By Danny Peary/Photo of Tom Gilroy by Danny Peary; Photo of Lili Taylor by Brad Balfour
The Cold Lands fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Tom Gilroy’s (pictured, left) second feature, which he wrote and directed, opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center, and there is nothing else like it in the city. In the film’s production notes Gilroy (who has acted in numerous films) says he admires “people who live ‘off the grid,” and that these people on the margins and off the map are “rarely shown clearly and concretely…I wanted to make a film that was a snapshot of America right now, and wrote it to take place in the town where I live in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. I looked around me and the story emerged from the places and some of the people I see all the time.” Here’s the brief synopsis of Gilroy’s story in the production notes: “When his fiercely self-reliant mother [Nicole, played by Lili Taylor] dies unexpectedly, eleven-year-old Atticus [newcomer Silas Yelich] is wary of the authorities and flees deep into the forests of his Catskills home. His sheltered off-the-grid childhood is over, and a new life on the move has begun. As Atticus wanders the woods in a daze, relying on whatever food and shelter he can find, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. [He has conversations with his dead mother, he pets a white deer.] When he encounters Carter [Peter Scanavino], a scruffy, pot-smoking drifter who lives out of his car and sells necklaces [he makes himself] at music festivals, Atticus latches on. The two form a wary alliance, and their dependence upon each other grows, neither is quite sure he is making the right decision [to stay together].” On Monday in Manhattan, I had this conversation with Gilroy about his movie. Following it is a very brief conversation I had with Lili Taylor, one of my favorites.
Danny Peary: I read that in the production notes that you and Lili Taylor have known each other a long time.
Tom Gilroy: Lili, Michael Imperioli, and I formed a theater company together in New York City about twenty years ago. There were many actors from that company who are in The Cold Lands–John Ventimiglia, Nick Sandow, Andrew van Dusen, and Maggie Low. I guess the last thing we did was Hamlet in 2000. Lili played Ophelia, Jared Harris played Hamlet, and his dad, Richard Harris, played the ghost. Before and after, for a year, we did Hamlet, I was making my first film, Spring Forward, and since then I have been content to do only film work.
DP: It’s been a long time between features.
TG: Not for the lack of trying. Paul Mezey, who produced The Cold Lands [with Andrew Goldman] and Maria Full of Grace and Beasts of the Southern Wild, and I were trying to get a movie going on a daily basis after Spring Forward. I wrote several scripts and they were sent to various places and optioned and set-up to begin shooting, only to fall apart.
DP: But you got this one made. How long did this take?
TG: I started working on this one almost a year before we shot it.
DP: Did you know the title while you were writing the script, or did the material dictate that you call it The Cold Lands?
TG: I was already writing it. Originally I was going to call it something like Run Away Split, a beekeeping term. Lili and I live within half an hour of each other in upstate New York, and right before you turn off to her exit, there’s a rest stop. It’s just a place where you can pee in the woods, make a phone call, and stretch your legs. There’s a blue sign there that you can see in the film following the end credits. It’s one of these signs you see all over New York and the Northeast; it’s yellow and blue and states the historical information about the region. And what it explains is that this area was called “The Cold Lands” in the 1600s. If you lived in the city, you referred to upstate as “The Cold Lands,” and often it was considered a place where people would disappear. If you got into some trouble down here–maybe you got somebody pregnant or the police was looking for you–your family would say, “Oh, he’s gone up to “The Cold Lands.’”
DP: I think your story could have been set in the 17th Century before there was colonization, or the 1800s and it could have been a Western, with Atticus and Carter riding horses on trails through the woods rather than riding in a car on paved roads.
TG: That’s part of what we were trying to get at. We wanted it to be contemporary, but also be contextualized so it could have taken place 100 or 200 years ago. A log cabin without electricity could be in any century. The drifter who makes necklaces could just as easily have been a tinker. That was all deliberate, because I wanted to dig a little into the on-going American mythology of pioneers. That’s why in the opening scene Nicole teaches her son Atticus about the Anti-Rent War that took place up there in the 1700s.
DP: Do people know about it there?
TG: In my time they do. All over Rensselaerville, where I shot the movie, there are signs that say this battle took place there. Nicole takes her kid to the actual place.
DP: Are you from there?
TG: I grew up in Richfield, Connecticut, which is where I shot Spring Forward, but I live in Brooklyn and been living in Rensselaerville.
