“Do I need to know anything about your dad?” Aaron (Daniel Ahearn) asks his girlfriend Mara (Jessica Kaye) before she reads him a card she plans to send her father on the occasion of his 70th birthday in the opening minutes of “Inheritance.” While she responds with a quick “no,” it becomes obvious he does when Mara is visited by Linda (Shamira Gill-Card), one of her father’s caretakers back in Belize, before she can send off her well wishes, launching the two into the jungle both literally and figuratively, interrupting what was planned to be a torrid getaway the two are having just months into their relationship.
From there, it’s hard to tell whether Kaye and Laura E. Davis’ feature debut is more sweaty because of the time it spends in Belize or its nature as a sexually charged thriller, but either way, you can feel the perspiration trickle down your spine as “Inheritance” sinks its claws in as Mara’s father’s funeral feels as if it could result in a few more deaths before it’s over. With Kaye fearlessly throwing herself into the role of a woman who had her reasons for leaving the comfort of Belize where her father, a doctor, was beloved and owned a teak farm, the film slowly unravels the past as Mara’s reunited with her brother Ben (Mark Webber), who’s greatly uncomfortable around her new boyfriend and would seem to have a knowledge of his sister that others don’t. As “Inheritance” wears on, you realize that what their father left them is far more complicated than what’s in his will, with his legacy threatening to poison whatever future Ben, Mara and Aaron aspire to.
While greatly enlivened by its setting, “Inheritance” pulses with an electricity all its own, spiraling into dangerous places with great control by its filmmakers. The performances from Kaye, Webber and Ahearn drip with passion, and Kaye and Davis, along with cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik, bring a ferocity to the film’s camerawork that thrusts you right into the middle of things, creating a breathless work that nonetheless feels like a breath of fresh air in terms of craft by the time it’s over. While Kaye, Davis and Webber were in Austin for the film’s premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, the trio spoke about how they pulled it off as a result of opening up their collaboration beyond what’s usual, filming in Belize and the perils of shooting splash fights with your lead actress at the center of it.
How did this come together?
Jessica Kaye: It was inspired by my parents’ property in Belize, by the beauty of that place. And I wanted to experiment in how you can collaborate it in filmmaking, inspired by Mike Leigh and collaborative theater. Pretty soon after [conceiving the format], we met Daniel Ahearn, who plays Aaron and we had wonderful chemistry. We wanted to work together and started talking, and then we called Laura, who was a good friend and a very talented writer and director. The three of us came together and started brewing the story and cultivating that for a few months, drawing from our personal lives, our interests, and themes that really got us, and we came up with characters and a rough story. Then Daniel mentioned his friend Mark Webber, so we started incorporating him into the story. Mark got involved in the process and Laura and I took a year to write the script.
How was Belize as a setting?
Jessica Kaye: That was actually pretty awesome because we shot on my family’s property, so I had lived in some of those locations and had really personal relationships with them. We wrote for a lot of those locations — including the hospital and the teak farm. Then we just had to find some specific [places] within the larger locations, but it was written for those places.
Laura E. Davis: In general, people were very generous and kind, opening up their homes to us including people we met when we were down there for pre-production. There was a real openness and excitement that we would be making a film in Belize because there aren’t that many made there and there are also open spaces that just look wildly different than what we’re used to in the States and colors, palette-wise. That was exciting.
The visual style of this is immediately striking — there’s a real intensity to the camera in relation to your characters. How did that come about?
Jessica Kaye: We spent a lot of time watching films with our amazing cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik, just absorbing the [visual] language and talking about what might be appropriate and what might not be and how to really capture this tropical beauty in a singular way and how to make it a really intimate and raw feeling. And I think we ended up with a common language because of that.
Laura E. Davis: I also think when we were writing for a location [that we knew] — and Laura and I had been there — the visual came out in the writing as well because those locations were so deep into us, so I think that also helped.
Did you do anything special to capture the sound? As an audience member, you’re always aware you’re in that tropical environment.
Jessica Kaye: Well, sometimes the bugs made an uninvited entrance into the soundtrack. [laughs] Other times, it was stuff our sound recordist just went around and got and some of that is very much on our sound designer back in L.A.
Laura E. Davis: Yeah, our sound designer Nate Ruyle is incredibly talented, so some of the sounds are things that we did get on location, and some he added.
Jessica, did you know from the start that you’d be starring in this? And if so, did that change your approach?
Jessica Kaye: I did know I would be playing Mara, but it didn’t consciously [change my approach]. It’s just part my creative process that being the co-writer and co-director and really engaging in the character [as an actress] were completely separate. I didn’t imagine myself playing her, it was more just wanting to co-create this rich an nuanced character that happened to be complex and quiet dark.
