Nathan Morlando faced many challenges shooting his Terrence Malick-inspired Mean Dreams, but his dedicated cast and crew pulled together a Cannes-worthy film.
Nathan Morlando follows in the footsteps of Badlands with his Cannes 2016 premiere Mean Dreams, a folksy tale of two young lovers on the run. When Casey (Sophie Nélisse, The Book Thief) moves in next door to Jonas (Josh Wiggins), who lives and works on his family's farm, their fates entwine in those twisting and tragic ways that only young love can serve up. In an effort to rescue Casey from her abusive father (a terrifying Bill Paxton), Jonas gets mixed up in more trouble than he bargained for and must flee town with the girl. Together, they confront the stark contrast between good and evil, cloaked under Steve Cosens 's golden-hued cinematography.
"When I read this script, I so emotionally connected with Jonas, because I had a similar situation when I was a younger man," Paxton told No Film School at Cannes. "I wanted to protect her. I wanted to get her away from [her parents]. She was this beautiful thing that was just being marred by her situation."
Later, we got a chance to catch up with Morlando, who revealed that he looked to his very talented and dedicated crew—many of whom paid their own way to the set—for input on some of the film's most challenging scenes and inspiration to "keep building" the movie.
"If you're going to get great performances, you don't want anybody feeling anxious. And that's having a really great first AD who sets the mood."
No Film School: How hard was this film to make, from development to production?
Nathan Morlando: It all happened really fast. I was sent the script last April and we were in pre-production a few weeks later. It had come already with a significant amount of financing. And it was really important for me to shoot this in the fall because I wanted to have the fall landscape as the backdrop; I wanted to have that transformative look to the film, which our characters are undergoing at the ages of 15 and 16. So we had a deadline. We had to move fast, and that was a huge challenge because pre-production was fast and casting was fast. We had no time to be leisurely about anything.
NFS: Were you ever afraid that things weren't going to come together in time?
Morlando: You always have that fear. It's always there. But I reminded myself of a quote that I now keep on my wall: "Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother." You always have that fear. But then at every stage, you build more confidence, and you realize your doubt is wrong because of what just happened. "Oh my god, I've got my two leads, Josh and Sophie." "Oh my god, Bill Paxton just came on board." "Oh my god, Steve Cousins is DP."
So you just keep building, and say to yourself, "It's all happening for a reason and it's all going to keep working out." In those moments of insecurity, in those late nights during post-production, you might think, "We were so lucky with casting, pre-production, production, now it's going to get fucked up in post." But then you wake up and you're working with Ron Sanders, who's David Cronenberg's editor. You say, "Okay, so we're going to make it through the editing stage." And then you get a great mixing team. We were very fortunate to have an awesome crew.
NFS: Of all the things that you had to rush to do in pre-production, what do you think was the most challenging?
Morlando: Location scouting. That was very challenging because we didn't want to just settle on anything. We wanted everything to be really special. This is a journey story. You know, we could have just have had them in a tent and the landscape could have been the same each time, but I wanted every night that they were out in nature to be significant and meaningful. So I would say to the team—the production designer, the cinematographer, the first AD—we need to add another layer of meaning to the landscape. You always want more time location scouting than you have.
NFS: What about during production—what challenges did you face?
Morlando: Reduced hours, because Josh and Sophie are under 18, so our shooting schedule was reduced from 12 hours to eight. And shooting outdoors.
"If you're doing an indie film, you've got to embrace your constraints. If you don't embrace them, you're doomed. "
NFS: How did you condense your vision to make it fit into those eight hours?
Morlando: We couldn't have extra shots. So we went in every day with the idea that the aesthetic had to be minimal. We would keep it tense and restrained. I wanted the abuse restrained, I wanted the sexuality restrained, I wanted all the emotions, everything restrained. So the shooting style would reflect that, and that worked to our advantage because I didn't have time to do multiple angles and multiple takes.
If you're doing an indie film, you've got to embrace your constraints. If you don't embrace them, you're doomed. We just said, "Even if we had $100 million, we'd still want to make the film this way." But I would have loved more hours, and I would have loved more days, just so that there could have been a little more relaxed energy.
But it was a very happy set. That's really important to maintain. If you're going to get great performances, you don't want anybody feeling anxious. And that's having a really great first AD who sets the mood. Secretly, quietly, he was saying to me every morning, "I don't know how we're going to make our day." And yet he's joking, laughing, everyone's laughing, no one's worried. But we knew. You can't waste any time. So when you're setting up the camera, I'm working with the actors. When the camera's ready to go, we're ready to go. You can't wait. And that's great; it keeps everybody focused.
NFS: Did you share your vision with everybody on the crew?
Morlando: Absolutely. And I welcomed responses from everybody. I constantly said, "Hey, what do you guys think of this?" It doesn't mean I was necessarily going to take an opinion, because I might not agree, but I welcomed all feedback. There were some scenes that I had to work out where the grip and electric were there, I said, "I want everyone to respond and be the first audience for this scene." They were a little bit surprised because they're not used to being asked their opinion like that. But then everyone started talking and we figured it out. It was amazing.
Everyone's worked so hard on this. A lot of the crew came here on their own money just to support the whole experience. It was a real amazing family that made this film. They worked so hard under really tough conditions. They weren't paid very much, and they did it from passion and being a great artist. So if the film is any good, it's because everybody who worked was an artist and no one—not one person—treated it as a job.
"The film wasn't finished yet when we submitted to Cannes."
NFS: Did you expect to get into Cannes? What was it like when you did get in?
Morlando: No, that was a total surprise and gift. The film wasn't finished yet when we submitted to Cannes. It was picture-locked but there was no post-production design yet, so they saw temp score, temp color, and temp sound. But we showed it to some people in a theater and the response was really strong. We were hopeful, but then once you submit you don't really give it much thought. And in fact, I got a text from Eduard, the artistic director of Directors' Fortnight, and it had a European cell number on it. And he said he loved the film and was going to call me later. When I first saw it, I didn't read it far enough to see his name and credentials; I just saw European cell number and that someone had seen the film and really liked it. I thought, "Oh my god, someone has downloaded the film in Europe." And so my first reaction was that's it, the film is online.
NFS: Do you have any advice for new directors based on your experience shooting this?
Morlando: The performance and the interpretation of a scene are alive. You've really got to be sensitive to what's happening, and how the actors are interpreting it. Otherwise, you're going in there with preconceived ideas. You have to be always open to challenge and change. Because maybe the actors are going to do something different.
Like that love montage, for example. A lot of that was me watching Josh and Sophie goofing around while we were setting up other things. And then I'd say to Steve, my DP, "We've got to shoot that." So I turn the camera around and say, "Okay, Josh, can you guys just do that again?" They were goofing around doing things, and I just thought, what a beautiful moment. And it's one of my favorite moments in the film. That was inspired by them doing stuff off-camera. You've got to constantly be watching. Because that's the magic, right?