The Sundance Institute, which played an invaluable role in the development of HERE (I was a 2007 Sundance Writers and Directors Lab Fellow), recently asked me to put together some reflections on this summer’s shoot for their alumni website. The following essay was sent out as part of their December 3 “InSider” newsletter and posted to the Sundance “Posse” site (bookmark it!). It seemed like a good way to introduce the stories from HERE that we’re going to be telling as post-production continues.
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This summer I spent four months in Armenia directing HERE, a 35mm landscape-obsessed road movie that chronicles an intense and impulsive romantic relationship between an American satellite-mapping engineer (Will Shepard, played by Ben Foster), and an Armenian expatriate art photographer (Gadarine Nazarian, played by Lubna Azabal).
The film was developed in part at the 2007 Sundance Institute Feature Film Program’s Directors and Screenwriters Labs. When Ilyse McKimmie from the Feature Film Program asked if I’d be willing to collect a few thoughts about my experiences during production, I immediately said yes.
But then came the wait. And then came the weight.
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“You must be exhausted, elated, depressed, broke, happy, and drunk all at once.”
– David Riker, Writer / Director (and 2007 Screenwriters Lab colleague)
I’d been home for a week or two when I received Ilyse’s request in early October; it seemed like a good way to start processing what I’d just been though. It had been difficult for me to keep much of a journal, and I thought this might be a good way to navigate the intense memories and experiences of the shoot. But then… nothing.
During my worst battles with the screenplay the blank page had never roared so loud. I became so good at not writing this piece that I finally realized there had to be something I was trying to avoid, something I didn’t want to confront (at least not yet). It wasn’t that I wasn’t intensely proud of what the cast, crew, and I had accomplished this summer – I was. But it had been, as they say, an experience. I had no answer when friends and family I hadn’t seen for months asked, “How was it? How do you feel?”
I felt numb. Used up. Spent. Exhausted. Ultimately, in all the right ways (I think).
* * *
“I mean, it’s not coming back from Vietnam, but it is coming back from Armenia.”
– Lubna Azabal, co-star, HERE
It was an adventure. It was magnificent. It was terrible. It was hard. We were the first American production ever to shoot in Armenia. There is almost zero domestic film infrastructure. Few outside the capital speak English. Everything – equipment, film, expendables, supplies – everything had to be shipped in and out through a byzantine ex-Soviet customs “system”. There are no labs. The schedule was crazy – I don’t think we spent more than three or four nights at any single base camp over the entire 40-day shoot. People got sick from the food and sick from the weather. Picture cars were impounded due to mismatched picture plates. Producers had to be bailed out of jail. Hot springs weren’t hot – they were freezing. The Russian military detained half the crew for hours and tried to take our cameras and film on the Iranian border. We found poisonous vipers in the fields where we shot the film’s final scene. And, oh… I almost forgot that I broke two ribs in a rather unglamorous accident on a night shoot just a few days in.
By the start of the second week I was obsessing about the corner I’d painted myself into. How did I ever think this was a good idea? Bringing 40-odd people into a multi-national makeshift convoy through the Armenian landscape and land-mine strewn areas of Nagorno-Karabakh suddenly seemed completely insane.
Which it was.
In other words, it was perfect.
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“We are the road.” – Ben Foster, co-star, HERE
With the tiny bit of reflection I’ve been able to have since returning, the accomplishment I feel most deeply is that the production allowed those who heard its call to bring so much of themselves to the journey. HERE was not controllable, but alive, breathing. The film brought cast and crew together from the United States, Armenia, France, Denmark, Peru, Serbia, the United Kingdom, and more. Like the film’s characters, we found ourselves somewhere new, somewhere unmapped, exploring uncharted territory – both literally and metaphorically. We lived with Will and Gadarine. We took the same trip. In the end, that’s exactly what I’d hoped this experience might be. HERE is a film about mystery, wonder, and the inexplicable – the limits of logic and the divinity of everything we don’t know but that we can feel. The production itself became about all of those things, too. We encountered great difficulty, but through it found great revelation.
I think we’re all still recovering. It seems like everyone is feeling the same thing: the only people who can really understand are the ones who were there. We’re like some kind of crazed war veterans, for God’s sake – a newly marked group of cinematic soldiers (some literally: ten returned with maps of Armenia freshly tattooed on their bodies) who slogged through these ridiculous, sublime trenches together.
For me, filmmaking is always (ideally) like being confronted with a wave you’re not quite sure you can take. You either start paddling and surf it, or it pounds you right down. (Often, both happen in the course of a given day or a given hour). That feeling is one of the things I’ve grown to love most about the process. I couldn’t be more proud of (and thankful for) everyone – cast, crew and supporter alike – who heard the call and rode this wave.
Our rallying cry continues as the edit begins: “Onward!”