If it weren’t for a few license plates, you might not know “Sweet Virginia” was actually set in Alaska, but the chill in the air could also give it away. It isn’t any wonder why so few seem to be milling around outside in the remote town of Fairville, but as Jamie M. Dagg’s enthralling second feature unfurls, it becomes obvious that the weather is less a concern for those who have drifted so far north than the ability to hide. For Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former bull rider who runs the titular hotel, it’s provided a refuge from the march of time, slowing down a rough-and-tumble life that has left him with the shakes, while he and his desk clerk (Odessa Young) check in guests who mostly hang the “do not disturb” sign on their door. He discovers an exception in Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a hitman who doesn’t reveal himself as such to Sam immediately, but does so for the audience, taking out the husbands of Sam’s lover Bernie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her friend Lilah (Imogen Poots) in the film’s opening frames and lying low as others scramble to figure out what he’s done while pondering illicit acts of their own.
Although this might make the motel sound like it isn’t the greatest vacation spot, “Sweet Virginia” the film is about as entertaining a piece of escapism as they come. Filled with a strong ensemble relishing the chance to play characters who (mostly) can no longer afford to have a strong moral code but boast survival instincts to spare, the taut thriller spools out like molasses, playing out in long, drawn out takes that tantalize with the mind games being played between the residents of Fairville as they find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into trouble. Abbott, in particular, shines as Elwood, who probably hasn’t watched a lot of movies, but never wastes an opportunity to take a confrontation you may have seen before and turn it on its head, adapting to any room he’s in. In a film where death always seems just a few footsteps away, the unpredictable turns by a gifted cast, as well as the ones to be found in the China Brothers’ fiendishly clever script, breathe new life into the film noir genre. Following the film’s premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Sweet Virginia” is sneaking into theaters and onto VOD this weekend and Abbott and Dagg shared how they got involved in such dangerous business, reconsidering the use of violence in the film’s elaborately-staged setpieces to allow it to resonate more, and the challenge of getting the film’s electrifying final stretch just right without much time.
Jamie M. Dagg: Even though the script itself was tonally quite different from the film that we ended up making, I really liked the portrayal of people in this small town and how that lack of anonymity affects the relationships that people have. I also liked the portrayal of these morally ambiguous characters as they navigate life, dealing with love and death.
Christopher Abbott: There was also a lot of room in the script to play with, which is what I was attracted to. It wasn’t necessarily overwritten, so there was room for interpretation, and that’s always nice.
You’ve said initially, this was set in 1970s Virginia – how did that evolve into contemporary Alaska?
Jamie M. Dagg: Have you ever been to Alaska? It’s one of the furthest places you can go in North America and it’s ruggedly beautiful, but I spent some time there years ago and I felt like it’s a place that does attract drifters, people who are trying to flee their past, not unlike the characters in “Sweet Virginia.” The thing with Virginia [was that] I didn’t want [the film] to become a Southern noir. Alaska’s a place you don’t really see portrayed on film all that frequently and visually, I think it’s a more interesting place to shoot as well [with] the mountains there, even though we shot in British Colombia in a place called Hope, which you may have seen before in such films as “Rambo: First Blood” and the latest “Planet of the Apes” film. Originally, it was set during this heat wave and where we were shooting, there were a lot of low-hanging clouds and mist and it felt more ominous to me than Virginia.
Christopher Abbott: I was signed on pretty early to the project, so Jamie and I got to chat quite a bit about the project before we started shooting and what we agreed upon [immediately] is to try and sidestep any cliches or tropes that would normally be [associated with] a classic antagonist or villain like this, and to try to come from a place of research into mental health – not to play [Elwood] as venomous just for the sake of it, but to really figure out the why of everything and why he is the way he is with certain characters. So it was fun to truly get into the psychology of it and to create something in that way.
The film has a lot of long fluid takes, uninterrupted by cuts that allow you to really sink into conversations and action. Did that style of shooting come to mind immediately?
Jamie M. Dagg: Not really. I obviously have influences in my filmmaking from various cinematographers and directors, but it wasn’t until I really started looking at locations when I started seeing the visual language that I wanted to utilize to tell this story. On one side of it, we only had 21 days to shoot this, so we needed to come up with a language that was efficient, just due to the lack of time, so there are quite a few single takes in this.
Another part of the reason for doing it that way was more tonal in how I wanted to portray violence in this film. The script was originally really bloody and intense and I thought if I portrayed it exactly how it was written that it would take away from the story. The violence seemed almost exploitative, like violence for the sake of violence, so I thought it was interesting [because] when you’re watching people fight, it’s often at a distance. You’re not in there close in the action and to me, [a lot of the long takes] felt a bit more realistic that way, how we covered it.
There’s a really marvelous scene where Elwood has to dispatch two guys before getting to a phone booth that plays out like that, where what you don’t see makes it even more intense. What was that like to figure out?
Jamie M. Dagg: We toned down the violence in that scene. Originally, baseball bats were involved and a bunch of stuff and we made it a bit more contained. A lot of it’s obscured by a truck, which seemed like the best way to do that because I wanted that voyeuristic feel to it, but like any oner, there’s quite a few working pieces and if one thing falls apart then you have to reset and go and do the whole thing again. That was the last thing we shot.
If that wasn’t it, was there a particularly challenging day of shooting on this?
Jamie M. Dagg: The most challenging stuff was that whole end sequence and it was more about having the light match [between the different things going on in different places, but simultaneously] because you’ve got from Maggie and Sam [going] to Elwood’s confrontation with Sam, everything in the hotel room and the final shootout. It’s a considerable amount of pages to get through and we had to spread that out and that lighting has to match [in each situation] because it’s got to feel just like crack of dawn, so we shot it actually at the end of the day. The mountain that was to the west of us saved us – it gave us about 35 minutes each day over a period of four days to shoot that entire sequence – and what we would do is rehearse later in the afternoon and get it all dialed in and it was just boom boom boom boom boom. And most of that stuff was done in a single take because that’s all we had time to do. When you’re working with actors like Chris and Jon [Bernthal] and Odessa [Young], you’re always going to get something great with every take, so I wasn’t really worried about that. But [I was stressing] more about the amount of set-ups, especially any time you’re using firearms and all that stuff [where it] always slows the process down considerably. But we got through it and it all looks like it matches.
I’ve heard that the ending of the film actually changed based on a conversation you had on the day. Was it loose on set in that way in general, where you could really scrutinize scenes and they could evolve? [SPOILERS AHEAD]
Christopher Abbott: Jamie was very open to everyone’s input – how did that come about with the last scene?
Jamie M. Dagg: Originally, it was more of a stereotypical two guys at a standoff and I rewrote it the day before after speaking with Chris and Jon. We had a couple of different options and Chris had an idea where [Elwood] puts the gun in the trunk and then there’s something deliberate about the way [Jon Bernthal’s character] Sam kills him at the end. It’s not in self-defense. And I thought that fit more into the morally ambiguous nature of these characters.
Christopher Abbott: Yeah, there’s something not expected of a few of those moments, which I liked. When Sam says to Elwood, I need you to put the gun down and he just does immediately, in a very nonchalant kind of way, that’s anticlimactic in such a nice way.