Martha Stephens, Karrie Crouse, Timothy Morton, Bryan Marshall, Kristin Slaysman and Michael Abbott Jr. (Pilgrim Song) | Interview
SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 22, 2012
Pilgrim Song begins as James (Timothy Morton) is laid off from his job as a public middle school music teacher. Additionally, the spark in his long-term relationship with Joan (Karrie Crouse) has fizzled out. James thus finds himself stuck in an existential quagmire. Rather than dealing with his employment and relationship issues head-on, James builds a wall around himself in a desperate attempt to shut down all human interaction. James decides that the best way to deal with everything is to embark upon a solitary journey on Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail.
A solitary journey also means a silent and contemplative one. With no one for James to converse with, Alexander Sablow’s cinematography must rely solely upon lush visual compositions (and the support of an amazing soundtrack composed by Andrew Iafrate and Jonathan Wood) to transport us into James’ mindset. As James is lulled into a tranquil meditative state by his meandering hike, we are too. It is not too long, though, before James begins to encounter other characters along his epic-like odyssey. We witness as these chance meetings slowly chip away at the wall that James has constructed around himself; James ultimately gets to the point that he is finally able to talk about his feelings.
When most people think of female directors they assume that the films will portray strong female lead characters; but, with Pilgrim Song, Martha Stephens (Passenger Pigeons) and co-writer Karrie Crouse develop an extraordinarily profound portrayal of James. Stephens and Crouse delve deep into the male psyche in their representation of the male tendency to run away from problems rather than talk about them.
Smells Like Screen Spirit sat down with Martha Stephens, Karrie Crouse, Timothy Morton, Bryan Marshall, Kristin Slaysman and Michael Abbott Jr. from Pilgrim Song to chat about one of my favorite films of SXSW 2012… (Check out our SXSW 2012 review of Pilgrim Song.)
Don Simpson: Do you enjoy writing for male or female protagonists better?
Martha Stephens: I like writing male protagonists better, just because I like masculine novels and movies — I’m not saying that I only want to watch Die Hard, but more like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men. I just think seeing a guy go through a vulnerable state is interesting.
DS: Tim’s character handles his situation in such a masculine way — he goes away and wanders the Appalachian trail alone. I’ve done that. and several of my male friends have done that, but that is not something women typically do.
MS: That has been the case in literature and films forever. Jeremiah Johnson is a great example…
Karrie Crouse: There is that sort of hero’s journey — finding yourself through nature — that men and women have, but the archetype has always been a male. I often find that I end up writing about people whom I want to better understand. It is a chance to be intimate with someone who I typically would not have that chance to be intimate with. I think we both liked writing about men in this movie because it gave us a chance to learn about them; to get into their heads.
DS: I was wondering if that was part of your process — wanting to be able to experience the male side of a relationship?
KC: Yeah. I don’t want to draw a line or anything, but sometimes women are capable of just saying “I’m really confused and unsure right now”; while guys sometimes bury that in a dark place where no one could see it.
MS: It is just more socially accepted for women to talk about their feelings —
KC: — and to be vulnerable —
MS: — and in film, unfortunately, we see vulnerable women more frequently than men. So when you do get to see a vulnerable guy — especially like when James (Timothy Morton) has his big moment at the end of the movie, you have been waiting for that. The same thing with Passenger Pigeons when the older man has his big long talk at the end; you feel like you are finally understanding that person.
KC: It is also not just a masculine thing to bury things, it is kind of a Southern thing too in some ways. We are not always allowed to put ourselves totally out there. Girls are taught they can do everything, but that nobody likes an angry woman. I think men have that too. This feeling that they don’t want to put anybody out, or burden anyone with their problems.
DS: Something I really enjoy about Pilgrim Song is the use of the long, silent moments. There are so many scenes of James just walking in the woods and you didn’t feel the need to force him to talk.
Timothy Morton: When I go on long, extended hikes, I get into a zen state. It is not so much observing nature that is the central point of why I am out there; a lot of times it is just me feeling the rhythm of my boots or the squeak of my backpack and just getting into that meditative state. I love that part of the movie, because it does justice to that — you do become very much in tune with a rhythm for that portion of the film. I also feel like James owned those woods. Even though he couldn’t set his tent up right, he is still very confident in the way he moves.
MS: Yeah, it starts off a little rusty, I think. But that moment when the phone rings, and then James turns it off and walks away. He puts his arms behind his head and the fiddle music come in, and it’s like okay —
TM: — he’s in his stride.
MS: Yeah, he’s getting into his stride now.
