Journey to The Cold Lands

We recently spoke with Tom Gilroy, director of NFF18 film The Cold Landswho will be attending the Festival.

The Cold Lands is about eleven-year-old Atticus. When his mother dies unexpectedly, the young boy flees into the Catskill Mountains on his own. After wandering the woods in shock, Atticus latches onto eccentric Carter, a scruffy wildman who lives in his car, chain-smokes pot, and sells handmade necklaces at music festivals. A wary alliance forms, with each dependent on but unsure of the other. The Cold Lands is an original, thoughtful, and beautifully shot coming-of-age film imbued with a strong sense of place and independence.

Learn more below about Gilroy's return to NFF and theinspiration for this striking film, and then check it out at NFF 2013 on Thursday, June 27 at 7pm and Friday, June 28 at 3:30pm!


NFF: What inspired the story? As a child, did you ever have (or want to have) an adventure like Atticus?

Gilroy: For me stories happen when a bunch of different things combust. In the case of this film, I’d been having recurring dreams of a boy wandering around a town at night looking in windows and trying to decode what he saw, trying to get a sense of how people who are not him live. In some of the dreams I was the boy, and in others I was watching the boy. These dreams began to cross over into other story elements I had been considering, many of them involved my town in the Catskills, many from the news. My basic intention, once the dreams started, was to make the story a snapshot of America right now, through the prism of a child adrift.

I’ve never had the adventure that befalls Atticus in the story, but there were many times throughout my teens I was cut loose from my parents. I hitchhiked a lot, hung out in head shops, record stores, ice rinks, parks. I was a bit of a wanderer—maybe it was all the Kerouac I’d read. I ‘borrowed’ my father’s car without asking him and went to Cape Cod, for example—half a day’s drive. The car broke down and I was stranded there for a week’ til the part came in--no money and no place to stay. Things like that. Also my best friend lived a 20-minute walk away—through the woods. So almost every day I’d spend at least 40 minutes in the forest, half of it in the dark. You see things—or at least you think you do.

NFF: How did you approach working with a lead actor who is much younger than normal "leading men"?

Gilroy: Every actor has tools at his disposal; training, experience, physicality, creativity, etc. Silas had a gift for putting each scene into his own perspective and vernacular, if you will (what Method people call the ‘as if’ approach). That has nothing to do with his youth. His other great talent was the ability to jump into the reality of what was happening with a depth of ‘pretend’ that is rare; he was really living it every take until I said ‘cut,’ probably because that’s what he thought he was supposed to do. That level of commitment to an imagined reality—blind commitment to pretending—that I believe is a function of his youth.

Silas had never acted before, so a year before shooting The Cold Lands he and I began meeting on a biweekly basis to go over the basics--things like what makes a scene work, camera techniques, externalizing your thoughts, etc. This graduated into improv and eventually a kind of creative sketching out of actual scene ideas for the screenplay. Six months into this process Michael Stipe commissioned me to make a short for REM’s swan-song CD and my producer Paul Mezey and I felt this would be a great opportunity to try out Silas’s chops—and see if he enjoyed himself. The shoot for ‘It Happened Today’ was four long days in sub zero weather in four feet of snow and Silas never complained, provided he could watch the Jets game between takes. And that is all youth.

NFF: It seems as if there are themes of connection and trust in the film. What is it about these issues that you think will connect with audiences?

Gilroy: Much of The Cold Lands deals with the American self-image of the ‘rebel spirit,’ of going it alone, of rugged individualism, never expecting any help from anybody—the ‘self-made man.’ It’s drummed into us right from an early age and you see it everywhere, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs, John Wayne movies to Citizen Kane. And it’s just crap, a kind of cultural-brainwashing. We are social animals. A society is based on acknowledging we are all connected and we all need to trust each other, and each individual needs society—especially children. Above and beyond that need—which, make no mistake, is survival—the very act of being humane and compassionate means we care about what happens to those around us. We are all each other’s responsibility, period. I defy any self-proclaimed ‘self-made man’ to explain how he made his fortune without the roads, electrical grid, banking system, and educated workers that the rest of us all helped pay for.

At all of our screenings the audience's dominant emotion towards Atticus's plight has been one of anxiety, which makes perfect sense to me. What viewer isn't going to be gripped with concern over the welfare of an orphaned 11-year old? Whether or not that fear is allayed when Atticus joins up with Carter is again reflective of a viewer's very deep suppositions about why we instinctively trust or distrust a person. I personally think Carter is awesome, for example—but my dad thinks otherwise.

NFF: What do you remember about your experience screening Spring Forward at Nantucket Film Festival in 2000?

Gilroy: I remember the awards ceremony, where I won Best Narrative Feature, was basically a mic stand in the middle of a dimly lit bar, and there was an empty bag of peanuts on the floor behind the presenter. That’s what ‘Indie’ meant back then. So the festival’s obviously come a long way. And I remember Brad Anderson and I moderating each other’s Q&A—he was here with Happy Accidents—which I always thought was a novel thing to do; it added some nice context. I’ve always thought a festival dedicated to the screenwriter was a great idea; it has a nice journeyman feel to it. So I was honored to be awarded.

NFF: Can you compare how your filmmaking voice and/or approach is reflected in Spring Forward to how it is reflected in The Cold Lands? What parallels do you see between the two projects and what differences do you see? What was similar or different in how you made each of them?

Gilroy: Narratively, both films are essentially sequences of seemingly off-hand, very small moments that build an emotional momentum that comes to fruition at the end. Hopefully what seemed like a random journey actually is revealed to have been a direct path, albeit one based on emotion rather than (entirely on) plot. Also, I take pride in the visual imagery, the framing and composition, lighting—thematically I try to find the beauty in the everyday, but also cinematically I think movies should look beautiful. I like when they feel dreamy. Thematically, both films are about a person trying to discover who they are, and they find it by seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of another. So it’s a form of identity affirmation, but also societal affirmation. Creating a tie that binds us together.

Spring Forward had zero improv and was tightly scripted, storyboarded and shot. The finished film isn’t that far off from what I wrote. Part of that was the way the story cohered at the end—tying together all the themes—I couldn’t allow too many digressions or experiments. But another reason was I was new at it and I wasn’t confident enough to mess around too much. The Cold Lands was far more fluid in all stages, and a great deal of it was found in the edit. It was of course storyboarded but I was more confident, had a smaller crew, so we tried a lot of stuff on the fly, or because the weather was messing with us so we had to innovate visually. We shot outdoors, during Hurricane Irene, so everyone had to think on their feet. Also, I wanted the film to be less dialogue-driven and more open to interpretation, less about what was said and more about tapping into suppositions and expectations of the audience. So in that way it’s more about trying to communicate things on a subconscious level.

NFF: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Gilroy: I’m always writing several things and I wait to see which pile of notes combusts. There’s a story about a cloistered convent of elderly nuns that’s smoldering right now, and a thing about a sleeping disease. I’m also writing another book of haiku, my third.