DP: In the movie, we hear that the missing Atticus is from Richfield. Did you mean Richfield Springs, New York?
TG: Actually it takes place in Rensselaerville but I called it Richfield in the movie, like the town in Connecticut. I don’t even know why.
DP: You talk about this film being meditative and transcendental. I’m sure that’s what you wanted because much of it is set in the woods, and Atticus communes with nature. No doubt that was important to you when making this film.
TG: Not only important to me but important to American culture. If you look at the transcendentalists like Thoreau, Walden, Emerson, and the Hudson Valley painters, there’s a culture very rich in nature and spiritualism in the Northeast. I really wanted this film to resonate with American themes. And from a filmmaking standpoint–as films become more and more digitally shot, or everything is handheld and looks like it was made in two days–I wanted to film something that looked a little slower, a little more meditative, and a little more like art.
DP: With the illusions Atticus has of his dead mother and other unusual images in the woods, are you using alienation techniques so viewers will say, “This isn’t real, it’s a movie!” or do you want us to see it as real?
TG: It’s supposed to be real, but real can look like a Judd Apatow movie, too. This is real the way that I see the world, and because the kid’s a dreamy kid, there’s a dreamy aspect to it. This was all consciously done on my part. It’s certainly real in that much of what we see is happening and what Atticus sees he believes is real. I don’t know if he actually sees a white deer, but he believes he does. It’s all deliberately presented in a way that allows you to project what you want onto it.
DP: Do you relate to this boy? Is this boy somebody you could have been under similar circumstances?
TG: I think in many ways, a lot of men could have been this boy. Part of this story is a young boy trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in. On a larger scale, I was interested in seeing the boy as a metaphor for the United States. We have come from this pioneer history, and if you look at what’s going on in the United States, in a lot of ways it seems to be dissolving. States want to secede from the Union, people don’t want to pay taxes, we don’t want to have public schools, we don’t want to have unemployment, we don’t want to have social services…So who’s going to walk through all the rubble after it collapses? It’s going to be a young boy or a young girl, and that person is America. Make your own decision about what you want to happen to them while they walk through the rubble, but in general, that’s what the movie deals with metaphorically.
DP: I know you admire Nicole because she has such good intentions and does teach Atticus about the world, her good values, and how to be self-reliant, but is she 100% a good mother?
TG: Is there such a thing as 100% a good mother? That’s the real question. I’m certainly not interested in presenting her or anyone else as an ideal.
DP: Is Atticus prepared for the world without her? Or, if she didn’t die, would he have had a good upbringing through his teenage years?
TG: Either. He was having a good upbringing and that would have continued. On his own, he’s a creative, trusting, intuitive, industrious, self-reliant, smart child. And that’s a lot more than you can say about a lot of kids, you know? One thing’s for sure–he’s not going to spend three hours a day watching VH1. Instead, he’s going to be swimming or imagining or building beehives, or learning how to make necklaces, and all that’s pretty damn good.
DP: I thought it was important that you have him go to a party, because otherwise we’d think he was lonely and completely isolated because of his upbringing.
TG: Oh, absolutely, it’s also why I have him play the trombone. He’s in the town orchestra. His mother also mentions that he goes swimming at the lake in the summer, which is what a lot of the kids do in my town. That’s where kids who are home-schooled meet the kids who attend school, and all the kids get to know each other as they swim and dive and play and hang out.
DP: If Nicole had money and could afford lights all the time, would they still have what she calls “Pioneer Night?” Or is she just trying to make a good thing out of a bad thing?
TG: It’s both. She’s definitely, like all mothers, trying really hard to making the most out of their circumstances. When we used to go on road trips, my mother would create games for us, like counting how many red or blue or white cars go by. Those games were fun and didn’t cost a penny. Nicole’s clearly a smart woman who she chooses that they live the way they do. It’s not I’m poor, I have to live this way. She has taken a very extreme stance about how she wants to live in a modern society. People may disagree with the organic food or the lack of electricity, but underneath all that is the idea that she stands for something really important with which to imbue her child.
DP: They receive food from Maggie [Maggie Low], the social worker and church lady. Including meatloaf. I was surprised they eat meat.
