I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
For a generation of Texas film students eager to write and direct their own works, the annual answer to the age-old question has long been the same: head to Austin, the promised land where such filmmakers as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Anderson originated. With its high profile of residents, festivals and the film program at the University of Texas, the city is well-known for its film scene.
However, over the years, a new town has been shaking up the formula. Dallas has recently been edging into the spotlight as a home for new filmmakers reaching great heights in the indie movie circuit. Creative artists such as David Lowery (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS) and Shane Carruth (UPSTREAM COLOR), who many consider to be the two most important filmmakers out of Dallas, made their mark and have gone on to do bigger things.
Now, there is a new Dallas filmmaker on the map– Cameron Bruce Nelson, who wrote and directed one of the more rich and thought provoking films at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. In his feature debut titled SOME BEASTS we explore the rural side of Southwest Virginia, with a story that follows the life of a modern-day organic farmer (Frank Mosley) and the trials and tribulations that he faces. It’s a quiet film in which audiences can study and walk away reflecting one’s own life.
Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with one of the film’s talent, Heather Kafka (JOE, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), who plays Rene in SOME BEASTS. We discussed some of the film’s themes, the course of our future, where and how to raise children in a world overrun with technology, along with some of Kafka’s favorite literature.
SOME BEASTS is a slow burn film. It’s one of those quiet films where after you watch it, it causes you to reflect and think about where you are heading in life. When you first read the script, what kind of effect did it have on you? Do you often carry things from the characters you play into your own life?
Heather Kafka: “You know, when I read it, it sort of had that exact effect on me. I have always been attracted to nature– always have been since a kid. I think I had more opportunity to live amongst nature when I was younger, because of trips I would go on, things associated with school, or camping excursions. And now that I’ve gotten older, to be honest, I don’t have that opportunity as much anymore– even though it feels so much a part of who I am. When my husband and I talk about God or religion, he often points out that nature is kind of my religion. That’s just where I see God. So I immediately felt that in the script, and it felt very personal.
Clearly there is that obvious divide between city people and country people, you know? City people coming in and being scared of bugs and snakes. Austin, where I am from, is a small town that’s now become a city. I am from there but I sort of always had a country connection at heart. It’s in the details, really. A lot of people today don’t seem to have time for details.”
That’s true. I relate to that, because I grew up in a small town in North Texas. It was very much the country, and I loved my childhood. Lately, my wife and I have been discussing whether or not we would want to raise a family here in the city of Dallas. I feel like in the city you’re more prone to use technology because you can’t really walk around outside and take in nature. This film brought that up to me again.
Kafka: “Yeah, that’s something that my husband and I had to think a lot more about than I ever anticipated. I was an only child for eight years, and that’s pretty much what we did: we were bored, went outside, fooled around in the creek, kicked rocks into the creek, or whatever was in our imagination, right? Really the only TV that was on for me was Saturday morning cartoons. But then all the technology advances that started happening; they came in gradually and impressively.
I did play a lot of video games. I would put in my Atari 2600 and I would have playtime. I didn’t sit in my room and play my whole life away; there just wasn’t that much of it yet. I always loved what I got from my exposure to technology at that time. However, now, I feel like you have to proactively limit yourself. I have to strike that balance for my daughter now, because I am not going to be this person who says you’re never going to watch a TV or touch a video game. But also, I’m not going to be like one of those families where you see them in a restaurant on all their individual iPad devices.
To me, when you were growing up, sometimes you would sit there with the grown-ups and you’re bored. And so what? Through that you learn so much– you constantly visually amuse yourself. I don’t think those things develop as much when you put an iPad in your child’s lap. So it is a conscious choice you have to make: to choose nature, to choose boredom, and to choose silence.”
Yeah. I have recognized that a lot of families just go with what’s easy. It’s easy to shove an iPad in your kid’s lap, or turn on the TV in the back of your SUV or what-have-you. I remember as a kid, going on long trips and being very bored in the car. So absolutely. It’s so rare now.
Kafka: “You don’t even have that opportunity to be bored. You don’t get that opportunity to realize what you might do creatively, you know? Maybe after that moment where you’re struggling, feeling uncomfortable and pissed off you write a story or draw something really incredible.
I see that happen with my daughter, and it makes me very happy that I’ve recognized that as she’s growing up. And that you do, too. That’s kind of what’s exciting about that. That’s something that you should hold on to, and recognize that your child’s environment is going to be very different from yours. You have to be conscious and awake enough to make those choices, and a lot of people are losing that. Just because the phone is ringing, it doesn’t mean you have to answer it.”
Yeah, but then it kind of sucks because then your friends or family get pissed off at you because you didn’t.
Kafka: “They get real butthurt about it, Preston. Let’s be honest [Laughs]. Like even my mom will call me and will be upset that I didn’t get back to her right away. I would say, ‘You know, back in the day you would leave a message on my machine and I would call you back.'”
You’re telling me [Laughs]. One of the other things that I really liked about this film is its theme of relationships kind of defining who we are. Sal (played by Frank Mosley) has Rene (your character), Anna (Lindsay Burdge) and those around him on the land. What relationships in your life do you feel best define who you are?
Kafka: “Definitely my friends, family, my husband– What I think is interesting, too, about SOME BEASTS is – and I haven’t thought about it until just now – how related to geography it is, Geography is incredibly defining of who you are and can also be a freedom. You know, it’s kind of the one free choice you can make: to choice where you put yourself and live your life.
