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Filmmaking | Interviews

Man and Nature

1 Aug , 2005  

Written by Andrea Maxwell | Posted by:

Maine Filmmaker Lance Edmands talks about his latest short film 'Vacationland,' which screens as part of the IFP Market NY this fall.

What started out as a hobby in the woods of Maine has become a burgeoning career for filmmaker Lance Edmands whose latest short film "Vacationland" draws upon his familiar theme of man’s relationship to nature. The film will screen at "The Movies" on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine on September 8th as part of a program sponsored by the Maine College of Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art. It has been accepted into the IFP New York Market as part of the Emerging Narrative program where it will screen this fall. recently caught up with Lance Edmands to learn the story of how he came to create "Vacationland."

Andrea Maxwell: What is your background?

Lance Edmands: I was born 24 years ago in southern Maine and was raised in a little town on the sea called Kennebunk. I lived there for the first 17 years of my life, working in gas stations and seafood restaurants, taking photographs and writing stories. As a child, I would make films in the woods behind my house on a VHS camera my father purchased in 1984. I was restricted only by the limits of my budget, the abilities my lone actor (my younger brother Preston) and by the fact that the camera had to be tethered to the VCR via a 25 foot cable. Films of this era included "The Acid," "Phaser Forest" and "Orange Man."

When I was 15, I convinced my parents these little films were more than just a hobby and I took a summer film course at the Maine International Film and Television Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Here I was introduced to lighting, script writing and editing. In 2000, I was accepted to NYU after submitting a music video I made in my bedroom. At NYU I made several short films including "The Paperboy," "Morning Glories," "Perfect" and "Vacationland." While studying there I received the Steven J. Hawkins Sound Image Award, the Warner Brothers Pictures Film Production Award and the Clive J. Davis Award for Music in Film.

In 2004 I was nominated for a Wasserman/King Award and was invited to screen one of my shorts at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles. That year my films won awards for "Best Actor" and "Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography" at the First Run Film Festival. I was recently named the 2005 fellow of the Jane Morrison Memorial Film Fund, a grant sponsored by the Maine Community Arts Foundation. Since moving to New York five years ago I have worked on films for such acclaimed indie directors as Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness") and Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man," "Mystery Train"). I just finished working in post-production on the Jarmusch directed "Broken Flowers" which won the Grand Prix at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. I now teach film acting at the School of Cinema and Performing Arts in Brooklyn, a film school much like the Rockport Workshops where I learned filmmaking for the first time.

AM: Tell us the story of "Vactionland."

Edmands: Neil and Henry live with their mother, Cynthia, in a small town on the coast of Maine. Tension grows between Neil and his mother as he begins to question the absence of his older brother Jeff, estranged from the family and living in a small city many miles away. When Neil makes a selfish decision, stealing from his mother in order to fund a vacation with Jeff, Cynthia confronts him with fears that he, too may be drifting away. Angry and determined to reunite with his older brother, Neil takes to the road the only way he can — on his bicycle. But before he can get too far, his little brother Henry catches up with a backpack full of supplies, demanding to come along. Together, Neil and Henry embark on a journey across the back roads of Maine, encountering clusters of tourists, vacant RV parks and desolate gas stations. But as they near the city, and the inevitable confrontation with Jeff, the meaning of family begins to change.

AM: How did "Vacationland" come about?

Edmands: I made "Vacationland" as my thesis film at NYU. I wanted to make a movie that was somehow unique to me — and I thought "what separates me from all the other white male filmmakers?" I felt that growing up in Maine was a very unique experience, and I wanted to translate my feelings and emotions for this region into filmic terms. I took a look at my body of work and the themes and subjects that came up time and time again in my creative process. I wanted to refine these ideas. I like making movies with children as the lead actors — I guess I like the unpredictability of their performances, their world view, the way the world moves and feels different when you are young — all of these things. I also like exterior locations, wide open spaces and stark, simple cinematography. At the time I wrote "Vacationland" I was watching a lot of 70’s road movies like "Scarecrow," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," "Two Lane Blacktop," etc. But I was also watching British working class dramas like Ken Loach/Mike Leigh stuff. So I kind of combined these genres and set it in Maine with kids. I got to shoot in my favorite locations — piers, fields, run down intersections — and I knew these places by heart because they were my world.

Stan Grunder in "Vacationland."
[Click to enlarge]

AM: How did you cast the film?

Edmands: I put ads in every newspaper from Maine to Boston and held open casting calls at my high school. I also held auditions in NYC but people from here are no good for what I wanted. I ended up casting with mostly non-actors and everybody was from Maine. That’s one of my favorite things about this film — its all real Mainers. The lobsterman is actually a lobsterman and he stunk of bait as we were shooting.

AM: What makes Maine a unique place to shoot a film?

