Winter in the Blood: LAFF 2013

By Meredith Alloway · June 23, 2013

Directors Alex & Andrew Smith Talk Filmmaking

Alex and Andrew Smith are no strangers to the indie festival scene. Their breakout film Slaughterhouse premiered at Sundance in 2002 to great praise and featured some guy named Gosling (Ryan). Now they’re back with Winter in the Blood this year at the LA Film Festival. The film is based on James Welch novel and explores the life of Montana ranch hand Virgil (Chaske Spencer). Through an inebriated fog and crippled by his past traumas, Virgil is out to find his wife Agnes (Julia Jones) who’s fled to town. Along the way he grapples with the death of his father and brother while meeting a strange “Airplane Man” (David Morse) who could be offering salvation or deceit. The Smith brothers’ film is both lyrical and mysterious, set to the sweeping landscape of their homeland, Montana.

At the fest, I was given a plethora of chances to chat with the filmmaking duo. Both insightful and passionate, they offered clues on how to fund a project, getting it off the ground and developing difficult, intricate and captivating characters. Oh, and finding that in the editing room, destruction is necessary.

ATW: Chaske was at Sundance to raise awareness and funding for the film before shooting began. Was that beneficial for you all?

Andrew: We put together our first fundraiser there in 2011.

Alex: “Friendraiser.” TM.

Andrew: We had at that point one investor in and we were hoping we could get it shot that following summer. That was the turning point. That was the catalyst moment. We brought the actors down. One of our investors has a condo in Park City and the whole idea was to do an event in their home and they were very supportive of this project. We had a big dinner and we invited people to try to get interest in the project going. Let’s start in this type of atmosphere where the people are really excited about cinema and stories about marginal people. And it worked! We made a short film about the film we showed them.

Andrew: It was a sizzle reel without any car chases-much more poetic and evocative.

ATW: You all also received $45,000 in grants from the state of Montana!

Andrew: The state has been a big supporter of our films since Slaughterhouse. They were involved with this film from ground zero. We did location scouts and they were driving us around. They were just happy someone was focusing on a part of the state that never gets exposure.

Alex: The book is a cultural treasure of Montana. They really wanted us to shoot it in Montana.

ATW: Is Montana offering incentives to filmmakers?

Alex: They are a sponsor of this festival because they’ve got a whole new approach to incentives. We’re one of the first grant recipients. They gave us money to help finish the film, helped us in pre-production, admin support, flew in actors for us. Montana is really beautiful but it doesn’t have the economic muscle and keeps loosing films to other states. We got over $200,00 of the budget in grants.

Alex: Not just from Montana, but in general we raised a lot of money from non-profits and foundations because of the social message of the film. Our Kickstarter campaign raised almost $70,000. We pieced it together.

ATW: James Welch’s novel is clearly very beloved. What was it like adapting it? Were there certain things you had to cut or embellish?

Andrew: We definitely shot stuff that’s not in the film. The script went through many convulsions and stuff was in and then out. Looking at our budget, we cut another 10 pages two days before production.

Alex: Adapting that book was challenging for two reasons. It’s a mostly interior book. He’s a very classically passive protagonist. What works on the page is trickier on the screen. There’s also a legacy component to the novel and we found ultimately that you can’t be true to the letter you have to be true to the essence. You have to understand why it’s been in print for 40 years and taught worldwide. It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, this movie.

Andrew: We found some cinematic symbols, the rifle, the hawk, that do a lot of heavy lifting where the novel is much more inside the guys head.  We tried to turn thought into behavior or action. We fell in love with the lyricism of Welch’s writing but we kept realizing the more words you have the less you’re watching the actors in some cases. Sometimes the best lines are the ones left unsaid. 

ATW: You all shot in 23 days. How do you handle directing responsibilities or divide that authority?

Alex: It’s pretty organic. We don’t divvy up duties per say. We storyboard together, we shot list together. There’s a take, cut and then we confer and whoever has the more articulate note will then approach the actor. We try not to put too much in their ears at the same time.

Andrew: There’s nothing scarier than two directors walking to them from different directions. That happened early in our career-ok don’t do that.

Alex: Often it’s the littlest note then go again. Try not to over-explain. We had Chaske on board a year and a half before we shot. There were a lot of dinners and walks. We got to shorthand with him about Virgil. He showed up off the airplane as Virgil! He had the accent; the limp and he had gained weight. He ate a lot of cheeseburgers to get that alcoholic bloat! He’d come from being the alpha wolf [Twilight].

ATW: Virgil's grandmother is sort of the only rock of sanity in his life. When she dies, how does that change his journey?

Alex: She’s his only real ally in this movie. She means the world to him. He’s always listened to her stories. That’s how it works; you carry on the wisdom from your ancestors.

Andrew: That’s the main friendship in the story. In the book his relationship with his horse is very strong. We had more scenes with the horse and in the novel he shoots his horse at the end. We did all of that and then we thought this is too much for the audience. That was the first thing out of the edits.

ATW: Were you guys hands on in the editing process?

Alex: Our editor, Michael Hofacre, was extremely patient and generous. It was a complicated process but we’re very hands on in the edit. One of the breakthroughs we had was cutting the umbilical chord. We couldn’t break out of this one way of seeing the movie. We gave it to him for 10 days and said be ruthless. It was traumatic but I think it allowed us to be a little more objective about it.

Andrew: I once heard Lynne Ramsay talk about adapting The Lovely Bones.  She was saying her process is to replicate, destroy, then rebuild. We had to at some point accept that destruction was necessary.

ATW: You all going to adapt another book or write an original work?

Alex: We have some of each.

Andrew: In the middle of editing this we adapted a short story for Rodrigo Garcia. It was a 45-page short story! Now we’re working on another short novel, a Midwestern archetype. We love working from literary texts but we also love true-life stories.

Alex: We have a western based on a true story set in the jazz age. It’s northern Montana, part of our Montana trilogy or something! It’s set during the 20s and there’s cowboys and shoot em’ ups. It’s political too, it’s about the early communism, pre-Stalin. It’s about prohibition. [He laughs] It’s a love story.

Andrew: A Robin Hood story.

ATW: You have a few scripts in the works! Is it now just about waiting to see where the money comes in or who wants to lift it off the ground?

Alex: It’s a combination. With Slaughterhouse and Winter in the Blood those two were made outside the system and everything else we’ve tried to do is in system. It’s really hard. It’s hard to get that green light especially in this day and age. We grew up on a different type of movie, which studios used to make-Midnight Cowboy, Cool Hand Luke, Taxi Driver. It’s hard to make a movie about real people.

ATW: A lot of actors and directors from the indie scene are being hired onto studio projects, though. Obviously there’s attention on the indie industry-it’s a sort of vehicle towards something bigger.

Alex: Its new talent, new energy. I’m hoping people will realize that Chaske is a wonderful actor-he’s special and I’m hoping people will see that.