TG: They don’t. Well, he can eat meat if he wants. Actually, now that I think about it, Nicole does eat meat, too. That was Lili’s decision. She didn’t think we should make it hippy-dippy because plenty of people up there will eat any food that you give them, and why not meat? It’s like in Beasts of the Southern Wild–we’re all meat. She definitely believes that. And that meatloaf was free.
DP: From what we see of Maggie, I’d think she could be overbearing but she is a nice person. So why is Nicole so defiant around her?
TG: Nicole’s problem with Maggie is that she’s terrified that she is going to take away Atticus because of the way they live.
DP: Even if Nicole’s still alive?
TG: Yep. Nicole is a person who lives off-the-grid and home-schools her kid, and is very suspicious of consumer culture and mainstream culture. Then there’s this other woman, a wonderful woman who works for the Health Department—whose part was much larger in the original script—who has concerns about Nicole. She reads Maggie as being an interference and a threat. She could show up at the house and say, “This is an unfit home and I’m taking the child.” That would terrify a lot of people. She wants to raise her kid with her own values.
DP: I wasn’t sure if Nicole realizes that she might die at any minute from her diabetes.
TG: I think she knows that she’s ill but doesn’t imagine that happening. What typically happens when women of that age have diabetes is they have two heart attacks. They have heart disease, which often is not detected until they have a small heart attack. Even then they might confuse it with mismanagement of their sugar intake. Nicole doesn’t have healthcare so can’t seek medical advice. The second heart attack kills her.
DP: Was there a father figure in the past?
TG: No. He’s not around, and I didn’t want a father that to be an element of the story. I wanted there to be many ways one can read into it, including how Nicole ended up alone with the boy. He’s clearly her biological kid, but I don’t really think her biological father is germane to the story. What matters is that she’s independent and the kid has nobody but her.
DP: I think it is germane that there is no father figure because when Carter appears, Atticus gravitates toward him so easily. I’m sure he sees Carter as a father figure or a older-brother figure.
TG: Right, but I don’t think any of that has any bearing on who the actual father was. It’s the absence of the father that’s key to Atticus’s seeking out and feeling natural with Carter. He’s hungry for a natural kind of bond.
DP: The illusion of Nicole disappears at the exact moment that Carter appears. Is that intentional?
TG: Yes, she’s supplanted by Carter.
DP: And she has a smile, right?
TG: Yeah. Well, she’s accepting. She realizes that she’s going away at a time her kid keeps rebelling so this is her last chance to get it right. When she sees Carter, she is thinking I have to go away, I’ve done my job and I have to resign myself to letting this happen. On the heels of that, Atticus meets Carter.
DP: You could have made Carter a female and a new mother or older-sister figure, but it’s important the new character is a man, right?
TG: Yeah. It was just intuitive to make Carter a male and a little bit more of an outlaw. It never would have dawned on me to make him a female.
DP: It is, I think, instinctive on your part. There has been an absence of a male figure in Atticus’s life so you want to see how he interacts with a male.
TG: Carter came out of my love for The Hardy Boys and books like that. A young boy sees a guy like Carter and he seems like such a cool ideal. Atticus thinks, “Wow, this guy’s got all the freedom you could possibly want.” Of course, that’s not true and because Atticus showed up he’s going to relinquish that freedom he does have to take on the new responsibility. You’ve got this adult guy saying, “I’ve got to give up my freedom to take care of this kid,” and the kid thinking, “This guy’s really free so I’m going to hang out with him.”
DP: Is Carter good for Atticus, and is Atticus good for Carter?
TG: Outside of any kind of consideration of the law, they are good for each other.
DP: Well, the law would probably assume that Carter’s not taking care of an underage boy but abducting him.
TG: Right. Spiritually, Atticus is absolutely a great thing for Carter. As for what Carter is to Atticus, as the writer I deliberately set up their relationship to reveal the biases of the person watching the movie. I personally think Carter is awesome. I have a couple of nephews, young men in my life, and I try to be their Carter, in some ways. From some strict moralistic or ethical mainstream perspective, Carter’s a disaster. He smokes pot, curses all the time, lives out of his car, lives hand-to-mouth. And now he is a fugitive because he has this boy in his car. If you are upset by all these things, what do you suggest Carter do? Should he turn Atticus into a crumbling social system? Or should we be optimistic and–this is coming out of an American tradition of rebelliousness–believe that the kismet of these two people meeting is actually a positive thing? My dad believes the former should be done, I believe the latter.
