JARED: I'd produced a number of independent films and documentaries including Corman's World, Silver Tongues, Beautiful Losers and Kurt Cobain About a Son. Dead Man's Burden is my first time behind the camera as a writer/director though. I had never really directed shorts or plays or anything else.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JARED: The idea for Dead Man's Burden came from the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. After the War, America manufactured the Western as a myth to reunite the North and the South by looking west for a fresh start. The result was we whitewashed over a lot of wounds and left them festering beneath the surface. I wanted to tell a story that explores those wounds.
The writing process was fast - the first draft was finished in a month. The reason it was fast was I sat down to write knowing I wanted to make the film by the end of the year come hell or high-water. So I seized on my experiences as a producer to create certain rules that would allow me to do period drama for a budget. Limited locations, cast, extras, etc. But as much as you can make rules, a script will take on a life of its own.
As I wrote I came to realize that the choices I wanted the characters to make were not necessarily the choices they would make. In the end, what was supposed to be a story of reunification became a tragedy of ideology.
Why did you decide to tackle a western and what do you think were the pros and cons of that decision?
JARED: I love Westerns, and in stepping behind the camera for the first time there was no question in my mind on the genre. In this industry you better make what you love because you never know if you're going to get another chance.
What I didn't realize was that making a western was living a western. We shot on location at the end of a two-mile dirt road that became a mud pit every time it rained. There was no cell phone reception, a limited amount of film, and I had to figure out how to be timely and efficient in directing actors in period costumes, who were riding horses, shooting guns and doing some of their own stunts.
Thankfully I had an incredibly talented and dedicated cast and crew, and together we overcame everything that was thrown at us.
JARED: When we set out to raise our budget my producer Veronica Nickel and I agreed on a strategy to keep the costs low, as the market for independent films is soft, and we wanted to give our investors the best chance of recoupment. At the same time we understood that there is a large market for westerns in the US, and it's an underserved market, so we knew we had a core audience we could reach.
We did as much research as we could to get numbers on recently released westerns (both in theaters and on DVD) and used that to come up with what we thought was a reasonable budget level. With my background as a producer I had investors I worked with before, and Veronica and my other producers were able to put together the rest of the budget using private equity and the New Mexico tax incentives.
Once the film was in the can we had a team working hard on outreach to the Western loving audiences so that when our sales agent Josh Braun brought the film to market at Los Angeles Film Festival we had information we could present about who would see this film and how to reach them.
JARED: We used a single Panavision Platinum 2-perf 35mm camera with a Panaflex G2 as a backup. I loved that we were shooting film. In fact that was one of the most important decisions I made early on in the process. We were going to shoot 35mm no matter what. As much as I think HD can create beautiful images, it lacks the ability to capture the depth and scope of landscapes, and in any good western the landscape is a character.
In our case the endless of the landscape offered a sense of hope, a blank canvas where our characters could re-create their lives, but it was also a mote that kept Martha and Heck isolated away from the world. To have not captured it on film would have been to shoot ourselves in the foot from day one. Of course the downside of shooting on film is that you have to be incredibly frugal in your set ups, number of takes and how long you let the camera roll. I can't tell you how many times I wished I had extra film to get one more angle or additional b-roll.
How did you and your DP, Robert Hauer, decide on (and execute) the look of the movie?
JARED: We really wanted a look that respects the rich history of the Western. First and foremost that meant shooting on 35mm film. We chose 2 perf 35mm because that created a natural widescreen look. Second it meant seizing on the tropes of the genre. Rob and I both indulged in watching numerous westerns: High Noon, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, and most importantly The Searchers, as I wanted Dead Man's Burden to be a film that evoked John Ford.
At the same time we needed to make the look work for the modern eye, and to that end Rob and I decided to embrace everything that was natural about our location; capturing the harshness of the light and the landscape which contrasted with the warm tones that were natural to the environment.
How did the movie change in the editing and why did you feel the changes were important?
JARED: The biggest change in the edit involved the structure of the first act. In the script I really established Martha and her world before introducing Wade. In the finished film although we see Martha in the opening, Wade is the first character we really get to know. What this accomplished was to establish Martha and Wade as equally important to the story and not favor one over the other.
The reason why this change was important is that I want my audience to come away identifying two very different points of view. The tragedy of Dead Man's Burden is that both Wade and Martha are very right and very wrong in their beliefs and the question that drives the film is: will they be able to see past their differences.
The dumbest thing I did was probably choose to step behind the camera for the first time ever - I hadn't made shorts or directed plays or actors before this - and go make a period piece shot on location and on film, with horses, guns and stunts, and do it all in 18 days on a shoestring budget.
JARED: What didn't I learn from making this film? I tend to believe you're always learning if you're willing to listen and after Dead Man's Burden I have a better understanding of how to embrace the realism of production design from Ruth De Jong; how light can enhance character thanks to Rob Hauer; how fabrics make a costume thanks to Courtney Hoffman; how a cut can twist a point of view thanks to Jeff Israel; and, well, the list goes on and on.
Everything I've learned I hope will make me a better collaborator on the next film.