Last week, Cinema Village waved goodbye to one indie flick from a first time filmmaker—Alexander Poe’s rom-com Ex-Girlfriends—and welcomed another.A comedic drama written and directed by Brian Savelson, In Our Nature opened Friday and is slated to screen at the East 12th Street theater through Thursday. The movie, which features a cast of four—Zach Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery, and Gabrielle Union—orbits around a single location, a lake house upstate, and a simple, yet increasingly complicated, core conflict: an estranged father and son each drive with their respective girlfriends from New York City for a weekend in the wilderness, only to discover their romantic getaway has morphed into an awkward 48-hour double date. Talk about deflating. Add to this the apparent age disparity between Vicky (Union) and Gil (Slattery), and the latter’s intention to sell the property, and you’re left with the opposite of a Kodak moment.
With an emphasis on dialogue, gestures, and expressions, which the 32-year-old discusses in greater detail below, the film trots along at an enjoyable pace and, to my relief, never treads too close to cliché. Several recurring themes (like veganism) and standout moments (as when Gil and Andie (Malone) bond over a joint) are explored, though it’s the subtleties and nuances within and between the bigger things that propel the story forward. From the very first scene, which is bound to elicit laughs, I was a fan. My advice? See it before it’s too late. New Yorkers, you have four days.
Known for his music video production, his theater experience and an award-winning animated short, Savelson is brand new to the box office, though Nature’s been navigating the festival circuit for nearly a year. He and I linked up last week and got lost in a conversation littered with tangents, but we covered more than enough Nature-related territory. Read on for more, including how he and Mad Men’s Silver Fox became besties, the D-Wade effect, and how to hire a black bear. Oh my.
Where did the concept for In Our Nature initiate?
It started with the idea of a place. It started with an image of a house, which ultimately is the most stable character in [the film]. The house play[s] a role. There’s plot around it, in it.
A lot of people, myself included, have remarked on the film’s play-like quality.
What interested me most about this was taking it out of the theatrical place and putting it on screen. To take this talky thing and explore the details of it. Things you can only see in a close-up. The most important things to me are between the lines— awkward silences, expressions, flashes of anger or of embarrassment—things you would never catch on stage.
How long did it take you to write the script?
The script was quick. It probably took less than a month to write the first draft. But then you continue working on it for, like, a year. It’s just four characters in one location over two days. Morning-afternoon-night, morning-afternoon-night.
True, but still. And dialogue, does that come easily to you also?
It’s generally easy. I think I’m able to write dialogue to a fault. Too much talking. Dialogue’s easy if you know who the people are.
Don’t tout that too loud. Other writers might be envious. How did you tackle the logistics of pulling everything together?
This movie’s all about actors and performances, so I needed to make sure I got the right actors, which I think I did, in the right place at the right time. Then [we needed] someone to give [us] money to make it.
How does one go about doing that?
Beg, borrow, steal? It’s actually the same thing with actors, or getting anybody involved. It has to be the right material and the right person. You can give the same thing to 100 people…
I get it. Filmmaking sounds like dating. So, how did you secure Slattery?
John is the man. John came on just a month before we shot. We’d been talking about him for a while and we thought he was perfect for the role. At that point, we had some other people cast, including Jena, and there was an article, I forget where it was, about the Mad Men hiatus. The title of the article was, like, “Roger Sterling Needs a Job” [sic] or something, and John Slattery was quoted saying, “Hire me.” We looked at the article and were like, “We don’t need much more of a sign than this, do we? It says ‘hire me’ in the paper today. “
I reached out and got [the script] to him. We met up for the first time for, like, a six-hour lunch and afterwards [he] asked me to his house to read through the script. We spent all day reading through the script and talking about it at his house. Then we were buds. It worked out really well. He’s amazing, as you know.
Indeed, I do. So what was shooting like? Retreating upstate…
The cast stayed in this nice hotel around the corner and the rest of us, all the crew, took over this motel for a month. Which was kind of fun.
The sell to the actors was it would be a couple weeks of shooting at this lake house and when you’re not shooting you can be walking around the lake or reading or whatever. Of course, when you get there, it’s a low budget, strenuous shoot where you’re waking people up at four in the morning and walking them through poison ivy and ticks. We shot something like 108 pages in 18 days, which is unheard of. But, they all bought the pitch that it was going to be easygoing.