DP: The real great part is, of course, that Carter’s gay.
TG: I’m making a point for sure. The gender identification of either adult, Nicole and Carter, is open to interpretation. If you notice, Carter’s very flirtatious to the woman that buys the necklace from him.
DP: But that’s his way of selling a necklace. He’s a sweet guy. He forgets her and goes swimming naked with guys right after that.
TG: The nudity aspect has more to do with his just being a wild man. But I’m fine with people reading that he’s gay, that doesn’t make any difference to me.
DP: Well, I think it’s very important. I think it’s brave that you put thirteen-year-old Atticus sleeping next to the naked Carter and there’s nothing to worry about. Some conservative viewers would expect sexual molestation to take place every time.
TG: Right. The kid has no choice but to sleep next to him. Once that evening transpires and nothing has happened, there’s a real bond there. It was a real test, and nothing happened. Then of course you see Carter twelve hours later and he’s nude with these other guys and taking Ecstasy and you go, “Oh, he’s kind of a nudist.”
DP: Well, I didn’t think that. I thought he was just gay and I thought that was a great thing because you’re making the point gay men can be trusted around boys.
TG: Thanks. That’s all deliberate. Peter Scanavino has a really great, non-threatening, non-traditional masculinity. He really nailed the character. He’s attractive to men and women. I have gay and straight friends who’ve seen the movie and just go, “Wow, this guy’s a babe.” He’s not macho or aggressive, yet he’s very masculine, and obviously smart and creative. All that was really important to me.
DP: Could you see Liev Schreiber’s ex-con in Spring Forward going off with Atticus?
TG: I think that character would be a little bit more wary of his influence on a boy. He is so insecure. He might think he isn’t equipped to help Atticus and try to find someone else to help him. Carter makes the decision to help. When he’s in the laundromat and looking at Atticus, he just goes, “Okay, I’ll do it.” It’s deliberately ambivalent at that point, you don’t know what he’s really thinking, but for me, he makes a firm decision, thinking “I gotta do this. I can’t continue to be completely wild. Fate has dropped this kid into my lap and I’ve got to deal with it. Whether it’s a stray dog or an orphan kid, I’ve got to do it.”
DP: We’re watching the movie and we’re waiting for the kid to break down and weep.
TG: He does a little bit at the very end.
DP: But that’s the first time he’s really laughing…
TG: It comes out of crying. He trusted Carter and he thinks Carter left him behind. When Carter returns he stops crying and laughs.
DP: But what about not crying after his mother’s death?
TG: Well, I talked to several people who lost their parents as young kids, including my girlfriend who lost her mom when she was five, and none of them cried. They cried when there were adults and thought back about it. At the time, they thought about what they should do but they didn’t really know what the deaths meant. How do you define what forever is to a 12-year-old? It’s just something that happens to Atticus and then he’s thinking about surviving and then he’s thinking that he wants to be with Carter. When he thinks Carter leaves him and he believes all his doubts about Carter were true, he cries. Then Carter comes back and makes him laugh. “Yeah, I am a dick.”
DP: That’s brotherly.
TG: Of course.
DP: Talk about the ending. Roads are always metaphors in movies. It’s either open-ended and anything can happen or a dead end is on the other side of the hill.
TG: First of all, the road movie is a traditional American genre. All good endings are really just the beginning of the next part of the story.
DP: I’m waiting for the police in the next part of the story.
TG: The police are part of it.
DP: Carter’s decision could to get them both into a lot of trouble…or not.
TG: There have been plenty of bad cases, where somebody abducts a boy for 30 years. But I think this is a pretty good circumstance. Carter’s going to have to send the kid to school, lie about a birth certificate and a lot more, and pretend he’s the father. There’s not certain disaster right around the corner, at least in my way of looking at it. I’m certain Rush Limbaugh could watch it and say this is a disaster! He’d think it’s going to be like that ad they had going around on the Internet that shows if you skip school you’re going to step on a land mine on a beach and blow up. But I see this as a positive, spiritual coming together, like Huck and Jim or Kerouac and Moriarty.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: In terms of writing, you seem to like two-character scenes.
