and [the music is] like another character in the film. It really helped me find the tone of the film because there’s a mystery to it and the excitement of youth to it, like this badass rawness while also being sensitive and emotional. And it echoes the cinematography and the performances in a very strong way. When I mentioned earlier about the generosity of collaborators, I felt lucky to work with a composer like Johnny and a cinematographer like Chananun Chotrungroj because these are people who had never met before, but in this project, the work that they both did, they echoed each other, and brought it together in a way I was excited about.
“Don’t Come Back From the Moon” opens on January 18th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and New York at the Cinema Village.