Dallas Filmmaker Cameron Nelson Makes Directorial Debut with Some Beasts at DIFF

Dallas Filmmaker Cameron Nelson Makes Directorial Debut with Some Beasts at DIFF
Courtesy Cameron Nelson

Chances are you don't know who Cameron Nelson is and that's ok, we can still be friends. Here's your Reader's Digest on the Dallas filmmaker: Nelson has been dabbling in the indie film world around these parts for a while now. He's produced, written and directed a handful of short films and now he ventures into feature filmmaking. In just a few days, his directorial debut Some Beasts premieres at the Dallas International Film Festival.

I've seen Some Beasts and I can tell you that it shows a lot of promise for the future of Nelson's career as a filmmaker. Beasts reminds me of early David Gordon Green films: Undertow, George Washington and All the Real Girls -- lost and deeply flawed characters living in a hole-in-the-wall location most of the world has forgotten about.

We caught up with Nelson and Some Beasts' star Frank Mosley (he plays the lead, Sal) to talk about the challenges of making a 90-minute film, and everything else you should know before seeing the film. Here's what they had to say.

To start off, tell us what what Some Beasts is about. 

CN: "Things aren't so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life." R.M. Rilke.

This sums up nicely how I feel about cinema. Filmmakers have the capability of expressing what is unsayable. This is especially the case with a film like Some Beasts. The sounds; the moods; the extremes; the struggle and intense beauty of farm life in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's the opposite of didacticism; like an impressionist painting. With Beasts I'm offering a variety of ways into the story other than the traditional protagonist's journey. There is a story and plot, but I feel that cinema has the capability of being relatable on different levels that I wanted to explore.

So I have to pose a challenge and say ... see the movie and you tell me ... it's never interesting for me when the director tells you ... and that's not what this film is about anyways. I don't want anyone to be colored by what I was trying to do. I'd prefer the film to have a life in the minds of the audience that is separate from what I think the film's about. I've been thrilled to hear the interpretations of the material in some of our test screenings. People are drawing out meaning that is uniquely a part of them and is revealing to who they are and what they find important. Being able to leave things open is the beauty of slow cinema. The slower pace leaves audiences time to consider what they are watching and have moments in the film for their mind to wander and come back. Some filmmakers, Hitchcock for example, are more interested in creating an experience where the viewers have a certain response. He was a master of it. I'm more interested in letting you come to the film on your own terms. It drives some people crazy but others love it.  

How long did it take to complete? 

CN: Production was 17 days over the course of 10 months. We took breaks seasonally, so we could capture the changing environment and moods of the fall, winter and spring. We started pre-production in September 2013 and just finished final color and sound April 2015.

This is your first foray into feature filmmaking. What road bumps did you hit during the making of the film that you didn't see coming? 

CN: As a documentary filmmaker, I learned to anticipate road bumps and adjust accordingly, despite the unpredictability of working in extreme environments with non-actors. However, since narrative filmmaking relies on story, I had to be very prepared, often having two or three alternatives for scenes, locations, dialogue and non-actors. These alternatives were dependent on factors ranging from the farmers' ability to participate to the unpredictability of mountain weather. My producers, Courtney Ware and Ashley Maynor, were the rock that this production was built on and we couldn't have pulled it off without their experience and guidance. For instance, during our first shoot, Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern shore and changed the entire weather dynamic for that season. But we took it all in stride and the cast/crew were all very professional about it because of the passion for the material. I was very fortunate to have such an amazing and supportive team.

It was both wonderful and frightening and a beast unto itself. We had to live in congress with community and nature. So, it lent an authenticity to the film both in front of and behind the camera. There is an overarching theme of control throughout the film, and, as a production, being somewhat out of control helped us to get in the mindset of what living in the wilderness was like. We all had our breaking points, but in the process we've made friends for life and feel like we survived as a team and are stronger individuals as a result.

There are long moments of silence and long moments of a really great score. How did you decided on parts that needed just organic noise and when to add in the score?

