By Tom Ue.
Aaron Harvey is the writer and director of several award-winning feature films including Catch.44 (2011), starring Bruce Willis, Forest Whitaker and Malin Akerman, and The Neighbor (2018), William Fichtner, Michael Rosenbaum and Jessica McNamee. Into the Ashes (2019), his latest, centres on Nick (Luke Grimes), a former convict who attempts to start a new life in rural Alabama. The start of the film finds him married and with a job, both of which are derailed with the arrival of former associates. The story of Into the Ashes may seem familiar but its screenplay and visual style make it distinctive. The film is now in theatres, on demand, and digital. In what follows, Harvey and I discuss his film thematically and how he interprets its ending.
Please note that details of the plot will be revealed in what follows.
Into the Ashes is your second film in as many years. What is the connective tissue between this project and The Neighbor?
Oh, that’s an interesting question… Topically they’re two very different films, but I suppose the connective tissue is the sort of isolated, lonely-man journey of the two protagonists. With The Neighbor, Bill Fichtner plays a man who has become out of place in his own environment, to the point that he starts to look outside of himself and his relationship with his wife and family by obsessing over his neighbor. By contrast, in Into the Ashes, Luke Grimes plays a character who’s already out of place in his environment and hiding from his past, which is in essence the ‘family’ element in his life, as is alluded to in the film. Both characters are sort of islands unto themselves in a way, and we get to witness the films first hand from their point of views.
The themes of family and identity are also familiar, which is something I always tend to gravitate towards. Also, I suppose, both of the main characters are very much flawed in the sense that they’ve clearly made bad decisions, and those choices ultimately lead to their downfalls so to speak, which is a bit more Shakespearean than probably intended. This happens in a pretty major way in the case of Into the Ashes. Although I suppose it’s the same in The Neighbor, with Bill doing what he does at the end of that film, so… Ha.
What inspired Into the Ashes?
Ashes was initially inspired by a lot of the films I love and my wanting to contribute to that canon of films in some capacity. I’ve always had a deep affect for genre films, specifically regional genre films like Rolling Thunder (1977), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Charley Varrick (1973) (or any Don Siegel film really). Cool Hand Luke (1967) is another one—films with simple enough plots but interesting characters and strong central themes. Films where we’re not overloaded with the movement of the story, but where we can invest in the hero on their journey, for good or bad, and ultimately the film that takes you on a ride of some sort (generally a need for revenge or redemption or rectification). I respond to that a lot. As a more contemporary reference, the Coen brothers do it in some their films to a degree, like Blood Simple (1984) or No Country for Old Men (2007)…. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) is another one. I find that most of those films don’t try to be more than they’re intended story-wise and there’s something wonderful about that simplicity—where you’re not trying to catch or outsmart the viewer, but just focusing on telling the story honestly and truthfully to what the film is trying to be or say.
I think people respond to that subtextually as well. These films also tend to be more timeless and they reflect issues or ideas that we, as a larger society, can respond to, even if the specific genre isn’t your cup of tea. To speak to Ashes specifically, I thought I’d write a regional revenge / redemption thriller and make it about two men who rectify their relationships with each other over a mutual, shared tragedy—and set it against the genre backdrop that I love.
This film isn’t just an action thriller: it shares many of the characteristics of the drama by dwelling on Nick’s new life. Did you have that in mind from the start?
Funny you mention that, as in my mind it was never really a “thriller” per say. I even pitched it initially as very much a drama with thriller elements, but in no way was it a straight ahead thriller. I’ve always intended it to be more a drama than anything, all the way down to holding back on seeing the ultimate demise of Sloan’s (Frank Grillo) character. To me it was never about the ‘elements’ (i.e. the violence or the action, etc). It was more about the relationship between these two men, Frank (Robert Taylor) and Nick, and how they each deal with the tragedy and how in turn they almost come to understand each other’s points of view.
Frank’s worldview is very black-and-white and, once the tragedy is personal, he has to make a hard choice and compromise his ethical standpoint almost, whereas Nick is more fluid and willing to do whatever it takes to deal with the situation at hand—within the law or not. So the two men have that dichotomy and ultimately end up coming to this crossroads of understanding and we sort of see the appreciation between the two of them at the end. How people can have different points of view and still keep a measure of understanding one another.
The film is distinctively atmospheric, particularly in its effective sound mixing and lighting choices. What are some of your influences?
Oh man—that’s a looong list. I’m obsessed with films and literally watch at least one film, if not two every night. There’s many, many cinematic references, but I’ve always tried to figure out a way to sort of have my own aesthetic in an otherwise overloaded film landscape. I’m a big fan of the craft of film, which I think is dying with the advent of YouTube and the like—so I tend to find a lot of influences in contemporary filmmakers that I feel still really respect the way films are made and understand composition and lighting and how to communicate effectively a feeling or story through that. I love all the work Andrew Dominik does. James Gray is a huge influence as is Lynne Ramsay. Tim Sutton and Steve McQueen. David Fincher. Steven Soderberg—you can really recognize all their films pretty quickly when you watch them, and all of them have their own mastery of the craft.
