MSPIFF Interview: ‘Wildlike’ Producer Joseph Stephans

WildLike Production Stills

Wildlike screened last week as part of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival, one of the many stellar pre-theatrical features offered to local audiences. Capturing the picturesque Alaskan tundra in 35 mm film (a rarity these days) and boasting a cast that includes Ella Purnell (Never Let Me Go, Maleficent) and Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Meek’s Cutoff), it’s one of those expertly crafted, refreshingly grown up dramas that have become far too rare in multiplexes.

The film tells the story of Mackenzie (Purnell), a teenage girl who is sent to live with her uncle (Boardwalk Empire’s Brian Geraghty) in Alaska when her recently widowed mother can no longer take care of her. The story, unfortunately far too common, involves the older man taking advantage of the young girl’s vulnerability. Writer/director Frank Hall Green doesn’t dwell on these moments (the script takes a pretty quick turn twenty minutes in) and tastefully leaves much to the imagination. Even so, the subtle insincerity that Geraghty weaves into his performance is suitably icky for such uncomfortable subject matter. He buys her a cell phone. He offers to buy her a dog. His face leans a little too far into every shot, invading her personal space. Every statement out of his mouth is merely preparation for when he plans to demand far too much in return.

Mackenzie does eventually free herself, though lacking a plan, money, or any kind of adult support. Her goal is to return to her home in Seattle though it’s unclear what she would do even if she made it. After a couple days wandering an alien city and realizing her fourteen year-old survival skills might not be sufficient, she becomes attached to Bart (Greenwood at his most paternally reassuring), a recently widowed hiker in his late forties. From there the story transitions to the Alaskan wilderness.

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Survival films are not uncommon, and there are whole paths of clichés carved out for them. Thankfully, Hall seems more interested in the road less traveled. Every moment is rooted in honest emotions and plausibility that prevent the film from veering into Hallmarky triumph of the human spirit territory. Bart is very reluctant to take on Mackenzie’s baggage, and though clearly sympathetic from the outset (it’s difficult to make Greenwood anything else), he looks for every possible way to escape the drama of someone a quarter his age. His actions are driven by the habits of a man entering late adulthood, not by the needs of a screenplay. Mackenzie meanwhile makes numerous wrong decisions, but these feel understandable and not at all demeaning to her intelligence. Desperate and betrayed, many would fare worse.

Wildlike ultimately works because it avoids broad proclamations and easy answers. Purnell (who was fifteen when the film began shooting) projects innocence that never undercuts her dignity. Mackenzie can be vulnerable yet heroic, brave yet needy. She is growing up, unfortunately a bit too fast, but the script never loses her in the scramble to tell the audience what to think or to assure everyone it’s all going to be okay. It also doesn’t wallow in misery. My screening at MSPIFF was just about a director’s dream, the audience finding a number of laughs amid what could have been bludgeoned into a real drudgery. This understatement is one major reason why films like this can be a hard sell, but it’s also the main reason they’re absolutely necessary.

I had the chance to sit down with Joseph Stephans, a producer on the film and a Minnesota native who was in town for the festival.

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Minnesota Connected: At what point did you become involved in the project?

Joseph Stephans: “So Frank started writing the script around four years ago now. I started reading drafts of it and it was originally called something else. It was called Love Like Violence which… we did not like that title.”

*laughs*

“I wasn’t going to be involved at that point. We’re friends and I was just looking at the script and giving him feedback and whatnot. And he said ‘Listen, I’m going to make this happen next summer. Do you want to help me on this?’ And I was like yeah sure. And it was really kind of that simple. I got to go to Alaska. The script had gotten really good.”

MNC: What is the process when you’re trying to find a young actress like Ella for such a weighty role?

Joseph: “We have a casting director in New York whose name is Stephanie Holbrook and she’s phenomenal. And she was setting us up with meetings and Frank took a meeting in LA with an agency. This rep was showing Frank like Disney kids, you know, or twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three year olds playing younger kids, and none of it was working. None of it felt authentic. It all felt acted and stiff and whatnot.

So he goes back to the hotel one night and this movie, Never Let Me Go, is on with Kierra Knightley. And Ella’s in it as a young version of Kierra’s character. And he’s immediately struck by this person. Wow this person could totally do it. And he texted the agent. What about this Ella Purnell? Isn’t she repped by you? He said yeah she is but she’s British. And he asked can she do an American accent? And they said sure she can.”

