Frank Mosley’s entrancing hour-long picture, “Her Wilderness,” is a cinematic meditation comprised of fragmented narrative threads. A young blonde woman (Lauren McCune) teeters on the edge of self-destruction. A pregnant wife, Paula (Crystal Pate), falls out of love with her husband, Nick (Jack Elliott). A mother (Morgana Shaw) has a tense phone conversation while perched precariously on a ladder. All the while, a little girl (Riley Templeton) finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the woods. Mosley links these characters in ways both startling and provocative, while inviting the audience to draw their own conclusions. It’s the sort of film that burrows deep into your subconscious like a vivid fever dream, tempting you to venture deeper and deeper into its wilderness of abstractions at once alien and achingly resonant.
Mosley spoke candidly with Indie Outlook about the various intriguing theories regarding his film, his eclectic influences and the importance of understanding the big picture.
The first time I remember seeing you onscreen was in Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”
That’s actually how I think most of the people that I’ve met over the past year in the film community—who didn’t have any ties to me when I was a kid—know me. They all see me as an actor. I’ll act in anything, and I’ve acted in many different types of films, but as a filmmaker, there are very specific types of stories that I like to tell. They may not necessarily be commercial, but they’re ones that I just have to make. That’s what “Wilderness” was. It took four years to make because of financing, so we had to shoot it in increments. The kid’s scenes were shot a year after the scenes with the adults. Everyone who worked on the film knew that it was going to take some time. It became that passion project that we’d always come back to, and it feels so good to have it done.
We’re so used to seeing films on Vimeo because that’s a great way for people to exchange ideas and projects, but man, nothing beats seeing a film in the theater. We had a screening in New York last week and [the film] felt better than ever. The audience was comprised mostly of people that I didn’t know. I saw new things and received reactions from the crowd that I had never gotten before. That may have partly been due to our 5.1 mix. You could hear that bird—the one that the little girl keeps hearing—soar from one end of the auditorium to the other. And when the storm comes in, you can hear it moving in from a different direction. It starts out very distant, and by the end of the scene with the couple, the entire room is shaking with thunder.
How have your past roles on various film productions informed your approach to directing features?
I started making movies with my dad when I was 5, and by age 7, I could roll the camera myself. When I was in high school theatre, I would recruit my buddies to help me make them on the weekends. We would be doing Molière and Shakespeare and I’d ask, “Hey, you want to make a zombie movie this weekend? Come over to my house.” I’ve always loved building a community of people that I trust and whose work I admire. Friendships tend to blossom from that. When I went to University of Texas in Arlington, I got an English degree, but I had a minor in Film. I made a lot of friends that were linked to David Lowery and Clay Liford and Yen Tan. They formed a community of Dallas Fort Worth filmmakers when I was in my early twenties and we were all struggling to make it. We would all hang out and watch movies and we ended up supporting each other.
Even though we’ve all gone in different directions, I feel like having that community has been a backbone for me to draw upon. We always have friends that we can send cuts or drafts to, and as an actor, I consider myself fortunate to have worked with some really great people on some great films. I never thought in a million years that I would work with people like Jon Jost or Shane Carruth. Then there’s people like David Lowery who are just buddies of mine. When I told people that I worked on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” they were like, “How did you get on that?” and I’d say, “We used to give each other rides to the store.”
If you want to make a movie, you have to be willing to know all the different components in order to be a good filmmaker. I think a great filmmaker is someone who has done all of those jobs—who has gaffed or AD’d and who has acted. You’re a better director if you know what it’s like to act, and as an actor, I am always understanding of the director’s wishes and ask a lot of questions. Understandably, there are a lot of actors I know who don’t think about the big picture and how their role fits into a movie. They think about themselves—their shot, their close-up, their screen time—and as a director, I can’t think that way, so that’s kind of how I am as an actor. As an actor, I’m like, “If you want to shoot this whole scene with just the back of my character’s head visible because it’s true to your vision and style, then that’s great.” It’s not about ego, it’s about being a paint for the canvas and being used however is needed.
