In the five years since Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin finished their first feature “Now, Forager,” much had changed in the indie filmmaking world and for the methodical directing duo who were aiming to do something more ambitious for their follow-up “Barracuda,” the speed at which a film could be made wasn’t quite lining up with the time it takes to make a good one.
“Once it’s out in the world that you went into production, the pressure to get that film turned around is immense,” says Cortlund. “[Having] digital technicians on set not just ingesting the footage so you can watch dailies before you leave at the end of the day, but they have editors assembling the film so you can practically watch a cut at the wrap party — these are all great things, but at the same time, they put pressure on getting it out and we’re very much about the craft of making sure it’s the right story, the right cut, and the right decisions that get made.”
That pressure, however, has yielded another gem for the filmmakers. After previously trudging through the woods of upstate New York with a pair of married wild mushroom hunters in their charming debut, Cortlund and Halperin take a turn towards darker territory with “Barracuda,” a cunning psychological thriller as slippery as the fish it takes its name from that finds inspiration in equal measure from the elusive murder mysteries of Claude Chabrol and Texas honkytonks. Set in Austin, where high-rises have taken up residence on the same streets once known for the clubs that made the city the live music capitol of the world, “Barracuda” follows a young woman named Sineloa (Sophie Reid) to the doorstep of Merle Klein (Allison Tolman), the daughter of the late local guitar legend Wayne Klein, to inform her that she’s her half-sister. With the revelation that Wayne started another family in the British Isles, Merle’s blood runs colder than the leftovers she nearly drops upon hearing the news, and tensions are already running high as she has a wedding to plan with her fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada). Yet in Sineloa, who craves to hear more about their father being a singer/songwriter herself and is refreshingly free of the baggage associated with all of her other relationships as the big day approaches, Merle grows increasingly comfortable confiding in her, despite signs that Sineloa may not be who she presents herself as.
While Cortlund and Halperin induce the kind of sweat typical of a destabilizingly humid autumnal day in Central Texas, it’s how coolly crafted “Barracuda” is that gets under the skin. Merle and Sineloa’s delicate dance around each other as sudden siblings is fascinating to watch, not only because Reid and Tolman give themselves over so completely to the women who share a connection that neither entirely understands and may not be explained by blood, but in the way that every frame of the film tells a story within itself with Cortlund and Halperin’s attention to detail. As chilling a story as “Barracuda” may tell, the skill with which it’s told is equally, if not more, staggering and on the eve of its release in theaters after premiering at SXSW earlier this year, the filmmakers spoke about returning to their native Austin for their latest film, the importance of the music in the story and articulating unspoken relationship dynamics visually.
How did this film come about?
Jason Cortlund: After we made “Now, Forager,” Julia and I moved back to Austin, where we went to graduate school, from New York, and we really wanted to make a story that was grounded in that place we knew really well and was part of the landscape in the same way that “Now, Forager” was really all about that New York/New Jersey wild land. We also were invited to an artist residency at Yaddo and that got us thinking about [mysteries] because that’s where Patricia Highsmith wrote “Strangers on a Train.” She’s really one of our favorite authors and she’s from Fort Worth originally, which a lot of people don’t know. So we started thinking about Texas, female characters and suspense – and music just seemed to be a natural extension of trying to construct the story we based around the idea of a murder ballad.
The early scenes of Sineloa walking into Austin, capturing all the redevelopment that’s going on downtown, reminded me of any time I go back there since I’m so amazed with how much it’s changed in the past 15 years. Did you actually find that informed the perspective of these half-sisters?
Jason Cortlund: Absolutely. There was an interesting NPR story that we heard right around the time we were writing this that talked about nostalgia as a mental illness, so the sister who grew up in Austin is not in a position to have any illusions about what Texas is and what that culture or that vibe was because she saw it firsthand, warts and all. And this other daughter [Sineloa], who grew up as kind of a hyphenated Texan in England, has this image of Texas cast in amber as this romantic place and part of the rupture of the film has to do with having to reconcile the vision you have of the place with the reality of it. That tension between old and new and romance and reality is very much in play in the relationship between the sisters and in the psychology of the characters.
Did you have to have to have a pretty strong idea about Wayne’s musical history and career before developing the relationship between the sisters?