CN: Minimalism and melodrama ... there is a beautiful marriage of extremes when you try to live self-sufficiently in nature. I love Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) and Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff); Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, 1955) and Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy). How do you marry the two styles? Make a film about life on the farm. The intense dramas that take place; life and death; the struggle of loneliness and the joy of community ... it has shaped who I am as a director. I look for this when I seek out projects now. Life can go from peace to chaos in a matter of hours out on the land. There's no comfort there; and it changes and strengthens you. To me, these are the people who are truly living.

I've been a musician and composer for 20 years. That's one of the reasons why I moved to the farm in the first place: to start a music collective. Eventually we self-released albums and would play in art galleries to films I would cut together, almost like Chris Marker films, but set to live music. That's how I learned to make films. That's when I realized the power of images set to music. So coming from this background, I see Some Beasts as fluid, comprised of symphonic movements. Not only in the score but in the silences and natural sound ... even in the dialogue. Johnny Marshall, Curtis Heath and I spent hours crafting the swells, playing with wind, cicadas, the interiors of a wooden cabin. You have the entire range of the sonic world of what it's like to live in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And then there's the score, which served to heighten and reflect what the characters were experiencing in their interior world at key moments. That was the idea and hope for the sonic elements in the film.

The score is done by Stars of the Lid -- did they watch the film prior to scoring, or did you spitball ideas on how you wanted the sound to be? 

CN: Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie saw the film and enjoyed it very much. However, the music in the film was specifically chosen from tracks on Quiet Sounds and And their refinement of the decline. I listened to those albums over the nine months during production, sometimes even before I would direct a scene or while I was storyboarding. So, their music played a large part in helping to shape the tone and mood of the film. But, this is because it seemed to fit the extremes of the films. Their music ranges from minimalist drones to swelling strings ... all of it very cinematic. So even before we started production, Ben LeClair (my exec producer) and I had planned on approaching them to use their music.

The film is set on a farm, and we never see any new technology except for motorcycles and the cassette tapes Sal listens to on the answering machine. Using minimal technology gives it almost a timeless feeling. Was this the idea from the beginning? 

CN: Most definitely. The answering machine was a very intentional storytelling device, not only useful for the breadcrumbs of exposition it posits, but also symbolically. To me, it represents a time machine of sorts -- the link between the modern world that Sal left and the archaic existence that he lives on the farm. But, it's also a tether to this previous life that he's trying to leave behind. It changes over the course of the film ... first serving as a means of hope, yet, by the end, it transforms into something more forbidding.

This is Frank Mosley's first lead role and this movie wouldn't have been as powerful without him. Since he's the heart of the movie and we spend most of the film with him, what about him made you believe he was the right guy for the job in keeping moviegoers engaged in a slow-burn film and often with not a lot going on?

CN: I first worked with Frank on my short film, New Animal. I realized quickly that one of his strengths lies in his ability to subtly emote. Often, when you watch him, a tiny gesture in a restrained performance can give you more than a paragraph of exposition. It was very compelling. Since I rely more on visual storytelling, mood and tone, I knew that Frank would be the perfect fit for the material. 

Another of Frank's talents lies in his ability to translate intellectual and philosophical ideas into physical action. Other than blocking out scenes, I don't like to overwhelm the actors with information or ideas on set. If anything, I tend to cut dialogue in favor of visual storytelling or gesture. I like to have long conversations with the actors before production about my intentions with scenes and then give them space to find their way into that headspace. That way, they can make it personal, invest themselves in the world we've created, and give it the authenticity needed to ring true to life. Frank was very open to this and we are great friends who intend to work with each other for years to come. Through storytelling and spending time together, I was able to impart a side of Sal that couldn't be translated through the actions of the script. We created a history through our conversations; one that Frank brings into the film that other actors may not have had time to digest. That's what made our relationship special.

Frank Mosley: Trust in Cameron. Trust in the environment. Trust in the moment.

We get to see Frank's butt in the film. What kind of strict work-out regimen did you put him on for that shot?

FM: Glad it looks good, ha! Thanks. It must be that farm air. Didn't do as much as I could have. I'm very comfortable with my body and actually expected the world to see a lot more but the camera was from a very painterly, epic distance. I was ready for the close-ups.

