'It Can Be a Rocky Road': 'Cortez' Filmmakers on How to Write, Act, and Direct as a Team
In 'Cortez,' a musician wanders back into an old flame's life after 10 years, completely unprepared for what happens next.
Creative pursuits take us down many different roads, and as someone who was drawn into New Mexico ten years ago, I can say with certainty that the Land of Enchantment has earned its moniker when it comes to pulling in artists of all kinds.
The narrative feature Cortez, written by Cheryl Nichols & Arron Shiver and directed by Nichols, explores the aftermath of a relationship between a musician and an artist that was forged in New Mexico, at the point when their paths unexpectedly cross again. Nichols and Shiver also star in the film—Nichols as the artist, Anne, and Shiver as the musician, Jesse.
Cortez premiered at Slamdance 2017, and NFS had the opportunity to talk to the filmmakers about collaborating on every aspect of the film, what inspired them to make their film, the small town in New Mexico that played such a crucial role in the film and real life, and how their own relationship found its way into their work.
No Film School: As a New Mexican filmmaker, it's great to talk to filmmakers who are making films in New Mexico.
Arron Shiver: I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and then I moved to Ute Park, New Mexico, when I was nine. Ute Park was a tiny little town. There was probably like 40 people there. Then our house burned down randomly within a couple of months of moving in, so we moved to Taos, [New Mexico], because it was the nearest place with a grocery store. We ended up in this beautiful, amazing, artistic community where I have roots for the rest of my life just by happenstance. Cortez is basically born of me being from Taos in a certain way.
NFS: Cortez is named after a fictional town in northern New Mexico, and I was wondering if you could tell us about the importance of setting your story there and how the location influences the film and the story?
Shiver: The town is definitely a character in the story. We always meant to tell the story that way. [Our fictional town] Cortez is the double for Taos. Taos has always been a crossroads. It was a trading center in the Old West. Spiritual seekers have ended up in Taos forever. So it's a place that people come to find something or to meet other people or to make a change in their life, and that's very much what Cortez is about.
"Just the light alone is worth shooting in Taos because it's so unique."
NFS: It had been quite a while since anyone had actually shot a film based in Taos, despite the fact that we've had a lot of production over the decades in New Mexico.
Cheryl Nichols: Yeah, it's weird because one of our producers, Carl Lucas, is from Roswell, New Mexico, and he had said, "Well, let's shoot [in Roswell] because I have some connections and stuff." I was like, "No, dear. We have to shoot it in Taos." It was really important. It's uniquely beautiful, and the light there is crazy. Just the light alone is worth shooting in Taos because it's so unique because [the elevation] is so high. It's just crazy, the sunsets are bright pink. New Mexico is a unique place, but Taos in particular is so beautiful.
Also, the idea was that this woman has retreated with her mother into this tiny mountain town, a place [where] you could hide, and that's definitely what this place was. I used to drive from California to Texas to visit my parents, and my friend says, "You need to go through Taos."
So I'd been going to Taos for eight or nine years, never met Arron, and he lived there the whole time. He was an actor in New Mexico, but I never met him. I met him in L.A., actually, eight years later. That was another reason we decided to set it there because the story we were telling was the story of going and finding someone, ending up with the life that you didn't know that you were going to have, and that's kind of what happened with Arron and me because chances are we met a few times before, but never knew we were meant to really meet each other.
NFS: What about this story in particular compelled you to make this film now?
Shiver: I think Cheryl and I knew that we wanted to work together because we had a great connection when we first met. I had a lot of respect for her as an actor, and I decided to ask her to work on something [together]. We didn't quite know what it was. That was four years ago now.
We just sat together and told each other the story of our lives. As those stories were unfolding, it [became] clear what was important to us at that time, and what still is important to us, [which are] the themes that we wanted to talk about, such as love, romantic love, and for me, being a father and what that actually means, how to be a man in this world, and what it means to truly be responsible.
So we came up with this story about these two people who had had a wild youth and then had a violent separation, and then what would happen if he went and found her ten years later in the middle of a dark night of the soul, for lack of a better term, and how would that unfold?
Nichols: For me, something that was really important to us when we were writing was we kept going back to what the truth of the story was. When Arron and I write together, the movies that we love and the movies that we want to make are movies that are grounded and truthful, honest pieces, where the acting and the writing are coming from an honest, truthful place. The things that we talked about a lot were movies like Paris, Texas, Tender Mercies, and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and the play Fool for Love.
"We tried to do as many things as we possibly could to make the story honest and real and connected because, from my perspective, that's how I want to tell stories."