In terms of literal films, myself and my DP, John Rutland, looked at a couple of recent films that I really love the look of like Foxcatcher (2014) and Killing Them Softly (2012). That sort of bleak, atmospheric feeling they both imparted. I suppose that’s Greig Fraser as much as anything, but I love the photography and feeling in those movies. Mud (2012) had a great feeling to it and a nice cinematic quality. A History of Violence. As mentioned earlier, Rolling Thunder had a wonderfully downbeat look to it, where they didn’t shy away from the darkness and blacks in that film—I suppose there’s a big soup in my brain that I pulled from, ha.
But all of that really goes out the window when you’re shooting because it always get down to your own judgment on set. No matter how much you’ve referenced or how much you’ve prepared, every day is a challenge and you have to really be aware of the moment and lean on your own instincts in terms of how to effectively capture the feeling that the scene itself is trying to impart. That’s the genius of all those filmmakers I suppose—that ability under pressure to really be able to extract the essence of the film. It’s tough, especially on a tight budget where you don’t have the resources to really do it right: you have to lean into figuring it out creatively and make the best choices you can.
Sound-wise, there weren’t any overt films that we referenced, but we did talk a lot about the uncomfortableness and ever growing sense of dread and tension being a big part of the score and mix. James Curd, the composer, nailed the score straight out of the gate. He completely got what we were going for and it was seamless working with him. We did the last film together as well, so we have a pretty good shorthand, and he really had a solid understanding of what the film was and how to elevate it. He captured the feeling pretty much exactly as I imagined it. It was the same with the actual mix—we just tried to pay attention to what the scenes themselves or the moment itself was trying to say and communicate to the viewer. It’s kind of baked into the script and the way we shot the film, so we let that dictate how we mixed the film and designed the sound and it sort of took on it’s own life. I’m a big, big believer of sound really making a film, so the scoring and mixing processes were very important to me. Myself and my editor, Richard, sit in on all of the mixing every day and stick our fingers in every beat of the film—which I’m sure drove our sound designer Mike Krepel nuts, but it all worked out in the end.
Tell us about the casting.
The casting was somewhat straightforward with this one (as much as it can be for an independent film). My producing partner, Rob Barnum, is friendly with a couple of agents over at CAA who asked what he was working on. He sent them this script as we were about to start putting it together, and fortunately for us all the agents really responded to it and asked how they could help out. That’s sort of a rarity in the independent film space, as most agents are more interested in telling you ‘no’, so I essentially made a list of actors I was interested in and sent it over to them.
Again, fortunately for us, most of the ones that read it also responded to the material. Luke Grimes was the first actor we cast, as he read the script and we hit it off pretty much immediately. After him, we got Frank Grillo who also got on board early on, then James Badge Dale. I have a couple of really solid actor buddies who I wanted in the film, namely Brady Smith, David Cade and Scott Peat, so we cast them in short order. Then Robert Taylor and Marguerite Moreau jumped on board, which pretty much filled it out. The whole process took close to a year, as everyone’s schedules are always in flux, but once we started actively putting it together, it all happened somewhat quickly considering the normal pace of independent films… And most of this happened before we even had a dollar to make the film with, which is also not the norm.
I understand what it really means to put these films together, so we got very lucky in that people responded to the script, which allowed us to approach actors who we normally wouldn’t be able to before we actually had the financing in place. That and the fact that casting is always tricky, because you have to balance the commercial component of the film with the creative, and I think that this cast rode that line pretty well. I never felt we had to compromise, which is always a good feeling—and the entire cast was there because they loved the material and not for a paycheck. That made it easier on the production and definitely made for a more inspired film.
The film centres as much on Frank as it does on Nick. Why focus on these two characters?
As we’d spoken about earlier, the film to me was really a drama about two men coming to terms with each other. It was always broken into two halves, the first half being Nick’s film and the second half being Frank’s film, and the two of them intersecting and having that brief moment of rectification at the end. I focused on them because that’s the story I wanted to tell and it’s the story that I could tell effectively because I feel like I can understand from a personal perspective what it’d be like to lose someone you love in that way and/or how it’d affect you and what it could drive someone to do given the circumstances.
I guess I just thought it would be interesting to explore how people’s morals are flexible when a tragedy becomes personal, as we see with Frank. And Nick, in a way, represents our guilty indulgence in the sense that he has no qualms about exacting the type of revenge that Frank would normally wrestle with, or even have a problem with. We as the audience get our satisfaction through Nick’s character and our moral center through Frank—so the story had to be told from both of their points of view. But again, we held back on the indulgence of actually seeing Nick get his revenge, because I felt that would diminish the conflicting feelings people should have about the situation and how these two men dealt with it personally. To show that would take away from the thematic implications of the film in my opinion.
Nick’s former accomplices routinely refer to their criminal past, and yet we never see or learn what they did. How important was it for you to gesture towards, while denying us access to, their past?
