We sat down with the creators of the Northwest-made "Brown's Canyon," which plays at Northwest Film Forum January 19-20.
The project was conceived and executed in an impressively collaborative fashion, with actors and crew that have worked together as a team before.
In "Brown's Canyon," two life coaches hoping to resuscitate their stalled careers head into the Utah wilderness to launch a women’s mindfulness retreat, but soon discover that the Universe (and a handful of uninvited guests) have other plans in mind. Get your tickets for the special engagement now.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WORK ON AN IMPROVISED MOVIE WHERE YOU HAVE SO MUCH INPUT?
Lisa Every (Stephi): “We have worked with John for a long time. We did a workshop together, then the film Phoebe’s Father. Our brains are fragmented usually, right? You have an hour to do this and then you have to go pick up the kids and make dinner. So [in production] the fact that we would film a scene and then we would go sit on the bed and rehearse and then film another scene—having the luxury of ‘this is all I have to think about for 12 days’—it was really cool.”
Eric Jordan (Billy): “I did a film with John the year before, Phoebe’s Father, and Jenn and Lisa were in that as well. The four of us improvised in that. The biggest difference between Brown’s Canyon and doing other acting work was the process beforehand. [John is] there while you’re improvising with other people and looking for moments where he can inject conflicting needs between two characters to see what happens.”
Carter Rodriguez (Thom): “John gave me a template for how to construct a character based on stuff he was working on. I had never worked like that before, so it was a really interesting process. I’ve done some film and some TV work and usually it’s like, ‘You know your lines? Good. Go!’ You just have to bring it and charge through because everyone is on a deadline, everyone is freaking out. Brown’s Canyon was the opposite of that. John creates a very safe environment to do your best work while still being the director at the same time. So you get the best out of your acting potential through his gentle spirit. He’s guiding you bit by bit towards the rising action, whatever the story needs to keep moving forward.”
Jenn Ruzumna (Allison): “Ninety-nine percent of our personal work, in terms of our backstory, is not in dialogue or scripted. It was weeks and months of work that I think, when I’m watching the footage anyway, is so fascinating because I think you see all that work in the characters. It’s very subtle but they feel like real people. I think it’s fascinating.”
John Helde (Director): “My job is to simultaneously give the actors the freedom to find their own way, and also to guide them. To stop occasionally and ask them ‘what happens if’ or ‘what if you pursue this?’ To also come up with certain circumstances, to move the story forward. But it’s tricky, it’s full of experimentation. Full of the unexpected—but that is what I love about it…. It’s less my job to come up with the initial ideas—it’s my job to sift it and move the ideas forward. To make it dramatic and find the interesting parts. It also draws on my editing experience that way—the part of editing that says, ‘This, not that. This, not that.’”
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR CHARACTERS?
Sara Rucker Thiessen (Pat): “I looked at a certain demographic of women in my own ‘baby boomer’ generation and played with those themes. [I thought of] women that had remained single or without children, women that have a strong sense of their own values and are committed to making the world a better place. Women that are sometimes inflexible.”
Carter Rodriguez: “One of the things that was interesting for me to explore was ambition: what really drives a person. For Thom [my character], what was interesting for me was that he was the middle kid in a big family. He disappeared into the family unit, and he had to prove himself because his father was his hero. That was one little impetus that I started with, and coming from a giant Catholic family too, I thought that the weird dynamic of the middle kid who needs to prove himself was an interesting thing.”
Eric Jordan: “My character was based on one friend of mine, with some smatterings of other people. He is someone I’ve known for a long time—so there is a kind of familiarity—and he has some particular things that are pretty easy to notice if you meet him. So I went from that and also talked to him about his experience in life.”
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO LIVE AND WORK WITH YOUR COLLABORATORS?
Lisa Every: “We were living and working 24/7—22/7 maybe—for 10 or 12 days. And you’re living in the same space you’re working in—a lot of the action takes place in the kitchen, the very same kitchen we were all trying to live out of.”
Ryan McMackin (Director of Photography): “Like the improvised genesis of Brown’s Canyon, we wanted the film to have an unplanned, documentary feel. Being that the actors were working off of a script, it took conscious effort not to anticipate action and dialogue with the camera. Our approach to coverage varied from scene to scene, however. We often shot early takes with a roaming, reactive camera—particularly the larger, dialogue-heavy scenes with three or more actors.”
Constanze Villines: “Our main challenge during the production was the weather. The script had asked for the road to the house being snowed in, but when we arrived, there wasn’t any snow. John, our first AD [Gary Wortman] and I would work the schedule around to allow for potential snowfall, but at some point we had to make the decision to change the script in order to not prolong our overall shooting schedule. We changed the scene from a snowed-in road to a washed-out road (from melting snow water), added a few insert shots of snow melting, and got really creative with shooting the washed-out road scene. In the end it all worked!”
WHAT IS IT LIKE MAKING A FILM WITHIN THE SEATTLE FILM COMMUNITY?
Eric Jordan: “One thing that is very clear about the Seattle film community is that people seem very willing, across projects, to jump in and help each other. It doesn’t seem like a crazy competitive environment. Instead, everyone says, ‘Let’s see if we can make this happen.’”
Jenn Ruzumna: “It was really fun. Connie, our producer, has done quite a bit of producing. She was so amazed that everything went so smoothly. We were all repeatedly commenting on how everyone got along so well—we’re all mellow and chill and I think that was a testament to your question and a testament to John. It was important to him to get talented people, but also people who had a certain vibe. I applaud him for that. I don’t think there was any other way we could have made that movie in 10 days. It’s crazy!”
Constanze Villines: “It was wonderful. One of the best cast and crew I have ever worked with. Working with a small cast and crew has its challenges—mainly that everyone has to wear more than one hat—but everyone we had working on the film was willing to do so (and so much more), so it was great. This was mainly due to John’s wonderful skill in selecting the right people for the job. Jenn, Lisa and I helped with connecting him to all different crew, but it was John who really spent the time talking to each one of them (and/or meeting them) to make sure they not only had the talent and skills to do the job, but also were a good fit in the whole group.”
WHAT IS AT THE HEART OF BROWN’S CANYON?
John Helde: “To me, [Brown’s Canyon] ended up becoming about change versus acceptance. It’s about how people try to change themselves and others. It’s about the tug between that and accepting oneself and others for who they are.”
Jenn Ruzumna: “There is something very unsettling about it. Unsettling and beautiful—it is very relatable. These are not clear bad or good characters. These are real people. What that means to me is that everybody messes up, everybody is trying their best, everyone is coming from a tender place, and even with all that you can only do your best.”
Sara Rucker Thiessen: “Despite our noble values, purpose, and mission, we are human and our personal lives can still be a struggle (or a hot mess) even when we are trying to coach others to their personal best. The teacher is the student and still learning! It isn’t a necessity to have your own life together to make a difference for others.”
Eric Jordan: “The notion of taking the world in, not passively but really seeing the world, resonated with me. I thought, ‘How can I approach that idea more in my life?’ Being engaged but not necessarily having to talk about it. Sometimes I think that we experience more if we’re not trying to label.”