Also, Arron is a father. The kid who plays Arron's kid in the movie is actually Arron's kid. So we tried to do as many things as we possibly could to make the story honest and real and connected because, from my perspective, that's how I want to tell stories. That's how I want to sit with an audience. As an audience member, I want to go see something that I can really dig into. That's the other part of why we told this particular story in the way that we told it.
NFS: As partners in real life and co-writers on the script, what was the writing process like for this film?
Nichols: It's funny because Arron and I are very different writers. We would meet three times a week and just sit there and tell each other stories. We started outlining, and then once we outlined, we would just sort of pass it back and forth. In the meantime, we were starting to fall in love and we were starting to travel together. We went to Taos to be with Jackson, Arron's son, who is the kid in the movie, and we would write on the road. Arron would type in the passenger seat and I would dictate while driving, and then we would switch off.
Arron is the kind of writer who will write nothing for six months and then he'll sit down and write like a burning bush. The dinner scene in the movie is something that Arron wrote in three hours and we never changed a single word. It just came out and we never changed it.
What I tend to do is over-edit [and be very] analytical, "I've-got-references-for-everything-from-4,000-movies." I've got a very specific way of writing that takes me forever. When we pass things back and forth, Arron will just bang something out and then it will take me a week to work on one scene. So sometimes it can be pretty maddening for both of us, actually. It took us about a year and a half to get the script to a place where we felt like it was good. Even then, we were still editing on set.
NFS: Did you work on separate pieces of the script, then pass it back and forth to bring the script together as a whole?
Shiver: We didn't work on separate pieces and pass them back and forth that much honestly. I feel like it was one of those things where we would talk for an hour or so, and then it would be like, "All right. I think I got a good handle on this. Let me take a whack at it." The dinner scene went like that and all of a sudden, we had 30 pages of the script over one afternoon. But then it took a year to get some of those beginning sequences that are just little bits in a motel room between my character and Eric, for instance, which took a little more finessing.
NFS: Let's talk about the dinner scene. You've got two characters who are happy to have Jesse there for dinner, and you've got two others who are really wary about what's about to happen. Arron, How did you want to structure the scene to make it work in the film?
Shiver: First of all, it was meant to be even longer and more tortuous. We originally had a concept for it to go on and on and on. Somebody described [the scene] as an emotional horror film, and I've just adopted the phrase. We've all had that awkward dinner with somebody who has had too much to drink that is part of our family and we're all sitting there going, "Wow. Where is this going to go? This is pretty uncomfortable." I've certainly had those dinners in my life.
I've never heard anybody describe it the way you did where there's two characters that are really happy to have Jesse there, and there's two characters that are very wary about what could happen, but I love that innate tension in the script where two people have a completely different idea of what's going on than the other two people who are sitting here. And there's Jesse who is the catalyst bouncing between the two energies. Yeah, I totally intended that, and that's great that you picked up on that.
"When it came to editing the scene, I just took that feeling of whipping, and I just beat that into the scene."
NFS: Cheryl, shooting a dinner table scene with five distinct characters, while it may seem simple, is an absolute bear on set to cover. Talk about what your strategies were for achieving such a natural feel in the final edit while still getting all of that coverage.
Nichols: The scene has some pretty great actors in it. It has Judith Ivey, who's a two-time Tony Award-winning actor. Arron and Drago Sumonja went to Cal Arts and studied acting together. And then we have Jackson, Arron's actual kid, and me. So it was a pretty solid group of actors, and I knew we would have a lot of range. I would be able to let that go if we just played the scene out. I worked with Kelly Moore, the DP, on how we wanted to cover it, and we originally wanted to cover it in one shot. Then right before we shot it, we were like, "Screw it, let's do dinner-table coverage."
We did the whole scene through, top to bottom, 15 times. It was really, really grueling, but what happened was, it started to get that feeling of everybody being so tired, Jesse just whipping [Anne verbally]. When it came to editing the scene, I just took that feeling of whipping, and I just beat that into the scene.
NFS: Cheryl, directing your first feature in and of itself is a daunting task and you've also cast yourself in a lead role. What were some of your strategies on set for juggling the responsibilities as a director, a lead actress, and a co-writer?
Nichols: Cassidy Freeman was there. She's my friend and she produced the movie. She and Arron, depending on if I was in the scene and depending on who was playing opposite me in the scene, would be on the monitor acting as a surrogate director.
We had also done a lot of prep before the shoot. I had a crazy book with storyboards and our color palette. Everybody was on the same page before we even got on set about what the movie was going to look like, smell like, feel like.
