Jeremy Kay talks to the first-time feature director and former Terrence Malick intern about her SXSW selection, which premieres in Visions on Sunday.
American Fable takes place during the US farming crisis of the 1980s but, as Hamilton explains, its ongoing topicality speaks to the recent past and the possible future of American politics and society.
What were the origins of this story?
I’d had this image in my head of a girl field-dressing a deer in her barn when a wealthy man from the city pulls up in a town car and they somehow, improbably, know each other. That’s really where the heart of the story came from; these two strangers had a past, and the girl had blood on her hands, and I needed to figure out how and why. That became the story that is American Fable.
Were you personally affected by the farming crisis?
You know, we all are. There’s a scene in the movie where Gitty reads a Yeats poem, written in 1919, right after WWI and in the lead-up to the Irish Civil War, and one of the lines is: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” American Fable is, under the surface, an allegory about the falling apart of America that’s happening right now. It’s a problem that began in the 1980s during the Reagan administration and was partly due to the Farm Crisis; a way of life that had sustained us since the Founding Fathers’ time was suddenly all but destroy in a handful of years.
Millions of farmers lost their way of life and suddenly felt uncertain about their economic future, and this problem continues to this day. Whenever people feel afraid and disenfranchised in large numbers like that, they look for ways of filling that void, often turning to extremism for a new source of belonging and identity. That same poem ends with: “What rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” If you want to know why Trump might be elected president in fall, look to what happened to the Midwest in the 1980s. It’s all there.
You keep the story rooted in its time and yet the story and the way it is told feels timeless. Did it change much over successive drafts?
It’s funny, but setting it in the past is what made it timeless. We don’t really see the past clearly, we romanticise it, and so you can play with an audience’s nostalgia for the past to great effect story-wise, especially if you go back far enough to where technology can’t date you. The fairy tale really took shape when I showed it to someone, and he said – this is a Beauty And The Beast story. He was right, and so on the next draft I made sure not to let the social issues distract us from Gitty’s journey, but they are there if you look for them.
Was the character and meaning of Vera always that way when you initially conceived of the story?
Vera was always the vehicle of a loss of innocence and gaining experience in the story, and she’s closely connected to the Dark Rider for this reason, which is the symbolic representation of this in Gitty’s subconscious. I think Vera is a very intelligent, lonely person, who loves the pursuit of truth more than people, but really means to do the best thing. I love it when she tells Gitty to think beyond good and evil and only worry about who has power. It’s not a great message in that context, but it’s not a dishonest one either.
All the cast are good and of course there are some familiar faces there. How did you find Peyton Kennedy?
This is Peyton’s first film shot in the United States, I believe, and her first lead role, and I’m so proud of that casting decision in particular – the movie really rests on her small 11-year-old shoulders. We did a nationwide search and had over 100 girls send in tapes from all over the continent. What they say is true: when I saw Peyton’s tape I just knew that she was born to play Gitty. And what’s also so amazing – if we had shot a year earlier, she wouldn’t have been ready, and a year later, she would have probably out-grown the role. Destiny is in the timing of things, as my agent likes to say. And this timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Where and when did you shoot and how much time did you have?
We shot in Wisconsin and Illinois for about 30 days in August and September 2015. The flashback sequence with the plane had to be shot a year before, in the fall of 2014, however, because I wanted the corn in that sequence to be brown, and there was no way we could afford to shoot all the way into October with an August start date.
And how did the financing come together? Can you tell us the approximate budget?
The movie was independently financed. It’s definitely not low-budget, but not ridiculously huge either. A little less than The Revenant’s budget, probably, if I had to guess.
Are you big on rehearsals?
God, I wish I could have more time for rehearsals! That’s the worst part of an indie schedule – not having enough time with the actors. I was lucky that each of them was perfect for their roles and very talented, but I wish we had had more time to play and discover things together. That’s an experience I crave most in the making of a movie – that of discovery with my collaborators.
What did you learn from working with Malick?
I worked for him in 2008-2009 as an intern, which was a long time ago now. He definitely changed my life when he called me and offered me the internship, and as a young 20-something who had never met a director before, I just soaked in all I could by being around him and his producer and watching his leadership style and editing instincts. My style is very different from Terry’s aesthetic, however, which people will see when they watch my film – I’m more similar to the Coens or Fincher. One thing Terry does while directing actors, which I learned from him and also love to do, is he talks after we start recording sound. I think we directors can become slaves to our instruments and ritualise the calling out of action, but it’s genius to be able to talk an actor through a scene, especially when you are doing coverage and can shoot in a series. My sound guys hated it, but it’s a very smart way of working because you can edit around my voice and you get better performances when you reach in and connect with an actor right then and there, especially with a child actor. Also, it’s a lot more fun.