MNC: Of course!

Joseph: “Of course! And she really did.”

WildLike Production Stills

MNC: One of the things that I found interesting was that the film is definitely from Mackenzie’s perspective but it’s also a vision of male identity as seen from a female perspective. The ways that these different guys interact with her are very visceral.

Joseph: “It’s funny that you say that because I was noticing that upon the viewing last night. I guess I was thinking someone might ask why this is all about her interactions with men. You know what I mean? And part of that is just that’s part of life. That’s gonna happen. We’re a 50/50 gender split in the species. And another part of that was intentional and part of why Alaska was a character in the movie: Alaska is mostly guys. The women up there have to be tough. They gotta know how to catch a salmon and skin it and shoot a gun and kill a bear.

Getting back to Mackenzie and her character, part of it is that Frank really wanted to touch on that tough subject. So we’re dealing with a woman—she could have been a boy—but she was a young woman and she was running into these guys. And she’s a kid. She doesn’t know how to navigate this terrain that in my opinion is a very subtle, nuanced terrain that we all have to encounter. Hopefully a lot of us are lucky enough not to have to encounter it in a bad way or people who are misusing it, abusing it, manipulating with it, all the things humans can do. So she’s just getting her chops together.”

MNC: And that’s part of that makes it work. Like you said they were sending you people who were twenty-one or twenty-three years old playing teenagers, and we wouldn’t be sitting wondering how old they are or how much experience they have in life.

Joseph: “Ella really was that girl in that aspect. She was with us in Austin and now she’s got a boyfriend and she is just different now. Like a year and a half went by and now she’s a different person.”

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MNC: Which is what it is.

Joseph: “Yeah, it goes so fast. But when we shot it she was more little girl than young woman. She was more kid than adult. And I like how it starts with her looking like a scrubby adult or a scrubby older teen with all the stuff in her hair and the makeup and then by the time we get to the point where they’re way out in Denali and the bus leaves she’s got no makeup or anything. She’s gorgeous. This beautiful creature, this beautiful human, and she looks like a little girl. And by the end it’s back to purity. I know it’s not that easy, not that simple, and she’s got a lot of healing left to do, but a lot has happened. A lot of good has happened to her since she bolted. And she deserves all the credit for that.”

MNC: So one of the things I noticed was that you guys shot on 35 mm instead of digital. So what inspired that decision?

Joseph: “To be honest with you I think Frank just wanted to shoot on film before it was too late. He had done a couple shorts. Shot those on 16, and digital, it’s changing so fast. Now it’s very rare that people are shooting on film. But even three or four years ago it was more common. So when we were prepping this we got a grant from Panavision. They gave us two cameras free. Which was a huge expense knocked off the budget. Kodak gave us a bunch of film for a song. So that side of it was very helpful. Part of it was that just the nature of Alaska and the grandness of the scenery needed to be on film.”

MNC: Sometimes it does.

Joseph: “Sometimes it does… I don’t know if that’s true anymore to be honest with you. I mean the digital cameras are so unbelievably good. Believe me, I’m fifty years old. I was in college when we were debating digital versus film. Film always won because it was like, “Digital is always going to try to do what film already can do.” Well, it’s doing it. It’s succeeded. So it was kind of a nostalgia thing. It was kind of ‘Well it really needs to be film because it’s so beautiful,’ and it was kind of the way costs broke down. It became cost-effective.”

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MNC: So you guys have been on the festival circuit for a while now. What’s that experience like?

Joseph: “It’s been fun. I have to admit, I hadn’t done it before and I was afraid it was going to be people in black turtlenecks that were very snooty about film and very pretentious. And it hasn’t been like that at all. It’s been a blast. We started at The Hamptons International Film Festival. That’s where we premiered. That was great. And then we went to Woodstock and on from there, Austin. I was just on the phone with someone who was joking, “How many states do you have left?” because we’re running out of states. Part of it is we’re just embracing that because we have a film that is just not a slam dunk marketing-wise, to say the least. It’s actually not marketable. So you know we have a distribution deal and I can’t say who it is yet because we haven’t signed the contract, but it’s a perfect fit for us and we will have a theatrical release in the Fall in September. And hopefully Minneapolis/Saint Paul will be on that. I think it will.

