By Paul Risker.
More than a decade has passed since actor Tom Gilroy stepped behind the camera to direct his first feature Spring Forward (1999). Gilroy returns to feature filmmaking with The Cold Lands, a meditative and dreamy tale of the passage of a few weeks in the life of eleven year old Atticus (Silas Yelich) following the death of his mother. Film International’s Paul Risker talked with Gilroy about his happenstance career, discovering a film in a dream, the subservient role of the filmmaker to story, and not considering himself or his work in the cinematic context.
Paul Risker: What a creative career. Was there that one inspirational moment?
Tom Gilroy: From a very young age I felt as if I have always done exactly what I do now. Before I could even write, I was a big liar. I would always make up stories about where I had been or what I had done to avoid getting into trouble, and so the stories were starting even then.
At a young age I was writing and drawing comic books, and then, in high school, I happened to meet some pretty cool English teachers, and I started to write a radio soap opera for the school radio station. Nothing was ever a conscious effort, and having acted in a bunch of movies, one day I just decided I wanted to write. Before I knew it I was writing plays, then I was writing a movie and soon I was directing one. There was never a decision one way or another. At the time it seems like happenstance, but then when you look back you think, oh, it was meant to be.
Paul Risker: On the subject of unconscious effort and happenstance, what was the genesis of The Cold Lands?
Tom Gilroy: For a while I had been having these dreams about akid in a small town who was wandering around alone at night. He would be looking in the windows of houses and watching how people behave, how they eat, what they watch on TV, what they look at on-line and how they interact; trying to relate to how he fits into that. I believe that is a very American thing. It seems Americans are always looking around at one another and trying to figure out who is more American. So the image of a boy trying to figure out who he was by looking at people around him stayed with me. When I moved to this small town where we actually shot the movie, a lot of these stories started to flow into those dreams and images. It was then I began to realise that this was probably going to be a movie. Once I had made that decision, it all fell together in terms of me organically processing what was around me, my thoughts and dreams, and wherever my imagination happened to lead me in order to shape the story.
Paul Risker: C.G. Jung believed dreams are a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. It would appear that here you are using cinema as a means to resolve your dream through its manifestation on the screen.
Tom Gilroy: Well, that is certainly the process for this film, but I don’t know whether all the films I would make would follow a similar writing process. Every film has a life, style, tone and context of its own. A lot of the films and film-makers I like deal with very dreamy images, especially the Asian film-makers. But even in Hollywood there are movies such as Harvey (1950) as well as a lot of other films that deal with imagination and dreams. We export a lot of films that are about things blowing up, but there are a lot of smaller films that deal with subjects such as dream imagery. Whilst other cultures certainly explore magical realism and surrealism more than we do, it is an element of film. Film reflects the dream logic that people often envisage when they are asleep, but I really like the films of Tsai Ming–liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Akira Kurosawa. I like a lot of the meditative film-makers, and when I realised what the story was for The Cold Lands, I felt that the tone had to be meditative and dreamlike, especially when I acknowledged that it was coming out of dreams.
But if tomorrow I were to make a noir movie, I don’t think it would be so steeped in dream imagery. It just seemed to suit not only the story but also this spell in the life of an eleven-year-old boy. It is at that age when you first begin to have awareness that there is a world bigger than you. There’s an awareness of death, the afterlife and things that exist other than what’s right in front of you, and it was important that the movie reflect that thought process.
Paul Risker: The death of his mother is the actuality of death, but also the metaphorical death in that it changes his life. A chapter of his life withers and dies and a new chapter is born, a second stage of his childhood as he begins to explore the world in a new and independent way.
Tom Gilroy: It was important to me to capture the two week period where there is obviously a transition going on in this boy’s life. As I said earlier, it is a point in life where you suddenly start to have an awareness of the sub-conscious, and an awareness that all things die, and that there are other ways to live and other things to think about besides I wake up, I go to school, I eat breakfast. It’s also that time when you are neither a child nor a teenager.
I wouldn’t call The Cold Lands a coming of age movie because Atticus doesn’t come of age. It’s just this little moment in what one hopes becomes a very long life. It is in this moment that his perspective shifted because of things outside of his control, and which he will be processing for the rest of his life. But it was important to me to keep it small, and to keep it focused on how when you are that age little things obviously seem big, and in retrospect become big things. They influence and change how you live the rest of your life, and certainly meeting this man [Carter, Peter Scanavino] is going to be a big one.
Paul Risker: The end credits are not necessarily the end of the film, but an invitation for the audience to imagine what happens next. The Cold Lands offers us only a chapter in Atticus’ life, and invite the audience to continue his story.
Tom Gilroy: Not just with film but with any good story. If it is going to be a powerful story you want to affect people’s sub-conscious and dreams in order to make them think about it – not to just watch the movie, but to allow it to resonate with them. On a narrative level any great story or any well drawn character should continue beyond the end credits or the last page of the book. After all in the end it is just one big story that we the audience or reader are dipping into and experiencing together; shaping our own version of what we see. The good ones obviously have to continue and they lead you to the next one. The bad ones – well, that’s just cheap entertainment.
