LA Film Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | November 20, 2012
Dead Man’s Burden is clearly made by someone who unabashedly loves the western genre, though writer-director Jared Moshé does make some notable updates to the genre. Most importantly, Moshé places a strong female character in the lead role. Shot on lush 35mm film (by Robert Hauer) with impeccable production design (Ruth De Jong), costume design (Courtney Hoffman) and art direction (Jason Byers), Dead Man’s Burden is a visual masterpiece. Clare Bowen’s unsettlingly conflicted performance as Martha is nothing short of amazing; Barlow Jacobs and David Call’s performances are also spot on.
Smells Like Screen Spirit sat down with Jared Moshe the morning after the world premiere of Dead Man’s Burden at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Don Simpson: What prompted you to have your directorial debut be a Western?
Jared Moshe: When I decided that I wanted to step behind the camera for the first time, I wanted to tell a story that I loved and I wanted to tell a story that I felt like I knew all of the tropes and all of the details really well. The genre spoke to me so much, so I knew I had to make a western. I had the opening image in my head of someone riding off into the wide landscape; a small figure is looking after him, who then lifts a gun and shoots him. But I didn’t know why she shot him. I am a Civil War buff, and my favorite Civil War journal is by General George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who fought for the North and his family never spoke to him again. So I also had an idea of developing this story around a family that was torn apart by the Civil War and seeing if they could get beyond that and reunite.
DS: Were there specific Westerns that you turned to for guidance?
JM: There were four. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is probably the biggest influence in terms of structure. When I was writing the script, I wanted this film to be a slow burn in which you are given information until everything erupts into violence. In terms of directing, it was John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), and then a little bit of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
DS: Did you set out with any specific intensions to update or revise the Western genre?
JM: Westerns are such a well-known and developed genre, that you can’t really play with it too much. You can’t shoot on video or use handheld cameras, because you will alienate the audience, it won’t feel like a Western. I knew I wanted to embrace the tropes of the Westerns. I knew there had to be wide open landscapes, and guns, and characters who are rigid in their beliefs; but I wanted to find a story that is more complex and interesting for modern audiences. I wanted to include a strong female character who is at the center of the story. It was all about using the method of the genre, embracing all of that, then modernizing the story to make it interesting.
DS: You just don’t see female characters as complex as Martha in classic Westerns.
JM: Her character is so interesting to me. You start off seeing her do something that is really horrible, but then I wanted to bring her back from the edge and let people understand what drove her to do that; then, by the end of the film, make her sympathetic. At the end of the film, Martha and Wade are in a stand-off, and they are both right but they are both wrong. People don’t know who they want to win. Some people may want Martha to ride off into the sunset, or others want Wade to shoot her. That’s why I chose not to have music during the closing credits — I just wanted the wind — I didn’t want to give the film any sense of closure, or tell people how to feel. I want people to walk away from the movie thinking about the choices the characters made.
DS: It seems pretty intentional that most of the characters fall into a grey area, nothing is black and white.
JM: I think everybody has good qualities and bad qualities. I didn’t want there to be a clear hero and a clear villain. I think every character is defined by the choices that they make. That is what interests me.
DS: The setting plays a such significant role in this story. Can you talk about your approach to finding this particular location?
JM: I knew I wanted the cabin to be located in a wide open space. Me and my producer Veronica Nickel drove all over the state of New Mexico looking for the location. When we found this location, we immediately fell in love with it. So many of the details were actually brought to light through conversations with my production designer, Ruth De Jong. I knew I wanted it to be like a real farm; she’s the one that said we had to have a chicken coop and a little vegetable garden. She built most of the set. There was a free-standing structure there; Ruth adobed the walls on the outside, tore down a wall on the inside. She built the graveyard, the chicken coop, vegetable garden, the well, and moved the outhouse. I wrote the story and she helped bring it to life, which is how it worked with everyone on the crew.
DS: How did you convince such an experienced crew, such as Ruth De Jong, to work on your film?
JM: I said “C’mon, let’s make a Western!” [laughs] Honestly, it is exciting to work in a genre that is really iconic. It isn’t hard to recruit great talent if you give them a chance to work on a project that their work can really shine. Thank god they responded to the script. Going into this, I knew I wanted to pull people from the Hollywood world; people who had experience and knew how to make things feel very authentic and real, and had worked on period pieces before. They got to use their voices and hopefully make something that they are very proud of.
DS: How did you approach casting?
JM: I wanted to find the best actors who fit the roles. I didn’t want to be blinded by international sales numbers. I wanted to find people who I thought would do the best job in their roles, and who looked like they would belong in that period. There is nothing worse than seeing Texas Rangers (2001), with Ashton Kutcher and James Van Der Beek in their powdered faces looking like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie catalog.
Barlow [Jacobs] and I have had a long relationship together, ever since I produced a film with him, Low and Behold (2007). I have been very impressed by his work, and while I was writing the script he kept popping into my mind as Wade. And after he read the script, he just knew that character so intimately, so instantly.
We came up with a list of people for the character Heck. David [Call] was on it, and I was a big fan of his film work. He had worked on my producer’s last film, so we sent him a script. We had a two to three hour conversation talking about the character and his history. I felt like he was someone who really understood the character.
For the role of Martha, we had auditioned a lot of actors. Day three of auditions, a video arrives… I sat down with my producer and watched it. It was the scene that takes place in the rain when Martha finds out about Wade’s betrayal. Oh, my god! It was just mesmerizing. Even on a tiny screen, she had such a presence. She looks so vulnerable, yet so tough. That was Martha!
DS: This was a very ambitious and seemingly expensive project. You shot this film on 35mm, you had a very talented cast and crew… How did you approach funding?
JM: I knew going in, I was going to make this movie in the Fall of 2011, no matter how much money we had. We were going to do it with whatever we had. Thankfully, because of our relationships, my producer was able to find an initial financier who came in with about a third of our budget. With that money, we decided we were shooting in October 2011. I really didn’t want to be one of those people who writes a script and spends five years trying to get financing.