David Von Ancken Interview, Seraphim Falls

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Movies Online recently sat down with director David Von Ancken at the Los Angeles Press Day to promote his new film, "Seraphim Falls,” an epic chase-and-escape and taut psychological action film about one man’s unforgiving and relentless pursuit of another set against the breathtaking landscape of the untamed West. The Civil War has ended but Confederate colonel Morsman Carver (Liam Neeson) is on one final mission: to kill Union colonel Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) no matter what it takes. The film is visually stunning thanks to Director of Photography John Toll’s exceptional work.

"I wanted to make a primal, elemental chase film,” says director/writer David Von Ancken. "It had to have authentic and specific action elements to it, but I also wanted it to be an actor and emotionally driven movie. It’s an entertaining chase movie, but it’s also about finding out what’s important and when to let go of things so you don’t destroy yourself.”

Von Acken researched the script for about six months before writing the screenplay with Abby Jaques Everett. To propel the epic chase and primal battle between Carver and Gideon, they needed to have the right catalyst and for that, they set "Seraphim Falls” during the post Civil War period.

"Why would there be a chase? How do you drive something like that? It would have to be an atrocity to compel one man to be so driven by hate in his relentless pursuit against another,” says Von Ancken. "I needed the setting to be a time when the Transcontinental Railroad was being made, when the West was not tamed.” The Civil War period and the Western genre provided the historical background for the film’s story.

"To me, the best Westerns have a mythic nature to them,” he continues. "Anytime you take two men and strip down what drives them to the primal essentials, you have a myth. What we did in this movie was take them into the wild. Once you get into nothingness, you’re left with the person you’re looking at – yourself, and there’s a mythic quality to that.”

"We looked at the Western as American myths,” says co-writer Abby Everett Jaques. ‘Seraphim Falls’ was really inspired by that: the primal, universal power of the landscape and the way it strips away everything but the truth of men’s souls. We wanted to show it as a world where scarcity rules and everything you get costs you something, and where there’s nowhere to hide from your enemies or yourself. David (Von Ancken) and I loved the way this world allowed a kind of searing action that was deeply psychological instead of just gratuitous.”

There is an underlying anti-war theme in "Seraphim Falls” focusing on the destructiveness of war upon the individual. For director Von Ancken, it was on some level a reflection of what’s happening in our present world with the wars we are and have been engaged in, and the futility of such conflicts when you step back and look at them.

"On either side of the conflict in the Civil War or in the war in Iraq for that matter, the individuals who are at play ultimately are not responsible for the reason they’re there. In ‘Seraphim Falls,’ individuals can perpetuate horrible acts on each other whether it’s by circumstance, coincidence or accident and still be good people. It’s really the construct of men – their wills coming together and fighting. And at the end of the day, when you take that away from them, they’re just two people out there who probably could get along.”

"Ultimately, Carver and Gideon are both good men. One is on the North, one is on the South and either could be the other. The only thing that separates them is circumstance. They are both halves of the same individual,” he concludes.

Adding to this, Jaques sees the story of "Seraphim Falls” as one about the persistence of blood. "Our modern world is tragically filled with examples of how shedding blood, no matter how righteously, leads only to more bloodshed. Once the killing starts, it breeds more killing, inexorably. If you succumb to that, you are destroyed. Whether you were in the right to begin with makes no difference. Violence destroys and creates an endless cycle of destruction, and the only way to be free is to break that cycle. As long as you cling to an idea of revenge or retribution you are a prisoner of the past, a captive of the very thing you are trying to avenge.”

In writing the screenplay, Von Ancken and Jaques gave a great deal of thought to the types of actors they envisioned playing the lead roles of Carver and Gideon. The screenplay was sparse on dialogue with the story forwarded through the actions of the actors rather than through words. "There is a soulfulness to certain actors that this script needed because what I was going for in telling the story was essentially little dialogue, stripping away the white noise of conversation. Carver and Gideon are not talkative individuals as characters,” says Von Ancken.

The writer/director found his perfect lead casting in "Seraphim Falls” in the Academy Award nominated actor Liam Neeson as "Carver,” the former Confederate Army Colonel determined to complete one last mission: to hunt down and kill the man he holds responsible for a past atrocity in Seraphim Falls, Georgia that forever changed his life; and Pierce Brosnan as "Gideon,” the former Union Army Captain who is the object of Carver’s unrelenting wrath and pursuit.

