“U.S. Border agent Angel Waters comes across what would normally be a routine illegal crossing, but It quickly devolves into his worst nightmare. Barely clinging to life, the immigrant utters, “El Paso, por favor”. In a tragic twist of fate the immigrant is killed while being held at a remote border outpost. Under the cover of darkness, Angel and his two fellow agents bury the body deep in the desert in an unmarked grave. Days later Angel is called back to the river where he finds the same migrant at the river’s edge. The man calmly utters the same bone chillingly request, “El Paso, por favor”. In a world divided, Angel will soon learn that divisions only run so deep.” Filmmaker Lance Larson on DEADLAND which screens at the SxSW Film & TV Festival.
Welcome to SxSW 2023! Are you attending your screenings in person?
Yes, I will be attending both screenings. I attended Film School at the University of Texas at Austin so it’s a dream come true to attend the SXSW World Premiere at the Paramount Theater in Austin on March 13th and the Spotlight Screening at Austin Film Society on March 14th. This is my first time to attend SXSW as a Filmmaker. Can’t wait!
How did this whole project come together?
The inspiration for this story came from my father. He was dying from liver cancer and I wanted to tell a father/son story as a tribute to the wonderful man and father he is. A few weeks later I read an article about a Hispanic 1st generation U.S. Border Agent. I was floored by the duality this man carries with him on the job having been brought into this world by undocumented immigrants. The quote that sticks with me is, “I carry my badge in one hand and my heart in the other”. That’s a character worth writing about. After a healthy amount of research Jas Shelton (co-writer) and I decided to create a story focusing on connection as the central theme. We explored everything from physical and metaphysical borders, always asking the question “Is everything connected”? In exploring the physical aspect of the story we took a hard look at the border between the United States and Mexico; the relationships between families that exist on both sides and what the border means to them. The stories were heartbreaking and at that point there was no turning back. We had to tell this story. The research helped us lean into the idea of building a story about connection between a 1st generation U.S. Border Agent, Angel Waters, and his estranged undocumented father, Ignacio Coronado. In an effort to reinforce the theme we dropped a handful of easter eggs into the story. These metaphors symbolize the relationships of the characters (both Mexican and American) through an ancient coin, a song, day, night, life, death and a poetic mantra about the inseparable connection between the roots and the branches that reverberate through the lineage of Angel’s family tree. Although this film does not a have a religious angle, we liked what The Holy Trinity could offer the story. The metaphor helped us map out the connection of the characters. Ignacio is represented as The Father, Angel represents The Son and the Stranger represents The Holy Ghost. All three characters are separate in their own right, but equally joined as one at the same time. Everything in this film points to the theme of connection. Love and time cannot be contained. They stretch beyond both physical and metaphysical borders.
While working on a project, what is your creative process? Do you have any particular ritual or tradition when working on something?
The initial start to every project is the same. I usually have a spark of an idea or intention to tell a certain story that inevitably changes when I start researching the subject matter I plan to write about. From there I try to get in sync with the flow of the project. When writing there always comes a point when I need to stop for the day. It’s usually when the writing starts to feel in-authentic. That’s when I walk away and don’t return until I find the authenticity that was missing. Then it’s full steam ahead!
If you had one favourite moment out of this entire project, the “Yes, this is IT” moment, what would that be?
I have a lot of favorite moments in this film, but the “Yes, this is it moment” is Angel’s confrontation with his father, Ignacio, outside the house at night. In the heat of the argument Ignacio says, “I saw you praying in the desert. I was there”. Spooked, Angel backs away from Ignacio wondering how his father could know such a deep dark secret without actually being in the desert with him. Before writing this film, I learned that a good number of hospice care patients experience a phenomenon known as ‘visioning’. This usually occurs in the final days before the patient passes on. Their souls are able to leave the body and go see loved ones. When the patients are lucid they can describe seeing relatives in great detail that live far away. They can describe events/moments that happened in recent days in great detail as if they were there. These are events (big or small) that the patient should NOT be aware of, but somehow are. I find that fascinating! In the film Deadland, the co-writer, Jas Shelton, and I took some creative liberties with this phenomenon. The Stranger’s character is the embodiment or physical form of Ignacio’s consciousness when he is visioning/traveling to see his son while out in the field on border patrol duty. So Ignacio is experiencing ‘visioning’ through the eyes of the Stranger. That’s how Ignacio has learned Angel’s deepest, darkest secret, praying for the deceased Stranger in the Desert. It’s a fantastic/jarring moment in the film.