Paul Risker: In a recent interview with Irvine Welsh regarding Filth’s (2013) America release, he spoke of American Hustle (2013) and Wolf of Wall Street (2013) as examples of a certain trend that has emerged. “American cinema has become about movies that are two hours, easily three hour long movies and I just think Americans are used to seeing these long movies.”
Tom Gilroy: Those are only Hollywood movies, and The Wolf of Wall Street is just one of many movies made in the United States. If one were to step out of the context of the Oscar contenders and actually look at the breadth of American films that are being made, there are plenty of great short stories which are being told, and I can list a lot of well-wrought ninety minute stories in American cinema that aren’t The Wolf of Wall Street.
I don’t know what Martin Scorsese or his producer’s motivations were, but I’m sure one of the motivations was that they wanted the film to play in a lot of theatres and to make a lot of money. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. I haven’t seen it and I’m not really interested in seeing it. In terms of length, off the top of my head I’ll name Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) which was a brilliant ninety minute movie. I don’t think length is the issue; the issue is storytelling.
At the moment I’m in the middle of watching Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which is four hours long. I’m at the two and a half hour mark and it’s fascinating. It’s one of the slowest movies I have ever seen, and it is like watching an incredible opera. Am I going to watch it in one sitting? No. I’ll watch an hour one night and an hour another night. I’ll watch it as if it is a miniseries. But would I say that it is overlong? No. It’s the length that Ruiz wanted the movie to be.
Stories demand their own length, and I’m not really inherent to this idea that television is just one long film, that The Soprano’s (1999) or Prime Suspect (1991) is just one movie. It is a television series, a serial. The story has to dictate the length and because in order to tell that story they needed five years and so many episodes, The Sopranos would have been a bad movie, whilst Meek’s Cutoff which is one of my favourite independent films, would not have succeeded as a television series because it was perfect at ninety minutes.
Paul Risker: Comparing The Cold Lands to the cinema of Antonioni, it belongs to the cinema of observation – voyeuristic towards its protagonists, refusing to intrude on the communal space of the characters, with an natural interaction between the characters.
Tom Gilroy: There are film-makers that I like, and film-makers who I feel that I am influenced by. But then I look at my own work and I can’t see any relationship between the films. I do adore Ken Loach who became a friend of mine and with whom I did a couple of films as an actor. But I don’t see any of his work in my work. I have to believe an objective observer could see a connection, but it is the same for Tsai Ming-Liang, who I like a lot, and yet I don’t see an influence of his work on my films. I don’t see it so much as being part of a type cinema other than it’s not financed by the studios. I certainly love Antonioni, and I think I understand what you are saying. But I feel when you approach a film you are making it the one way it can be made. Then when you look back on it people ask, “Why did you do it that way?” you reply, “I didn’t decide that; the film decided that. It had to be made that way.”
What could you say is a classic Kubrick movie? The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975) are all radically different films stylistically. Why – because each one of those stories dictated to him as an artist how it was that they had to be told. To me it would be boring to live a life where every film you made was exactly like the one before. For people who work in very limited genres like Woody Allen or Mike Leigh, who I think is great, and yet all of his films are so radically different. They are all realist but they are radically different in terms of tone because he lets the story dictate. I can’t even think of a film-maker that I like who makes the same style of film over and over again.
We were talking about Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and the reason I don’t have any interest in seeing it is because I feel that I have already seen that movie from him. When he steps outside of what people expect from a Martin Scorsese movie is when he usually blows you away. Kundun (1997) was an incredible movie and I loved his formative movie Mean Streets (1974) as well as Raging Bull (1980), which are more interesting than The Gangs of New York (2003).
Paul Risker: When I interviewed Sophie Lellouche for her debut feature film Paris-Manhattan (2012) she remarked, “First movies are very different; they are dreams. They are what you expect cinema to be.” The Cold Lands is your second directorial feature. How do you compare the experiences of your first two features?
Tom Gilroy: Despite the gap between the two films, I feel that I have been very lucky. In both cases I was embraced by the people who were paying for the film, and the people who were producing it. They let me do whatever I wanted to do, and there was never any question other than “Does the director think it is a good idea to do this or that?” There was never a, this won’t sell. We’ll never be able to put it out or we’ll never be able to make it.
I have just been lucky in both cases, and I don’t think making The Cold Lands changed my view of what’s possible in cinema other than developing a different skill set, because the movie is far less dialogue based than my previous film. But if they think that their first film was a dream, and their second film was discovering cinema, then that’s great. I don’t really look at my work in how it relates to other people’s movies or even the nature of cinema. Both what I want to do and what I want to make comes out of ideas that I’ve had, and I just try to go about finding people who will pay for it and help me make it. Then I try to render it so that it is true to who I am, and the rest of it is fate.
It is not important how many people see it, but what the people who do see it think of it, and whether and how it remains with them. In both of these cases I’ve been pretty lucky because people have responded to both of my films.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.