TM: One lady during the Q&A used the words “shut down” and James did seem shut down — I would always think that he was depressed or down, but “shut down” is cool. For a bit there he was being able to pick himself up literally by his bootstraps and own his environment and own what he was doing. Then, the plot continues. So, that’s not it. It is only an introduction to the character.
KC: That is one thing about Martha’s style in general, she allows you to marinate. We get some nice scenes of James, and we get to go along for the ride and have our own journey with our own time for reflection. You can be in his shoes.
DS: How did each of you work with Martha in terms of creating your characters?
TM: I just want to start out by saying that a lot of times, my character was used as a way to see other characters. In the way that James is written, he invites people into the film and into the plot and into the story. Their characters get to really shine through a lot because you stop focusing on just the main character; you start seeing these other vignettes start to unfold.
DS: It felt like a classic novel to me, the way the narrative is structured.
MS: Thank you!
Bryan Marshall: I have worked with Martha before on Passenger Pigeons, so I knew how she works and how she is more liberal with the script. She lets us get a little creative as we work. I like to get the script far enough in advance and work with it for a while before the shoot. This one I had four to six months before the shoot. I ignored it for a few months but then a couple months before filming I would just sit with it. I became anchored to it, even during the shoot. I made notes and changes and I practiced my lines out loud and changed things that weren’t comfortable for me to say. I would get ready for how I would react to the other characters. I think I identified with this character as well, since I do have kids. We have our own business and work hard. And I sort of have mild depression…
MS: The camera loves Bryan and he is just really expressive. It was really fun to put him in this role where he is really different from his role [as Moses] in Passenger Pigeons. In Passenger Pigeons he is a soft spoken, shy stoner; and in Pilgrim Song he is kind of manic. It was really fun to see Bryan do that and do it so well.
Kristin Slaysman: I really love Bryan’s last scene between him and Tim. I think there would typically be a tendency to do too much in a scene like that. He is half sleeping, passing out — and it is that fogginess that allows Tim’s character to open up. [To Bryan] You are half falling asleep really well in that scene. How did you approach that?
BM: It helped that we were drinking that night and I was really tired. It was a really tough day and it was hot. So, that helped loosen me up. I actually was kind of falling asleep. And it really just helped that I was comfortable with Tim. That scene is really about him.
MS: Even working within the constraints of being inside the camper — where it was so cramped and tiny — the coziness really comes through in that tiny little room. We were actually outside shooting through the window because we couldn’t fit inside. The camera was up really high on sticks. We also had to be outside because the whole back wall of the camper was mirrors. I was in the tiny bathroom hiding. I didn’t even get to watch a lot of it. I just had to crouch and listen to it on my headphones. We did that scene quite a few times, so we had enough to piece something together.
DS: Kristin, what was it like creating your character, Rae?
KS: The film was a great experience for me. I love the way this film is structured, in which James meets all of these different people along the way in this sort of odyssey. And they all inform the rest of the journey. I just shot for one day. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and Martha and I talked a lot about those small town girls with a little bit of wanderlust, but something is keeping them in this comfortable environment. And I thought a lot about how, for young women, sex is such an easy way to gain intimacy and make quick connections with people. It was fun to draw on that part of my past, which is something that I don’t often get to do.
DS: I felt like Rae was using sex as a way to connect with the outsider with the hope that maybe he would take her away.
KS: Yeah, she just zeroes in on him the very second that he enters her environment. The scene is one of the longer scenes, but it was actually much longer.
MS: During that spin the bottle scene, we had them spin it a few times and play longer; but upon thinking about it during editing, she is not going to take her time. This character is going to cut straight to the chase. Let’s just get to it. This girl has been seeking him out. She is not playing a cat and mouse game with him — she wants him now. And that look when Rae is standing against the pole, you understand her and everything about her. There are moments that I would have loved to have kept; but the movie is right under two hours as it is, so I had to cut stuff that I wish we didn’t have to cut.
KS: But the practice of filming that stuff that was edited out was so helpful to me.
DS: And Michael, what about you?
Michael Abbott Jr.: I had a blast. I feel like I had it the easiest because I just came in for a few days, got to play and have fun and then left. I wasn’t really there for the heat or anything too detrimental. I met Martha through Karrie. I worked with Karrie on her short (Be Still) and I thought Passenger Pigeons was a great film. I think Martha and Karrie are a female southern powerhouse. So much of Southern cinema is male-driven and it is a breath of fresh air to see a female perspective. I got the script — I really don’t remember how, really — but I had never really been a fan of metal music; so I went to some underground metal shows in New York, just to get an idea of what these people are like. What was most important to me was what these people looked like and how they interacted with each other. So I had a clear picture coming into the shoot knowing what I wanted Pharmer to look like. And I was lucky enough that Martha trusted me to allow me to come in and play and change things around.
