MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: In ‘Redland,’ director finds inspiration close to home

Occasionally, reporters covering the entertainment dodge discover to their surprise and delight that the story behind a movie’s story is as interesting as the film itself. It’s then that ears perk up and the likelihood of churning out yet another how-I-made-it-to-Sundance article recedes.

It’s especially gratifying when the story is told by an up-and-coming filmmaker, who has yet to appear on the radar screens of the glossy magazines and other celebrity-obsessed media.

The story behind the creation of “Redland,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, reveals just such a refreshing tale.

For me, it recalled a time when a film-school education wasn’t a stepping stone to a career, and such larger-than-life artists as Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, Orson Welles and Howard Hughes experienced life as fully and with the same intensity as the characters in their movies. Today’s generation may be steeped in the history, theory and science of making movies, but how many have piloted a plane, gone on safari, directed a play on Broadway or volunteered for activity duty in a foreign war?

In “White Hunter Black Heart,” Clint Eastwood played a director modeled after Huston, who put the production of a major motion picture – “The African Queen” — in jeopardy in order to pursue his personal Moby Dick, a magnificent African elephant. Since 1975, Welles has been portrayed in movies and TV shows by more than 30 different actors and Hughes by at least 16. Werner Herzog’s no spring chicken, but he continues to make movies that would test the strength and courage of directors a third his age.

Filmmakers like that are few and far between, these days.

Like the vast majority of his peers, writer/director Asiel Norton has worshipped movies since he was a kid and attended a prestigious film school. “Redland,” is different from most other debut films, however, in that it reflects an upbringing as removed from the American mainstream as that of the impoverished backwoods family we meet in his film. Although he’d be the last one to compare himself to such legends as those mentioned above, the story behind his story is pretty darn compelling.

“My parents were hippies, and I actually was born in a cabin on Kneeland Mountain, in Humboldt County, near the Oregon border with California,” said Norton, now 33. “’Redland’ was shot on the mountain next to the one on which we lived. Our electricity was pretty limited, so we didn’t have a television, and our home was heated by a wood furnace.

“We raised chickens, rabbits and sheep, and my mom knit clothes for the family from their wool. We got our water from a nearby stream.”

In some Republican strongholds, such an upbringing might qualify as child abuse. After all, there’s nothing quite so un-American, as not owning a television and exposing children to sugar-coated cereal, the NFL and Fox News. And, yet, Norton’s scalp isn’t overflowing with dreadlocks and he doesn’t look as if he might have been raised in the wilderness by wolves.

“When I was growing up, the community was divided pretty much down the middle by loggers and marijuana growers,” he adds. “Now that most of the old-growth forest has been cut down, the economy is dependent on marijuana.”

Norton’s first exposure to movies came during trips to Humboldt State University, where the family enjoyed watching Hollywood classics.

“There were six of us in our family and we’d all crowd into our small, two-door truck for the 30- to 40-minute trip to town,” Norton recalled, over lunch in a west-side bistro favored by film folk. “I remember watching and enjoying ‘Bringing Up Baby,’ the ‘Pink Panther’ series, ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ My parents made me aware of Hitchcock, Fellini, Welles and Capra … ‘E.T.’ had a big effect on me, as well.”

“Redland” doesn’t resemble any of those movies, either.

In high school, Norton became a voracious reader of biographies and other books about movies and filmmakers. Soon, his heroes also would include Robert Altman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, all of whose influence is evident in “Redland.”

He claims not to have been a good student in high school, preoccupied, as he was, by acting and movies. His grades improved enough in junior college to encourage him to pursue his other pastime at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute of Photography. After “kicking around” for a year, he was accepted at film school at the University of Southern California. Even today, Norton isn’t quite sure how he qualified for admittance.

Meditative and elliptical, “Redland” is less about story than visions, light, movement, struggle, survival, birth, death and rebirth. Like the thick carpet of fog that shrouds the canyons and valleys in the movie’s opening shot, it sneaks up on you. Just as in the films of Tarkovsky and Malick, Zoran Popovic’s camera lingers on close-ups of insects, water passing over stones, grass rippled by gusts of wind, birds in flight and the creases in the leathery faces of men who’ve experienced life on the fringes of society.

Norton says the original impetus for the movie came to him from an unfocused mental image of a man in a hat holding a rifle. The tall trees of the coastal forests formed the background, with heavenly rays of light cutting through the leafy canopy above and dusty haze in the middle distance. The grain of the 35mm film makes the setting seem otherworldly, as if the people we meet in this forest primeval were the first to leave their footprints on the muddy earth.

