The challenge is amplified, or grows exponentially more difficult, when you're shooting in a communist dictatorship with no film infrastructure.
Set in a remote corner of Alaska, Jamie M. Dagg’s neo-noir Sweet Virginia begins with a killing gone wrong. Out-of-towner Elwood (Christopher Abbott) strolls into an empty bar after hours, only to be refused service. Following a clipped exchange, he storms out and returns armed with a gun, which leads to a triple homicide. There are key revelations: Elwood was a hitman employed by local woman Lila (Imogen Poots) to off just one of the men—her two-timing husband. Despite the slip-up, Elwood is still a dormant volcano awaiting his payment, while holed up in a local motel run by a former rodeo champion, Sam (Jon Bernthal). The washed-up proprietor warms up to the stranger who appears to be as broken as he feels. Meanwhile, for all her sociopathic calculations, Lila’s drowning in the mountainous debt her husband left behind unbeknownst to her. Unable to pay Elwood what he’s owed, she jeopardizes everyone around her to save herself, including friend Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s now also widowed with secrets of her own to keep.
Working from Australian brother-duo Benjamin and Paul China’s 2012 Black List script, Sweet Virginia marks Dagg’s sophomore feature after River (2015), about an American doctor-turned-fugitive who goes on the run in Laos after getting into a heap of trouble trying to help a raped local.
Anthem reached out to Dagg during the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, where we’re stationed this week, following the “Midnight Passion” screening of Sweet Virginia.
Busan International Film Festival runs October 12 – 21. Sweet Virginia hits select theaters 11/17.
To give you some context, I saw Sweet Virginia over the weekend when it played with two other films back-to-back—a martial arts movie called The Brink from China and this totally out-there Japanese film called Tokyo Vampire Hotel in the vein of Battle Royale—as part of the festival’s “Midnight Passion” event. A crowd of around 300 people were there from midnight to sunrise. Anyways, this is such a little gem. It’s a personal favorite this year.
Oh wow, thanks, that means a lot. Yeah, I wish I could’ve been there, but there was a lot going on this week and I wasn’t able to make it. It’s a long way to go, as I’m sure you know. [Laughs]
I actually had a bit of a time warp digging through your filmography because, ten years ago, I was PAing on this graduate short film at USC and the lead in that was Rossif Sutherland.
Are you serious?
I’m not sure who started it, but I remember him as “the gentle giant.” What Rossif brought to your first film River is very similar to what Jon [Bernthal] brings to Sweet Virginia in that they both have an imposing physicality, but they’re altogether different in their vulnerability.
Absolutely, yeah. Originally, Jon’s character Sam was written as a 65 or 70-year-old man. In fact, a lot of the script was very different. It was originally set in Virginia in the 70s. I’m not sure if you know how the process works when you’re sending out offers to actors and stuff, but when we were trying to cast male actors in the 65 or 70 range, our hands were tied until they responded to the offer. And you can put time limitations on that offer. So we were hoping to shoot this in the summer of 2016 and time was just churning by. One of our sales agents—they’re also a producer on the film as well at XYZ Films—had flipped the script to Bernthal and he really liked it. They were trying to get me on their side like, “What do you think about Jon Bernthal for this role?” Initially, I was very skeptical. Part of it was because I had sort of envisioned it how it was written within the 65 to 70-year-old range, but also, I’ve seen Jon play very macho roles. He played them very well, but I just required a certain warmth that I hadn’t really seen in many of Bernthal’s films. They said, “Just have a conversation with him.” Then I started thinking about it. It’s good as a director to know that you can’t always adhere to these pre-conceived ideas that you have for a character. So I kept my mind open and I got on the phone with him, and within five minutes, I was like, “Yeah, this guy, he can do this.” [Laughs] Now that it’s done, I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role. It just required some adapting, you know? The thing with him at the time, too, was that he was physically quite large because he was getting ready to play the Punisher. How can this person be vulnerable, or how can Chris Abbott be even threatening to Bernthal who’s huge? Jon had this great idea for Sam to have early onset Parkinson’s from repeated head injuries in his former career as a bull rider. That was such a great element that he brought to that character. At the end of the day, I think it’s really believable.
Jon’s range as an actor was on full display here, especially because I had last seen him in Shot Caller where he plays a white nationalist convict. As for Christopher Abbott, it’s my understanding that Elwood was originally scripted as being this suave cowboy character.