The screenplay complete and commitments received from Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, David Flynn and David Von Ancken brought the project to Bruce Davey at Icon Productions for Von Ancken to direct. "I had offers for the script but wanted to direct it myself,” said Von Ancken. "I was offered a lot of money for the screenplay at one point with the proviso that I would not direct. I decided not to take that route. I felt very fortunate that an Oscar winning producer such as Bruce Davey saw the energy we would put behind ‘Seraphim Falls’ to make it both a high impact action movies and one that actually says something.”

Filming of "Seraphim Falls” began in October 2005 shooting almost entirely on locations throughout New Mexico. In addition to the film being a different project for both actors, it also presented some challenges: very physical acting in natural settings and limited dialogue – a challenge that both actors met with remarkable results.

David Von Ancken is a bright and thoughtful guy and we appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about writing and directing his first feature film:

Question: Why is the Civil War the period setting for this film?

David Von Ancken: Well I think when I set out to write it I had a very simple chase story in mind, a very simple allegory about one man chasing another. The Civil War didn’t really become the setting or the Western didn’t really become the setting until after I’d thought of just how to tell a quiet story without the white noise of what’s going on now. Even in the West, how to stay away from towns and most civilization so it was sort of the natural answer to getting away from society and letting the story be told in very quiet, simple terms by these complex actors with complex characters.

Q: So when you were writing it, did you have in mind a parallel to what’s going on in today’s society and war?

DVA: Yes, absolutely. I mean it started as a parable about violence begetting violence and this was 2-1/2 years ago when we were just getting into this war. It’s clearly an anti-war movie yet in the construction of the actual movie, I wasn’t going to beat the audience over the head with it. So taking dialogue away from the guys and letting them tell it behaviorally lets you sort of steep in the themes a little bit slower so you can draw your own conclusions. But clearly it’s about the Civil War which is our most devastating example in this country of what war can do -- and unfortunately, we’re seeing that now --and how it’s almost inevitable that people who go through a war, both citizens and soldiers, aren’t better for it.

Q: How did you decide when to actually show us that back story and was there a point where you weren’t going to reveal the back story at all and just let us …?

DVA: No, I always thought you had to. There’s a certain attachment, at least that I formed, to the characters at some point so you want…and I think as an audience you want to have some facts given to you. I mean Pierce doesn’t say his first word for I believe 26 or 27 minutes. That is a lot in today’s cinema to not have one of your stars speak. So if the audience is with you by the fifth or sixth reel, you really want to give some facts that can give some meat to why this wrath and rage exists.

Q: What would you like an audience to take from this film?

DVA: Whatever they want. I mean I’m just really not going to give it. I think it’s a quiet movie. It’s a simple story like I said so it’s open to interpretation. I have my own, but really the best part is letting other people determine their own.

Q: So are you a fan of Westerns or do you want to use the genre for this specific story because you want to make a commentary about life?

DVA: You know, I grew up watching Westerns in upstate New York at drive-ins. This was influenced I think maybe thematically by the Westerns of the late Sergio Leone, early Clint Eastwood, from "High Plains Drifter” to "Outlaw Josey Wales,” maybe some of those Pollack movies like "Jeremiah Johnson.” Those are movies where your primary actors say very little. Yet to me they emote a lot.

Q: Do you want to use the violence as some sort of metaphor?

DVA: The violence to me is – if it works, especially in a Western because you’re so burdened with the genre -- it has to be necessary for survival. And there’s a very simple, direct, linear story. As you get into the Salt Flats, it may get a little bit more surreal, but what these guys each need emotionally and physically is very simple and that is best told by a Western. The violence… it can be visceral, it can be very surprising, but it is necessary for them to get to the next step.

Q: What was your inspiration for the film’s visual style?

DVA: It’s all in camera. There’s no CG in the movie. You know you could shoot a waterfall sequence where you have a guy going over a waterfall and shoot it at Warner Brothers in a room, but we threw a guy attached to a helicopter over the waterfall and we filmed that. To me, there’s just a slight textual difference still so you feel… Pierce coming up from out of that waterfall is tied to several tethers but that’s Pierce coming up from underneath the waterfall himself. You know, it’s not a stunt guy with a face replacement. So I feel that, you know, there’s still room to do these old in-camera movies. It was kind of an experiment to see if we could get people together. We had John Toll who is the cinematographer who is a very, very talented available light DP. You know, we didn’t light this movie. We were outside for 46 of 47 days with no cover so if it’s turned to rain, we have to turn around and shoot something else. Or I would go back at night and rewrite the script to sort of make sense for the thing we just shot because you were very much at the whim of Mother Nature and she came at us fairly hard. We lucked out overall but there were days when the snow would be snowing and five minutes later it would be missing and then 20 minutes later it would be back. So how do you make that work?