MS: Mike, more than anyone, did his own thing. He really made that character much better than he was on the page. He made up the idea of putting on his eyeliner with the rear view mirror; when he does the Ozzy Osbourne scary face — that was all Mike. He is great at thinking on his feet and I had so much fun watching him. We were all having a hard time keeping our cool and not laughing during his scenes. One thing no one has really mentioned is how Pharmer has a wife and those beautiful little daughters; it seems like no one notices that.
TM: I was just thinking about that. I think it would have been too stereotypical or obvious if you made his wife look like a metal chick, or if their daughters were punk kids. They were the cutest little southern belles, wearing flowered summer dresses; and this dude with eyeliner and huge mutton chops was their dad.
MS: Well, you know that Pharmer probably just puts it on for the night. This is his night to be who really wants to be.
MA: And he believes that he is a fucking star. Even though it is the Mountaineer Opry House, in his mind he is playing CBGB’s and sold the place out.
MS: There is something great about seeing this type of guy with daughters… I grew up with all sisters and when my mom would go out of town, my dad would have to do all of our hair and things like that. It is just so great to see guys like that with daughters.
DS: And, Tim?
TM: There was an interesting parallel happening between me and my real girlfriend and James and Joan. Granted, me and my girlfriend were getting along really well, but I was going to be off doing this film for a month and she was talking about wanting to come visit me during the shoot. I was equally as hesitant as my character is in the film to have his girlfriend come and disrupt what he was going out to do. In that way I could identify perfectly. That kind of brings me to the next thing about James — there is a lot about him that goes unsaid and I had to hold back a whole lot. I went about 95% by the script. Even down to when I would take a drink out of a whiskey bottle or a water bottle. There was a lot of precision in this film, but its not obvious —
MS: — you don’t feel like our hands are in the film, puppeteering.
TM: People always ask how much was improvised and I think that question says something about how well the film was orchestrated. You can’t really tell that it is all scripted.
DS: In so many of your scenes you are alone and you don’t say anything, and people tend to think those scenes aren’t scripted because there is no dialogue.
TM: Everything was scripted, even all of the locations. I was very impressed by the location scouting. Martha has really specific images that she wants to see, and she will do a lot to get what she wants.
MS: I put a lot of people out doing that. There might be a diner in a scene for 30 seconds, but we had to drive 2 1/2 hours to get there.
TM: And the trailer itself — that was pretty hellish, but we had to do it to get the trailer that we wanted.
MS: I am pretty picky when it comes to those things. Tone and environment plays such a big part of the stuff that we write, we can’t just settle for things. When we couldn’t find stuff — people would say, “But couldn’t you just film it in the woods behind the house?” Absolutely not! I would be letting myself down.
TM: I hiked eight miles a day for that week that we were in the woods. I wouldn’t know where we were going, but we would get to a point and Martha would say “This is where we decided to shoot.” It was very specific. The path goes from here to there. It would be perfect to shoot from here, so you could see that.
MS: It is sometimes just intuitive. I went out a few times alone and then Karrie and I went out for a ladies’ week of hiking and location scouting. We found that most of those counties were dry, and that was the worst part. There was a lot of going to the next county over, sitting in a hotel drinking beer and watching bad reality TV. And then hiking all day. We would just walk and we would get to a spot and I would say “This would work for this.” And we would make notes of the time we started and how long it took us to get there. There are lots of side trails off the Sheltowee, and we tried to do them all.
TM: Not only are the locations so wonderful, but the extras that Martha rounds up… I know some of them were Martha’s relatives. Like in the baptism scene…
MS: My uncle, who is a Baptist preacher, was the guy performing the baptism. He is a ham. Baptist preachers are theatrical, so I had to get him to tone it down a little. My other uncle was the man being baptized. Its funny because he’s like an old stoner and hippie — he’s from my mom’s side of the family and they are a bunch of pot-smoking hippies. My dad’s side is a bunch of fundamentalist Baptist whatevers… And it was fun getting my dad’s family to save my — anyway, it just really funny for me to make him do that. I like people who have interesting faces, and a weirdness to them. I love using non-actors.
DS: Both Pilgrim Song and Passenger Pigeons feel like ethnographic studies of a specific slice of southern culture.
MS: The stereotype question [during the Q&A] caught me off guard, I guess. I know there is a barn party, but those really happen where I live! People do play bluegrass music. They have get togethers. I don’t feel like Karrie or I painted any of these characters to be dumb hillbillies or anything. Hopefully not.
DS: I think it was a kind and honest portrayal.
MS: Good! I love them and that’s why I want to surround myself with them when I make a movie.