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SXSW 2016: A Q&A With the Writer/Director, Production Designer & Producer of American Fable

Many first time directors might find themselves tempted to make their debut entrance into the world of filmmaking with simple, festival-ready fare, but for Anne Hamilton, the writer and director of American Fable, that approach just wouldn’t do.

Standing as easily one of the most visually striking films to play at this year’s SXSW, American Fable is what Hamilton & Co. have labeled as a “fairytale thriller” set during the farm crisis in the American Midwest in the 1980s. The film, which features the truly impressive Peyton Kennedy as 11-year-old Gitty as the film’s dreamy protagonist, is a beautifully character-driven rumination on youth, corruption and our relationship to the land and nature.

At this year’s SXSW, we had a chance to sit down with the film’s writer/director Anne Hamilton, production designer Bret Tanzer and producer Kishori Rajan about shooting in the midwest, working in the year of 1982 and finding their powerhouse lead.

So, Anne, you spent some time with Malick on Tree of Life, but you didn’t originally go to school for filmmaking, so can you bring me through the path you took to sort of get here?  

Anne Hamilton, Writer/Director: Yeah, I went to law school and I’d studied philosophy, so by the time I came around to filmmaking, I had already done so much school, I was like, “I’m just going to go make this thing.” But I had always wanted to be a director, I had a moment where my sister came to town, and I love my sister so much, I really admire her, and she said, “If you’re going to be a director, you should just go direct something.” So I wrote a letter to Terrence Malick, which is how the internship on Tree of Life started, and just started the ball rolling. But I think if you’re an artist, there’s like a moment where you can decide if you’re going to do it or not, and I think I was really lucky it happened when it did.

And this is such a specific kind of approach to a genre, it arrives at sort of a crossroads of genres, so how did that sort of percolate for you?

Anne Hamilton: There was that last scene with Gitty and Jonathan, which is really ambiguous, you can interpret that scene in so many ways, and that really was the initial inspiration. I just love darkness and I love the Grimm’s Brother fairy tales, it’s for adults and also for kids, and you can read it different ways. I wanted my first movie to be something as kind of an example of what I want to do next. Because I don’t want to make small movies, I want to make big movies. And so having a first feature that shows that was really important to me.

So how did you guys get involved? The production design for this movie is gorgeous, and obviously producers are some of the most integral people on that set when you’re talking about an indie production like this.

Kishori Rajan, Producer: I guess I’ll go first, we met through mutual friends in, 2014?

Anne Hamilton: About a year ago.

Kishori Rajan: And I was sent the script, and I didn’t think I had the capacity of time to produce it at the time, but the thing I keep coming back was whether or not I want to work on the project is if the director is specific. I look for high specificity and directors who know what they want, because that’s my job is to know what the director wants so I can look at how do we get the resources, this specific idea. And I think what really sold me about it was the Dark Rider character, just reading it was like, “What is this amazing strange thing?” And the old movies she was referencing are movies we loved too, and I loved the idea of working with a female director too.

Bret Tanzer, Production Designer: I was just contacted through word of mouth. I’m a Chicago-based production designer, and it was cool. It was the most collaborative project I’ve been on so far, because in the beginning it was just Anne, Wyatt [Garfield, American Fable’s cinematographer] and myself in a cabin. It was amazing, it was really cool. The synergy between Anne and the script, she painted a picture already that was amazing. Wyatt was, as a production designer you don’t always walk onto a project as friends, but Wyatt was so welcoming and worked really close with me, which was refreshing.  

That sort of brings me to my next question which is about the period. ‘82 is kind of a unique cinematic place to set a movie in. We have nostalgia for the ‘70s, some of us have nostalgia for the ‘90s, but it looks like the ‘80s were skipped over. Can you talk about that decision and the work that went into that?

Anne Hamilton: I wanted to set it in the ‘80s, because I was born in the ‘80s and I grew up in the ‘80s so when I think about that I think about home. But I also think the past has a sort of magic to it no matter what. If you have a fantasy movie, you should probably set it in the past, unless it’s sci-fi which is a different genre. Setting it at least far enough that we have a nostalgia for it was important. I think Bret can better talk about the challenges, because I love watching the movie for just that, everything is so specific. And costume design too, Megan [Spatz] did a great job with getting Gitty’s outfits right. Even that jacket she’s wearing, the one she’s wearing all the time, is from the ‘80s. And I had one of those. So it’s so fun to watch it and be like, “Oh!” It’s sort of this preserved magic of that time period.