Q: Where did you film the movie?

DVA: We filmed it about 90% in New Mexico -- Taos, Santa Fe, Lordsburg down in the desert. And then for the river, since there aren’t any rivers in New Mexico even though the Rio Grande is wide as this table, we went to Oregon to the McKenzie River in January and hit these record levels of flooding. That was, you know, rather fun.

Q: Did you write with anyone particular in mind? How did you end up with these two leads?

DVA: I never write with anybody in mind because I think it kind of restrains you a little bit from the possibilities and you always want to come to an actor and say ‘Surprise me.’

But I did get very, very specifically the two guys I had thought when we sat down to cast this thing who are your first…, you know, what’s your wish list. It was very, very lucky. Coincidence, I suppose, scheduling, desire on their parts, but it took a little bit of going through the Hollywood machine for me to get each of them into these roles and for the people who are paying for it to agree. But more or less when I approached Liam, he said he’d been waiting for this role for 15 years so that was sort of an instantaneous coming together, and Pierce I think within a day of talking to him he was in, so these guys were very agreeable to the whole thing.

Q: What did you see in those two in particular that made you want them?

DVA: That’s a good question. What I saw in both of them was their ability to come at an audience in a behavioral fashion and say nothing. To me, it was a little more evident in Liam’s role that I’d seen that he’s of the earth. He was a real Antaeus of a man in his characters and he can say a lot without saying any words.

Q: It’s in his eyes.

DVA: Exactly. Both of them in the eyes which is almost a cliché but you do see that. But both of them in their bodies, when they don’t speak, they can get their point across. And that was something I thought… it was a conscious choice when I was writing it to see if we could make a movie in today’s Hollywood where your lead characters say 50 lines in the whole movie.

Q: How tough was that to get someone to buy into?

DVA: From the actors’ perspective, not at all. They loved that stuff. From the producers’ and financiers’ perspective, once they saw the action and saw who we were bringing to the table, it was also I think very agreeable. That’s why it was independently financed. Icon put up all the money and they were very supportive from the very beginning of entirely what I wrote. They didn’t try to change a word. So if I wanted to change something, Bruce Davey was fine. So they were terrifically supportive of a very old school style of filmmaking.

Q: You’ve directed a lot of episodes of a lot of different successful TV series. How did the experience of shooting this film compare to TV?

DVA: Well TV you have 7 to 10 days to create something and you’re moving at a very fast pace. You’re moving through a system that exists. Our system for Seraphim Falls didn’t exist. So I thought mistakenly that I’d have more time to shoot now that I had a feature, the first one I had ever done after having shot dozens of TV shows. You know, you’re moving very, very fast in television to achieve an episode in that limited amount of time. The most surprising thing for me from the perspective of production was that I even had less time to do this on a given day. Primarily because whatever it is, it is, but we went to make an outdoor movie in the fall and winter when you have no light. So we were waking up at four in the morning and the sun was already setting on us. So we had no time to make this. You know there are days in Oregon when we didn’t achieve light until 10:30 and we were done by five after four. That’s a very, very short day in terms of filmmaking.

Q: But you were prepared because of your previous experience working in television?

DVA: You know, I’ll tell you, if I hadn’t done television, this movie would have never been finished. In TV you have to think on your feet, I think, because you’re always thrown different side balls that you have to adapt to. And this was just an exponential version of that because in TV you have producers and you have studio people and you have a whole group think that solves problems. You know the director is solving it on the set but in a movie it’s like a V and you’re at the bottom as a director and a writer. Thankfully, I wrote it because I rewrote this movie as we shot everyday. Every single day there were changes that had to happen.

Q: How did the creative freedom compare because I don’t think you worked as a writer on most of the episodes that you directed on TV?