But the festival circuit was a way for us to just get it out there. And festivals are great because it’s like a theatrical release for people who don’t have distribution yet. So we’ve been accumulating audiences and accumulating reviews and making friends and making contacts and making allies. So when we go into distribution we can go to Phoenix and the guy who runs Phoenix, Jason Kearney, can hook us up with a theater and it’s mutually beneficial because we happened to win Phoenix as Best Feature. We could promote the festival which would help us promote the film.”

MNC: Which do you prefer: bigger budget Hollywood movies or smaller budget indies like this?

Joseph: “I think it’s a close call but I think I like the smaller budget because it’s more about process and there’s just less other stuff going on. You know what I mean by other stuff? I want to have some money. I’m not really interested in doing microbudgets anymore. But anything from, let’s say, a million to ten million, depending on what the script is and what it calls for, that’s not a lot of extra money. It sounds like it should be, but it is what it is. So then you’ve got enough to pay your professionals, pay your union people who are good craftsman and good workers who love what they do, you can pay all those people but there’s not a lot of extra money for other stuff — for prima donna stuff that comes into play. So I think I like middle budget stuff, and it’s too bad because that’s not what’s happening.”

MNC: Right, it’s kind of going out of vogue. You either have the huge budget or the microbudget.

Joseph: “I want to bring it back. And I’m not alone. I think a lot of people want to bring it back, for the same reasons I just said. It makes a lot of economic sense. It keeps the process a little bit more pure.”

MNC: Right, and I think there is an audience for films like you guys’s—

Joseph: “I know there is.”

WildLike Production Stills

MNC: They’re out there. I think a lot of people I know would really like this film. And it’s not like you have no stars. I mean Bruce has done the Star Trek films. I really think he should have gotten an Oscar nomination for Meek’s Cutoff.

Joseph: “Yes! He was brilliant! And he’s a super funny guy. I don’t know why he hasn’t had more comedy roles.”

MNC: He was hilarious here, even while being very effective dramatically.

Joseph: “He got laughs. Even where you’re thinking, “Where are the laughs in this script?” Well he got em.”

MNC: Right.

Joseph: “I think you’re right. That indie film with a little bit of money to make it look professional and make sure you’ve got the money to fix things if they don’t come out right in production. There’s a market for that. It’s basically a different scale. It’s the corner grocery store that doesn’t have to compete with a lot of other people, it provides good service, versus you know a national chain. And you know there’s an interest in that and there’s a taste for that. And I think it’s alive and well. I think there’s a lot of hemming and hawing. Like right here you’ve got the Landmark chain and Saint Anthony Main and you know some others.”

MNC: The Riverview and the Trylon.

Joesph: “And a lot of cities have that. Phoenix has that. Atlanta has that. Seattle has that. So we’ll be doing that limited release in the fall. We talked to these other distribution companies that were like warehouses. And you go to their site and are like, “Oh my god. It just keeps going and going and going and going. I don’t know any of these movies.” It’s like this is where movies go to die or something.”

WildLike Production Stills

MNC: And there are so many niche markets that if you’re trying to be that broad you just can’t find it and there’s no way you can know.

Joseph: “I don’t know what the business model is there. It has to be something like let’s just get as much content as we can. Let’s make the connections and just put it in the pipeline. And some of the titles I’ll look at and there are big names attached. They’re just movies that didn’t work.”

MNC: You see quite a few of those in Redbox. Oh, that one was… it was meant to be something.

Joseph: “It’s got Sean Connery in it? How could it be bad? It can definitely be bad.”

MNC: Yeah.

Joseph: “Anything can be bad. I felt so lucky. I think filmmaking is a lot of sweat, it’s a lot of using your head, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also two parts or one part luck. Where you’re like is this gonna click? And that’s where the editing room is great so long as you’ve got enough footage. The movie that ended up being the movie was not the script. It’s very very close, but there were parts where you just can’t have that in there. It can’t handle it. So I just feel very blessed and lucky that it worked. It’s a movie that I think I can be proud of. I sincerely love the film. Not just that it’s mine, but that’s a great thing.”

MNC: Definitely. That’s a very good feeling.

Joseph: “Cuz I would still have to be sitting here doing this even if I didn’t love doing it?”

MNC: What is that Truffaut quote from Day for Night? “Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.” 

Joseph: *laughs*

MNC: So when it does work out—

Joseph: “Yeah, and you just gotta stick with it. Gotta get it done. Gotta get it in the can, as they say. It’s been fun, and we’re really happy with it.”

 

For more information on the film, visit wildlikefilm.com.

 

 

Photos courtesy of: Tandem Pictures

 

 



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