Laura E. Davis: And Jessica didn’t really censor anything when it came to the character of Mara that she felt that Mara needed or I felt that Mara needed. Also in general, we tried to write for all of the people who we knew would be playing it, so from the beginning, we had the idea of Jess and Daniel [together], and very quickly we hoped Mark would join us, and we’re so lucky he did, and we’d try to write using aspects of what everybody could bring to the role.
Mark, was there any key to playing Ben?
Mark Webber: Part of my process was more just trying to find some of the humor in some of the earlier stuff. I knew going into it we’re making something that’s going to explore some pretty intense stuff, so I felt like it would be key to have some moments of lightening it up and I think that’s added up to Jess and I really feeling like there’s a history there of being siblings — how brothers and sisters have this way with one another. I also just didn’t want to play a guy who totally fucked up. That’s just bleak.
Laura E. Davis: This is a really weird detail in that sense, but [between] the writing process and what Mark brought to that character, we wrote consciously [in the scene] that first day after Ben arrives and then he’s with [Mara] in the kitchen, the thing with him eating the banana. And Mark somehow knew [it would allude to later events]. I don’t know if you knew that we knew that was funny, but he toned it down. It was not overplayed. He probably ate something like 10 bananas.
Mark Webber: Totally.
Laura E. Davis: But he didn’t care. He knew it was funny, but he didn’t ham it up, and we never talked about the banana being funny…
Jessica Kaye: And it was really great for me [because] I hadn’t spent much time with Mark and that immediate humor and this twinkle [in his eye] — this shared joke that happened right away, to play off of that was so much fun. And it did exactly what he said — it created an intimacy between our characters, which it makes us believable as siblings with this history. It was so much fun.
Laura E. Davis: That was also something I noticed a lot in watching it the millions of times that we’ve seen it [during editing it] is how that dynamic [forms] once Ben comes in and Aaron comes between the siblings, it gives a sense of place, especially with the siblings, that makes them feel they’re childlike. I feel that’s what happens to me with my brothers, even if I don’t want it. [When I’m around them] they pull me down the rabbit hole and there we are in our old patterns. And some of them are fun and silly, and some of them are just absurd and stuck in arrested development forever.
Jessica Kaye: And there’s stuff in the script that has that, but Mark just brought out something extra special in it.
You can feel that childlike behavior come out in the scene where a swim in the pond behind their house turns into a violent splash fight between Ben and Mara. The camera bobs and weaves above and under water and it’s quite physical. Was it difficult to shoot?
Jessica Kaye: The amount of anxiety that I had for that scene can’t be summed up in the next 50 hours. Ultimately, it was not hard to do, but the stress of it definitely was for a very simple reason — once we got my hair wet, we cannot go back without losing two hours to get things ready again.
Laura E. Davis: And that’s hours that I wanted them to be able to have together to do this. Basically, everything worked the first time. It was kind of magical when it actually happened and we could relax.
Jessica Kaye: We had one take for the beginning. So that only could happen once. And then we could splash around a little more to do some of the extra stuff. But it really happened so quickly and I actually think the the energy of what you see is in that limitation. It had that [feeling] it’s only happening right now because it only did happen right now andthat it made it really compelling. and the whole journey of that scene was very surprising and fun.
Mark Webber: The hardest thing about that scene for me was keeping my stomach sucked in. [laughs] Keeping my core engaged while splashing and then trying to act. In particular, entering the cave with Daniel, stepping on sharp objects… trying to keep the core engaged, saying lines — that was the most difficult sequence in the film. [laughs]
Jessica and Laura, was making a feature what you thought it would be?
Jessica Kaye: You know it’s going to be epic, you know it’s going to be hard and what’s hard is what you never imagined.
Laura E. Davis: I’ve always dreamed of making a project like this, [with] specific collaboration [where] people are living together and making stuff together and going deep and laughing at the same time and the experience of it was more extraordinary and more challenging than I could have imagined.
Jessica Kaye: [Being at SXSW has] been amazing. The reception has been incredible, and it’s a hard film [for audiences]. We knew we weren’t making it for everyone in the world, and yet I’m really surprised at the range of people who seemed to respond to it. It’s very affirming.
Laura E. Davis: What I’ve been so excited to learn is that it’s challenging subject matter, but it feels like it’s a ride. People laugh [during the movie], and it feels like they’re on the edge of their seats. While it says go in there [to some dark places], it feels like people are never bored and watching it with the audience here, it’s been so extraordinary and exciting. It’s an incredibly validating experience.
“Inheritance” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play once more at SXSW on March 16th at the Alamo Ritz at 3:30 pm.