Whistler Film Festival 2018 Interview: WALDEN LIFE IN THE WOODS director Alex Harvey

“This narrative feature film takes Henry Thoreau’s book WALDEN and refracts it through three contemporary stories that show people in different stages of cutting themselves free from attachments.  Each narrative corresponds to one of the three lenses Thoreau used to look at modern life: Solitude, Friendship and Society. The film asks questions about taking part or opting out, and what it feels like to do either. Who it hurts and who it helps when you push against the thing that’s expected of you.” Director Alex Harvey on WALDEN LIFE IN THE WOODS which screens at the 2018 edition of the Whistler Film Festival.

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to the wonder that is Whistler Film Festival! So is this your first time here and are you planning to attend your show?

Yes! This is our first screening at Whistler and actually our Canadian premiere. The film uses the Rocky Mountains as a metaphor for what Thoreau called the borderlands; space where people are stuck between wilderness and civilization, and we are always excited to play the film for audiences who live near wild landscapes. It is ultimately an exploration of the human psyche that walks a tightrope between nature and human nature. Whistler is the perfect Canadian premiere for us.

When was the moment you said to yourself “I want to get into the movie business” and what have you worked on in the past?

I directed theatre all over the world for several decades before stepping behind a camera. I had been a cinephile since my early years but always felt more called to live events. I also have a background as a professional musician. It was about 8 years ago when a number of film-savvy friends convinced me that the musicality and contrapuntal rhythm of my theatre work would translate well to film and the rhythm of film editing. I was intrigued and started spending time on film sets and creating music videos and short films. Shortly after that I was a directing apprentice on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and shortly after that a theatre production of mine was greenlit to be shot as a feature length doc/narrative hybrid film. That was my first experience helming a large scale film production. And the shoe fit like a glove ever since. My most recent project is a silent film in the style of the 1920’s two-reelers starring the world renowned clown, Bill Irwin. Film combines my passion for actors, rhythm, image-making and the psychophysics of time dilation in a way that no other medium could.

So how did WALDEN come together for you?

WALDEN was eight years in the making. It began with a conversation between me and the animator-composer Laura Goldhamer. I wanted to tell a story about living in between wilderness and civilization and I wanted to use Laura’s stop-motion animation and music to do it. I was struck by the way in which Laura transforms one object so many times in a mere 90 seconds. It reminded me of the way in which Thoreau’s writing transforms one single image in so many ways in just three pages with a kind of psychedelic fervor. So the idea of creating a kind of WALDEN remix emerged. Screenwriter Adam Chanzit and I hung the narrative of the film on Thoreau’s quote: “I HAD THREE CHAIRS IN MY CABIN , ONE FOR SOLITUDE ONE FOR FRIENDSHIP AND ONE FOR SOCIETY.” We spent several years outlining the three storylines Society, Friendship and Solitude. We shot a test reel in 2013 before even writing a script to see how the elements would blend. By 2015 we began gathering a production and investment team around the film. We were fully financed by spring of 2016. Shot it in 31 days over seven weeks in the late summer of 2016. Edited and posted in 2017. We’ve been touring it in 2018 and are distributing 2019. The days do get shorter, but only because so many have been used up already!

What keeps you going while making a movie? What is your drive?

Filmmaking is a collective venture. And when a film is truly expressing itself in the process of its creation the sense of having a separate self falls away. I would say the adrenalized oneness of a team making a film is an addictive experience. Probably similar to combat zones, or ERs. Nothing makes you feel more like yourself than losing your self in a devoted team on a clock. I think a desire for that dissolving of ego, of being a part of something that has no real owner , becomes a driving addiction in filmmaking. That and the way in which the whole process slows down time and speeds up time. That is also an addictive tickle that drives people through the stressful slog of doing this.

So if you were to pick one moment that you would consider the biggest challenge of making the movie, along with the “a-ha, we GOT it” moment, what would each of those be?

Midway through production we were scheduled to shoot a climactic night exterior featuring a handmade rustic cabin on an island in the middle of a remote alpine lake and a shattering decision taken by one of the lead characters. The big day came: the cabin was built and readied on the island , the crew was scattered about the remote location preparing , the dusk was settling, the HMIs were patched in across the lake, and suddenly the strangest thing happened;  a dense fog settled over the landscape. This might not be strange for the Scottish highlands but this was the Colorado Rockies which is the driest mountain range in the US. Fog is a very rare occurrence here. Weeks before, when the cinematographer and I were designing our lighting, we assumed it would be a normal night at this altitude. But suddenly this dense mist settled in which is so unusual for this area. To create a moonlight effect in fog required a completely different equipment order, and there was no way to reschedule this day so suddenly we had to reconfigure our lighting and the look of the whole scene. I thought it was going to be a disaster as the image emerged completely different then we planned: instead of a cloudless mountain night with a incandescent suggestion of the moon setting the tone – it was a dense eerie fog refracting moonlight everywhere- wild and surreal. As we watched the scene play out on the monitor in this new setting it suddenly hit me that the image had the feeling of a fairytale. This was for all of us a revelation about the film. The idea of fairytale stayed with us the rest of the production, influenced many of the decisions we made later and in edit and eventually became the promotional tagline for the title “a fairytale of quiet desperation.” All thanks to the the unplanned accident of an atmospheric abnormality.

Could we get technical for a second? For my tech-savvy and filmmaking readers, I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.

The film was shot digitally on the Arri Amira with Panavision Vintage primes. The three storylines are shot and lit in three different modalities each favoring a particular approach. Most importantly, I would say, is the use of two different aspect ratios in this film. The nature scenes were shot in a widescreen 2.40:1 and the urban scenes are framed in more conventional 1.85:1. The film moves between these two ratios and landscapes throughout, emphasizing the different psychic experiences in the wilderness of the mountains vs. the wilderness of civilization.

After your WFF screening, where is the movie going to go next? Theatrical? Online? Any dream screenings or exact theatre in mind?

We are in negotiations with several distributors and plan to share the film with the world at large in early 2019 in all formats. In the meantime we love bringing the film to festivals where it continues to meet the audiences it was created for.

We do have a lot of people out there looking to be inspired and work in the industry in one way or another. What is a piece of advice that you would give to anyone looking to get into the motion picture business?

Exhaustively investigate the difference between times when you are reacting in a surprised manner because something or someone expects it of you, versus times when you are genuinely surprised. Get intimate with genuine surprise. And hang your story including vision, production, casting and conversation on that. Otherwise it’s all a xerox of a xerox of a xerox.

And finally, what is the single greatest movie you have ever seen?

Tarkovsky’s MIRROR or Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER. I refuse to choose between the two!


This is one of the many movies playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For more showtime information and on the festival itself, point your browser to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com!

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