“Her Wilderness” is full of poetic imagery and elliptical story threads that seem to blend into one another, creating a circular feeling of fate.
I’m so glad that came across, you have no idea. You are one of the few people I’ve talked to who actually brings up the idea of fate versus the power to fight that fate. The project started as a play with three scenes: the guy on the phone with the woman in the bathtub; the woman and her mother in the big room; and the man and his wife having that disjointed conversation in the kitchen about the dead girl who may or may not be the woman he was on the phone with. I wrote those three scenes as a play while intending to highlight their conceptual nature. These characters are mostly icons of different philosophies. In my head, they are all different levels of strength, not only as people, but also in terms of what they believe. The mother’s way of living is actually much closer in tune to Nick’s way of living. They think you make your own way and that God has nothing to do with it. The two women who are linked by this man in a possible affair share a much closer way of looking at things. They doubt that they have much power, and believe that things are pretty much predestined to happen. Lauren’s character is the most helpless, whereas Paula is right in the middle.
I wanted to write these plays to emphasize the dialogue and the repetition of it. At my heart, I’m a filmmaker rather than a play director, and I realized that the scenes would be stronger if they were intimate. The little girl became the thread that would tie all these women together philosophically. It ultimately became a one-hour movie and I knew that it was going to be an odd length compared to most films. I wanted the film to feel like pages ripped from a novel that we’ve never completed, and they’re scattered on the ground. You have to pick up the different scenes and piece them together like a puzzle, but at the same time, there’s a disjointed quality to it. I wanted these philosophies to duke it out in the movie. The characters are struggling with how to define themselves and how to redefine themselves at different stages of their lives.
People often debate whether David Lynch films are meant to be interpreted or merely felt, which can serve the same purpose, since we interpret art through our feelings.
The movie isn’t an emotional film so much as it is a cerebral one. People have made comparisons to Lynch and Malick, but they weren’t my influences. The movie is meant to be interpreted. I wanted to tell a story that would enable you to go back and get something new out of it each time. I wanted to make something that has longevity. I have friends who saw the film four years ago and when they saw it again recently, they said, “I feel totally different about it. The character I hated before I like now.” Albee’s “Three Tall Women” influenced my decision to connect the women in the film. All the women are essentially the same woman but at different ages of one life. They may not, in reality, be the same woman, but the idea is that they are all representing different ages of a life—the younger woman, the middle-aged woman and the older woman, along with the little girl. They all go through the same things, but in their own way, catered to their environment and their space. The little girl’s struggle is more primal, while the adults are all confined in rooms.
Upon second viewing, I noted the repetition of the number 7, and how it often materializes in the dialogue.
If other people have picked up on that, they sure haven’t told me. [laughs] Honestly, my fear was that people wouldn’t pick up on these sorts of things. I was always wondering, “Is it too much or too little?” I’ve gotten such polarizing reactions from people. Some have only picked up on one of the repetitions, and that’s okay because the next time they see the film, they might notice something new. I was interested in the number 7 as a cosmic number that connects these people. I wanted it to feel like these are the only people on earth—they’re not, of course, but I wanted it to feel like they are in their own little orbit and little world. 7 is both a lucky number and it’s not.
The four-minute opening credit sequence sets the hypnotic mood, which is left uninterrupted at the end, due to the absence of closing credits.
I didn’t want there to be credits at the end because I wanted it to feel like you’re in a dream the whole movie and then suddenly someone wakes you up. I figured I’d have to put the credits at the beginning, and when I did, I thought it might alienate a lot of people. But on the flip side—and this is true for festivals, especially—it gives you that breathing time. You can open your mind and zone out if you want to. The font that Yen Tan came up with makes you feel like you’re opening the pages of a novel where you can’t quite get to Chapter One. There’s the Forward and an Author’s Note and the Table of Contents and the Prologue and then finally, you get to the story.