I love to get technical, so I would love to know about the visual design of the movie from the cameras you used and the formats and your relation to the cinematographer.
When the director of photography is also the co-writer of the script that connection is going to translate to film. Jas Shelton really wanted the texture of the film to be as palpable as the terrain on the border. Big Bend is rough country and Jas wanted to accent that by shooting this picture on 16mm. The grain in 16mm has such a great organic texture. It sort of became a character in the film. Jas took it another step and ordered Eastern European anamorphic lenses that gave off these beautiful amber flares. It’s those kind of thoughtful touches that make him an exceptional cinematographer. Most lenses give blue flares which wasn’t a great fit for the desert environment. But those amber flares really connected to the natural colors of the landscape with lots of red/ brown sand and rock. I also have to give a shoutout to Panavision for taking the time to build an attachment so that the Eastern European lenses could fit on the 16mm camera body. If that wasn’t enough, Jas had the idea of shooting the dream sequences skip bleach to help separate those moments from the rest of the film. Those sequences are some of the most beautiful photography in the film. It’s easy for me to trust Jas because we’ve been shooting together for almost 30 years. I love his approach, it’s always story and character first. He thinks like a director and that’s why we get along so well. To say Jas Shelton is an incredible cinematographer an understatement because he’s a filmmaker through and through.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your project at SxSW 2023?
The audience. Sitting in a packed theater is an energetic experience that I cannot get at home. It’s nerve-racking, exciting and instant gratification. I love it! It’s a rush to feel that energy when audience, scream, laugh and cry!
Where is this going next? More festivals or a theatrical or streaming release?
Team Deadland is just trying to drink in the moment of SXSW. It’s so HUGE that we are focusing on just being present in this moment.
How do you feel about the current moviegoing climate? Are you wishing more people to see movies in theatres, or is it okay to opt for a streaming release where more people could potentially see a movie?
Every filmmaker wants a captive audience and movie theaters provide that experience. Having said that, I wish the answer could be that simple, but it’s not. Until audiences prove that they want to leave the comfort of their homes to see something other than Marvel or any James Cameron movie then streaming or VOD is really where independent film lives at the moment.
What is the one thing that you would say to someone who is looking to get into movies, even now in such a changing world?
The world/landscape is constantly changing so I don’t think of that as a deterrent. I think every business faces change to varying degrees all the time. If you truly love movies and filmmaking and I mean love it in your bones… love it like there is no plan B… love it to the point that you start to believe you’re delusional… Then you should run toward it with reckless abandon because this business IS for you! If you don’t love it like that then you should do something else because you’re not willing to give up years of your life for the perfect frame.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival and why?
Rather than talk about the best film I’ve seen at a film festival I prefer to champion my favorite film. In 1995 I saw FUNNY BONES and it blew my mind. The cast is phenomenal with Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Leslie Caron and Jerry Lewis. It’s about the dark side of comedy. There’s literally a murder on stage. It’s starts off really silly in a British humor kind of way, but there is this slow hard boiled drama simmering underneath all the laughs. When the backstory unveils itself, its nothing less than soul crushing. There’s a moment with Jerry Lewis when he tells his son, Oliver Platt, that there are two kinds of comedians; “One that tells funny and other is funny… they have funny bones”. Then Jerry Lewis looks at Oliver Platt and says, “And this kills me the most, but you’re neither. You’re not funny. They will never stand up and clap for you.” It’s a brutal scene to watch. The acting is superb! It has so much heart. It’s a perfect film.
This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 10-19. For more information point your browser to www.sxsw.com!