Exclusive Interview: NOR’EASTER director Andrew Brotzman
In Andrew Brotzman’s NOR’EASTER, Erik Angstrom (David Call) arrives on a small, New England island to assume his new position as priest of the local church, the indiscretions of his predecessor have left him without many parishioners to serve. Determined to bring the community back into the fold, he undertakes to befriend the Greens, a family suffering the loss of their son who went missing several years prior. In his attempts to bring closure to the Greens, Erik unearths a new mystery that threatens to destroy the tenuous relationship between the family and the church forever.
The film is part of our INDEPENDENT VISIONS COMPETITION presented by Factory 25. (Click here to buy tickets now.)
SFF 2013: What do you feel is the overriding theme in NOR'EASTER?
ANDREW BROTZMAN: NOR'EASTER was inspired by the observation that men and women, not just of faith, can cause problems when they try to do good in the world. When I was first turning NOR'EASTER over in my mind, I was nearly obsessed with the fact that I could be at peace with myself but also create conflict when I tried to create peace in others. I feel that as a matter of course films are stronger when they address the conflicts inherent to who a character is rather than what he does or what he possesses, so I decided to write about a man whose nature was at odds with his job. That led me to a young, naive priest dealing with what I consider to be the most important task of a priest, which is helping others address the questions that surround life and death.
The most freeing discovery in making the film was that once the protagonist and his circumstance had been determined, I could modify literally every other part of the film without changing the nature of the story. Once the priest and his problem had been chosen, NOR'EASTER became a story about insecurity and fear and the nature of faith itself.
Maine in winter, the environment in which we shot, is indeed harsh and isolating. I chose it because it accentuated the priest's loneliness and motivated his decision to bring the family into his fold through whatever means necessary. I am from Maine originally and the location was as important to me as any other element of the production, because I think it's where all my views were made.
SFF 2013: What was the spark that led you to creating this examination of the New England life, family secrets, religion and sexuality?
ANDREW BROTZMAN: Though I haven't read his work in many years, the professor and film critic Ray Carney is a big influence on me. His writing directed me to most of the filmmakers that have inspired me, sure, but his theory is so vitriolic and contrary that I have had it at the front of my thinking for the better part of a decade. I can't shake it.
Most importantly, he calls on his students to include the world in their films. I think of two questions each time I begin a new project -- what do I know and what do I not know about it -- to inform the choices that I make about script, character, location, and tone especially. I picked that up from one of his essays.
I wrote about New England because it is something that I know, and religion because it is something I knew almost nothing about when I began work on the script. I wrote NOR'EASTER largely to learn more about faith and to make my own decisions about what I felt about it. I suppose secrets and sexuality crept in because they are endemic to both, but NOR'EASTER is in no way a critique. It is an honest depiction of what I know and what I learned, and I hope it can be enjoyed by religious and secular audiences, or even people who just want to see a good thriller.
Artistic influences are the novels of Richard Ford, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and the films of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. I know Wyeth is accused of sentimentality but his visions of Maine are the greatest I know. I can't deny them.
SFF 2013: Tell us about the casting process, and in particular, about securing David Call for the film and what you feel he brought as a performer?
ANDREW BROTZMAN: David is a terrific actor and friend. He comes prepared and fearless. Can't ask for much more.
But one thing that made hiring him very easy, besides the skill he'd demonstrated in a film I loved, TWO GATES OF SLEEP, was his deep and passionate knowledge about film history. We were able to reference unique films and directors and share a dialogue about them that made me very confident that we had the same goal on this picture.
It is easy to develop a bit of a glaze when you sit in a small room and see a new actor every ten minutes. The process has a habit of convincing you that no one will ever be right. But thankfully, when that person comes in, you know, because you sit up and take attention immediately. Rachel Brosnahan’s first audition was one of those, and I'm not surprised she's been as well received as she has since she shot NOR'EASTER. She has a presence and flexibility within scenes that is enviable, and takes her work very seriously. The longest scene in the film, incidentally, belongs to her, and she made that day on set hers through preparation and inventiveness. She is the kind of actor I am always looking for: one who makes her own decisions at every single beat.
I can say the same for Emory Cohen, who has a small role in NOR'EASTER but made the most of it in that long scene opposite Rachel. I look forward to seeing what he does in the next couple of years and would love to work with him again.
As for Liam Aiken and Danny Burstein, all I can say is that I love their performances and am forever grateful to our casting director Todd Thaler for bringing them to me. Danny delivered a performance that needs to be seen to be believed, especially if you're familiar with his work on Broadway. His role was without a doubt the one I was most nervous about casting. It demands both aggression and vulnerability. Few could have done what he did in the week that we had him.
SFF 2013: Tell us about your cinematographer’s recent award win:
ANDREW BROTZMAN: Ian Bloom won Best Cinematography at last year's Woodstock Film Festival for his work on NOR'EASTER, and I'm really grateful to Haskell Wexler (who selected the winner) and the WFF for making that possible. Ian worked on our film for over a year in pre-production, planning shots with me in remarkable detail, extensively scouting locations in Maine, and reworking the schedule to take advantage of the time of day whenever possible to improve the light in the film. He gave detailed script notes and even came to casting sessions. I feel he and Veronica Nickel, the producer, are my true collaborators, which is why I share a title card with them both at the front and back of the film.
In short, NOR'EASTER would not be what it is without Ian's labor and his passionate effort to find the best technical crew possible in production and post.
SFF 2013: Who do you feel is the audience for NOR'EASTER? And what do you hope audiences will take from the experience?
ANDREW BROTZMAN: NOR'EASTER is intended for secular and religious audiences alike, for anyone who is interested in watching an urgent, plot-driven film that nevertheless addresses what it's like to seek faith in contemporary times. It's a movie that takes religion, performance, photography, and storytelling seriously all at once and that I hope exists as part of a long line of films that treat the question of God as worthwhile and dramatic and thrilling and beautiful.