Yes, it was originally scripted as that. But I never imagined that character being this smooth-talking cowboy. It’s just part of the process of trying to put your own stamp on a film, you know? The China Brothers did a tremendous job writing this script with very rich roles, but my own sensibilities took over a little bit. It’s still their foundation and stuff like that, but I built upon that in a way that more closely resembles the world that I’m interested in exploring. I didn’t like the idea of having this very smooth-talking cowboy with the cowboy hat who drives a Mustang. I thought this character was someone more like the Columbine shooters, you know what I mean? It’s someone just unhinged and someone who was a delinquent in school. Obviously, Chris really built up on that, but he and I were always on the same page. Chris was actually the first person who signed onto the film so we had a lot of time to sort of talk every couple of months leading up to it, and obviously, a lot more once we entered pre-production. We spent a lot of time discussing that character. The subtlety in his performance was 100% Chris. You don’t direct that. [Laughs] But it’s really interesting because, if you look at that performance, he adapts like a sociopath. He’s just slightly different with each character he interacts with.
And what’s more disturbing than watching him totally lose it in that payphone scene? Could you talk a little more about retooling the script? You already mentioned relocating the story from Virginia to Alaska. I heard that you trimmed the script down considerably.
Well, this is a low-budget film, you know? The script was originally 132 pages, I think. What happened is, there were things in the script that I felt were well-written scenes, but I didn’t know how well it pushed the story forward. So the day before we started pre-production when I was told that I only had 21 days to shoot this with a few extra days of second unit, I just started cutting stuff out. There was no way I could shoot a 132-page script in 21 days. I mean, I could do that, but not with the care and the attention to details I required or would like. So if something didn’t push the story forward, I axed it. That day, I cut out 30 pages from the script. I think the film is better for it. An over two-hour film version of this? I just don’t know… It still has room to breathe. You can still feel those peaks and valleys and the tension and stuff like that. This is a bit of a slow-burn. I think where it landed at that 92-minute range is sort of the ideal length—at least in terms of how I would like to explore it—for a film like this.
So you shot this in British Columbia, which doubled as a fictitious Alaskan town. Is it true that you spent about a month living in the film’s motel location leading up to the shoot?
Now I’m curious—where did you get all of this information?
[Laughs] Yeah, I did spend time there. It’s a place called Hope in British Columbia, filling in for Fareville, Alaska, which doesn’t exist. It’s just a fictional place that’s supposed to sort of live around the panhandle in Alaska. There’s actually no train that goes through that area of Alaska or anything like that, so it really is just a fictional place. But if you look at the license plates, it’s Alaska, although we never explicitly mention Alaska in it. Some of the road signs say Alaska. Hope, British Columbia, is where they shot First Blood many, many years ago. It’s a beautiful little town, a couple hundred meters east of Vancouver and completely hemmed in by mountains. For almost all of pre-production, I lived in the motel where a good part of the film takes place.
What’s it like to shoot in a place like Hope, outside of metropolitan filmmaking centers? What’s your interaction like with the locals and what does that kind of setting afford you?
I love it! I love shooting in a place where not everyone’s jaded and not everyone’s trying to rip you off. It’s a novelty, a place like that. They haven’t been inconvenienced by too many film crews yet so, again, it’s a novelty. The community itself was very, very supportive. It was close enough to Vancouver that, anything you need, you could have it there within the afternoon on the day. In terms of proximity, all of our locations were within walking distance. The nice thing about not blowing an hour-and-a-half commuting to and back from set every day is that you can actually go back to your hotel room for lunch. [Laughs] The community there was really, really supportive. You couldn’t make a film like this in a major filmmaking center without having to spend an awful lot more money, truth be told. You have to consider putting everyone up. Anything we needed, the community gave us. One of the first things I did when I got there was meeting the mayor, the head of police in the area, the head of ambulance services… To give you one example, there’s a big accident on the highway [in the film] and we were missing bulletproof vests for police officers, so you make a phone call to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and they show up with a bunch of vests. And it’s no questions asked, you know? It really is that novelty factor. But I’m sure with the third or fourth film coming through, once the people there start getting held up in traffic and stuff, that novelty will wear off and people will become bitter.
You’re originally from a place called Timmons, Ontario, which I learned is a small mining town. Do these archived experiences and memories of growing up in a small town like that inadvertently make their way into the film, in the way you choose to portray certain things?
For sure. There’s one thing I’ve always been fascinated by, which is how that lack of anonymity in small communities change the dynamics in how people relate to one another. When everyone is incestuously interwoven into the fabric of a community and keeping secrets, et cetera, it’s difficult. In small communities like this, the ramifications of doing something wrong or whatever are traumatically amplified and it often ripples across the entire population because everybody knows everybody. I guess the other thing too is, the film is about these morally ambiguous people who confront life, love, and death. It’s about resilience and about people who are struggling to escape their past. Having grown up in a small community in Northern Canada, you witness firsthand that frustration people endure when they feel like they’ve been left behind. So many of the characters in Sweet Virginia mirror, not to a T—I don’t know anyone who murdered a bunch of people—but at least somehow, the people I know from my hometown. You form this intimate familiarity with these characters.
