If we can say that you find out someone's real character at times of extreme physical or emotional duress, then it would also be fair to say that Rust Creek supplies a test of character for its heroine--without giving any easy answers.

The film is, on one level, a small-scale variation on the Deliverance or Southern Comfort stories: Sawyer (played beautifully here by soon-to-be-eminent Hermione Corfield), an ambitious young college student, has car trouble on her way to a job interview and gets entangled with a group of Kentucky backwoods ne'er-do-anywhere-near-wells. On another plane, though, it's a personal story about a person who is facing a series of challenges, both tangible and intangible; the suspense depends not only on whether or not Sawyer will surpass the challenges but also on how she will surpass them.

The film also features a standout performance from Jay Paulson as Lowell, a meth cooker who takes Sawyer in when she is injured while running from attackers, and whose soul, purposes, motivations and alliances are all mixed, and mixed-up. The visual atmosphere here is simultaneously lush and raw, from the outset of the film onwards, and it does a considerable amount towards deepening and broadening the story taking place within it.

No Film School talked to director Jen McGowan, previously the director of the remarkable Jenny & Cal, not long ago about how the film was constructed: the process, the limitations, and the trip toward the final result. 

No Film School: How did you choose the specific stretch of woods you had in the film?

Jen McGowan: So we shot outside of Louisville, KY, between Thanksgiving and Christmas and then we went back for about a week of pick up, about a month later. It was really important to me that there was a visual progression in the woods we were filming. So, first my DP and I went and scouted extensively to find different areas. There was the area near the creeks. There was the hill that went up from the creek. There was the ridge that the car went over, where she climbs up. And there's the area where she dropped the sock that's kind of covered in green moss. Once we did that, we had to scout it with the whole crew, and then it became a rather tricky puzzle for the first AD. Then it's like, well, where are they all in relation to one another? Which direction do we need to walk in for each of them? Where is the sun coming for each of them?

NFS: Was there a permission process involved in using this particular area, or was it just open land?

McGowan: So, luckily, it was spread across two main properties. One was a private park, and that was done with a permit for production in the park. And the other was a privately owned piece of property, but it was the size of a park. That’s kind of the benefit of shooting in an area like this. You're not shooting in a city like Los Angeles or New York, so you're not dealing with the kinds of places you'd be dealing with there. So we were dealing with one company entity and one individual.

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NFS: How did you build the house with the meth lab, exactly?

McGowan: Well, we had found the location that we wanted. And then we found the trailer that we wanted, and we transported the trailer to the location. The trailer was in horrible shape. So the production designer re-did it for us.

NFS: What drew you to that particular trailer? What were the qualities you were going for?

McGowan:  Well, you know, it was the layout. It was the size. We needed to be able to get our talent and our crew and our camera inside to be able to get the shots we wanted. And as you know, the smaller space you get into, the harder and more confined and restricted that becomes. So finding something big enough that we could afford, that we could transport, made for tricky parameters.

NFS: Well, I was also wondering about the meth lab. The lab itself has a very authentic feel to it. I'm wondering what kind of research went into that particular aspect of the film.

McGowan:  A ton. A ton of research. And I really have to credit my production designer, Candi Guterres, who is amazing. And her art director, Priyanka, who is incredible. They did a fantastic job. We worked with a police officer who works that kind of beat, and after I did a ton of research online, he actually showed us how it's made and what elements go into it.

NFS: It seems that way. It must show up in the script, as well. Somewhat relatedly, there are a lot of parts in the film where the characters are sort of silent, but then there are other parts where they are very quite verbose. The sheriff, in particular, has a very verbal way about him. I'm wondering, how did you work with the actors to get them more comfortable with that sort of aspect of the screenplay?

McGowan: Well, that's an interesting question. You know, I worked with them the same way that I tend to work on everything. I have a certain process that I find works for me, and that is that I do a read through with everyone. And then I meet with every actor individually to discuss character and any concerns they may have or any concerns that I may have. And then if I identify any points where we’re way off base, then I might schedule a meeting, or maybe a rehearsal between the actors that I think may be on different pages, and get them a little bit closer. But, you know, these are all phenomenal professional actors. And I expect that they are going to do their job.

NFS: Exactly. And what's interesting about the movie is that everyone has a different verbal style. It's very, very distinct.

McGowan: Yes. I love that. And I'm really glad you picked up on that because I think they also have very different voices. Which is super helpful.

NFS: The parts where Sawyer is injured are very realistic. Did the actor work with a coach to achieve that?

McGowan: That is something that we definitely worked on to determine exactly what that was, exactly where it was, how it would evolve over time in a very specific way so that it was precise. I mean, I think that's what great performances are about. About making precise decisions and commitments and then executing them fully.

NFS: Even in that case, were there points where you worked through how she walked? Because, you know, you kind of feel it when you're watching it. Was there trial and error involved?

McGowan: Yeah, we worked on the physicality of that and we worked on that in relation to the specific injury and the terrain that she was dealing with. And also, what was happening at the moment. Because you could be in a lot of pain, but if you just got a massive shot of adrenaline, you would behave differently, too.

I make my movies in prep. I preserve shooting for execution and perfecting performances.

NFS: Would you say the script evolved a lot as you were shooting?

McGowan: It didn't evolve as we were shooting. It did evolve a lot in prep. You know, we certainly developed the material from between when I first read the material and when we shot, but then once we were shooting, it was pretty locked. The sequence when she was going through the woods turned out in post different than it was written. It was written more like distinct scenes and we cut it more together, in editing.

NFS: What's the process you use when you’re working with a lot of landscape, as you were here? You probably could do a lot with editing.

McGowan: Absolutely. I love my editor, David Hopper. I've worked with him since film school. And he starts cutting while I'm shooting, which is extremely important to me, particularly in indie film making. Because we're moving so fast, I depend on him tremendously to tell me if things are working or not. If I'm shooting something and maybe I had to cut shots during the day and I need to know, "Did I cut it too close to the bone?" I'll ask him to cut something. Sometimes he'll cut a scene while I'm shooting it. And I'll say, "Did it work? Is it working? Do I need to go back and pick something up or can I move on?" That's extremely important. And then, he does his cut, and I come in, and we start really working through all the material. One thing I really love about the way David works is that he looks through everything. There is stuff in the movie that was there before I called action and after I called cut.

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NFS: How much footage would you say you were pulling from?

McGowan: Well, we shot over 25 days. But it was only 22 days because some of those days were half-days due to weather. So it was a 22-day shoot when it comes down to it.

NFS: How much time for editing was there? How long did that take?

McGowan: I think my director’s cut was at 10 weeks.

The real task of the director is giving each actor what they need in the way that they need to work.

NFS: What lessons do you feel you carried from your first film to this one? What do you feel you built on?

Jen: Well, definitely performances. But also the planning and communication. I mean, that's the key. I am a strong believer in processes dictating products. I like to be incredibly prepared. I make my movies in prep. I preserve shooting for execution and perfecting performances.

NFS: What do you consider the stages in your preparation?

McGowan: I went to scout for 4 days in September. And then my first day on the ground was October 3rd, so I was there for 8 weeks of prep before our first shoot day. 8 weeks on the ground. Before we were shooting.

NFS: What’s going on during that time?

McGowan: Well, during that time, you know, I'm scouting locations. That's working on the shots with the DP. That's doing any local casting. That's doing fittings with the talents. That's when all the production design work is happening. The majority of the casting probably happened before that. All of the work with the heads of the departments is starting to happen, too.

NFS: For the other parts of planning the film, how did you do it? Did you make sketches?

McGowan: Well, it depends. So, absolutely there were head shots for everything. For some things, for example, for anything that involved stunt work or pyro, we had storyboards. And for some of the stuff, you know, I would use little toy figurines to come up with the action.

NFS: You know, some filmmakers like to think of their work as solving problems, figuring out solutions in tricky situations. So tell me, what was a chief challenge or problem you had to solve here?

McGowan: I mean, well, for me, the film was about this young woman who thought she just has to get a job and an apartment to be an adult, but really, she had to take down a whole system. And that's what drew me to this film and that's what sustained me to work on it for a couple of years.

NFS: Is that something you were in dialogue with the actors about, or do you think it was understood?

McGowan: I probably talked to them about it, but really I talked to them about their parts. Overall, that's my responsibility. The other part is theirs.

For me, the film was about this young woman who thought she just has to get a job and an apartment to be an adult, but really, she had to take down a whole system.

NFS: And as far as the development of the backstories of the characters, did the actors do a lot of that in this case?

McGowan: You know, every actor is different. And that, I think is the real task of the director, giving each actor what they need in the way that they need to work. If they don't need that, fine. If they do, cool.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.