The strongest film I saw at this year’s Dances With Films was ROAD TO THE WELL, helmed by first time writer/director Jon Cvack. Dripping in tension, the thriller follows the bad night gone worse of middle-management candidate Frank, who reconnects with an old friend and ends up with dead hooker in his trunk. Laurence Fuller excels at the mild-mannered almost passive Phd dropout protagonist – first he catches his girlfriend with his boss, then a flirtation with what turns out to be prostitute, turns violent as the pair are attacked in Frank’s car in the middle of the night. Frank awakes with mild injuries but the girl is left dead. His drifter friend Jack convinces him to drive the body up north, where he is supposed to be taking a new job anyway, and hide the body far from any connection to that night. As Frank and Jack make their way up into the California Sierra, they stop off to reconnect with old friends and lost loves, and find a potential perfect hiding place for the body. But as they get deeper into lies, Frank begins to suspect that maybe Jack knows more about this dead girl in their trunk than he let on, misgivings that finally pull him out of his passive life into action.
With a stand out cast and brilliant cinematography, ROAD TO THE WELL holds the audience in the palm of its hand. The script effortless pulls Frank into deeper and deeper shit, and never falls into the trap that so many low budget features do, stagnancy. Not only do Frank and Jack wander from shadow to shadow up the coast, but their problems compound, until the final collapse at the climax of the story. It never feels small, and the cast turn out flawless executions full of depth and intrigue, even if they are on screen only for a few minutes. For a thriller, which usually hinge more of plot devices than performances, Road to the Well is a remarkably insightful and multifaceted film. Cvack credits DP Tim Davis, a friend since high school, with drawing him into filmmaking, as well as “a peculiar fascination with Dawson’s Creek and Dawson’s love of cinema and Steven Spielberg.”
I had a chance to discuss Road to the Well with Cvack shortly after Dances With Films.
BEARS: This is your first feature, your first film in fact, right? At least the first you’ve put out there. How did you get everybody on board?
Cvack: I was told from the beginning that the only way we were going to recruit good talent was to sell our passion. I had been on a steady movie-per-day diet since college and knew that while I didn’t have the resources to make dozens of short films, I’d try and make up for it by possessing an extensive knowledge of film history and theory, which was my focus in college, along with philosophy.
Nevertheless, having never made a feature or raised financing we knew it was an ambitious idea. The parallels between recruiting good talent and getting the money are strikingly similar, in that all it takes is one person to say yes in order to galvanize many others to follow. It helped that Tim Davis was committed from the start. Having your best friend by your side against seemingly insurmountable odds really helps during the many, many rough patches.
Of course I knew it was all about the script, which I worked on for about a year before we started the money hunt, and continued polishing throughout the entire process, getting it locked after about thirty drafts.
During this time I took an acting class to try and get some experience on the other side of the camera in order to make directing a bit easier. My acting teacher Marcie Smolin of The Actors Circle eventually passed on the script to her friend and our casting directors Billy DaMota and Dea Vise, who were willing to work out a deal with us in order to get the best possible performers attached. When Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, and Marshall R. Teague came into the room I knew we had found our leads. Marshall had actually memorized the entire fifteen-page cabin scene for the audition, determined to secure the role. It made for a very easy decision.
BEARS: Tell me a bit about the decisions on the style, look and pace of the film?
Cvack: I always knew that this had to be a cinematic movie – with big shots, a big score, and big performances. Of course, when you’re dealing with near micro-budget limitations this is much easier said than done.
Given that the film progresses from the urban to the suburban to the rural we wanted the beginning to feel a bit more claustrophobic and muted and gradually progress to be open and more stylistic. I wanted it to have a slow burn that culminated into an explosive concluding sequence. Tim’s love of cinematography and phenomenal skill made me rest easy knowing that he’d knock it out of the park, ensuring that it looked and felt professional. Naturally we butted heads a few times as we had to find a balance between accommodating the budget and getting everything he needed in order to accomplish the look we were going for, but that’s just twelve years of friendship for you.
Additionally, the score was imperative to the story from the very beginning, especially in the extensive dialogue sequences, as without the score the scenes would have felt much emptier. I really wanted to have it pull you along, in which the dialogue functioned more lyrically, with the overall score serving as a type of omniscient observer. Composer Conor Jones and I had such a wonderful time working to ensure that each musical sequence complimented the material properly. His abilities blew my mind, going above and beyond anything I could have imagined.
Of course, it was our editor Angela Latimer and her incredible abilities to combine all of these elements, particularly with the rhythm, that really made them shine.
BEARS: I love the patience of this film, especially in the lead role, Frank. He is easily recognized as passive, and yet he makes, as is reminded to him, choices all the way through the movie. Tell me about crafting that character, what you were hoping to achieve, finding the actor, and directing him.
Cvack: This was a tough sell as some initial readers were critical of his passive nature. I simply figured that as he was falling deeper and deeper into the nightmare, losing all control over the situation while facing seemingly inevitable and severe consequences, that there really wasn’t much left for him to say so much as figure out. Most people in far more innocuous situations, in which they’re being forced to participate in something they want no part of, often become quieter and more removed. Frank doesn’t say much because there’s nothing he can say. All he can do is reflect and struggle with what to do next, hoping that it’ll lead to a better outcome.
I knew Frank’s character was going to be a demanding role – especially in a low budget film. We needed to find an actor that could express a wide range of insights and emotions without saying a single word. It was very much like an iceberg effect, in which whatever he does or says is really only a fraction of what he’s experiencing internally. When Laurence came into the room it was like the movie Gods just blessed us. Laurence read the scene right after the initial murder with such explosiveness that I felt I was no longer seeing words I had written but the character of Frank coming to life. Still, it’s not easy to have someone audition without saying a word, as required for the film’s later sequences. It was after meeting with him, discussing the material, and witnessing him carefully deliberate over the ideas we were exploring that I knew that Laurence was going to kill the part. And he did.