You shot River in Laos, which I can imagine saddled the production with a lot of roadblocks and unique challenges. But that obviously didn’t deter you. Is that part of the thrill for you?
Making any feature film, regardless if it’s a shitty film or what your shooting, is a challenging endeavor. The challenge is amplified, or grows exponentially more difficult, when you’re shooting in a communist dictatorship with no film infrastructure. But the nice thing about that film was that we brought most of our crew in from Canada and a whole bunch of people came from Thailand as well because it’s not really a big production-friendly industry in Laos. Not to say that there aren’t filmmakers there, but in terms of servicing foreign productions, it’s not quite up to par yet like with a place like Bangkok or New York or L.A. or London. I had like 12 friends who came over with me: my director of photography, my gaffer—some of the closest people in my life. So you sort of had that support network and we were all in it together, you know? Again, these are luxurious challenges to have. It’s not like we’re fighting a war or working with an aid organization in some poor country where people are starving to death, just to put that into perspective. But it is challenging. When you do have all of your support network with you, in the moment it feels like, “How are we gonna overcome this? How are we gonna get through this?” But looking back on it, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, to be able to finally make a feature film after so many years of struggling. Again, I’ve been fortunate enough to struggle to pursue things like this. It’s something I look back with fondness. There was great camaraderie that was built. Sweet Virginia was, I would say, sort of an easy film to make. A part of that, I guess, can be attributed to the fact that you gained experience after making your first one. But a lot of it just had to do with this perfect chemistry that existed between myself and my cast and the crew. Yeah, it was just such an enjoyable experience making this one. I’m sure my third one will be difficult as all hell. [Laughs] I don’t hope that, but… It seemed, not effortless, but it just flowed naturally out of you.
So do you have a third film lined up? You have something called Feral listed on IMDB.
No, that’s not my third film. There are things that I’m up for right now, but I can’t really discuss them. There are a bunch of different things that are sort of floating around right now. If I do get this film, I can’t wait to tell everybody about it.
I checked out your In The Mouth Of Dorkness Podcast interview.
That was fun. Those guys are great.
It was very in-depth. But what I wanted to know is, did anything surprise you while making Sweet Virginia, whether it’s about your own abilities or about the filmmaking process?
Well, it was the first time that I worked with a new DP. My friend Adam [Marsden] has shot almost everything I’ve ever made. This was the first time I sort of ventured out and used a different DP and it was such a rewarding working experience. Her name is Jessica Lee Gagné. The thing is, when you work with a particular DP, especially somebody who’s your friend, you tend to drop these professional courtesies. You’re at each other’s throats all the time because you’re like brothers. For personal reasons, Adam was unable to do [Sweet Virginia], so I ended up working with Jessica. It was one of the best professional, creative working relationships I’ve ever had. It was really, really great and I hope that it translates well on screen. We had a shorthand that can usually take years to build. We only had a three-week prep with her, for a relatively challenging film to shoot in 21 days, and it couldn’t have gone smoother. She’s definitely one of the most talented and dedicated directors of photography out there right now. I think she’s tremendous, yeah.
You made two shorts prior to River. The first one, Waiting, arrived ten years before River. Could you talk about your journey, maybe in broad strokes? Were you always aspiring?
I wasn’t one of these filmmakers who was directing feature films when he or she was eight years old. Maybe I just wasn’t sophisticated enough, I don’t know. [Laughs] I obviously liked film a lot when I was a kid. I still remember going to see films like Fantastic Voyage, which Guillermo del Toro is remaking. I remember going to catch all these matinees with my dad. In high school, I started to get into people like David Lynch and films that [Marc] Caro and [Jean-Pierre] Jeunet were making together: City of Lost Children, Delicatessen. It wasn’t until I was probably 20 or 21, sitting in Australia—I was living there for awhile—and I can narrow this down to one night when I was talking about film ideas with a friend, where it just sort of clicked. I was like, “Oh that’s what I’m going to do.” I was going to apply to film school when I came back to Canada. I was just in the process of applying to university and a friend of mine, who was a production manager on commercials and music videos, said, “Don’t go to film school. I’ll hire you next week as a PA.” And me, being impatient, just thought, “I’m not going to film school” and started working as a PA. Within 18 months, I was producing music videos. So I came up through the production route, but always knowing that I wanted to be a director. It just took a little bit longer.
I saw that music video you directed for Broken Social Scene. I’m sorry this is so off topic, but have you checked out Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton’s new record A Choir of the Mind?
I haven’t yet. I heard it’s good, though.
The songwriting is unrivaled by anything else, as usual. I just thought I’d ask you about it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene is one of my closest friends. They’re all part of a giant, incestuous group of musicians and bands. They’ve all been supporting each other for many, many, many, many years.