CN: Ha! That's funny. I know this is a joke, but actually ... the physical aspect of the film was one of the most important factors and something I thought through before shooting. Often Sal expresses himself through work so it had to be true to life. So, we had to make Frank seem like he had been a day laborer for a while, which isn't something you can do overnight. Farmers and day laborers have trained themselves to move their bodies in ways to prevent injury; and they use gravity and careful maneuvering to their advantage so they can work long hours and not tire too quickly. This takes years to learn how to do correctly. Considering this, I bought Frank a kettle bell, which simulated swinging heavy tools and moving his body accordingly. Farmers who engage in manual labor exhibit a combination of gracefulness and violence. This contrast plays into the key theme of the extremes of nature and was not to be ignored. So, swinging a weight like a kettle bell was the closest exercise I could imagine to help Frank prepare for farm work. 

Talk about bringing on Heather Kafka  and Lindsay Burdge, two amazing actors we need to see more of. 

CN: I knew I wanted to work with Heather Kafka when I saw Lovers of Hate in 2009. There is no artifice to her acting. She brings her entire self to the roles that she plays and that was something that was very important for Rene. Heather has the ability to express interior conflict in a way that was congruent with the subtlety of the film. Amazingly, for a majority of the film she's able to do this over messages and phone calls, completely unseen by the audience. In auditions I was floored with her ability to express so much as a disconnected voice over a phone call. I was impressed at her ability to depict the turmoil of a single mother that is oppressed by state institutions, yet trying to cling to the hope of a better future. I feel like that type of despair is rarely articulated as truly as she did in Beasts.

I approached Lindsay after seeing A Teacher at SXSW in 2013. Her quiet intensity and inner strength felt like a perfect fit for Anna. Lindsay and I agreed to work in a completely different way than I did with Frank and Heather. The latter two worked and rehearsed together for days, going over the past of the characters and details of their relationship while running dialogue. Lindsay came in colder, and really captured Anna's persona, a strong woman who doesn't need the community and is more self-sufficient. We used the fact that she and Frank were closer to being strangers in real life to our advantage, and I feel like it plays that way in the film.

However, both Lindsay and Heather were a welcome addition to our potlucks and community that we formed on set. This was a unique set to be on because we were all staying with the farmers and workers that were in the film. They cooked meals for us and we spent time together, so by the end of it, we all felt like a big family. It was a very cherished experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Once the end-credits roll, what do you want the audience to take away from the film? 

CN: During one of our Q&As, we were asked if we had researched Thoreau, because the synopsis refers to Sal as a "Thoreau type." But, this description is perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Thoreau is a perfect example of an iconic American symbol that has outlasted the facts surrounding his existence. Sal chooses solitude in a post-Thoreau world, where, even if he had read Thoreau, he would be jaded, knowing him to be a fraud. It is in this postmodern context that Sal explores the antiquated concept of the "American dream." Does it exist? How is masculinity redefined in this context? Are the patriarchal ideals of last century even relevant anymore?

The woods of southwestern Virginia gave us an extreme landscape to explore these ideals. When I lived and worked on those farms for three years, I experienced an environment that is far different from the idyllic notions associated with life in nature. Poverty and wealth exist side-by-side in a similar way to the American city. Farmers and business owners in the country are increasingly divided into the haves and have-nots. The back-to-land movement is struggling to survive. Additionally, the generation of people who moved back to the land in the '60s are reaching the ends of their life. The reality of farm life is far from ideal and the notion of the American dream is just as transparent as the myths surrounding Walden pond. While the book Walden, to this day, exists as a tremendous work lauding the benefits of seclusion in nature, it is nevertheless an idealist's reveries afforded to a man who had the luxury of escaping the complexities of modern life.

There is little place for this sort of idealism anymore and the three generations of men depicted in Some Beasts are clinging to the last threads of it.

Some Beasts premieres Friday, April 10, and will screen again on Wednesday, April 15. Tickets are available at dallasfilm.org..

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