TG: I don’t know why other than my training was in theater, and that tends to have two-person scenes most of the time. They’re the easiest form of conflict. Spring Forward had two people in every scene, and there would be the intrusion of a third character. That’s just instinct I guess on my part. My next movie will be about a group of women, so there will be lots of scenes with multiple characters.
DP: Talk about Silas Yelich. When you go into acting like he did, you expect a lot of talking, but Atticus is a quiet kid.
TG: Silas is my neighbor. For a year before we made the movie, he came to my house every two weeks for a couple of hours, and we would do acting exercises and improv. I taught him how to cheat for the camera, what makes a scene work, what conflict is, what an objective is, all of that. So by the end of the year, he became a very instructive, creative actor. He knew his lines, but he was also aware that if somebody changed a line you didn’t have to stop but could work around it. He was 11 or 12 when he did the movie, now he’s 13 or 14. He has grown a foot and is very handsome and athletic, and is an Abercrombie and Fitch model. He doesn’t look at all like the kid in the movie, but I really wanted to capture that awkward moment between childhood and adolescence, where you’re neither/nor, and it’s a very formative time for young people. I wanted to capture two weeks of that in somebody’s life, and I found this boy and his family was willing to let me do that.
DP: Lili Taylor accepted the role halfway into your first sentence describing the character of Nicole. She did it out of friendship, but why did you know she was right for the part? Is she just right for anything?
TG: Right now, Lili and Nicole are inseparable to me. Lili did so much to create that character. Spring Forward was not one second of improv, everything was written down, every shot, every move. This movie has a much more organic feel to me. I was telling Lili about the story, and she says, “Okay, that’s me.” I’m thinking, “Okay. Why not have Nicole be Lili?”
DP: And what did she bring?
TG: Well, she brought an incredible understanding of parenting. She is a parent. And Lili lives up there in that part of the world, and she’s very self-reliant, really into nature, really into birds.
DP: Did Silas and Lili connect?
TG: Yeah, like I said, I worked with him for a year so he knew who Lili was. I don’t think he ever saw one of her movies, but Lili came up to my house and they just hung out for an afternoon, got ice cream. Lili then went to his house with him and I stayed home. He lives on a small farm, so he introduced her to his sheep, ducks, rooster, chickens, and his cat. And that was Lili’s way in with him. It wasn’t let’s discuss the movie, at all. He knew what she was doing and she obviously knew what she was doing, so they just kind of spent the afternoon as she did it.
A Quick Chat with Lili Taylor
Danny Peary: Atticus is showing signs that he’s about to enter his rebellious years, just as Nicole dies. Do you think she was good mother and that she and her son would have an easy time together if she didn’t die?
Lili Taylor (pictured, left): It’s easy to judge a parent and be critical. I think she’s a “good enough” mother to Atticus. Kids change, rebellious or not, but at the end of the day I think they would get past the rough times. They would manage.
DP: If they had money enough for electricity, do you think she’d have a “Pioneer Night” in which they make due without lights?
LT: I think she’d want to do it anyway. I think it’s important to her because it’s a way to teach him her values. She feels grateful for what they do have and wants him to feel the same.
DP: When Nicole is working as a cleaning lady in an office building, she looks at herself in the mirror. Is she thinking she might die and is worrying about what would happen to Atticus?
LT: I’m not sure she’s thinking she’ll die, but maybe she is. She is thinking that she doesn’t feel well and that makes her worry about her son. She’s not going to get better because she rejects modern medicine. If she trusted modern medicine I think she’d still be around. It could have saved her.
DP: The last time we see her she’s dead and is now an illusion of Atticus’s. She smiles and disappears just as Carter appears and takes his place in her son’s life. Did she smile because she knew Atticus would be in good hands or because she was proud of him for being able to survive in the woods after all she has taught him?
LT: I think she smiles because she’s proud of him. I don’t think she’s sure about Carter. She has such strong feelings for her son and wants him to get along with Carter. Of course, remember that she is Atticus’s illusion and he is modifying what she says and her expressions so that he can believe he gets her approval to go off with Carter.
DP: You are on a hot streak with the smash hit The Conjuring and a sequel in the works, the TV show Almost Human, a new play, and Blood Ties soon to be released. How does The Cold Lands fit into all that you’re doing?
LT: I think it’s a beautiful, brave movie. I’m glad Tony wanted me to do it because I love working with those filmmakers who have strong visions.