DVA: No, if you have the respect of your producers, you can suggest changes and a lot of times they’ll go with them but the system is pretty much set. You’re there to moderate, get good performance, and make sure the story is being told in a visual, visceral way that’s interesting. But it’s really not reinventing the wheel. It’s almost antithetical to doing that. You know, if you reinvent the wheel, why go into television because it’s going to surprise your audiences and probably ruin the show. But yeah, every five minutes you’re fielding 30 questions that may or may not have ever occurred to you. And we had such a fantastic crew that the questions were always very well thought out, you know, alarmingly so, and so you have to really keep yourself just a step ahead of them. You know, we had Deb Scott doing a fantastic job with the costumes, we had Michael Hanan (the film’s Production Designer), you know, all these people. I don’t know why they came to me. I didn’t necessarily deserve them having not done a movie but the script spoke to it and when we met, they all expressed enthusiasm and we had a very cohesive group that was able to… each person and department head being really great at what they do and doing it for a lot less money than they normally do and doing it under much more arduous conditions that they normally do so it kind of brought us all together. It was really a pretty invigorating experience.

Q: How did Angelica Huston become involved?

DVA: Well, I called her up and asked her. She came a little later obviously than the two leads. But I was looking for someone… you know, there’s a very short list of people who could pull off this Madame Louise role effectively. And the list becomes even shorter if you want to have someone who has the gravitas and the timelessness of being able to show up in something not necessarily grounded in reality, maybe something grounded in hallucinogenic water deprivation. You know, what’s going on with these guys when they get out to the Salt Flats. So she was one of one or two people that I thought would be great and when she heard it was Pierce and Liam and we showed her the script, you know, she was in. So again there was a kismet to the casting of this thing because very few people that were in the top one or two ever didn’t say yes. So, you know, again it was probably luck.

Q: I imagine you get a lot of questions or comments about that particular character more than any other character in terms of what she actually means. Have you heard any really weird things that you didn’t even think about when you were writing it?

DVA: Well, you know, ‘Is she death?’ I heard that recently. In fact, I heard that earlier today. ‘Is she death?’ ‘Yeah, I guess.’ I mean it goes back to your question. I mean whatever the audience or you personally bring to it. Certainly I wanted her and Wes Studi’s character to be… Wes Studi I called Charon in the script. You may or may not notice he’s sitting in a little stream and that each of the guys crosses that stream and there’s a lot of sort of stuff that you may or may not pick up on and that’s okay. But certainly on the back of her cart, if you see it on a big enough screen, you’ll see it says ‘Madame Louise’s Sefer’ and so you could clue into that a little bit, but you know you probably won’t even see it. And she’s just a snake oil salesman but she’s affecting… You know, to me, you have to be complicit in your own damnation and you have to be complicit in your own salvation and that goes back to some of these underlying war themes that I think are embedded in this story. And you cannot let these guys die after going through so much with them, at least I couldn’t, without learning something. Conversely, you couldn’t let them just walk away. So they have to come to that moment, that crucible which is out in the desert, where they are handed the ability to go either way. Through all this fighting and all this shit they go through, at the end of the day they have to have that ability to make their own decision and she facilitates that. You know, ‘Here’s a bullet for your water. Here’s a gun for your horse.’ So now…and she’s hoping, I think, that they shoot each other and they don’t or maybe they do. I don’t want to ruin the end.

Q: Did you write an alternate ending?

DVA: The very first ending I wrote actually had them both die. That wasn’t one that I showed to anybody because you know… I think the first ending had Pierce’s character shooting Liam’s character and Liam’s character missing Pierce’s character but hitting his canteen. So Liam’s character dies and Pierce’s character lives but he’s going to die of starvation in the end. But that’s just a little too dark.

Q: What do you have coming up next?

DVA: I’m actually writing something now which is again a sort of an under-the-radar thing which I prefer to do. And I’m doing some TV and I’m probably going to do a pilot this year for an ABC show but in terms of features, I’m writing something that is much more akin to ET, you know, without the alien if you can imagine that. It’s kind of a kid’s perspective on growing up and coming into contact with an old man and there’s some magical realism in there and it’s much more of a family picture.

Q: Flying bicycle?

DVA: Not quite. Flying Sopwith Camel, yes.

Q: Where in upstate New York are you from?

DVA: I’m from Pawling. Dutchess County. The place where I watched all these movies was way upstate, a place called Alexandria Bay. Yeah, that’s where I saw all these movies. Ninety miles north.

Q: Thanks very much.

DVA: Thanks guys.

"Seraphim Falls” opens in theaters on January 26th.

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