Bret Tanzer: I also grew up in the ‘80s, so it was very easy to sort of think about how we were going to dress everything. The area we were in made it pretty easy to find things because not a lot has changed since then. Every garage sale you go to, literally, we were just filling up bags in our car. [laughs] Bags full of stuff. I don’t know, it came easy for all of us because we all just really had to think about growing up.

And Anne, if I’m not mistaken, you guys shot near to where you grew up, how did you sort of come to that decision?

Anne Hamilton: I knew I wanted to shoot my first movie in the Midwest for all kinds of reasons, and I think Kashori can talk a little bit more about it, but it was just fantastic.

Kashori Rajan: Yeah, she’s from Wisconsin originally, but Illinois, partly for tax credit reasons made it the best choice. And there was access to a lot of good crew from Chicago, so that was also appealing. It was in the northwest part of Illinois, so right near Iowa. 

Anne Hamilton: We had some family friends, I grew up about two hours from where the movie was shot. Which in Wisconsin’s time, it’s a very short car ride, basically. We had my mom’s friend, her classmate’s aunt had a farm there, which is how we found that. And we ended up visiting and it was just perfect. They were so instrumental to us physically getting the movie to the finish line. Some of the most amazing shots of the movie were just because farmers were giving us their equipment. On an indie you can’t always afford cranes every day. Which was exciting for me, I usually shoot in New York, which is, you’re always trying to frame things out. Here, it was just so vast that we could go as wide as we wanted.

A still from 'American Fable.' 

So you guys mentioned films and other visual touchstones, what were sort of things that got tossed around to create that final product?

Anne Hamilton: Oh, yeah. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks was a major reference in terms of color scheme, I love Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Gerhard Richter’s Betty was something that, actually that image is of his daughter, it’s photorealism and she’s sort of in this pajama set turning away from the camera, I had that image on my script throughout the movie because that’s Gitty. She’s got her back to the screen and it’s the same way you see Gitty in the whole movie, but it’s this painting from the 70s in the St. Louis Museum that I’d always loved. And then the Dark Rider was based on this image that was painted of Genghis Khan’s mother that was done in like the ‘30s. So it was a lot of visual art, and we looked at a lot of Sally Mann photographs for references.

Well, speaking of Gitty, Peyton Kennedy is fantastic.

Anne Hamilton: Isn’t she? She’s eleven, my god!

She’s really amazing. How did you find her?

Anne Hamilton: For me, casting is my job. My job is to give direction to people and give them references, but casting is really my job. The movie won’t do well if you cast it incorrectly. And so especially with Gitty and this is all Meg [Morman] and Sunny [Boling’s, the casting directors] doing, we ended up doing a nationwide search, I think over a hundred girls auditioned. It's true like they say, I saw Peyton’s tape and it was out of Toronto and it was during a second run because we wanted to see more and it just blew my mind.  So perfect. She was just Gitty. It’s funny, it’s like falling in love.

Kashori Rajan: That’s a tricky age too, I mean, girls at that age tend to have very squeaky voices and Peyton was the very few that didn’t have a squeaky voice. And I just kept thinking about the final scene of her holding the gun to her brother, and I thought, “This is going to become a comedy if we don’t watch it.”

Anne Hamilton: There were so many things we had to avoid!

Kashori Rajan: Peyton, obviously, her skills are amazing, she was like this magical unicorn. She had this normal, adult-ish tenor to her voice. I was so nervous about that climactic scene.

There’s so much going on in the film that is ethereal, but there is also so much that feels very rooted in current events. How did you straddle that line between existing in that world and then also very much in ours?

Anne Hamilton: That’s a great question and I don’t think anyone has asked it that way before. It’s really a story about the Midwest in the way that I remember it, but also in the way it’s falling apart. I do think the Midwest is something that's disappearing, and we found a lost pocket of it, I think. I hope people watch the movie and think about what happened there and how we’re really losing and have lost something important and that’s definitely affecting us today. I think this election year, any election year, but especially this one, people are talking about being disenfranchised and not having a voice and a small group of people controlling other people’s lives to a degree that’s not fair, this is something that the movie speaks to.

What was the shooting schedule like, and how did it sort of clash or harmonize with all of the difficulties of shooting largely outside?

Kashori Rajan: So our shooting schedule was 29 days, not including prep time on site, which isn’t bad for a first feature. It can be shorter than that. But they were full days, I think our team worked very hard, they were a hustling team that made it happen. It should be said that Peyton and her parents were really generous, she was just unfailing about going take after take, I mean, she’s 11 and she was doing the hours the adults were doing.

Anne Hamilton: She stayed up late a lot, is what we’re saying.

Such is indie film, I would think. But rewarding.

Anne Hamilton: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.  

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