Tribeca Interviews: Director Zachary Sluser Talks ‘The Driftless Area,’ Working with John Hawkes, and Playing With the Ethereal and Real
“It’s a special and magical place,” Canadian-born director Zachary Sluser says when discussing the Midwestern setting of his first feature-length film, The Driftless Area. Those same words could just as easily be applied to the movie itself given its unparalleled philosophical magnificence, leaving one ruminating over the story’s themes long after the credits have finished rolling. Based on the 224-page novel of the same name by author Tom Drury, the film is an examination of fate and time via the life story of bartender Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin) who falls for the mysterious Stella (Zooey Deschanel), a woman with an elusive past, while inadvertently becoming pulled into a cat-and-mouse game with a hardened criminal (John Hawkes), after accidentally knocking him unconscious with a rock and seizing the opportunity to procure his duffel bag full of cash. What ensues is a comedic and thoughtful look into the cinematic ripple effect that mirrors that of one’s every day existence through happenstance meetings and events — the chain reaction that strangers often have on our life’s design.
Catching up with the filmmaker at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, where the picture had its world premiere, we discussed his adapting the novel to film, his love for the Driftless Area region, casting choices, and why he enjoys working with both Drury and Hawkes so much.
GALO: The film is obviously based on the novel written by Tom Drury. In the director’s statement, you speak about how the story captivated you so much so that you wished you could share it with someone. Was this your attempt at doing just that and sharing it with the world? And did you come across any challenges or difficulties when trying to bring the story to life on screen, especially given how much you admired the prose? After all, it is nearly impossible to bring every single written page or nuance to the screen, some things need to be sacrificed or even added for the sake of the fluidity of a film.
Zachary Sluser: I certainly hope that more people discover Tom Drury’s novels as a result of the film. And you’re exactly right — because I loved this world, all of these characters and Tom’s unique observations of them, I was very protective of it all. That certainly presents challenges. However, working directly with Tom on the adaptation, I was free to explore opportunities for telling this story in a new medium. Tom would remind me that he had already written the book and as long as we were true to its intentions and spirit, we should actively seek out new ways to get the story across. So certain characters would get combined, storylines moved in new directions, and some aspects didn’t make it through the adaptation. I think that’s probably true of any adaptation, but I felt uniquely lucky to not only have the author’s permission to try new things but to have him right there with me doing so himself.
GALO: Apart from your fascination with the characters and the questions surrounding fate and time, what inspired you to turn this novel into a film?
ZS: The setting — having grown up in Iowa, I was instantly drawn to the unique topography and atmosphere of the Driftless Area. I took several trips to the actual region in Wisconsin and Iowa while preparing for the film and it’s a special and magical place; the ancient rocky hills and bluffs that went unmoved by the powerful glaciers serve as a reminder of our inevitable mortality. The nature there seems to have an elusive, patient indifference to our attempts at controlling it. It’s mysterious and provides a humorous perspective.
GALO: Did you or Tom at any point consider changing the title for the film? Or was it important to you both to keep it true to the novel, so that there would be no question as to where it came from?
ZS: I’ve always loved the title and am in love with the unique region it’s named after.
GALO: As a fan of the novel, I can imagine it was quite a treat for you to be able to work with Tom, although from what I’ve read, this wasn’t your first time collaborating with him on a project. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you — what did you enjoy most about it? Did the two of you have endless conversations about the themes that dance throughout the novel and film? And did you disagree at any point on the visions you each had for the movie?
ZS: I adapted (with Tom) and directed one of Tom’s New Yorker short stories, “Path Lights,” as a short film. It’s quite different from The Driftless Area, but it was a great opportunity for us to collaborate on a smaller scale. One of the best things to come out of that process was meeting and working with John Hawkes, who played the lead in the short. The three of us committed to making the feature afterward and we stuck to that plan.
Tom and I have been very much in sync with our vision for all the details of the film. And the short film definitely helped to establish that trust.
GALO: I read that this film took around eight years to come to fruition. That’s quite a long time for the production phase — almost as long as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Considering that this is your first feature-length film, how excited were you to finally bring it to an audience at a festival like Tribeca? Was the experience anything at all what you expected? And if you don’t mind me asking, why was the film eight years in the making?
ZS: Well, we weren’t working on it the whole time like [Linklater did with] Boyhood, so it’s a much different thing. We made the short film and took it around to festivals in-between writing drafts. Once we found our producer, Keith Kjarval, who deeply understood the story and the marketplace, the film actually came together quite quickly.
Premiering the film at a world-class festival like Tribeca has been an incredibly exciting experience. Watching the film with the passionate and cinema-loving audiences here has made for some thoughtful and entertaining conversations and Q&As.
GALO: I think it goes without saying that the cast is remarkable both in choice and in their acting capabilities in terms of the movie. How did Zooey Deschanel, Frank Langella and Anton Yelchin get involved in this project, and what were you looking for specifically in terms of characteristics or passion when you were making your casting choices? In other words, what made them perfect for their roles?
ZS: Thank you. I very humbly agree with you and feel fortunate to be joined by such talented actors on my first feature film.
