Tom Gilroy, Director / Writer
8.25.14 Rensselaerville, NY
Gilroy talks about his evocative and most recent film, The Cold Lands, starring the brilliant Lili Taylor, Peter Scanavino and Silas Yelich. His film is an intimate portrait of an 11 year old boy’s transition during the two weeks following his Mother’s death. The film’s stunning cinematography is an homage to Upstate NY.
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
UD: When you wrote your magical film, The Cold Lands, did you know that you wanted to shoot it in your backyard?
TG: Yeah, it was written to be shot here. At the time, I didn't have any money after going through a series of bad situations with movies that had 4-5 million dollar budgets. The projects were greenlit and then at the last minute they fell apart.
I had a talk with Jim McKay, the filmmaker, and he said, "You know, you have to step out of this whole equation and just do something that you can make for little money, with people and locations that you have access to."
UD: Was it an idea that had been simmering for a while?
TG: I had been having these dreams about a boy at night, looking in the windows of other houses and trying to figure out what he is, based on what he's looking at. In some of the dreams, I was watching the boy and in some of the dreams, I was the boy. And then while I was getting to know the people of the town and my neighbors, this story emerged.
UD: So this area had a big influence on you?
TG: Oh, it's all about this area and all of the scenes are shot in the places where I imagined them to be. The deli is where I would go with the guy that worked on my house, who the character is based on that makes the necklaces. The actual guy that owns the deli plays himself in the movie. At the bottom of the hill at Conklin Hall here in Rensselaerville, the local kids were staging a play. And I saw Silas Yelich (Atticus in the film); he was sitting off to the sidelines. He was very shy, didn't want to speak to me, but he said, "You should talk to my father."
So, I talked to his parents — they didn't care about him being an actor or becoming famous, but they thought it would be an interesting experience, to perhaps overcome his shyness. We made a deal that if I felt that there was something there, we would move forward. I felt it within the first ten minutes of working with him that I could get something out of him. So we worked together for a while, and then we did the It Happened Today video for R.E.M. His parents were very familiar with R.E.M while Silas thought it was “hippie music” [laughs].
UD: To me, in the R.E.M video, Silas is like a younger version of Atticus in the film; It’s like he grows into the character.
TG: Yeah and some similar things happen; he is running around outside at night. And there're all these metaphors about death, maybe he actually died and went to another place. I loved the video; R.E.M. and Paul (Mezey) loved it so I decided to cast him for The Cold Lands.
UD: Was there something in Silas that you recognized within you?
TG: No, I don't think so. What I first noticed was how much he looked like River Phoenix. River and I were friends for most of his adult life, so Silas’s face was very familiar, as well as expressive in this very subtle, internal way. The light hit his face like Marlene Dietrich, and I was just like, "Oh yes." But what I liked about him was that he was so unformed. He was not yet a man and sometimes he looks like a girl and sometimes he looks like an animal, like a deer. It would change day to day. What I wanted was this little window in this boy’s life that takes place over the course of two and a half weeks, where he transitions from one stage of his life to another. I refuse to use the phrase, "coming of age". What does that mean? People can have a “coming of age” when they're in their sixties. It was more about this little window in an adolescent’s life where they go from, ‘Oh, there is an entire world of things going on out there where I am not the center of the universe.’
I created a lot of the character from working with Silas. Like, the character argues with the mom about violent computer games, because Silas argues with his mother about that. I would just find out what was going on with him and figure out how I could work with that. The second he said he played the trombone, I knew that I wanted to have him playing the trombone in the forest at night.
Silas never admits this, but his mother has told me many times, he's very proud of the movie. And not just because he's in it, but that he was key in the creating of it and the story.
UD: You use historical and cultural references in the film, the Anti-rent Movement, the Hudson River School and so forth. What do these references mean to you?
TG: There’s a general meaning with all of those references. I wanted to self-consciously (and some may say pretentiously) place this film in the continuum of American Culture; that is, where it has been and where it is going. And so I mention Kerouac, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn't want to make some groovy little film that was cynical or sarcastic. I'd rather make a film that was saying, "I come from this; I am part of that.” Then there will be people after me that will follow — young filmmakers, young poets, novelists, painters, dancers or photographers. Not just like, "Oh, I'm going to make something cool."