To be honest, the past situation / what happened wasn’t that important to me in terms of the storytelling itself, only because that was secondary to what the film was trying to impart thematically. It was more of a foil to get us where we are in the present, and I thought it might be a bit reductive to spell it all out to the audience—who, for the most part these days, are pretty smart and can roll with a story without some crazy expository moment that tells them everything. It wasn’t really relevant specifically, as all that mattered was that these guys perceived themselves as this “familial unit,” something went bad between them, and it was Nick’s character’s fault (or at least that’s how Sloan and Charlie (Cade) felt about it). Of course I spoke with all three of them about it and we all sort of made up our own backstory as to what the incident was, but that was more for character building and their relationships than it was for any sort of larger plot motivation. Sloan pretty much spells it out as much as we wanted to in the scene in the living room, so hopefully it fills in just enough blanks for people to go with it.
How do you communicate these subtleties to the actors?
Hours of discussions, ha! Seriously though, we would sit and talk through the moments and scenes; and we would really discuss what the specific beat or scene is about or is trying to say, and that in turn would dictate how the performance unfolds and informs the sort of subtleties you see on screen. You do all that before you get to set, and then when you’re on set you’re just modulating the actual performance to keep it in the overall vein of the film. My job is to keep the scope of the story in check—so if everyone isn’t on the same page when you start, you’re sort of shooting yourself in the foot. That’s why most of these discussions happen well before shooting. Once everyone understands the film you’re trying to make, the actors can start making the external choices in terms of clothing or impediments or whatever else, but that’s just the cream on top of the cake. Everyone has to know and understand the cake you’re baking, before you can add the icing to it. I always approach the story with the actors first and make sure we’re on the same page in terms of what the film is, before we get specific about the subtleties, etc. Keep the horse before the cart.
The film doesn’t entirely identify with Nick or Frank, though it shows how their experiences are, perhaps, relatable. How important was this for you?
Very important in the sense that this was the initial impetus for the story: the idea of what each of them represents for the viewer, how there is no real right or wrong, and life is more shades of gray. I think that being relatable, even if you don’t agree with someone’s viewpoint or actions, is very important—and hopefully some of that translates when you watch the film. You don’t have to root for them per say, you just have to understand them.
What do you think attracts Tara (Moreau) and so many of the film’s characters to Nick despite the danger this entails?
Good question—what attracts anyone to anyone else? I’d imagine there’s something charming to him topically, but more importantly I think that Tara can see the good that truly exists deep down inside him. She sees beyond the surface and knows that at his core he’s probably a better person than what her father, Frank, makes him out to be—and she can tap into and understand that. I think he’s actively trying to change his life as well, and there’s a nobility in that that maybe she appreciates? I think with Sal (Dale) it’s more linear—he sees a good guy who he works with every day and after shooting the shit with him enough they’ve just bonded. I think he’s one of those guys who would go to the grave for a friend (as he literally does), and it’s his own stubbornness and loyalty to his friend that gets in the way of his own preservation.
But for some reason he’s found something kindred in Nick and appreciates him like a brother. Male bonding can be a strange thing, and I don’t think that overanalyzing the ‘why’ in terms of their relationship is all that important to people being able to understand that relationship in the way that they interact and what they’d do to help each other out.
Without giving away the film’s ending, what do you think Frank did?
Oh man, I don’t want to give away my own interpretation because I think that you could swing either way depending on what you got out of the film—but to spoil a good thing, I think he let’s Nick go. He sort of alludes to it in his final voice over, but I personally believe he’s shaken his own foundation by having to deal with this situation in the first place and, more importantly, in making the choice to not be bound by the rule of law as he has his entire life and career. He’s bent his principles fundamentally and he made a choice that’s completely antithetical to his worldview and it’s fucked his head up a little bit. I don’t think it’s out and out changed him as a person. It’s definitely changed his point of view and he’s been wrestling with it and thinking about it ever since.
What is the significance of making Frank’s voiceover, particularly his reference to Samson, open to interpretation?
Sort of for the same reason as the question before—to not overly point at one specific outcome or resolution, because life isn’t so black-and-white. We get a literal manifestation of this through Frank’s character in the film. And the juxtaposition of that is the idea that he’s looking to scripture and the story of Sampson to almost rationalize what he’s done—which is a totally metaphysical thing—in his very black-and-white world. It’s an interesting motif that I think services the entire film as there’s a lot of ambiguity in what the story ultimately is (thematically) and Frank realizes this by having to deal with the situation firsthand. So it’s like this lens that he’s filtering his own existence through. A story that he can identify with, from a book he’s probably lived his life by.
What is next for you?
I have another quasi-genre film in a similar vein that we’re working on now. It’s a bit more ambitious but still very much a character-driven film dealing with love, identity, and choice, and how choice affects your life. It’s also my contemporary homage to Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), so we’ll see how it goes. Working on putting that together now. I’m also producing a short documentary about the life of Valerie Perrine that we’re finishing up. It’s a cool little portrait piece about an iconic actress and a true pioneer who was well before her time. We’re in post now, but should be premiering at festivals soon here.
Tom Ue researches and teaches courses on nineteenth-century British literature, intellectual history, and cultural studies at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming) and George Gissing(Liverpool University Press, forthcoming), and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Ue has held the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and he is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.