SJ Chiro on Looking Around the Bend in “East of the Mountains”

SJ Chiro didn’t think she was going to get the gig directing “East of the Mountains,” a longtime passion project for its star Tom Skerritt and David Guterson, the PEN/Faulkner award-winning author who had written the book on which the drama was based. Like them, Chiro has made her home in the Pacific Northwest, and knew the film’s producer Jane Charles from a mutual friend’s birthday party, yet may not have seemed like the obvious choice to oversee the story of grieving widower (Skerritt) who heads out into the wilderness under the guise of a hunting trip with the intention of taking his own life after being diagnosed with a terminal cancer.

“When the producers were interviewing me for this job, I really made it clear that I had my own take on it and I walked out of the interview just saying “Thank you,” Chiro laughs now. “I really didn’t expect them to say we embrace your vision, but they did.”

While getting inside the mind of a grizzled octogenarian man may not have been the follow-up that anyone might’ve expected from seeing Chiro’s sensitive debut “Lane 1974,” the coming-of-age story of a teenager (Sophia Mitri Schloss) finding herself while growing up inside a commune, the filmmaker has a way of turning character studies into stories that take into consideration the impact that entire communities and families have on the lives of the people they follow. Remarkably, the role of Ben Givens is the first for Skerritt with only his name above the title after a career of indelible performances in such films as “Alien,” “Steel Magnolias” and “A River Runs Through It,” but Chiro and writer Thane Swigart are careful to broaden the spotlight to include Ben’s daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino), a kindly veterinarian (Annie Gonzalez) and Ben’s dog Rex, all making an impression on him as he seeks an end of the road he’s at peace with, competing in the present with memories that are flooding back to him reminding him of how much he’s already outlived, including his wife Rachel.

In the coyote country of Eastern Washington, Ben may be susceptible to more obvious dangers in the treacherous terrain, but having a mind set on something and letting others in proves to be a more difficult hill to climb and beyond Skerritt at his best, Chiro infuses “East of the Mountains” with a sense that as distant as others can feel in times of pain and sorrow, they’re always closer than you think. After premiering this past spring virtually as part of the Seattle Film Festival, the film is headed to both theaters and video on demand this week and the filmmaker spoke about finding her way into a story she didn’t necessarily see herself in at the start, working with an actor who’s seen it all like Skerritt and finding such beautiful locations to film in.

How did this come about?

It actually started without me. David Guterson, the author and Tom Skerritt really had their mind set on this film for quite a while and just didn’t have luck finding the right producers until they met Jane Charles and she just whipped it into shape. When the producers were interviewing me for this job, I really made it clear that I had my own take on it and I walked out of the interview just saying “Thank you.” [laughs] I really didn’t expect them to say we embrace your vision, but they did.

Then came the gathering of minds – of David and Thane [Swigart, the screenwriter] and me all coming together, saying how can we shape this story. There were things that were really important to me because in the original screenplay, [Ben] wasn’t sad at all about the loss of his wife, for instance. [laughs] There were just things where it was like, “Can women just please be a part of this story?” And of course, it’s all about [Ben] and his experiences — he is in every scene, but it was important to me that other people had human concerns and were taken seriously.

And this may happens frequently, but it was a shock to me because I didn’t realize how close to home the material was when I signed on. There was something I really liked about it, something that really spoke to me about it, but what ended up happening is I became the Renee character unfortunately — my father progressively got more and more ill and with four days left on the production, he passed away, so I was out of the loop on his illness and it was just uncanny what happened really. It became an extremely personal film.

That connection to Renee is interesting when it must make the framing you’re setting up at the beginning so important since it’s Tom on screen as Ben the whole way. Was it interesting to set up that character’s presence in the film?

Yeah, and it was important to Mira [Sorvino] as well when she read the screenplay. Actually, the phone calls were her suggestions and she said, “I really think we should drop in at least her voice and we should remind him along the way.” I love that, and you’re talking about framing, but there’s also like the vibe and the voice of the person — there are other ways to signify there are other people that matter in this world.

It’s funny – I couldn’t imagine a more different performance to build your film around from your first “Lane 1974,” which was Sophia Mitri Schloss in her first lead, than Tom Skerritt. Was it a different experience?

Oh yeah, of course. [laughs] When you work with Tom Skerritt, you don’t just work with the guy in the present moment. He brings his whole history with him, which is long and storied, which is magnificent. He has such a depth to him in his own experience, but then he’s also such an experienced actor that the conversations were just different. I really feel it’s a director’s responsibility to understand the actor that they’re working with and understand how best to direct that actor. Some actors are very hands on and they want to chew it out. Tom was not that kind of person. He was a minimalist and I understood that completely and my direction was minimalist. And he responded, so it’s just being careful.

Did you actually know these beautiful locations in Eastern Washington beforehand or did the book make some suggestions on where to shoot?

