Zachary Sluser explores 'The Driftless Area'

ScreenerBlog

For a relatively small film event, the Aruba International Film Festival offers a very eclectic mix of films from the Caribbean; indie features from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America; worthy documentaries; a few genre pics, and plenty of shorts. The Caribbean films often get the best turnouts, from a community eager to see their region reflected on the big screen. And when a star like Tyrese Gibson, Ray Liotta or even someone like Aussie Xavier Samuel from the Twilight series shows up, that’s always a big draw.

Though it can be a struggle to lure Arubans and visiting tourists away from the sun, sea and sand, credit the programmers of this fest with being unafraid to challenge those who do turn up. This may be the island’s only chance to see an acclaimed but highly eccentric film like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, but AIFF is determined to provide it.

That sensibility extended to the fest’s opening-night feature, The Driftless Area, with a screenplay by Tom Drury and director Zachary Sluser, based on Drury’s novel. The title refers to an area of the Midwest (mostly in Wisconsin) noted for its strikingly deep river valleys, but it also evokes a kind of netherworld in which the central characters seem to exist. This uncertain terrain, both physical and metaphysical, is heady material, but the opening-night audience was receptive to the tale’s twists and fractured time scheme.

Anton Yelchin of the Star Trek movies plays Pierre, a young bartender whose encounter with a volatile criminal named Shane (John Hawkes) takes a comically surprising turn that leaves him with a bounty of stolen cash. Then there’s Stella (Zooey Deschanel), a woman who’s been traumatized by a house fire set by the very same Shane; she and Pierre become fast friends when she saves him after he is trapped overnight in an underground cistern. The impressively assembled cast also includes Frank Langella as a mystical recluse, Alia Shawkat as Pierre’s platonic friend, and Aubrey Plaza and Ciarán Hinds as yet more criminals.

Engaging and down-to-earth, Sluser met with me during the fest to discuss the genesis of his first feature. “I was born in Montreal and grew up in Iowa. I was back home one summer and I was in this great local bookstore in Iowa City called Prairie Lights, and they recommended Tom’s first book, The End of Vandalism, a wonderful book. Immediately I picked up on this very spare and deadpan prose. He writes very relatable characters, but there’s also a mood and a fable quality to everything. I connected to his writing right away, and I saw that this book, The Driftless Area, had just come out. When I got back to L.A. I picked it up and it appealed to me on so many different levels, just watching these characters try to control their own fate and whether or not they actually can. And dealing with all these heady themes in a matter-of-fact, dry-humored tone, not pretentious, flowery prose but very spare.”

Sluser was such a fan that “whether naively or innocently, I wrote him an e-mail and he responded. He was on a book tour and we met. I said this is why I think your book would make a great film and I would like to do it. He said let’s keep talking about it, and we wrote the first draft the following summer.”

But before The Driftless Area came together, Sluser and Drury collaborated on a short film adapted from one of his New Yorker short stories, “Path Lights.” “John Hawkes was the lead—that began our collaboration,” Sluser recounts. “We’d wanted him to play Shane in The Driftless Area and he said, ‘Let’s see if we like working together on this first.’ We did, and he really was the rock for me in putting together the rest of the cast. When we had our first meeting with Anton, John came with. It’s really important as a first-time director to have an artist like John who is not only an incredibly talented actor but also a friendly, humble person. If he stands by someone, you feel pretty comfortable as an actor: I can trust this guy.”

Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone and Golden Globe nominee for The Sessions, is someone Sluser says he hopes to collaborate with again and again. “He puts a lot of work into what he does—he’s all business. And when he’s not, he couldn’t be a sweeter guy.”

As for his lead, “Anton has this innocence and intelligence at the same time. He’s perfect for this role. He’s very likeable, someone to empathize with, but he’s not a dummy either. You root for him when things happen to him and he’s struggling onscreen, but he also has this spark and intelligence that you can track and follow… He’s also very well read and he’s seen many, many films. So talking with him about the character and inspirations from other works, be it literature, film or photography, is very easy. He’s a very deep thinker.”

Sluser also clicked with author Drury. “Tom was oddly less attached to the text than I was… I’d be the one saying, ‘We can’t lose this.’ And Tom would say, ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ He said a number of times, ‘I’ve written the book, it exists on the shelf. I’m excited about reimagining the story in a new way’—which I think is really beautiful and a gift to a director, not only to have the author’s support and trust, but his excitement in exploring it in a new medium. He was the perfect partner.”

Asked for his take on the film’s ambiguous melding of reality and cosmic dimensions, Sluser says, “I’m a little hesitant to say specifically what I think, because hopefully what’s great about the film is that the audience is able to find their own way into it and make their own decisions—but it’s definitely very clear to me. We’re playing with characters that are in an in-between space between life and death, and yet they’re still struggling to control what they want and what they think they can affect. That really resonates with me: We want the universe to be structured and have rules to it so we feel safe and OK with how life plays out, but at the same time we’d like to have a say in how it all goes down. So sometimes those two things butt heads.”

The Driftless Area recently landed a U.S. distributor Sluser won’t yet reveal, but he says a theatrical release is planned for early next year. Next up: a screening in the actual driftless area, at the Flyway Film Festival in Wisconsin.