And Kelly, our DP, and I speak the same language. So it was easy for me to tell him what I wanted, to get feedback from him, and then to trust when I stepped on set that I was in good hands. We were very prepared by the time we got there. Still, shit went crazy, you know, like it always does.
NFS: Since you guys are partners in real life, I imagine you never actually walk away from the work. In terms of making this film, what was that like? Was that something that you thought worked well for you, being immersed in the project 24/7?
Shiver: Man, it can be a rocky road. I think anything worth doing is going to have some trials and tribulations. Certainly trying to have a healthy relationship with good communication while also producing and acting in a movie together while one of you is directing it, I mean, that is kind of a recipe for insanity.
"I would go into traffic to protect Cheryl's art, and I know she would do the same thing for me."
Cheryl and I might butt heads, but we always come back to the fact that we really just respect each other as artists at the end of the day. I would go into traffic to protect Cheryl's art, and I know she would do the same thing for me. That backbone of trust allows us to take risks where we might not working with a person that we don't know as intimately.
Nichols: I don't mean this in an abusive way, but Arron and I are good about taking what's going on with us, working it out in an artistic way and being able to express it. That's kind of what he's talking about with taking risks. We can be pretty transparent with each other. We always have been even when we didn't know each other that well.
So it's kind of a blessing and a curse, but the blessing of it is that when we show up to set, we are able to do some really cool work because we can be brave with each other, and I think that's pretty special.
NFS: Arron, what was it like working with your son Jackson as your son in the film?
Shiver: You know what's funny? I did not want Jackson to be in the movie. I really didn't. I just thought, "I don't want people to say he just cast his son." That was the first thing. So we made Jackson audition, and then we made him attend a callback, and then we made sure that it was something that he wanted to do. He decided he could use the money to buy a PlayStation, that was the final thing that pushed him over the edge [laughs].
On our second day, I showed up and we had to shoot the scene where [Jesse and his son] get lost in the forest. I was trying to be his dad and trying to be the producer of the movie and trying to play this character all in the same moment, and I thought, "You know what? I've got to trust that there's a whole community of people looking out to make sure Jackson doesn't step on a pine cone or whatever, and so I've got to just be his co-worker and not be his dad." Once I got over that little hump and started just working with him as an actor, it was a complete pleasure.
He was way better than everybody. He was off book before anybody else. He was pretty much nailing it in one take because he didn't want to do more than one take. He was so good, it was like, "This guy's a pro. We all just need to be on this level."
I don't know if he'll grow up and be an actor, but he naturally understands how to be himself in front of the camera in a way that is actually quite inspiring. Even Judith Ivey was like, "This kid is so real. There's nothing he's doing that's not believable," which is kind of amazing for a 12-year-old. So he was a real joy to work with once I got over trying to parent him through the process.
NFS: What was your biggest challenge when making Cortez, and what lessons did you learn from that challenge that you could pass along to other filmmakers?
Shiver: My biggest challenge was being the producer and the actor. There were many times where I was concerned about the schedule and about whether we were going to get all of our stuff on the day, while at the same time, having to play the character and do that service, so that was the biggest challenge for me.
The thing that I learned was I could really trust my crew. I could trust our DP and I could trust Cheryl. For example, going back to the dinner scene, we only shot that one scene that day, but we only spent about three or four hours shooting. The rest of the day was setting up lights, and we had to do that, but it was driving me crazy as an actor waiting around for it to get going, and then thinking about all the time it's going to take to cover all this stuff.
Then Cheryl came to me and said, "Once we get these lights set, we're going to be okay." And sure enough, we went and it didn't stop for four hours. So that was a great lesson for me. Hire people you can trust and let them do their job. Trust them to do their job.
"I want to do everything right. I want to be the good girl. Now I'm learning how to be the bad girl."
Nichols: For me, this is not the first film that I've made or produced. It's the first film that I've directed, and my challenge is that I get caught up with everybody else's opinion of me and of what I'm doing, and I take too much advice.
So on this film, I decided that whatever I was going to do creatively was not going to have anything to do with anybody else's opinion and that I wasn't going to listen to naysaying. If somebody felt like something was going to be hard or they felt we're not going to get money or whatever, I was going to jump and trust that the net would appear.
Fortunately, we worked with my best friend, Cassidy, and she is one of the most positive people I've ever met in my life, so I had some support in doing that. That's been a hard, hard lesson for me to learn because I want to do it right. I want to do everything right. I want to be the good girl. Now I'm learning how to be the bad girl.