I imagine it wasn’t the first time they’d encountered surprises of this kind. Any funny stories from on set?
The problem with all those stories is that they’re restricted.
I can’t publicly say, like, “This happened to this famous actor.” Because then there’s a whole pile of stuff to deal with.
I know you’ve got something for me.
I have a good one! Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle are together. We were shooting the movie during the NBA finals and Gabrielle between takes was rushing to her iPad for updates. Unfortunately, the Miami Heat lost the finals and, about 36 hours later, D-Wade was on the set. He came up to hang with Gabrielle.
Aww, that’s so cute.
It is so cute. So, the crew has worked with all sorts of famous people, but when D-Wade showed up, they were unable to contain themselves. Everybody was taking pictures. He’s, like, twice as tall as everyone. I couldn’t get anyone to do any work. Gabrielle had to keep sending him on errands so we could keep focused, because everyone was so enamored with him. “Go pick up some bagels and spend time in town now…”
That is super amusing. Speaking of Gabrielle, was Vicky in the script written as African-American?
I didn’t originally envision the part specifically for a black actress, no. I just thought Gabrielle would be great in the role, and the idea of her opposite John was kind of thrilling. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, but never saw her do a role like this. And, as a side note, I’m tired of seeing cosmopolitan indie films with all white casts.
I can appreciate that. Something else we don’t see a whole lot of, indie or otherwise, is veganism. Why did you make it a prominent theme within this film?
There’s a Manhattan-Brooklyn divide. They’re stereotypes. In a lot of ways, it’s taking archetypes and, instead of entirely subverting them, it’s exploring them, in a hopefully realistic way. So, the vegan thing creates more of a divide between these two generations, in a sense. Gil’s so removed in his own world that he doesn’t even care if there’s a difference [between vegan and vegetarian] or not. There’s, surprisingly, a lot of people like that. It’s about lifestyle choices and defining yourself.
And so much more! Refreshing, though, to see it addressed, however peripherally. So, does the cast actually eat the food that’s in the film? The vegan meal looked good…
Good question. It takes hours and hours and hours to shoot a scene, so they basically had to keep eating. The food for the vegan [meal] was really good, really well catered. They were all psyched. But we were going to be shooting for, like, eight hours, so [I said], “Pace yourselves. When the camera’s not on you, don’t eat. And when the camera’s on you, don’t shovel it in.” The first take, they’re scarfing it down.
[Laughs] I don’t blame them. On the topic of scarfing, a bear pays a visit to the lake house and begins stuffing his face, too. Can you tell me more?
I learned a lot about bears that I didn’t know before. This is how it works with a bear. First of all, these bears have credits. Do you want the bear that rides a tricycle or do you want the one who was on Law & Order? There were only two or three choices in the Northeast. They’re film bears. You want to make a commercial with a bear? You get these guys. You want to make a TV show with a bear? You get these guys. How many bears are on TV? Not many. So, these were the ones. [Ours] was a female bear named Adrienne, who did a great job. Normally what they’ll do is bring two bears that look the same. In this case, it was Adrienne and her daughter. When one gets tired, you just exchange her for the other and no one knows the difference, because she looks like a bear. But, we were a production of limited means, so we couldn’t afford two bears. It’s very expensive. But, they basically starve the bear.
Tricycles was troublesome enough. Now I really don’t like where this is going. Hoping there were no Hobbit-type tragedies…
You don’t starve her all day. You starve her a little bit, because the bear listens when you offer her food. Bears are one of the few animals that are “undomesticatable.” Not only that, but the wranglers wrestle the bear, to get her to do things. It’s really rough. You know tug-of-war with a dog? It’s like that, only it’s about domination. It’s this weird domination game.
You know what black bears want more than anything? Sugar. They’ll start out with fruits to get her to do stuff. Then they’ll give her Captain Crunch and Lucky Charms. Then Skittles or whatever else. Then, top of the sugar chain, soda. It’s got more sugar than anything. Soda is liquid sugar, basically. She’ll do whatever you want.
People shouldn’t even know there’s a bear in the movie. I’m spoiling the whole thing.