There were a lot of clues based on the book, for sure. And my son went to Wazzou, and after 30 years of living in Washington state, that was the first time, I really started to experience Eastern Washington. It’s amazing how separated the two sides can be and just discovering the awe-inspiring beauty that was, as we say, east of the mountains was incredible [laughs]. I went back several times with our locations person Dave Drummond, who’s just the best in the field. He knows every corner of Washington state, and it was just a matter of figuring out what we needed. I wish I could’ve shot in so many more locations just because there are just fabulous things to look at, but I guess that just leaves more for later.

Is it true you got a lot of the locals involved for the 4th of July scene?

That was Jane Charles’ idea to bring in local people and I thought, “Oh, what’s that going to be like?” And oh my God, it was heaven. It was so wonderful and I just loved looking at all of their faces. These people are not actors, but they were so into the moment and they were so believable and just lovely, lovely people – and the children too. They were magnificent, just bobbing for apples and being in that moment in that era of the ‘50s. I also love Jule Johnson and Victoria Summer Felix as the younger Rachel and Ben and just the way they’re falling in love in that scene I find so beautiful. It was very fun to shoot and all Daniel Mimura on the steadicam in just constant motion, just moving through these wonderful, wonderful people.

That was a favorite to shoot and every time I watch it, I just get a good feeling. It really does hearken back to my own childhood. I grew up in the country [among] country people, so we always had a 4th of July party out in nature — in a Redwood grove, in our case — but I could understand that feeling of the community coming together with their homemade pies and the lamb on the spit and the country music, just musicians jamming together and people dancing and having fun. It’s also a respite in the film because it’s been pretty tough going with Ben before that, so you get a little light moment of feeling free, so there’s so many reasons I love that scene.

That may have been it, but was there anything you didn’t expect going into the shoot that made it into the film and you really like?

You might laugh, but I knew when we were writing it that the gun was a through line and I knew that the gun [Ben carries] would have an arc, but what I didn’t quite realize until I watched the entire film completely finished, is that, “Wow, this dog [who accompanies Ben] really is a throughline for the film. [laughs] It just seemed so ridiculously obvious, but it didn’t dawn on me until the film was finished what a complete heart of the movie the dog is.

It’s a real performance too – what was it like working with the dog?

Luckily, Lauren Henry was the trainer and she’s just excellent. She was so wonderful to have on set, and she’s worked with many animals in films. She did the cow in “First Cow,” for instance, and she would just say, “I love being on this set. There’s just such good energy on the set,” so she was already bringing such a good vibe. I was nervous because I had not directed animals before and they say, “Don’t direct children and don’t direct animals,” but I seem to be for two for two. The next thing I guess is water. [laughs]

It was interesting to learn of how the film progressed over time because you actually shot a little bit in the fall and then reconvened for a longer shoot in the spring, and then post-production was done during COVID – was there value in taking this long?

It’s interesting that you mention that because time is important to me and you don’t normally get a lot of it when you’re making a film. Sometimes it can be very rushed, but this was excellent to begin shooting in the fall. It was just three days, getting the fall color because we knew people don’t hunt in the spring, so that was a must. It was nice just dipping our toes in with a skeleton crew and just warming up and hitting it hard in the spring. Then we did have a few pickup days after and we wrapped the edit in January, and we did ADR on March 11th, the day before the shutdown so that was nice to get at least all that done, but we did still have a lot of post-production to work on through the pandemic, which was agonizingly slow.

The flashback structure is so elegantly done, was there was really solid idea going into the edit?

What’s interesting is I did ask Thane to write dialogue for the actors, just so they wouldn’t have to improvise because I hadn’t cast the film yet, so I didn’t want to rely on actors who knew how to improvise because it really is challenging. But I always knew in the back of my mind, I didn’t want dialogue in those scenes and we did shoot quite a bit, to be able to pick and choose in the edit, so I’m glad it resonated.

Obviously, you’ve carried this one with you for a while. What’s it like to start to get it out into the world?

It’s just such a relief. I’m so happy that people will finally be able to experience it, and what is strange is I never could’ve planned for a pandemic, but I think it’s coming out at a really good moment where people are processing a lot of grief. That’s essentially what Tom Skerritt’s character Ben Gibbons does throughout the film in a quiet and meditative way and for me, going through this pandemic and not even really having been on the other side of it yet, I don’t want to see loud car chases and people getting shot. My soul needs a break. And this offers a little moment of peace to just process.

“East of the Mountains” will have a special screening on September 23rd at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles and opens on September 24th at the Lumiere Cinemas at the Music Hall in Los Angeles, the Studio Movie Grill Marietta in Atlanta, the Studio Movie Grill Pearland in Houston, the Studio Movie Grill Seminole in Tampa-St. Pete, and the Studio Movie Grill The Colony in Lewisville, TX and on VOD.