Julia Halperin: The first song that Sineloa plays, “Wax Wing,” is a song that Jason co-wrote with Colin Gilmore, who served as our music consultant. Colin is the son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a big legend in Texas music who was a member of the Flatlanders and had a solo career. From your time in Austin, you may have known there are people who grew up with those legendary musicians as their parents — specifically, their fathers in most cases — and that in a lot of cases, it’s a complicated legacy. There might be a lot of love and admiration for their parents, but the parents might have also been on the road or otherwise kind of not that present, so just from the community of Austin,we had the sense that there is this second wave [of children of musicians] and some of those people are musicians, bringing the environment they grew up in and the talent they inherited in to their own careers, and some of them have chosen other things for their lives.
Then there are some other influences. Margaret Brown made a great documentary about Townes Van Zandt, “Be Here to Love Me,” and then there’s also the classic “Heartworn Highways” about Guy Clark and some of those ‘70s outlaw country musicians in their early days. Both of those films are so vivid in the way that they represent this movement that’s not like commercial country music is today. It’s like an outgrowth of folk music [or] a hippie/drug-oriented genre, so I think we had a very clear picture of the backstory of who Wayne Klein was as a person and then Jason co-wrote some with Colin. The song “Poor Old Poseidon” is a song that a really talented songwriter named Doug McKean wrote that just seems like a perfect song that Wayne would’ve written for Sineloa and her mother, so it was a pleasure to think about and imagine and listen to music to get a clear picture of who he would’ve been.
How did you find Sophie to play Sineloa?
Jason Cortlund: We really stuck to our guns in terms of holding out for someone who could act, play guitar and sing in that role. We talked to a lot of casting directors, a lot of producers along the way and a lot of potential investors who just wanted to put the biggest name possible in that role and with guitar-playing, I think we all know the difference, especially people who spent time in Austin. When you’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes in that way, it’s just not the style of filmmaking that we’re interested in. So we auditioned between 400-500 [people], some actresses who could play and sing to varying degrees, some musicians, [even] some well-known, and we just worked with our casting director to narrow that list down.
At the end of the day, there was really no question after talking with Sophie that she really was fully committed to doing this. We were open to adjusting the story for somebody coming from anywhere as long as it was a good distance from Texas, but we were especially interested in the British Isles because of the connection to the murder ballad tradition, and just bringing her own story to the character added so much for us. It was our number one hope to find somebody from the UK.
You’ve said before when you cast JoBeth Williams, who plays Merle’s mother, that she had given notes on the character before filming that you incorporated. Do you find it important to create that room for the actors to make the role their own?
Julia Halperin: Certainly in the Britishness of Sophie and the fact that she was specifically from Brighton…
Jason Cortlund: We’d been to Brighton and it was easy to have some details, but Sophie definitely brought more ideas to the role and and Alison is a native Texan as well and could bring certain aspects of that that felt natural to her. We work on a script for a long time and we want that to be the foundation of the work that we do, but at the same time, it’s a collaborative form and if you get the opportunity to work with great actors, you want them to be bringing their A-game and making this come to life. They all did that. You know Luis Bordonada for his character of Raul as well, they were all adding layers to bring those characters to a fuller dimension.
I loved in the scenes with Alison and Sophie how you would portray distance in their relationship with focus. Visually, did you have pretty specific ideas about this early on?
Julia Halperin: We thought about that a lot. We worked with Jonathan Nastasi, the same cinematographer on both this and “Now, Forager,” and we’re just very interested in using the frame and the focus to build the relationship. In a lot of dramatic films, especially ones that are handheld – and I love a lot of handheld films – but you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to really think about how you’re blocking actors and the camera is constructing a frame that supports the psychology of the story. People go, “Let’s just have lots of close-ups and show just lots of actors acting.” And that’s great – pictures of actors acting is an okay way to make a film, but the frame can be something a little bit more than that. It can be more of a representation of the character dynamics, so that’s really the starting point that we wanted to use.
Jason Cortlund: We looked at a lot of films with Jonathan and going in, we knew we were going to build a [visual] language, so we would go through and figure out what the psychology [of the characters in any given situation] was, and the camera’s job was to really work on a psychological level, so we were looking for tools to do that in different places and different ways for different effects. Sineloa is such a mystery, we definitely wanted to use focus as one of the variables in that discussion.
“Barracuda” opens on October 6th in Los Angeles at the Ahrya Fine Arts.