Accompanying his parents to a Nebraskan family reunion couldn’t be more uncomfortable for Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay Californian teenager. For his mother’s sake he agrees to act “normal,” but nonetheless attracts some unwanted attention from his conservative relatives. The only one who seems to like him is 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker), but a strange encounter between the two of them raises many questions and places Ryder at the center of a long-buried family secret. A superbly acted drama from first-time filmmaker Matt Sobel, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER reveals itself through Ryder’s perplexed point of view, unfolding in an atmosphere of mystery and trepidation.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER is part family drama, part coming-of-age story, part thriller, and so much more. How do you describe it in your own words?
Matt Sobel: I always liked thinking of the story as an inverted coming of age tale, where instead of finding confidence, our main character ends up less sure about many things than when he started. In my opinion, this is more what ‘real life’ coming of age is like—the moment when you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did—or at least, this is much truer to my own experience. I’m also interested in equating growing up with a type of baptism, or more specifically, a reverse baptism. Becoming an adult, as I see it, is more of a muddying than a cleansing.
As the writer/director, what made you want to tell this particular story? Are there any autobiographical elements to the story, the setting, etc.?
Matt Sobel: The farm in the film is my family’s actual farm in Nebraska, and I grew up going to that family reunion, although it was never quite that dramatic. The setting is real but the story came from a nightmare, in which I was falsely accused of something terrible at one of these reunions. Upon waking I couldn’t remember what I’d supposedly done, but I did remember how uncomfortable it made me feel. I remember realizing that anything I said to defend myself would just make the situation worse, so I had to stay quiet, though I was seething with the feeling of injustice. My first goal in setting out to write this film was to capture that visceral sensation.
In the film you employ a delicate approach to some pretty sensitive subject matter. How tough was it to find the exact balance you wanted to achieve?
Matt Sobel: Extremely difficult and pre-screening panic attack inducing… The scene which I assume you’re referring to, but which I’ll refrain from describing here, was recut over thirty times (not an exaggeration). We knew it was going to polarize, but that we were responsible for what people took away from the film, and therefore needed to be in control of those interpretations. We cut, then screened, then recut, then screened again, dozens of times, often removing just a second or a few frames of a shot, to dial in the reactions we wanted as precisely as possible. In the end though, the real story isn’t on the screen, it’s unfolding inside of the heads of everyone in the audience, and this is a both terrifying and thrilling prospect.
Let’s talk about your cast. Robin Weigert is wonderfully expressive, Josh Hamilton has never been creepier, Logan Miller is a dynamite actor to watch, and Ursula Parker is a sublimely natural child actor. How did you work with your actors to create believable family ties amidst the necessary tension?
Matt Sobel: It was completely different for each actor, which proved most challenging when shooting scenes that required many spot on performances within one take. I rehearsed with the actors in pairs, one member of which was always Logan. In this way, we built up a mother/son story, a cousins story, and an uncle/nephew story, before we started shooting, and then on the day, let them all collide with each other. My DP, who was an actor before he picked up the camera, helped monitor the arc of multiple characters on screen when I had trouble seeing the big picture. A children’s coach, and good friend of mine from Amsterdam, also flew out to help me with the younger performers. She would improv with them while I needed to be elsewhere, and make sure that the technical challenges of filmmaking didn’t affect their performances.
Though you’ve made short films before, this is your feature debut. I’m sure it was a complete education, but do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Matt Sobel: Don’t tell the story you think people want to hear. You’ll usually be wrong. Tell the story that you’re the only person on the planet who can tell. The audience is excited to see the world through your eyes, so make your vision as specific, idiosyncratic, and vibrant as you can.
How have audiences been responding to the film?
Matt Sobel: My personal rubric for films is pretty simple: the better the film, the more it makes me want to keep thinking and talking about it with my friends afterward. I’ve been thrilled after our screenings to see people exiting the theater, turned toward the person they came with, engrossed in conversation— disagreeing with each other about what really happened, and coming up with their own theories. This is exactly what I like to do after movies, and being able to prompt that experience has been hugely rewarding.
What would you like HIFF audiences to take away?
Matt Sobel: A good conversation.
What are you most looking forward to about being in Competition at HIFF 2015?
Matt Sobel: The Q&A. Truthfully, I’ve seen this film so many times that I’ll probably have to step out while it’s playing. But every Q&A has been unique, rich, and exciting for me. I’m less interested in what I think the story is about than what the audience thinks it’s about.
Matt Sobel has been an active screenwriter and filmmaker for the past twelve years. He graduated from UCLA’s department of Art and currently lives in Los Angeles. His first feature TAKE ME TO THE RIVER premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. It was developed at Binger Filmlab’s writing and directing labs in 2012 and IFP’s Narrative Filmmaker Lab in 2014. It was also selected to participate in US in Progress in Wroclaw Poland in 2014. Matt was named one of 2014’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine. His previous films include X TO Y, the Audience Choice Award winner for best short at Cinequest 2009 and the Grand Jury Prize winner at the National film Festival for Talented Youth. His fine art video “Venery” screened in the New York exhibition, “Hooded and Headless: An Erratic Survey of Anonymity in Recent Video and Life,” curated by Harry Dodge.