Jeremy Kay catches up with the director of the tense family drama, which on January 11 was named winner of the New Voices/New Visions award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Following its world premiere in Venice, Medeas so impressed jury head Martin Scorsese and his colleagues at the recent Marrakech International Film Festival that it earned Andrea Pallaoro the best director prize.

The $400,000 privately funded feature directorial debut explores alienation and perception and stars Catalina Sandino Moreno as a deaf mother and wife of a dairy farmer at a time of great drought whose five children exist unknowingly beneath a veil of desperation.

Pallaoro was born in Trento, Italy, and resides in Los Angeles. He got his BA in film at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and a MFA in Film Directing at CalArts in Los Angeles. He teaches a course on screenwriting with a focus on the aesthetic of alienation at Hampshire College

Where did the idea for the story come from?

Before I wrote it I had been exposed to many different cases of filicide through the media and one caught my attention from Scotland, in which this father kills his five children and before he does that he calls his wife on the phone and tells her he is about to kill them.

I was very upset how all these articles treated these people as monsters when in fact while these are tragedies they come form a very extreme sense of desperation. That is what I wanted to explore – to find that humanity in myself.

How do you write?

It was such an instinctual process. I co-wrote it with Orlando Tirado and the way we work is once we have an idea we put it aside and work with images almost exclusively. We collect images we are drawn to and we adapt them to the story we want to tell. It’s a process driven by instincts, the senses. Ultimately it’s a cinema that’s motivated by impulses that are perceptive and sensorial. We were distancing ourselves from the narrative.

How do you work with actors?

The way I like to work is through complete collaboration. All the key members of the team from the cinematographer and production designer to the actors would bring in their own process and we would add it to ours. The collaboration was what made this film. Everybody became involved from a group perspective and brought their own sensitivities to the film.

With the actors we never rehearsed in the traditional sense but we spent a lot of time getting to known each other. That was essential to build that trust and we talked about the characters and their relationships with each other and the objectives and the situation, the fears and desires of each character. It was such a pleasure to work with them. They really had fun.

Catalina Sandino Moreno plays the mother Christina. That was a coup to get her.

We sent her the script and a few days later her agent called us saying she was very interested and wanted to met. And once we had Catalina everything came together.

Brian F O’Byrne impresses as husband Ennis.

He’s an incredible actor. He’s Irish and I had seen him a few times on Broadway: he was the original stage actor in Doubt [to play Father Brendan Flynn, the role Phillips Seymour Hoffman would take on in the film.]

Christina is deaf but seems a more rounded character than we have come to expect from portrayals of people with disability.

She’s not defined by her deafness – she’s a full person. A very important promise I made to myself was to never treat the characters as good or evil but as human beings and never to judge them. The moment you judge someone, especially creatively, you limit yourself and the opportunity to fully understand these characters. When you approach a character from that point of view it’s impossible for it to become a stereotype. It’s that human being in front of you and that’s what Catalina did.

Tell us about the family on screen. It’s full of intrigue, alienation and subtle ebbs and flows of emotion.

My family is very different but there were some similarities in the relationships. A lot of the scenes were taken from my life and my co-writer’s life. I am sure memories have been distorted because you inject them with your perspective of the world.

You shot in late 2012. Where?

We wanted to make this film timeless and geography-less, but it was shot in southern California about one hour away from Los Angeles in Santa Clarita and Simi Valley. Locations are treated as a way or mirroring the characters’ internal world. The landscape needs water as much as the characters need connection. The rain comes too late.

What’s next for you?

We’re looking at a possible August start on a project I again co-wrote with my partner. It’s a character study of a woman in her late 60s who must cope with accusations that her husband was a paedophile.