March 13, 2019
SXSW 2019

'Work with a Director Who Has Vision': The Cast and Directors of 'Them That Follow' Talk Process

How did two first-time writer/directors make a successful festival drama with a stellar cast?

Them That Follow boasts an impressive group of actors, including Olivia Colman, Walton Goggins, Alice Englert, Thomas Mann, and Kaitlyn Dever. The film premiered at Sundance and also had several SXSW screenings. It's a weighty film about religion and the pressures parents place on their children, set against the backdrop of a conservative rural church where snake-handling is the norm.

Lead actors Englert and Mann joined directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage in a discussion about making the film and what they expect from the filmmakers on a set.

The necessity of preparation

For everyone on the film, research (and sometimes dialogue coaching) was important as they entered a world that was not very familiar to most of them. But in the lead-up to the film, the directors said that they didn't spend a lot of time rehearsing. This was a budget and time constraint that they had to make work.

"I think one of the things I'm really proud about is that we did rehearse a few key moments when necessary, but by and large we didn't rehearse," said Savage. "I think what's really incredible is that the performances are one of the things I'm most proud about personally in the film, and you see an immediacy and you see and authenticity of emotion. And in part I think that's because the scenes felt fresh, and they felt new, and they felt lived-in for the first time. You know, as any scene in any human's life is only lived once and for the first time."

"Everyone was so prepared and brought so much more knowledge and wisdom than what was on the page..."

Poulton agreed.

"I felt, even with the actors that came on more recently, there was so much preparation, so many conversations, so many emails and love letters back and forth, that even though we didn't have a lot of on-set rehearsal, everyone came with the same spirit," she said. "Everyone was so prepared and brought so much more knowledge and wisdom than what was on the page, and it brought, as Dan said, that authenticity and I think allowed for an immediacy within the scenes themselves because everyone knew the language and knew the characters."

What attracts strong actors

Both Mann and Englert said it was fascination with the unfamiliar story, while still being able to relate to the characters through a strong script, that drew them to the project.

"I want to say, meeting first-time directors, you never know how it's going to go," Mann said. "You kind of just meet people who are excited to make a movie in general, and don't really know what kind of story they want to tell. I once had a meeting with this director and he's like, 'Oh, I think this kind of movie is gonna go to Cannes.' And I was like, 'No, that's not how it works, buddy, you gotta make the movie first.'"

"Oh, my God," Englert said with a groan. "Never talk like that."

Mann's meeting with Poulton and Savage was much more positive.

"Everything they said was just about story, story and characters, and the script was so finished," Mann said. "Just this beautiful thing, and I couldn't believe it was their first script. It was such a specific story to tell, first go. But yeah, I was so taken with it and them, too."

What do actors need from a director?

Getting the performance you want from an actor is one of the biggest challenges of making a film. So how should you approach it?

Mann said he hates when he feels like a director is testing him or expecting him to provide the answers to a character's behavior.

"I know that I don't like feeling like I'm being quizzed or anything," he said. "You know, the director comes up to you and is like, 'What do you think your character's thinking about in this moment?' And I'm like, 'What? I don't know!' I'm going to just do it, or if there's something specific you want me to think about, then tell me that. But this is getting us nowhere."

"Even if it's a serious movie, I have to have fun or else, it's just torture."

Mann believes that directors should do a lot of the work in casting, and then trust their actors to provide the best performance. He also wants a comfortable set where he can enjoy spending time with the team.

"Even if it's a serious movie," he said, "I have to have fun or else, it's just torture. It can be a lot of hard work."

For Englert, what is important to her is a director's passion.

"I'm going to go wild and say vision," she said. "You need it. And I felt that you guys really felt your story. When you work with a director who has vision? There you go. I mean, it's a lot to ask, but it's what you need. It's definitely what you need to make beautiful movies."

Them That Follow has been acquired by The Orchard and is slated for a June 21 release.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.     

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