How did Yen Tan become attached to design the opening titles?
We had known each other for a long time and he’s a friend. He’s a Dallas guy who moved to Austin. I was in one of his shorts back in 2006, and I hope to work with him again sometime. Not only does he make great films, he’s also an accomplished designer. He makes posters that you see all the time at film festivals, as well as EPKs and title designs. He does that sort of work more often than making films in the same way that I act more often than direct. I love working with actors who make films, I love that my producer is a filmmaker and that my editor is a filmmaker. They understand the big picture and it makes them easier to work with.
Editing and writing seem to go hand in hand in terms of how you assemble your thoughts.
Agreed. Editing took a while on this film because we didn’t have all the footage and when we did, by year three, I had become a different person. Looking at the film now, I’m proud of it and everyone’s work in it, but there are so many things that I would’ve done differently. It’s almost like you’re watching a time capsule. I love having collaborations with people where they can inspire you to think outside of the box that you make for yourself. When I start a project, I actually give myself a set of rules to follow so that my film isn’t just all over the place, while ensuring that the story itself dictates the form of the film. I’ll tell myself, “Don’t ever move the camera unless […] or make sure the lighting always does this around this one character.” When I get to post, everything changes and I can do whatever I want. Without any studio interference to worry about, I thankfully had time to explore. The edit has drastically changed the order of the scenes as they were originally placed in the script. They were always intercut with the kid, but their order is completely different.
I also noted some potential biblical references, such as the eating of an apple. The nudity that occurs during a later scene with the couple, accompanied by the line, “It’s like we’re the last people on earth—or the first,” evoked Adam and Eve.
You’re picking up on everything I had hoped. To me, it’s all about creating a myth. The whole movie is supposed to feel like a subverted fairy tale for adults. It’s like a fairy tale for adults who realize that they’ve bought into the fairy tale and it doesn’t work. There are elements such as a wicked stepmother, Prince Charming and the little girl roaming the woods like Alice in Wonderland—and we don’t know if she’s necessarily real. We know that what she goes through has significance. She could just as easily be Lauren’s character as a child or the couple’s future baby. She’s a symbol of all the women and their struggles. I was talking to my girlfriend when we were working on the sound mix, and I explained to her my hope that people would pick up on the operatic nature of the film. It’s about minutia, but I wanted it to have a feeling of high opera. When a character puts down a coffee cup, it booms.
Feature films often have a great many scenes. I wanted to make a feature with as few scenes as possible, though each scene is as densely packed as possible. That was the challenge I set up for myself, and again, that came from the play. Originally the idea was that these characters were running around each other in three scenes, but I wanted each scene to be long and to breathe in order for you to get as much information from it as possible. Each character appears in about two scenes and in that way, it’s very much an ensemble piece where each actor depended on the other.
To me, the little girl seemed to be deeply linked with the blonde woman. Both are neglected and both are left to die in the water.
The blonde woman is somewhat of a doomed character. If she gets the guy, she’ll end up unhappy just like the wife. If the wife decides to have the kid, she’s going to be unhappy and resentful like the mother. There’s this hopscotch connectivity to the characters. The film starts with the blonde woman about to pull a radio into her bathtub, and ends with her recounting a story from her youth, when she was nearly electrocuted in a lake. She’s toying with her death while lying in the bathtub, thinking, “Was I supposed to die then but I didn’t? And should I complete that? Has it just taken a while to get there?”
I was surprised to see the blonde woman and the mother together in their scene toward the end. I began to think that the mother was an older version of the wife, and that the blonde woman was merely a figment of her imagination—suggesting how her daughter would’ve looked had she not gone through with the abortion.
