By Nathan Williams
One filmmaker reflects on the nature of inspiration, describing how one landscape inspired a series of radically different films.
Inspiration for a film can come from any direction. Some filmmakers begin with a formal artistic concept or an urgent social message. Others find a spark in an overheard conversation on the bus, an actor’s way of walking or a glimpse of winter light in an old stone church.
For me, it was a landscape.
Werner Herzog once claimed that he wanted to make a film in outer space because the Earth’s natural supply of “fresh images” had nearly been exhausted. I don’t quite agree — familiar landscapes can be discovered anew, as his colleague Wim Wenders showed in “Paris, Texas” — but Herzog’s core sentiment is absolutely right. Film is a language that we’ve all learned since childhood, and we invariably “read” a short-hand built into the images we see. We lose something powerful when our eyes and brain see an image of a forest and jump to “Forest, got it. Now what?” rather than truly seeing and absorbing the unique details and atmosphere of the particular forest in front of us. Looking at a landscape with eyes wide open.
My own spark came unexpectedly. I found myself east of the Cascade Mountains, in the dry, rolling, haunted landscape of the Columbia River Basin: the Inland Empire of the Northwest. I was taken with a powerful urge to capture what was around me. Not merely to photograph and document it. But a call from around me that said, “That feeling I invoke in you, I challenge you to capture and give to others.” So intense was my sudden connection to the place that I quickly wrote not one but three films in that setting.
The first is a story set in the Mesolithic era, a Stone Age drama about a young widow doing everything possible to prevent a disastrous conflict between two neighboring tribes. The second is a contemporary tale about a bright young congressman from the area (politically conservative, for now, with rapidly changing demographics) who suffers an accidental brain injury from which he begins to experience convincing supernatural visions. The third is a spare espionage thriller set in a world of all-encompassing surveillance (the NSA maintains a major listening post in the area).
These films don’t form any kind of conscious connections but are instead three different takes on, to me, the same basic subject — like Monet’s Rouen Cathedral at different times of day.
Unlike Monet I, however, couldn’t simply set up my easel and start painting.
Things Left Behind
The most ambitious script was the Mesolithic drama. It would require a cast of dozens in a period setting. Hundreds of props and costumes would have to be created, male actors asked to grow beards, modern tattoos hidden, small villages constructed, child actors hired and supervised. And there was an enormous fundamental risk that the whole thing was just daffy, that the first time the audience saw a “caveman” on screen they’d start laughing and the movie would be DOA.
To reassure myself on the “Flintstones” danger, I broke a fragment of the film into a short film as a test. We would need just a cast of five and only a single natural setting. I reached out to trusted actors and asked them a huge favor (we would be shooting in the wilderness in winter). I hired an expert prop maker to construct authentic-looking spears, bags, and bowls, and found a costume maker to take a stab at constructing costumes out of real pieces of scrap deer hide.
I scouted and re-scouted the location to find the perfect spot: a small stream with a low forest on one bank and bare hills on the other. We needed the landscape to feel absolutely ancient and pristine, and so found ourselves almost an hour’s hike from the nearest road, in one of the quietest places I’ve ever been.
The film was shot in brutal cold and challenging circumstances (the aforementioned hike, we were not allowed to start a fire, and the actors’ costumes were so spare they were effectively naked) but without catastrophe.
Take a look at the resulting film:
Despite the relative success of the Things Left Behind short (it premiered at the Seattle International Film festival to a mix of enthusiasm and head-scratching, but no laughter), I concluded that the feature version was not the best next step. We learned a lot making the short, and I realized the budget required would be even greater than I anticipated. It’s still a project dear to my heart but it will have to wait.
So I moved onto the next project, the brain-damaged congressman film (insert your own joke here), enlisting my trusty producer from the short. We submitted the script to the Washington Filmworks Innovation Lab and, to our surprise, won. The prize was a chunk of our budget reimbursed (after we had filmed) so we still had a great deal of money to raise, but it all seemed much less daunting. We painstakingly cast the film, finding terrific lead actors I had not yet worked with. We hired a great production designer out of Portland who created wonderful character concepts of the various spiritual “Messengers” that would visit our hero. We found a promising young cinematographer and began recruiting crew.
And again, the process that pulled me the strongest was scouting the locations. The Servant would take place primarily in the city of Yakima (in homes, offices, the hospital neurology ward) but also in the hills and valleys around. Near the end of the film the mentally-ill congressman becomes something of a wandering prophet, and the final act would heavily feature the landscape that tantalized me.
But ultimately, the film was not to be. Our Innovation Lab reward had a deadline—make the film by X date or the money is off the table—and our fundraising was steady but slow. By the date we should have been filming we had only half the film’s total budget raised and murky prospects for the rest. So, with heavy hearts, we gave back our investors’ money and put the project on hiatus.
Here’s a taste of what the film might be someday:
If There’s a Hell Below
Defeated but undaunted, I turned at last to the third project, the thriller. I now had a better idea of my fundraising ceiling and worked to streamline the film, stripping out costly extraneous scenes and cutting out any fat I could. Unlike The Servant this film had a small cast (just four speaking parts) and unlike Things Left Behind it was a contemporary story. We really just needed a few cars, some memorable natural locations, and miles and miles of open road.
To supplement our traditional fundraising we put together a crowdfunding campaign—one that has gotten some mild acclaim (necessity being the mother of invention). In turn, this crowdfunding success spurred our traditional investors to greater confidence.
Knowing this micro-budget film would have little margin for error and require enormous trust, I started building a team of known agents from the core of the fearless and tight-knit crew of Things Left Behind. Instead of biting cold we’d be dealing with searing heat, and instead of Stone Age leather costumes disintegrating we’d tackle the high-tech challenges of rigging cameras on fast-moving cars.
I found a terrific set of locations south of the city of Kennewick, centering on a series of abandoned farms and a growing wind turbine farm. A wonderful juxtaposition of old and new. Visions of waving seas of grass, rusted silos, and cars churning up thick clouds of dust on gravel roads. The final scene would be the most striking location of all: a tiny airstrip nestled in the mountains. Through the tireless work of my producer and my location manager we managed to find and acquire permission to film in all of these places.
And so in May of 2014, at long last, we were ready to roll camera. We gathered our team from L.A., New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Portland, headed out in a caravan of a dozen cars, a van, a truck, and one cantankerous RV. The shoot was difficult (shooting in moving cars is a logistical, technical, and safety nightmare) but immensely rewarding. The resulting footage was beautiful. We are now deep in post-production.
If you see it—and I hope you do—I wonder if you’ll see a glimpse of all that went into it, the secret ghostly residue of two unrealized films just behind the surface of this one. But at the very least, I hope the film makes you see these landscapes with eyes wide open.
Nathan Williams is a Portland-based filmmaker and writer. His film, If There's a Hell Below, premieres at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.