Interview: Writer-Director Cameron Bruce Nelson On the Award-Winning ‘SOME BEASTS’

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17084277176_38f2061fce_bPreston Barta // Features Editor

The most exciting aspect of a film festival may be the chance of uncovering something special. For any film critic or cinephile, there’s nothing quite like finding a film you’ve never heard of but wholeheartedly appreciate right off the bat. That is the case with Cameron Bruce Nelson’s SOME BEASTS, which shared its world premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival and Nashville Film Festival.

In Nelson’s feature debut, we explore the dark and brooding rural life of Southwest Virginia. The story follows the life of a modern-day organic farmer (a terrific Frank Mosley) and his relationships (the equally as great Heather Kafka and Lindsay Burdge), along with the trails and tribulations he faces.

This is a quiet film, where we spend our time observing the day-to-day life of a farmer and realizing how misunderstood the profession is. It’s hard work, and SOME BEASTS does an exceptional job of sharing that with its audience. It’s a scenic exploration of nature and broken people that imbues you to it through its realism.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with writer-director Cameron Bruce Nelson about the film, nature, and Dallas’ growing film scene.

You can also view our interview with star Heather Kafka here.

Heather Kafka (JOE) and Frank Mosley (UPSTREAM COLOR) star in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

Heather Kafka (JOE) and Frank Mosley (UPSTREAM COLOR) star in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

First off, congratulations on HutcH’s cinematography award from the Dallas International Film Festival.

Cameron Bruce Nelson: “Thank you! Thank you. We were so happy to hear about that. We left a message for HutcH when we found out about it. We were in a stairwell at a parking garage, and we were just screaming at his answering machine [Laughs]. It was really wild, but it was fun.

It was so well-deserved. He worked so hard on this movie. He’s also our colorist as well, so he deserves all the credit for the look of this film. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece, and I feel like he outdid himself. So we’re really proud.”

As you should. So well-deserved. Now, I have to tell you, I actually grew up in a town like the one in your film. I believe I mentioned that to Heather as well. So it’s great seeing this kind of movie. Every time I go see my folks, who live in the country, it always puts things in perspective. So shooting in a town like this– what about this town, this (film) business, does it tend to put in perspective for you?

Nelson: “Well, to me, it helps ground me. The reason why I wanted SOME BEASTS to be my first feature is because I wanted it to serve as a reminder of our roots. Some of my best friends, who are the farmers in the film, are there. They all– the whole cast has a lot of integrity as people and as artists. And I just want to maintain that integrity with every new film.

If you’re from a small town, the authenticity of the people, the characters and the place– the emphasis on place and landscape as a character really comes through. I think that was something honest that we could do with this film.

For me, I don’t think it’s ever going to be about the business for me, because I don’t know if I sit well into that environment. I feel like I’ll always be the person sort of on the outskirts, making films where I feel like I can portray a truth or an honesty to the people, or the landscape, or the culture that is involved. I think that comes from my background in cultural anthropology, because when I studied that in school it really opened my eyes to how skewed we are in our own personal worldview. And I feel like so many of today’s problems stem from the fact that we think that we know what’s right and what the answer is. I feel like that’s where cinema can be a beautiful thing, because you can transport your audience into a different worldview. This is what I really wanted to do with SOME BEASTS: I wanted to sort of destroy preconceptions of what people think about small towns and what farm life is.

Not to put any films down, but there are films out there that portray farm life as this ideal escape and simple life. After spending time in the garden with all these people – and you really get all this time to think out there and have all these beautiful conversations with these great people – I didn’t want to do something that was an oversimplification, because I see it all the time. I wanted to add something that really got into the complexities of what it’s like to live out there.”

And I think you accomplished that. I was going to say one of the things that I’ve noticed with your films – even your shorts – is this exploration of nature, misunderstood life, and broken people. You just capture the authenticity of every day people with problems. As a film fan I love when a filmmaker goes down this route and doesn’t go down a route that is more salable, but why as filmmaker do you love making movies about the characters you do?

Nelson: “It’s important to me. We’re so obsessed with celebrity culture. What I think would make a great film is making a movie about a celebrity, where we show all the in between moments in their life. The media always seems to want to create this unrealistic version of perfection, and I think social media does that, too. Social media is condensed to create this perfect image of who we are as people. And I think cinema should be doing the opposite of that. We should be breaking down and actually helping people to realize we’re much more like each other than we all think. And maybe that could do something positive for the world.”

Yeah. Absolutely. Thinking about that, I really like this tone of the film. While I am unfamiliar with the kind of work Sal does, I feel like it kind of shows that life isn’t always flowers and sunsets, as you touched on. It’s kind of a wake-up moment to me. Do you remember any of your wake-up moments?

Nelson: “I think there has been a lot of moments like that in my life. In terms of film, I don’t think I’ve had a lot of wake-up moments, really. There have been times on this path where I had tried to go a different path with this film, but I took a step back and realized that it was all wrong and that it would betraying our subject matter.

The way the film market is set up, they want something they can sell. If you can put a tag on it – like genre, other than drama: thriller, action or something like that – it’s something that will get distributors and industries’ attention, because that’s something that they can sell because it’s a built-in market. But with a film like ours – a quiet drama – it’s more difficult to sell. But with these kind of films, I feel like it’s something special for audiences; it’s something they don’t actually get to see in cinema. It’s more prevalent in European cinema, but there are some pockets in the United States that have art houses and certain labels to help with this.

So yeah, there have been trying moments during the film when we said, ‘Well, OK. Do we want to try and make this film more commercial? How could we do that?’ But in the end, we decided no. This film is really powerful being what it is.”

Good call!

