A LOVE SONG. Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media © 2022

Max Walker-Silverman on Putting a Personal Twang on “A Love Song”

If there’s a precise location for the middle of nowhere, Faye (Dale Dickey) would seem to have parked herself there in “A Love Song,” setting up in a camper out by a lake where she can eat crawdads and drink Busch Beer in peace. She wouldn’t seem to want to be found, set in a daily routine usually lamenting the empty space in bed where her late partner used to sleep before pushing ahead with various ways to occupy the time, whether it’s with bird watching or climbing up the nearby hills. Yet when asked if she’d consider moving by a collection of courteous ranchers looking to relocate their own late patriarch who was buried where her camper sits, she politely declines when she’s awaiting a visit from Lito (Wes Studi), who she knew in grade school and can’t be expected to know anything about a few decades on except for the small silver car he told her he’ll pull up in on campsite seven.

Details are often intentionally obscure in “A Love Song” where a reunion between Faye and Lito is eagerly anticipated by both yet so much time has passed that neither can remember exactly why. However, when memories are what can hold the two back, having them fade away is what opens the door to the vivid emotions that writer/director Max Walker-Silverman is able to conjure in his bewitching debut feature, shot in his hometown of Norwood, Colorado where his own intimate knowledge of place and matters of the heart becomes an invitation to grow close to the couple at its core. Like Faye’s radio, which can be counted to play the perfect song at any given moment, the filmmaker, along with the radiant pair of actors at its center, is able to dial up the exact swirl of emotions that Faye and Lito are feeling as they approach each other with plenty of life behind them, unsure of what they can still look forward to in the years ahead.

That’s a mystery only Faye and Lito can solve for themselves in “A Love Song,” but the future of cinema couldn’t be any brighter with Walker-Silverman in it, building upon his wildly endearing previous shorts “Lefty/Righty” and “Chuj Boys of Summer,” also set in Norwood, to show compassion and adventure are never as far away as one might think. With “A Love Song” now hitting theaters after a triumphant premiere at Sundance earlier this year, the filmmaker spoke about dealing with nature, both human and otherwise, in the touching romance, being surprised by his lead actors in spite of having them in mind from the moment he put pen to paper and how he sees his role as a director.

With a story and a setting this close to you, how much can you leave to your collaborators to help flesh it out?

I think if you’re lucky to work with great people as I have been, you give over as much as possible and then you take credit for it at the end. [laughs] No, I count myself really blessed to work with good people and directing’s a funny job. You don’t really carry things and you don’t really build things and I found [there’s] two main aspects to the job. One is I try to establish the energy and the vibe of it and share my affection for these characters and for this world and allow people to share that and invite them into that and then the other big piece of the job is being the one to navigate the inevitable divide between vision and reality that the world presents every day on set, making those decisions when what is planned is impossible and what is conceived is not working. But especially working with great actors like Dale Dickey and Wes Studi, they’ve earned more than a little trust in all of their careers, and I was honored to allowed to bring so much of themselves to these characters.

What was it like actually seeing them together on set?

I wrote these parts for them, but had never met either, and I wasn’t surprised that they were great actors. I just believed it and knew that would be the case, but what I could never have known is just what lovely people they were and maybe I should’ve because I don’t think a jerk would’ve said yes to coming out and spending a month in the middle of nowhere with me and my eight friends from film school and hanging out with my mom, so I guess it was a self-selecting pair to start with. [laughs] But boy, what a lucky break. Just generous, caring, joyful, lovely people to be around and that’s what you need on a small movie. I don’t really think it can work any other way and I count myself fortunate to consider them both friends. I’ve loved being able to share this whole journey with them. And Wes [was a] way better guitar player than he let on. He called himself a strummer in our early on conversations and then showed up to set with that bright red electric guitar, playing gnarly blues riffs every chance he got, taking Dale for a ride with the rhythm. And Dale, what a voice! I didn’t know that either and I don’t know how many people have heard that voice other than for the theater program in Knoxville, Tennessee, so that was another beautiful little surprise.