That totally right, and I’m so glad those things rang true with you. The women in the film can either be seen as stand-alone or different versions of the same person. The men are so peripheral which is nice because all my work leading up to my first feature, “Hold,” was really male-driven. Even though “Hold” centers on a man and his wife, the story is viewed more from the male perspective. Ever since that film, my work has been more female-oriented, and “Her Wilderness” is the biggest example of that. Since then, I’ve done a couple shorts with all-female casts. I have a short called “Spider Veins” that should hopefully be coming out at the beginning of next year. It’s about a stage actress reuniting with a friend she hadn’t seen in ten years and the artifice the exists between them. The other film is about a nude model having a nervous breakdown. Lily Baldwin is going to star in the film and we’re shooting it in June in New York. You can see some connections between the shorts and “Her Wilderness.”
The score by Clint Niosi has the rhythm of measured breathing, causing the audience to feel as if they are in the mind of a person in mid-slumber.
Clint is a fantastic musician. This is his first film score and I’ve been a fan of his music for a long time. He used to do this folk-y rock stuff and is a Leonard Cohen fanboy. In a lot of ways, the music is the voice of the child wandering through the woods, because she’s the only one that doesn’t say anything and the music is generally over her scenes. We talked in great detail about musicians who made transitions toward composing for film, and I immediately brought up Jonny Greenwood’s work on “There Will Be Blood.” I played a lot of that for him—it’s minimalist and yet feels so big. It was a balancing act between the two of us to find out where to put the pieces of music when the movie needed it, but also how big to go with what he had composed. Once we put the music into the film, we were like, “Let’s strip it down.” It was sort of like figuring out how few scenes to use to tell the story. I wanted a sound that was as modern as it was classical that had a timeless, fairy tale edge to it.
The final shot of your film reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man.”
That’s exactly what we were going for. I remember when “A Serious Man” ended, and I was blown away by the last shot. It got me thinking of how I could do that in a totally different kind of film while capturing that same feeling. Much like in “A Serious Man,” the main character in each scene is not in the heart of the storm. They’re standing just outside of it, so we’re catching them right at the moment before they make a pivotal decision. At the end of the movie, the girl made it through the woods, but there’s still something ahead. There’s still a storm that she has to deal with. It’s kind of like what I’m trying to say about the adults in the film. You’re going to have a crisis in your forties and another when you’re in your sixties. Even though the ending is kind of ominous, it’s also about fate and inevitability. There’s a beauty in knowing that you’re always going to have to struggle as a human being. Everybody struggles and that’s what connects us.
The ending feels inevitable considering how the storm has been referenced throughout.
I definitely wanted water as the force at work in this film. It’s both a healing and destructive force. To me, that’s the duality that represents these people. It was also a way of bringing nature into these cold interiors with the adults. Only the little girl and her mother are outside, but they are at the end of the story—at the end of a life. The others are trapped in these rooms and struggling to get out. So I was like, “What if nature is leaking in, trying to drown them?” It was a lot of fun to explore sounds, including the [droplet] that falls into a bucket in the last scene. There’s that one little bit trying to get in.
I love your film for the same reason I love “Mulholland Dr.” and “Synecdoche, New York.” They are the gifts that keep on giving.
“Synecdoche, New York” is such a masterpiece. The ending of that film gave me the same feeling that I felt at the end of “A Serious Man.” I respect and like Lynch’s work a lot, but the abstract work of his that really effected me was “Mulholland Dr.” There’s enough puzzle pieces that he’s inviting you to put together. He doesn’t close you off. Sometimes I get the feeling in his work that there’s not enough there. Edward Hopper was a big influence on me. I love Hopper because his work is always hinting at a narrative. You stare at the scene and you can almost imagine a whole movie in that space. If something is abstract, I like that hint of a narrative. If it’s overdone or if there’s not enough narrative, I’m not interested. That’s kind of where my tastes lie, in that weird middle ground.
“Her Wilderness” screens at 7pm Sunday, May 3rd, as part of the Micro-Wave Cinema Series at 4070 Vilas Hall in Madison, WI. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the film’s official site or follow it on Facebook.