In SOME BEASTS, it’s almost like how it can also be a weapon. It didn’t even occur to me that if I had a baby with someone and we didn’t work out that in some way my freedom to move about the world can be limited. That just never occurred to me, and it’s very limited for Rene. So this man (whatever his character is), at his core (whatever his motivations are), he can decide that you can only move so far away. Therefor your life can only advance to whatever evolutionary limit, because I decided to have this kid and you can’t be very far away from me. I think that plays a huge role in destroying Sal and Rene’s relationship.
Not to mention that her geography is so important because the land represents a kind of heaven, an oasis that she’s desperate to get to. But possibly because of where Rene comes from, how she was raised, what her limitations are– it’s very idealized what she thinks of as far as living on the land, till a garden, and do all this dreamy, fun farm-life stuff. Sal is living the real harsh truths of nature, which is there is no sugarcoating the life and death cycle, and it’s going to happen regardless. It can be ugly. As true as a place that can be for Rene and their child to live, it’s also a hard reality for most people, because they don’t realize. They are used to seeing pictures of happy cows on milk cartons and not realizing what that takes. Doing that stuff is very painstaking, time consuming, and laborious. I think it’s a bit too idealized for Rene in that regard.”
Well put. You mentioned the harsh realities of Sal’s surroundings. I can’t help but think about perspectives of the film industry. I think about my perspective and it’s very much from the outside. But because you’re a part of it, what are some of the harsh realities of the film business? What do most people not know about it?
Kafka: “Probably just how unfortunately orchestrated everything is. Maybe for myself, when I was growing up, there was that moment where the video camera was created and oh my God dad brought one home. It still had to be plugged into the wall, you couldn’t walk around with it, and you could only go so far– but you wanted to make a movie. Something so pure and innocent that you were able to catch cinematically– I feel like that’s something that we’re always aiming to achieve. We are trying to capture that lightning in a bottle again and again. Is that magic? That magic happens in fits and starts, little moments while you’re filming or moments along the way– the people you talk to.
For me, the end of it all is kind of disheartening, because it is a business. It’s really rare that something really good just happens to be really successful. Somewhere in there they have to manipulate and tweak and put it into a box that appeals to mass people. They have to fit it in some sort of genre or describe it a certain way, and that sort of two-dimensionalizes the experience that you could have.
I have also realized that it’s difficult to get people to sit in a theater and watch a movie that has no stars in it, or they don’t feel like watching that kind of story that day. It’s just money at the end of it, always. You know, somebody is always a little too heavy on the salt. It always ends up coming in and you have to dance with it regardless. Some people do it better than others. Some people are able to maintain their core and follow their gut. The business is constantly trying to mold you and change you to be more successful for money reasons, and that’s a struggle for people who are more connected to it artistically. We value product over human beings who make mistakes and do creative and fantastic things. It’s always go, go, go and produce, produce, produce.”
Wow. Yeah. That makes sense. I know you mentioned to me before you write, but you also do photography as well. Is that correct?
Kafka: “Yes! I do.”
When you’re reading the script or in production, do your own ideas as a writer or photographer ever intrude on the projects that you work on?
Kafka: “I may have opinions on the day about the way we are going to shoot something, but it’s not usually from the eye, cinematically. It’s usually from what we are trying to say– the person, the character, and how I’m going to move about the space.
As for the writing– you know, it’s funny. I never really thought about this until just now either– all of my writing, if I go through an experience or I have a feeling, sometimes I am moved to write. It’s sort of this waterfall of words, like a tightly composed essay or poetry opposed to fiction. I don’t create characters and stories, so I never felt like my own ideas intruded on the projects I worked on. I think my experiences as an actor leads me to be more critical of writing with regard to dialogue. I can really feel the difference of what’s written dialogue or how a person would really say it. Sometimes I will fight for that, where we still express the same thing but use different words.”
Since Fresh Fiction is all about books, do you have a favorite novel?
Kafka: “Well, my husband is a writer and a painter. We have a bunch of books. We will always have a library of sorts in our house. Books can be this physical manifestation of history, and within them is the time that you spent there. I feel the same about CDs and records, too. I don’t think I will ever be one of those people who goes all digital. I like having that physical representation that I can hold in my hands and see with my eyes.
Having said that, one of the things that I noticed is I haven’t read a book in a while. Part of that is reading scripts and working a lot. When I see someone reading a book in park or whatever, it strikes me as an act of defiance. It’s really rare. Sure, there are a million other things in this world that I should be doing, could be doing, but I am choosing to read this book. I am going to get lost in this world. It’s just going to be me and whoever wrote these words on these pages. It’s like an act of rebellion, and that excites me.
Books have always depended on where I am in my life. I remember a period of my life in my 20s where you’re trying to figure yourself out, so things of a spiritual nature were more appealing to me. There was THE WISDOM OF INSECURITY; it was a book that really effected me. There’s this other book that I am blanking on, but I keep it and keep going back to it at times.
When I met my husband, he ushered in a lot of books that I hadn’t experience yet– a lot of literary fiction, Paul Auster, and Jack Kerouac. Then I got into a lot of books with really good stories, like Paul Auster’s books. But now I am really wanting to read a good, fictitious story and not a screenplay [Laughs].”
SOME BEASTS premiered last Friday at DIFF, but there’s another screening tomorrow (4/15) at 9:45 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center located in Dallas. All ticket and screening information can be found on diff2015.dallasfilm.org.
Feature Photo: Heather Kafka and Frank Mosely play Rene and Sal in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of Hutch.