Josh Stewart and A.J. Cook in "Back Fork"

Interview: Josh Stewart on Following His Heart Back Home to West Virginia for “Back Fork”

“One day without something,” wishes Waylon (Josh Stewart) just after he’s found his dog has passed away in “Back Fork,” a West Virginia-set drama in which the indignities and tragedies pile up like the dirt on the Appalachian trail. The daily grind at the sawmill where he works has taken its toll on his back, but that pain pills he’s sneaking from his father are just as much about soothing the nerves that have been frayed ever since losing his young daughter Justine a year ago and the strife it’s caused with his wife (A.J. Cook), who wants him to move out of the house. An errant back-to-school greeting for his daughter or a stray comment from someone at the bar unaware of his predicament have all but turned Waylon into a ticking time bomb and while the ill-gotten medicine can act as a temporary salve, not only for him but his sister Raylene (Agnes Bruckner), it’s only delaying the inevitable.

“Back Fork” is the second directorial effort from the longtime “Criminal Minds” star, and after using the mountains he grew up amongst as the backdrop for his terrifying feature debut “The Hunted,” Stewart finds real horror in simply recounting the struggle that residents of West Virginia now endure on a regular basis as its gripped by the opioid crisis. While the effects of the drugs are worrisome, it is the desperate lengths to which Waylon and Raylene will go to get them that becomes the biggest source of tension in the film, with the the former flagged at work for having them in his system without a proper medication and seeing an already fragile hold on a steady paycheck and a relatively stable family life start to loosen. With the labor of love arriving in theaters and on VOD this week, the actor/writer/director spoke about the origins of the film and why it’s good to let the work take on a life of its own, as well as filming in West Virginia and the difficulty of trying to direct a fish.

Josh Stewart in "Back Fork"How did this come about?

I was born and raised in West Virginia and it’s just a combination or a melting of many, many stories I’ve had in my head that I just needed to get out. Growing up back that way, you’d have to be living under a rock to miss all the news headlines from the last several years about everything that’s been going on there with prescription pills and so many people that have been hooked on these pills come from innocent places. You just throw life in on top of [a tragic situation] and things become unbearable to people and they just look for any sort of out that they can find.

West Virginia’s full of manual laborers – coal miners and loggers and those physically intense jobs lead to bad backs and shoulders and arms and legs and hips, so completely by innocent means, people became hooked on these pills and the second they became readily available to everybody, they just took on a whole new life.

One of the things I appreciated was how you create that weight of experience through the editing – was the idea of showing the cause and effect of these pills simultaneously something you had in mind from the start?

To be honest with you, some of that was by design and some of that was a credit to my editor Yaniv Dabach. It’s true there’s the story you write, the story you shoot and the one you cut together and when you’re watching it unfold on a screen as opposed to a page, it just takes on a life of its own. Inevitably, there’s portions in a film where it’s scenes that just don’t need to be there because they’re not progressing the story and then there are some scenes that once you’re there and you’re looking at it, they take on a different sort of life, so you have to honor those scenes with regards to the story when that happens. You’re not doing yourself any favors when you’re ignoring that. It’s no different than seeing a character in a certain way and then an actor shows up and they bring a whole other life to it. It’s a disservice to what they’re creating if you don’t honor that and go with it, if it serves the story.

Were there any happy surprises?

Yeah, of course. You can’t put that many creative people together and it not take on a life of its own. The only thing you can do as a director is facilitate an environment where people feel safe and comfortable and letting that happen. If you don’t, you’re stunting the growth of the actor, which in turn will stunt the growth of the character in the story and that goes for anybody – for a DP, for a production designer or whatever the case is. It’s a collaborative artform, so you’ve got to show up ready to collaborate. Otherwise, the story isn’t going to go to the places that it could.

Did you have any of the locations in mind while writing?

Writing a script, you can’t write for something specific because there’s no guarantee that it’s going to happen, so the saw mill was the only place I had specifically picked out and we certainly had looked at several saw mills, but visually speaking when I was writing it, that was the place I was envisioning [where] I saw everything unfolding. But with anything, we have the picture in our minds and then we try to adapt to that as best as we can because it’s like writing for an actor that’s a pipe dream and then getting them to play a role. The chances of you getting them and the chances of them being available are slim to none, so you can’t write with that in mind and I think it’s unrealistic to show up and get all that. Again, It’s just adapting to what you have available.

I imagine you’re bringing in some people you’ve worked with from in out of town. What’s it like introducing them to West Virginia?

Certainly a lot of the actors had never been in the region, [though] some of the smaller parts were locals and a majority of the crew was. Pittsburgh is a pretty thriving film city these days, so the northern part of West Virginia into Pennsylvania, there’s quite a few qualified crew people back there, so there was a pretty decent pool from back that way. And [as actors,] that’s our job in this business to get a story and start digging into it, it’s your job to start immersing yourself into it, so as shocking as that can be sometimes, it’s really not so shocking when you show up in those places because if you’ve done your homework, you have a sense of what it’s going to be. The important thing is being open and not having some predetermined idea about what it’s going to be, so when you do show up, you’re open to seeing what that is and embracing it.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

Brother, every day is a crazy day filming a movie. There’s not a day where there’s not 15 fires to put out. That’s just the nature of making a movie – you plan for them as best as you possibly can and have contingency plans and backups if those things do show up, but it’s never easy. You’ve got to make your day, especially when you know you can’t go over, so you know you only have so many days to make the movie happen, so you’ve got to make it happen.

That opening scene where you follow a fish get caught amongst the rocks must not have been easy.

Shit, I knew that was going to be one of the longer sequences to shoot and that was some of the final stuff we shot. We had a whole day to shoot that sequence to bookend the movie and trying to get a wild animal to cooperate with you, we knew what we were up against, so we planned for it and it took some time, but it finally happened.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Look, man, I never want to see this film again. [laughs] I’ve seen it five million times and making a film is a year, two-year process, so there’s a sense of relief and gratitude and everything in between that is done and finally people can see it. It’s a lot of time and energy from a lot of people, so it’s rewarding in that aspect and people can take a look at what we’ve been doing for so long. There’s just mixed emotions about it because you do put so much time and energy into it and you feel like you’re closing the door on it for a little bit, but being an actor in this business for so long, you’ve got to just let things go when they’re done and they’re going to be what they’re going to be.

“Back Fork” opens on April 5th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and will be available on digital platforms on April 9th.

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