The old adage about great actors making directing all the easier is absolutely true. After extensive discussions about the material, the onset direction for him was simply asking for more or less in each particular scene. He came up with so many creative decisions that I never would have thought of, making the character become someone I never would have envisioned, and in the greatest way possible.
BEARS: Marshall Teague – who many will recognize from Road House or Babylon 5 or any one of the over 100 credits he has to his name – makes a memorable appearance in the film. The sequence could easily be thought of a somewhat tangent plot – but Teague fills it with such power and meaning, it becomes the pivotal scene of the film. Can you talk about writing that role and finding Marshall and working with him on set?
Cvack: Marshall’s character of Dale was inspired by a few real life individuals we had met up in Donner Lake, who lived there throughout the year. The cabin was owned by one of our producers Nick Mathews who explained how the winter season could literally bury houses in snow. While it’s fine for a few weekend ski trips, the idea of living up there permanently against those circumstances was something that really appealed to me. Particularly, what that could do to a damaged mind?
I had studied philosophy in school and we had read one of Tolstoy’s short essays “My Confession” in which he explores his loss of meaning and purpose in life and the way it impacted his worldview and religion. He compared his struggle to the story of a man getting chased by a monster, falling into a well, with a dragon deep below. The man catches hold of a twig, where a little mouse is nibbling at the base. With nowhere to turn and doomed to fall he sees some honey on one of the leafs of the twig and starts licking. Tolstoy explained this was what it was like to retain his religion in an age of reason. I had always thought it was a brilliant metaphor for any struggle, secular or religious, and perfectly encapsulated Frank’s struggle. We are often drawn into situations beyond our control, and it’s up to each of us to try and find whatever bit of honey there is. Combining this with your classic paranoid neighbor archetype felt like it could work pretty well.
The script was initially conceptualized as the Iraq War was winding down and I felt drawn to the idea of a veteran chaplain who, similar to Tolstoy, had lost his faith for a myriad of reasons – perhaps both due to the combat he experienced, the loss of a loved one, or what he was witnessing in the world around him. There was something about a man who escaped to the woods, hoping to live his remaining days with his wife, who either died or left him, that created a fascinating setup.
Literature’s my second passion and what some of the greatest novels do is explain what the story’s about in a near tangential moment. A great example being Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men when the Sheriff explains the dream about his father, or Grapes of Wrath when the turtle crosses the road. The story demanded a much grander explanation and there was no way the main characters could possibly offer this without becoming heavy and expository.
Marshall Teague was one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with. His preparation was awe inspiring. Given that the average age on set was mid to late twenties, when Marshall was flown in he was functioning very much as a father figure. Beyond his phenomenal acting abilities was his machine-like ability to maintain continuity. He was able to perform each moment with incredible consistency – hitting his marks, maintaining his actions, and delivering each line with 100% accuracy every time. Those two days of production in the cabin created a very special vibe on set. We knew we were all participating in a very special moment and I think Marshall inspired every single person to bring their A-game, knowing that this was going to be the big moment.
In terms of direction, given that Marshall has been in over 200 films, it was essentially him showing up, we’d talk a bit about the character’s motivations a bit, maybe run a few lines, and then he would go off and “bring the rain” as he said.
BEARS: You made this for a ridiculously low amount of money… how did you do it? Any advice for filmmakers?
Cvack: Tim and I come from a pure middle class background in the Chicago Suburbs, where the idea of making a film is fairly foreign. Fortunately, we had communicated our passions throughout high school so our family and friends knew that it wasn’t some fleeting hobby. I wrote a business plan after looking up examples online and reading every book I could on how to raising film financing. The funny thing about these books is that you’re always hoping to find that magic formula – “If you just do X you’ll be able to raise as much money as possible…”. Unfortunately it just doesn’t exist. The only bit of advice that was true is that all it takes is one person to galvanize others and that person was my 94-year-old Grandmother, who was fortunate enough to give a little bit of money to start, which combined with the little I saved, was enough for people to start gaining interest.
From there we launched a successful KickStarter where we raised $41,000. Don’t ask how as to this day it was the most miserable experience of the entire process. Having to annoy and guilt people into giving you money is not something I think anyone is comfortable with, but with such an ambitious goal that’s all you can do. Most importantly were the myriad of miracles that happened throughout the entire process. Every time we thought we finally hit the wall, far short of what we needed, some strange event would occur and get us to the next step.
So my best advice to filmmakers is to create a professional plan and accept that you must – absolutely must – sell yourselves. No matter how uncomfortable it is. If you have little to show in terms of work, only your passion is going to inspire anyone else to help you. You have to make your financiers believe that they are investing in something special. I truly believe that if you can’t get the money it’s because you’re not selling your passions. You might not get everything you need, but you will get some.
BEARS: What’s next for the film? For you?
Cvack: In terms of additional festivals I cannot announce anything yet but we do have some cool news coming up soon. You can check our website at roadtothewell.com for the updates to be posted soon.
I’ve written a few other features and just wrapped the third draft of an eight-episode mini-series that is quickly becoming my dream project. It’s much too ambitious for the short term, so I’m now working on my next low budget feature, which takes place in a small town diner and bar, where after a local councilman is assassinated, a manhunt begins throughout the area. We then follow the patrons as they attempt to figure out what happened. I’ve decided to do the opposite of Road to the Well and try and keep the amount of locations to a minimum.
I’m also updating my website on a regular basis where I lend my thoughts on old and new films, which you can check out at yellowbarrel.org.
ROAD TO THE WELL just began its festival run at Dances With Films in early June. Look for updates on their website and their facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/RoadToTheWell