Born out of sand – interview with James Mann and Brandon Nicholas, the directors of „Desert Son”

We invite you to read an interview with James Mann and Brandon Nicholas, the directors of very intriguing project called DESERT SON.

In this visually arresting and gritty drama, a teenage boy named Phillip is abandoned in the desert by his Step Father. He struggles against the odds for days, surviving just long enough to make his way into an abandoned mining town inhabited by two mysterious orphans, Jack and Lucy. They reluctantly invite the desperate stranger into their broken dystopia. But as a bond forms between Lucy and Phillip, jealousy begins to boil inside of Jack. At his wits end, Jack leads Phillip and Lucy on a long journey back into civilization and on spree of increasingly dangerous crimes. But when things go wrong and the unthinkable happens, the burden of guilt weighs too heavily upon their consciences and the group violently unravels.


Can you tell us about how the whole story was born? What was the genesis of the idea for DESERT SON?

BRANDON NICHOLAS: DESERT SON started as a journey. We went out on a week long excursion in the Mojave Desert to try and find locations that spoke to us. Places with stories that needed to be told. We were shocked to find dozens of homes that people had left completely intact. Cribs, stuffed animals, books, televisions, and photo albums, to name a just few things we found left behind. Why would anyone leave such personal items behind? We were completely mesmerized with these abandoned towns, that they became the spark that started the story we wanted to tell.

The desert, abandoned child, a bit oneiric atmosphere… Were you guys inspired in any way by Nicolas Roeg’s WALKABOUT? I’m asking because that movie immediately came to my mind after I read the synopsis and saw the trailer of DESERT SON.

JAMES MANN: WALKABOUT was one of the films that was recommended to us during preproduction. It is one of the films that we had our actors watch in order to understand just how oppressive a landscape can be made to feel. In Nicholas Roeg’s film, the landscape is such a strong and imposing character and it is that same antagonistic sense that we hoped to imbue upon the landscape in DESERT SON.

Another film that accomplishes the same goal is Gus Van Sant’s GERRY which was a film that we have been big fans of since its release. The landscapes in that film are so vast and so harsh that the desert literally swallows the character’s whole.

Both of these films along with Terry Gilliam’s TIDELAND played a large role towards visually influencing DESERT SON.

Maybe I’m wrong, but the overall atmosphere of DESERT SON seems to me quite nihilistic. I feel that the characters have no future, no perspectives and they are pretty aware of it. Does the movie indeed have such pessimistic feeling?

BN: There is definitely a strange impending doom to the whole movie. There is a constant pressure pushing down on the characters that force some of the choices they make. I expect that when you live life on the edge of a razor for a long enough time, that it does become pretty stressful. The fact that they live in the desert is an element in its own that can drive a person crazy. They’re in one of the harshest environments with nothing for hundreds of miles in all directions. Living in this world doesn’t leave much room for hope.

JM: The film is a bit dark and is rather pessimistic overall. These are always the types of stories that I am drawn towards both in film and literature. It just strikes me as a more realistic and honest world view. Our modern world is not all rainbows and unicorns and it makes sense that some works of art should reflect that fact. In almost everything that I do, I try to find that place where the sweet and beautiful collides with the dark and decaying and that is really the story of DESERT SON.

Is there any specific message you’d like to bring to the audience with DESERT SON?

JM: In its most simple form, the film is about damaged kids and the ways in which they interact with each other and the revenge that they exact on world around them. Obviously this is a case of extremism but in the modern world of divorce, child abuse, abandonment, foster care, runaways and general neglect it is interesting to think about the long term impact of stunted adolescents.

The character of Jack gave us a great opportunity to look at modern society through the eyes of an outsider. Because he has never lived within an “established” society, all of the customs, practices, beliefs and values of the modern civilized world are completely alien to him. And so he has the ability to see right through all sorts of things. Phillip gives Jack a chance to express a lot of his misguided opinions and distorted perspectives. Jack’s views are probably the closest that we got to having a vocalized message in the film. It is fun, enlightening, sad and a little bit scary to see the world as Jack understands it.

BN: I think the lesson you get after watching the movie changes from person to person. The real thing I hope the people are left with, is some sort of strong feeling along the way. Whether it’s a good or a bad feeling, they’re all good to me. I hope people get sick to their stomachs at moments and they can’t help but smile at others. This is the best part of being a filmmaker and the most rewarding. Affecting a person through images, ideas and performances. Taking someone to a place for over an hour and inflicting an emotion upon them.

I was always wondering – how does the cooperation between two directors look like? I assume that things could be easier if the directors are brothers, like Joel and Ethan Coen or brother and sister, like Andy and Larry Wachowski. But what about you… was each of you responsible for different part of the movie or did you work together on every single aspect of DESERT SON?

BN: I’ve been lucky enough to work on over a dozen films (as production designer) that James has shot. It’s been a very successful collaboration from the start and it only felt natural for us to decide to make a film together. Most of the creative responsibilities were split down the middle between the two of us. Since we had this extensive background working together, communication was second nature. We can walk onto set and have a pretty good idea of what the other is thinking.

JM: At the end of the day, every film is a collaboration between a multitude of artists: writers, actors, cinematographers, editors etc… At it’s best you’ve got all of these talented people on the same page making huge contributions towards a common goal. The result of these efforts is a film where the sum is greater than the total of its parts. Collaboration is a beautiful thing and the experience of making this film with Brandon was amazing. The film was a huge undertaking for both of us but it has been and will continue to be a very rewarding achievement and a milestone in both of our lives.

Which artists (writers, directors) inspire you (as the directors) the most? Will any of these influences be noticeable in DESERT SON?

JM: DESERT SON was really inspired by our visual passions and curiosities. Film is a fascinating storytelling medium because it incorporates almost every other art form. Painting, Sculpture, Graphic Design, Fashion, Writing, Music, Photography etc… This film is a total reflection of our tastes and influences. In every frame you can find an element that relates back to the things that Brandon and I are most passionate about.

From cinema, DESERT SON draws upon the rawness and the immediacy of the work Larry Clark (KIDS, BULLY), the profound lyricism of some of Gus Van Sant’s more recent films (GERRY, PARANOID PARK, LAST DAYS).

BN: I’ve always been inspired by the work of Terry Gilliam. We looked at his film TIDELAND as design reference during pre production. There’s a lot of really beautiful decay in that film. His influence always finds it way into anything I work on. I feel like he is constantly pushing the bar, always trying to stay fresh, but in the end its always unmistakably a Gilliam movie.

Can you tell us anything about the approximate date of the premiere of the movie? Are there any plans for the worldwide distribution of DESERT SON?

BN: We are working with Shoreline Entertainment and are currently seeking domestic and international distribution. In the meantime, we are doing the festival circuit. We premiered the film in Los Angeles at the Method Fest on March 29th 2010 to a packed house.

JM: That festival was a great experience. We were nominated for five awards including Best Low Budget Feature, The Audience Award, Best Supporting Actor (Winner Nathan Halliday!), Best Actress and the Marketing/Promotion Award. It was a nice validation for us as well as for our actors whose hard work and incredible talent was recognized alongside some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

And the last question to James – I suppose you’re not the relative of Michael Mann… but what do you think about his movies?

JM: I respect Michael Mann because he was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic champions of digital technology and more specifically Hi Definition Capture. COLLATERAL was a film that made all sorts of people reconsider the validity of shooting a film digitally, He proved a point and made a great film using new technologies.

Steven Soderbergh is another director who has taken new technologies and without apologies has fearlessly integrated them into his work.

Thank you guys for the interview.

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