Edmands: All of the locations I mentioned above. Also, people aren’t jaded and they like to see a creative team in action. As opposed to New York where they want to charge you for putting your craft service table down on their property. There’s a real spirit to this place — people like nature, they work hard. It’s lonely and desolate, but it’s beautiful and vast. We’ve got lots of woods and mountains and it gets so sparse up north they call the towns "territories" and there are several trailer parks with their own zip code. And then we have the Bush family motoring around in their speedboat, keeping the locals away from their isolated compound with armed guards.

AM: What did you gain from New York University in particular?

Edmands: I learned that if you want to make films, you have to kick and scream and cry and push and push until there’s nothing left of you but a hollow shell. Healthy competition. No matter how hard you work there will always be some other guy who’s doing more — and that forces you to work even harder. NYU is full of the most driven people on the planet who live and breathe cinema. But there are too many movies in this world and there is only room for so many more. Therefore, nobody is going to hold your hand and tell you everything is going to be fine. NYU has a great community of cool people if you know where to look for them and these people will be your friends until death. Because making movies is akin to going into battle and these people have seen the atrocities of war. Now they’re going to cover your back when you step into the fray. If I had never gone to NYU I wouldn’t have learned anything in Maine, so far from the battlefield.

AM: What, if any, is the most essential role in making a good film?

Edmands: The essential thing is that you care deeply about what you are doing. If there’s even the slightest trace of doubt, it will destroy your whole film. Aside from that, the script (in narrative film) is the number one thing that makes a movie good. Next is the acting or casting and third is the visual aspect. Everything else is in service to these three things. Some people (mostly actors) say that when you go to see a movie you are watching people up on the screen and those people are what is interesting. Which is true, but you go to the movies to see a story unfold, and you’re not looking at the people, you’re looking at a written character who has been photographed in this very specific way. I think these three elements make up cinema. Which is not to undermine sound, but sound came along thirty or forty years after cinema had been around so it becomes more of an element that is serving the other three. At least as far as modern commercial cinema goes.

AM: What projects are you working on for the future?

Edmands: I am writing a screenplay with a friend of mine that is close to being done called "Brightwater." It is based on a true story of a man who kidnaps a 16-year-old girl at gunpoint and leads police on a bizarre manhunt through the mountain wilderness in 1959. It is kind of a contemplative thriller that focuses on the relationship between this childlike yet violent man and this all-American teenager as they survive in the woods. It is super minimalist in structure — not an action film. I am also writing a couple other screenplays, some of which I would like to shoot in Maine.

AM: Is there a theme you are interested in exploring further in your future films?

Edmands: I am always interested in the modern relationship to nature — people from society stranded or alone in natural settings. I also like endings that leave the viewer with a happy ending that can never be truly happy, because of something that has been corrupted or destroyed. I realized recently that all of my films end this way. I also like a sense of adventure — going somewhere that is kind of frightening but also kind of exciting. I don’t really advocate the making of overtly political films because I find it sells the audience short, but I think the way people are willing to give up their freedom for safety these days is really concerning. I can’t believe they can randomly search bags on the subway now. I guess everyone feels better, but there’s something in me that says "wait a second…" Or the way Americans react when threatened — with overwhelming force — instead of maybe stopping and thinking about what our values have turned into. I think these will be some of the themes people will explore in our era.

AM: What advice do you have for others seeking grants for films?

Edmands: Find grants that are specific to your region, county or state. This pool of applicants is going to be significantly smaller than IFP or the NEA for example. Also, try to explore themes that advance local culture or explore local ideas. People also like to give grants to artists who seem like they are going to do well with their project. Foundations like their fellows to be visible. So act confident when writing the grant and be sure to sell your project as an artistic contribution.

AM: What role do you think film festivals play in a community?

Edmands: Film Festivals are usually part of a tourism scheme. Unless they are started out of a true love for cinema in the middle of nowhere. It’s not a coincidence that festivals are in places like the Hamptons, Nantucket and Palm Springs. Which is fine, except when they take their film program directly from Sundance because they have no creativity and only want people to buy tickets. I think festivals should foster local talent first and foremost, and really champion the voices of their region. Festivals should be looking very closely at talent others may have missed — a brilliant little short, a tiny local feature with some stunning performances. I feel like festivals are a little too commercial now and it’s a shame when even the smaller ones follow this trend. I guess my answer is that they could be more important than they are.

AM: Is your goal when you make a film to teach the audience something or to explore something within yourself?

Edmands: I think a little of both. I try to make myself feel something first and then I can only hope my feeling translates to the audience. I don’t know if you ever have to learn a specific lesson. I think watching a movie is more about experiencing life in a fresh arena where you can be absorbed in something and yet distanced from it at the same time. You can experience something without having it actually happen to you. It’s like when you have the dream where you fall in love, and then you wake up and go about your day, but you swear you felt it and it was real.

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