When you’ll let a bunch of the scenes between them play out in long takes, did you rehearse much or would you give a lot of leeway on set?

I would work with the great cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo and we would know the coverage we needed for every moment from a narrative and editorial standpoint, but then in the moment would allow the light and the setting and the wind and whatever else to actually dictate how we framed it. Similarly with the actors, we discussed the scene together and talked through them, trying to get to the bottom of any questions we had and then maybe walk through them, but not really dive into it full on until the camera’s rolling, so we tried to find a way for everybody to know what they’re doing by the time cameras rolling. You never have enough time or money, so we had to do things in three or four takes, but to still allow enough spontaneity, enough uncertainty to allow something to be discovered that could not have been conceived of beforehand.

The light is so beautiful throughout and it looked either natural or ambient. What was it like working that into the mix?

Yeah, we shoot on film and one of the things that we like about it is everybody loves sunrises and sunsets — and that looks great on anything all the time obviously and we try to get our fair share — but what the film allows us to do is to shoot straight through the midday hard light as well, which is really intense up at that altitude. Alfonso and I started to discover that hard midday sun in the short films we did together, and we love the way it comes through and adds to the stories. It’s harsh but beautiful and ultimately that’s what it’s all about in this world, so you have a beautiful location and a great cinematographer and that’s a pretty powerful combination. The final thing is to build in enough time to work with the rhythms of nature, to wait for a cloud when you have to, which is not the way film sets are supposed to work, but for us, that’s the only way to do it. You’ve got to pick your fights with God at the end of the day and she always delivers a sunset in that moment you could’ve never planned it. That’s the gamble at the core of the things and you’ve just got to believe you’re going to come out the winner somehow.

Looks like you won more than a few of those contests.

Yeah, you pick enough of them, you’re going to win a few. There’s some cloudy scenes that I wish weren’t, but that’s how it goes.

At one point, it’s mentioned that Faye is descended from Basque shepherds. It made me wonder how the cultural geography may inform the story as much as the physical attributes of the land?

I grew up taught to learn and appreciate the strange history of this particular place, which would’ve been a Ute summer hunting ground for many, many thousands of years, the vast majority of its existence. Then some trappers would’ve showed up, some Basque shepherds would’ve showed up. There was a silver boom around the turn of the century and then the mines started dying and it became a counter-cultural place. Now in many ways, it’s a tourist place and a ski town and all these patterns of history and these characters would’ve lived through a huge swath of that. In some ways, the patterns of the place changed a lot quicker than they did. A lot of things have changed and some things are still the same. You go walking around the mountains there, you’re still going to stumble upon shepherds from Peru now, not Basque, but that’s just life. That’s history, but it would play a part in these characters and I just find it fascinating and important to try and make some modest sense of all the shifts and the changes that happen in the places around us.

The soundtrack does such a wonderful job at orienting an audience as well. What was it like to put together?

This is all the music I grew up listening to and love and drive around to and the process of licensing music is strange and unpredictable and it leads you to have to chase down things that are more affordable, which is another way of saying things that are under appreciated or haven’t gotten their due. And I found that to be really lovely and meaningful since it’s reflective of the values that I try to bring through all of the art, which is to honor and shine a light on things that probably deserve it more than have received it. So it was great to discover artists I didn’t know and feel like we might be able to bring that music to a few more ears, but also still keep some of my favorites and heroes in there, everyone from Taj Mahal to Valerie June, showing hopefully that these are old traditions, but very much alive as well.

Since there’s a little bit of carryover with your short “Lefty/Righty” in terms of seeing certain actors again as part of the ensemble, it seems like you’re building a really lovely mythology of your own.

It’s just nice to make things with your friends. That’s the core of it, so as much as I can have them around, I really like to and I’m so flattered to hear you use the word “mythology” because that’s kind of how I want to think of it myself — this little alternate west out there on Rights Mesa. I like to believe these stories still connect somehow and it’s like life, but a little more gentle, kinder and people are telling the truth.

“A Love Song” opens in limited release on July 29th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.