Everyone in this cast is incredibly thoughtful and [they’re] curious individuals to begin with. Not just in how they explored their characters, but also in how they discussed the themes and questions that the story attempts to tackle. I was looking for thoughtful and actively curious actors to collaborate with.
John Hawkes was the first one to [become] attached to the film, after Path Lights, and he remained unwaveringly on board. John’s enthusiasm and belief in the film was critical to approaching everyone else.
GALO: As mentioned, you’ve previously worked with John Hawkes, whose character Shane is vibrant on screen. What made you want to work with him on this project, and what was it about the character of Shane and the prospect of this film that caught his interest?
ZS: John doesn’t strike a false note in anything I’ve seen him in. He can be incredibly endearing and then turn on a dime [both] intimidatingly and electrically. He fully embodies each role physically and emotionally.
I believe that Shane is a competent criminal, but his ego and emotions often cloud his judgment. This is incredibly true over the course of the film, as Shane feels unfairly put upon by a series of events out of his control. He carries a good deal of guilt and frustration from a crime he didn’t mean to commit, while completing a crime that he did. And you can see all of that in how John carries himself physically as Shane — in each footstep and each sigh of breath.
He’s both quite funny and threatening at any given moment. I love how in Drury’s world, we don’t judge Shane as “evil.” There is no evil, [there’s] just action and reaction. Were it not for Shane’s actions, then Stella and Pierre would never have met. So, I enjoy thinking of the universe [as] having some unknowable action/reaction order to it in that way. Shane is a part of that order, even if he didn’t ask to be.
GALO: I purposefully haven’t discussed scenes from this film in the interview as I feel that by doing so, I would give away vast portions and cheat viewers out of seeing it (especially those who have not yet read the novel). However, one aspect that I would like to discuss is the importance of setting and Stella’s presence, which is somewhat ethereal in terms of her appearance in the “real world.” How significant was the scenery to the telling of this story and do you believe that there are different planes of existence, and that sometimes they can interconnect like they do in the film?
ZS: Again, I think the setting of this story in the Driftless Area — a place unchanged by the effects of time — was a great opportunity to play with the ethereal and the real. The perspective of the timeless and immovable as a backdrop for the temporal and fleeting lives passing through it was essential to my view of the story.
As to whether I believe in multiple planes of existence and the ability to interact with them, my rational mind says there’s no way to know that — and everything else I’m made of says, “Let’s think about it more anyway.”
GALO: With romance running rampant throughout the film, do you think this is a good date movie? Or do you feel that your film might not be for everyone because of its concept, complexity and contemplative approach?
ZS: Certainly. It’s a good one to discuss afterward over drinks… Or maybe don’t discuss anything, let the romance be your guide for the evening and discuss the film over coffee the following morning.
GALO: The film is chockfull with wonderful quotes that make one stop and think. However, there were two that really struck me in particular. One was said by Frank Langella: “It takes random to find random.” While the other was said by Zooey Deschanel: “If something is in motion does it have to happen?” I’m curious as to whether you agree with what was said by Frank in the film, and what your thoughts are on the perception of fate and being able to change something that is already occurring in some degree, as suggested by Zooey. Can it be changed or is it already set in stone?
ZS: Thank you kindly.
Again, I like the idea that there is some order to actions and their reactions over time in the universe. We can call it karma or fate or destiny. I don’t know about all that. I think being human is that you have to wonder but can’t claim to know for certain. Or at least I think that’s the case. I can’t be certain about that either.
And certainly I want to believe that I have the agency to make my own choices and chart my own path through life. I definitely have the ignorance of perceiving to have that agency, even if it’s already been decided what I’ll choose.
GALO: As mentioned before, the film deals with a variety of philosophical questions about one’s place in the universe as well as the semblance of time and the future, making one think about one’s existence. But I’m curious as to what you would like viewers to take away from this film — what would you like them to converse and ruminate about? This certainly is a movie that remains with you for some time.
ZS: I’m really glad you feel that way. I hope the film provides many opportunities for conversation and reflection. I feel I’d be doing a disservice to you and the viewers, who enjoy the types of films that provoke those thoughts, if I steered them one way or the other in this interview. The film should stand on its own. Anything more that I’d add [to it] would only muddy things up or block potentially interesting roads for you to travel down.
GALO: Unfortunately, the Tribeca Film Festival can’t last forever (as much as we might want it to!). With it wrapping up, can you share with us what you will be working on next? Do you have any new films in the works, perhaps?
ZS: I’m in the process of writing something new, but it’s too early to share yet.
GALO: Finally, given that you’ve now worked with Tom twice before, is there a chance that we will see more collaborative work from the two of you? And since you’ve dabbled in writing scripts, have you ever considered flipping sides for a moment and writing a novel or novella?
ZS: It would be a pleasure to continue to collaborate with Tom. There’s definitely a good chance of that.
I don’t foresee myself writing a novel. It’s too lonely a process. That’s why I love directing. You get to work with countless artists to tell this story together. That’s why I write scripts, to get to work with those people.
For more information about the film or Zachary Sluser’s current endeavors, you can follow him on Twitter @zacharysluser.