Despite traffic reports suggesting to stay as far away from the highways as possible, you know it would be best for Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) if she stayed away from the back roads in the opening minutes of “Rust Creek,” eager to drive out of Kentucky for a job interview in Washington D.C. While she knows the terrain well having grown up in the area and she wouldn’t be invited to the beltway without an impressive application, you get the sense that one bad break for her beat-up red Jeep could mean disaster and when it naturally strikes in Jen McGowan’s second feature, you can’t help but shake your head. Still, this unfortunate detour proves quite rewarding, both for Sawyer, who demonstrates her mettle time and again while fending off the whims of nature and a pair of lecherous cornpone criminals (Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill), and McGowan, who takes an unexpected turn towards a wicked thriller after making the charming “Kelly & Cal” about a relationship that unfolds between a paralyzed teen (Jonny Weston) and a former punk singer (Juliette Lewis) who feels as if she’s stuck in a life of domesticity, though this isn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem initially.
“When you get started as a filmmaker, people will ask you, ‘What do you do?’ And you’re like, “I don’t know what I do. I’m just getting started,” McGowan told me recently. “But then as you make more work, you notice certain themes recurring in your work, so for me, it’s not a genre so much, but the [this idea of a kinship] between strangers.”
This gives special resonance to “Rust Creek,” because while McGowan and screenwriter Julie Lipson know the rules of any good thriller require you to trust no one, the film’s suspense emerges from not only whether Sawyer will make it through the woods alive, all too unfortunately stranding herself on Thanksgiving weekend when few cops are working and others might be inclined to rationalize her whereabouts, but how she forms a tenuous bond with a methmaker named Lowell (Jay Paulson), who finds himself as adrift in his own circumstances as she is in hers. Perhaps the director has been so good at capturing how these unusual connections are forged on screen when she’s been so deeply invested in making them happen off of it, bringing together female filmmakers in every classification with the organization Film Powered that she founded in 2015, creating an infrastructure for mentorship opportunities and networking events between industry professionals who might not have known each other before. (Notably, over half of the department heads for “Rust Creek” were female, many of whom were Film Powered members.)
Following a successful festival run that began last spring at the Bentonville Film Festival, “Rust Creek” is arriving in theaters and VOD this week and the L.A.-based filmmaker spoke about filming in Kentucky and making a taut survival story that would draw on such a rich environment without playing into cliches from other films, as well as finding a compelling cast and shaking things up as a storyteller.
How did this come about?
I met the producer Stu Pollard as a potential financier when I was trying to get another movie made, and I went in and pitched this other film to him and it didn’t really connect with him. But he had this script, “Rust Creek,” written by Julie Lipson and said, “Maybe you’d be interested in this project.” And I read it and I loved it, so I went back and then we were shooting three months later.
I know Stu has a strong connection to Kentucky. What was it like going down there?
He does and it was amazing. I love shooting on location because you get the authentic details that are very hard to reproduce on an indie film budget, so all of that is available to you in an authentic way. We had the beauty of nature and the environment of the buildings and the people and the weather of course. We shot between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was really cold. There was one day where it was seven degrees and our batteries and our tape – not like video tape, but glue tape – would not work, so it was a struggle, but it was a struggle that was well worth it. You can see the actors’ breath in the movie, which makes me so happy. All those little details – the icicles and the frost – that’s all real.
But honestly, our biggest battle on this shoot was the temperature – it was just constantly changing. Every day was dramatically different. There was one day where we were rushed into a basement because there was a tornado and there were other days where we couldn’t shoot in the water because the water was racing too high. So we’re always reacting to the weather and [fortunately] all of our actors were really on the ground and we had access to all the locations, pretty much at all times. That’s one of the nice things that happens when you’re shooting in a small town like [we were].
Did you have to piece together the woods or was the woods one big location?
We were on mostly one property, but it was massive, like the size of a national park. I wanted to have distinct looks, so that we could have a progression within the movement of her journey, so we picked out very different, distinct looking areas. For example, there’s the rockier area and there’s the area with mossy-covered rock and the area right down near the stream and there was an area she climbs up – those were all areas that were not near one another. We also wanted to make sure that we were tracking everything in the right direction and make sure where the sun is, so it was an [assistant director] kerfuffle definitely.
Sawyer’s drive into the forest is so dynamically shot and I only realized later how much thought had to go into that because you’re shooting inside the car, outside the car and above – how much footage did you need to make that work?
It was a lot of shooting and a lot of overshooting, quite frankly, because you’re right. We had the car on a flatbed that we were shooting the car, so the talent could drive it while we had the camera placed around her and we sometimes had the camera inside the car with her. I wanted to have lots of different angles ,so that we could have a progression of that car sequence getting from lighter to darker. And then also we had the drone footage of over the top of the car and lots of different locations that were not near one another, so that was two full days of shooting and then maybe some pickups with the drones as well.
What was it like to flip over a jeep?
It was awesome! Awesome! [laughs]
What sold you on Hermione to go on this adventure with you?
Her nuance. We auditioned lots of young women and she just got the performance and knocked it out of the park. And I auditioned many Sawyers with the first scene with Buck and Hollister [a dangerous confrontation] and what was important to me was for her not to be instantly fearful of them because I wanted to capture the fact that she’s from there. And she did that quite well.
She forms this delicate truce with Lowell – what was it like to find Jay Paulson to play that part?
The funny thing about that is that he’s my neighbor. [laughs] But not just some random neighbor. He’s a fantastic and very experienced actor, but you know, when you’re working on a film, your whole life gets filtered through that lens. So I ran into him and I was like, “Oh wait, he might be good for [“Rust Creek”] actually” and I texted his wife, like, “Hey, this is a super longshot, but I’m casting for this movie right now and Jay might be good for one of these parts. Have him look at the breakdown if he’s interested.” And he auditioned and he was amazing. He won the role.
Was it any different directing a thriller?
Yeah, the pacing becomes most key. The music, the editing and the sound design are a big part of that, and I got to work with some really fantastic people. I’ve worked with my editor and the sound designer for many, many years – I went to film school with both of them, and [we had] the phenomenal composer Scott Salinas, who just did “A Private War.” We didn’t want to really hit the nail on the head there [with a Kentucky bluegrass sound] and do twingy-twangy kind of music, but we did want to use sounds that were authentic to the area, so we used a lot of metal and wood – pieces of material that were maybe not actually instruments, but were rusted and natural and lots of percussion. That was super fun to experiment with.
And because this is the first thriller I’ve done, one of the nice things watching it with an audience is it’s very much like a comedy. You get a lot of vocal and physical response – they gasp, they jump. They lean into their partners and grab onto their arms. You don’t really get that in a drama, so it’s been really fun to watch with audiences.
“Rust Creek” opens on January 4th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and in New York at the IFC Center. It is also available on VOD.