Frank Mosley plays Sal in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

Frank Mosley plays Sal in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

Now, there’s not a whole lot of dialogue in the movie. It’s a great observation film, where you can observe and just sit there and think about your standing. What are some of the major films that have done that for you? Or maybe a film where you walked in and out of a movie feeling like your perspective of life has changed a little bit?

Nelson: CERTIFIED COPY (2010), Abbas Kiarostami’s film; THE PASSENGER (1975), Michelangelo Antonioni’s film with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider; any of Kelly Reichardt’s work – MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), OLD JOY (2006), and WENDY AND LUCY (2008)- and THE TWO GATES OF SLEEP, which is one of my favorite films.

With this film, we wanted to create a visual feast, but at the same time, there’s so much you can say without dialogue. I feel like there are a lot of directors who feel like they need to explain the story to their audiences, but to me, as an audience member, I never really appreciate film like that–“

When you’re spoon-fed everything.

Nelson: “Yeah! I would much rather be invited to the party and come to it on my own terms– that was the film I wanted to make. So, the idea was to not use a lot of exposition– just giving the audience enough of a plot to stay in. A lot of audience members have been telling me about the stories that come out of it and how they’ve related to it personally.”

Wow. That has to be far more gratifying.

Nelson: “It is! When it’s a personal film for me, as a director, hearing these personal stories makes for some really great conversations, but it’s also satisfying to know that I’m not the only one who’s personally connected to this story.

Everybody who has worked on the film has a personal connection. I feel like audience members are also coming into it on their own terms and bringing their own personal stories into it. And I feel like they’re taking out something that I don’t necessarily take out of the film, and that’s great for me. I want this film to be accessible on so many different levels.

I feel like dialogue sometimes, when there’s too much of it, can become expository. I tried to only use it when it was necessary, because I feel like visual storytelling is something that is really strong and can also translate over many languages.”

For sure. I think that’s why DRIVE (2011) is one of my favorite films of all-time.

Nelson: “Such a great movie. Love that film.”

Lindsay Burdge and Frank Mosley star in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

Lindsay Burdge (FRANCES HA) and Frank Mosley star in SOME BEASTS. Photo courtesy of HutcH.

Is it difficult to not include as much dialogue? Because I remember doing films in my film classes where you had to create shorts with no dialogue; it was all based on people’s movement and actions. I feel like after watching your film that you really pulled it off and don’t lose your audience. We were still curious to know how things were going to turn out for Sal, Rene and Anna.

Nelson: “For me, it’s one of those things where you have to have everyone on board. I couldn’t have done it by myself. I had to have a great director of photography, HutcH, who could work with me on what visual language we were going to use to tell the story. Every single shot in that film is so meticulously planned. Of course, there were times when we couldn’t get the shot that we needed, so we would have to plan a different shot. But everything was so thought-out. We had great conversations on what we were trying to visually do with the shot to help tell the story. The question we always asked was, ‘how does this help tell the story?’ We asked that with every shot. ‘What’s claustrophobic about this situation?’ — ‘We’re using his face as a landscape.’ — ‘Is it going to mirror the following shot?’ Things like that. They were all conversations that we had.

And then there were those conversations we had with Lindsay Burdge, Heather Kafka, and Frank Mosley. We had to basically say we’re going to use a lot of small gestures. ‘There’s going to be a lot of subtlety, but so much going on with your face.’ They were very excited about that. It’s something that you don’t really get to do, because a lot of the time it’s ‘deliver the line this way. Now faster. And now slower.’ But in this, we would tell stories and go talk about the psychology of the character, and then let that resonate with them. Then, they would do their work and bring that to set with them.

It wasn’t really me telling them what to do on-set; it was creating this back-story and the psychology to all these characters to where it just showed up on the day we were shooting. It was such a beautiful process, a process that we all got to know each other very well during. It’s part of the reason why we all feel like family now [Laughs]. It was a pretty wild process, but I was blown away by their performances and what they brought to set each day.”

You are from Dallas, and I really feel like we’re beginning to see a big change with the film scene out here. I am so happy to see things evolve and grow. It’s an exciting time to be here. Do you feel the same?

Nelson: “Most definitely. There’s so many great people, organizations, theaters, and collective groups in Dallas. I feel like it’s already happening, especially with Texas Theatre. Their programming is so wonderful.

When filmmakers are in charge of curating, I feel like it will bring really great work to Dallas. When those same filmmakers are staying in Dallas, then there’s going to be great work that comes out of Dallas. One of the biggest problems that we’ve seen is a lot of people will start here but have a tendency to move to Austin, LA, or go to New York. One of the important things for me in the movie was the sense of community, because the people stayed in Virginia. They don’t leave and go to the city. With Dallas, I mean, it is a city, but if we can create that same sort of community here – and if we are all looking to bring in a new sort of film and cinema – then we can curate that. We can create communities for that.

Frank Mosley, Daniel Laabs and I are doing a screening series called Family Movie Night. We recenyly brought in Brandon Colvin’s SABBATICAL, which screened at the New Orleans Film Festival. It’s a quiet film with Robert Longstreet in the lead. It’s such a beautiful film, and Texas Theatre was nice enough to let us screen it there.

It’s the beginning of something. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. It’s a very young movement– everybody is in their twenties and thirties. So, if we can all stick around, I feel like we’ll have a very rich community here. I am very hopeful for it. I plan on sticking around. I know Frank plans to as well. Yeah. I’m very hopeful for Dallas cinema. I’m very happy to be a small part of this community.”

All information on future screenings and/or the release can be found on somebeasts.com.

Feature Photo: SOME BEASTS‘ Courtney Ware (producer), Cameron Bruce Nelson (writer/director), Heather Kafka (talent), Frank Mosley (talent) and HutcH (cinematographer) on the red carpet at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the Dallas Film Society.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.