Indeed, it’s that early all-pervasive sense of timelessness that makes “Redland” such a curious entertainment. For most of the first half of the film, it’s impossible to tell with any degree of certainty when it is taking place. My initial guess was post-Civil War, perhaps because the men don’t look as if they’ve ever used a razor and the cabin might have built during the first migration of Russian settlers to northern California. As we come to learn, almost by accident, though, it’s the hard times of the Great Depression that inform the family’s desperate pursuit of sustenance, shelter and dignity.

“After I had the image of the man with a gun firmly planted in my mind, I wanted to know what he was going to do with the gun and if his family was desperate for food,” allowed Norton. “It grew from there, really. I wanted everything else to be ambiguous … to feel like a dream.”

What’s clear from the beginning, however, is that the patriarch of the homesteading family doesn’t want much to do with the outside world and expects his wife and children to feel the same way. The boys will grow up in his crusty image, hunting for food and cutting wood for the winter. His blond daughter is a free spirit, with a strong connection to nature. We sense that her father would rather see her caged or dead, than impregnated by any of the local boys. In this regard, his concern may have come too late.

Everything else of consequence happens during the fateful hunt for food, which is long, arduous and oozes with portent. Norton’s familiarity with the local terrain pays off in images as beautiful as any picture postcard.

Even so, Norton admits to having driven his cast and crew nutty, by insisting on shooting much of the film only during the “magic hours” at dawn and dusk. (Only one scene was artificially lit.) Nor was he reluctant to stop the caravan of cars and trucks on their way to a location if he saw something – a tree, a shadow, a vista – that might enhance “Redland.”

“Robert Altman wrote something I liked about creating the circumstances that could lead to capturing ‘the happy accident,’” Norton recalled. “If you know where to put the bottle, you might be able to catch lightning in it.”

Even though he had studied Hitchcock and the art of storyboarding in school, and respected the discipline, Norton said he spend a lot of time “making things up and learning as we went along.”
He credits co-writer and producer Magdalena Zyzak with contributing many of the ideas that found their way into the film. From her Eastern European background sprang the concept of the “holy fool,” a character who appears simple minded but is connected spiritually to a higher power.

Here, that person is represented by the pretty blond daughter, Mary-Ann (marvelously played by Brit, Lucy Adden), who makes us care for the welfare of the family, even as we fear for the well-being of those who become captivated by her ethereal charm. Norton claims that casting was his greatest challenge, even if he appears to have hit a home run in his first at-bat.

“Redland” debuted at the 2009 CineVegas, with subsequent festival stops in Montreal, Vancouver, Brooklyn and London’s Raindance Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize as Best Debut Feature. Norton also was nominated for the Someone to Watch Award at the 2010 Independent Spirits Awards.

His next project will find Norton once again on familiar terrain. Set in the mountains of Ukraine during World War II, “Here I Sing” is about a Jewish woman who finds refuge in the home of the man who killed her husband.

He describes it as a “picture of life at its most primitive level, a battle for existence. … One sees very clearly the cycle of life from birth to death to rebirth, and I don’t mean rebirth in just a poetic or mythological way.

“Any philosophy that doesn’t deal with brutality and death as a fact of our lives is seriously lacking.”

One Response to “Digital Nation: In ‘Redland,’ director finds inspiration close to home”

  1. Mary Beth says:

    I hope Asiel realizes and appreciates the fact that he inherited his amazing talent and creativity from his equally amazing and talented father who paid for his education.

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“Yes, yes, yes. Now I am also the producer on Jean-Luc’s films, so I need to raise the money. Yes, there are two projects in preparation with the pretext of virtual reality. We are beginning with two approaches: we can either do or undo VR. Maybe we will undo it more than we do VR, because thinking about VR leads to the opposite of VR. Is there concrete imagination in virtual reality? For me, cinema is concrete imagination because it’s made with the real and uses it. VR, virtual reality, is totally the opposite of that, but it might be interesting to use this and then to destroy it. No, we’ll see, we’ll see. First, it’s just an idea of a beginning. There is a forest to cross, and we are just at the beginning of the forest. The first step is development. As they say in business, first there is development and research. We have to develop somehow an idea for the film; I won’t say a script, but to see what we can do with this system, and what we can undo with this system.”
~ Fabrice Aragno On Godard’s Next Projects

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray