IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Matt Sobel (Take Me to the River)

Matt Sobel Take Me to the River

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema and this month’s spotlighted artist saw his debut film premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (NEXT section in ’15). Starring Logan Miller, Josh Hamilton, Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff and the youngest player in this non picnic event in Ursula Parker, according to Nicholas Bell, the micro-budgeted Take Me to the River (March 18th -Film Movement) is “sure to make you squirm thanks to a reservoir of debauched sexuality lurking underneath the thin veneer of respectable propriety, Sobel culls a handful of startlingly realistic performances from a fine cast.” With indiewood dialing in (he is tapped by Focus Features to adapt Scorpio Rises), this March we feature: Matt Sobel. Here is our profile and make sure to check out Matt’s Top Ten Films of All Time (as of March ’16).

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Matt Sobel: Jurassic Park. This was the end all be all for me at 7 years-old. On every Halloween for many years afterward my family and I would put on a Jurassic Park themed haunted house. Many kids in dinosaur costumes, a full size paper mache T-Rex head, it was wild.

Lavallee: During your formative years, what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Sobel: Mulholland Drive: Probably my introduction to surrealism. This was the film I emulated most during high school. Cache: The suicide scene made me rethink everything. It touched a nerve I didn’t realize I had. Stalker: I think the films that stick with us are the ones we can’t quickly digest. This film, which adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, still fascinates me.

Lavallee: Your body of work also includes shorts X to Y (‘09) and Oyster (‘12). At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Sobel: I realize this sounds incredibly cliché, but I honestly don’t remember when the idea occurred to me, because I can’t really remember a time in my life where I didn’t want to make movies. I would guess it happened somewhere between E.T. and Jurassic Park, so I would have been 5 or 6. I was an only child and so always quite into plotting performances to put on for my parents or family friends. Film just seemed like the most complex and powerful way to keep doing that.

Lavallee: You’ve built a film that makes the filmgoer an active participant and a text that pivots between different prisms and POVs. In terms of the screenplay, what was the one sequence that you “wrestled” with during the writing process.
Sobel: The most challenging thing to script was far and away the reveal of the mother’s backstory. I had purposefully tied my hands by making the film exclusively Ryder’s POV, ruling out flashbacks or private moments with the mother. I’d also envisioned her as someone who’d rather die than tell you honestly what’s going on inside her head, so I knew the truth had to come out against her will. Strangely, the simplest idea was the hardest to see: her brother would wait until the family was gathered around the table again and spill the ugly truth out in front of everyone. I wrote dozens of different version of this moment before arriving at the idea that stuck.

Lavallee: Logan Miller plays your teenage protagonist. Prior to casting him, what specific ideas did you have for the physical nature and look of the character?
Sobel: Here’s his character description from the script: RYDER, 17 and lanky, eyes that appear to perpetually brood. He’s a boy on the threshold of adulthood with the unshakable feeling he has something to prove. But what exactly and to whom, he isn’t quite sure.

Lavallee: The film mostly takes place in exterior settings. What ideas did you draw from in terms of the look of the film and how did it contribute to the tone of the portrait?
Sobel: I wanted the film to feel uncanny, meaning simultaneously familiar and strange. The combination of these mixed signals makes us quite uncomfortable. So I had this idea that as the story got stranger, and people’s behavior became more insidious, the visual style should do the opposite. It should become warmer, friendlier, and like a child’s coloring book. We looked for essentialized and flattened compositions, and primary colors. We tried to avoid placing things in shadow to make them creepier. Things that are terrifying in broad daylight are truly unsettling.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your editor…
Sobel: Negative space is something Jacob Shulsinger (our editor) and I spoke about extensively throughout the cutting process. The idea was to find the perfect balance between the said and unsaid. Often we would edit scenes by removing all the dialogue and then adding lines back one at a time until we felt the audience had just enough information to fill in the blank spaces. A maxim we developed I developed was, ‘Every line a character says is one the audience can’t come to on their own.’

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your cinematographer…
Sobel: I’ll never be able to thank Scotty Stanton (our DP) enough for the disasters he saved me and our film from. He was an actor before stepping behind the camera, and so in addition to watching for framing and lighting during each take, he had my back when it came to making sure performances were spot on. He was so passionate about the story and the landscape we were shooting in. In many of his vistas I could feel him really soaking up the atmosphere of the place, which is exactly what we needed.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your lead actress…
Sobel: When I first met Robin Weigert (our lead actress) she told me over skype that I was close to having a really good script, but that she had a few notes. This note session blossomed into a six month long collaboration on character backstory and thematic meaning. In addition to being a wonderful actress, Robin is one of the most intelligent humans I’ve met. Working with her demanded I become the best director I could be.

Film Movement releases Take Me to the River in theatres on March 18th.

Eric Lavallée is the founder, editor-in-chief and film critic at IONCINEMA.com (founded in 2000). Eric splits his time between his home base in Montreal, NYC, and is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Talk to Her), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardennes (La Promesse), Haneke (Caché), Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times), Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Lynch (Mulholland Dr.), Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), von Trier (Breaking the Waves)