There’s a more specific meaning behind the references of the Anti-Rent Movement; I saw a correlation between it and Occupy Wall Street. Both were a bunch of people who were tired of the system and took it into their hands to say, "No, we're not going to be oppressed anymore. We want equality. We fought in your revolutionary war for a classless society. We risked our lives for this, and no, you’re not going to exploit us anymore."
In The Cold Lands, the mother wants the kid to know where he's from and what happened there. To me that was really important for the character that Lili (Taylor) plays, because she's tried to teach her kid not to be mind-controlled by corporations and consumerism. She wants the kid to recognize that there's a history in the United States of saying, "No, I'm going to be an individualist; I'm not going to do this."
And yeah, the Hudson Valley painters, I mean that was big. I went through them with Wyatt Garfield, the cinematographer; it was very deliberate on my part. Even people who don't like the movie always comment on the visuals and how they're well composed, and you can't look at it and think that it's anywhere else but the Hudson Valley.
UD: What is it that you find inspiring up here?
TG: I was born in New York, but I grew up in Connecticut and so the terrain reminds me of when I was a kid, when I was influenced by the transcendentalist painters. There's a kind of psychedelic aspect to that strain of American Culture, and I see it and feel it here.
And it's also just so quiet compared to New York City which is just so relentlessly noisy all the time. It’s not just the noise of the city; I see more people in one day — in one hour in New York that I could see here in maybe three days. And so I like that.
UD: The silence doesn't scare you?
TG: Oh no, not at all. It's not silent; it's just a different blanket of noise that's not made by people. There're these things that I'm hearing in the forest like the owls at night, and sometimes you hear cows at night going through the woods. The sound of the trees too, I mean that was a big part of Spring Forward also.
There are plenty of filmmakers that make films about LA and New York City. I know New York better than anywhere on earth, but I don't need to make films about it because there are enough people doing that. But there aren't too many people making films about here.
The next movie takes place in the woods of Connecticut.
UD: What's the name of that film?
TG: It's called, Our Lady of the Snow. It's about nuns in a convent, and it could take place anywhere in upstate New York, Connecticut or Pennsylvania, but it's about being at a high point where you can see all three states. Just the idea of being able to see a big chunk of New England is crucial to the story in terms of why this piece of property is valuable and the subsequent manipulations around it.
UD: Do you have a dream project that you would like to do?
TG: There isn't a dream idea that I have, but I don't think you can ever approach a project trying to make it one. I don't think you can start a band saying, "I want to be The Smiths." The Smiths created their own category, before them there was nothing Smiths-y.
I aspire to make films that exist in a world utterly by themselves. I don't think it comes out of necessarily my love of movies, I think it comes out of my love of bands. There has never been, nor will there ever be another band like The Smiths.
UD: Give me some more examples of films that set that kind of bar for you.
TG: There's a movie by Dennis Potter called Dreamchild, about Alice in Wonderland. The little girl that it was based on is now a 98-year-old woman coming to America for the first time to celebrate the centenary of the death of Lewis Carroll. She's senile; she's dying, and she starts to slip into memories of her childhood. Ian Holm plays Lewis Carroll, and it has some of the most beautiful writing that I've ever seen in my life. I sob just to think about the movie. I took my girlfriend Marilyn to see it — I almost had to carry her out of the theater!
There're also movies like Under the Skin, the Jonathan Glazer film. You walk out of the theater, and you just go, "Whoa. That's going to go in the all-time favorites.” There's Harvey, with Jimmy Stewart, a guy walking around talking to a six foot rabbit. There's a film called Mr. Sycamore, with Jason Robards, about a mailman who is just tired of being a mailman, and he decides to plant himself in his front yard as a tree. It's a genius movie.
U: And it has to happen in a very organic way.
TG: Yeah, but if it's purely imitative, it has to fail because the people who made those classic films weren't setting out to do that at all. I'll give you one last example. I was making Spring Forward with Ned Beatty. I just adored Ned, and he and I were having a drink and I asked, "Ned, when you were making Network, did you know it was going to be a monumental game-changing movie?" And he said, "Yes. The actors knew." And I asked, "Do you think Sidney (Lumet) knew? Do you think that (Paddy) Chayefsky knew?" And he goes, "No, I think that they were just trying to make the best movie they could make.”
I agree that you just try to make something as pure as you possibly can and hope that it's as pure as the people who were making films like, To Kill a Mockingbird. And then maybe at the end of the day, you look back, and you say, "Fuck, I can't believe that I did that."