A Country Called Home marks the promising feature filmmaking debut of Anna Axster, a director who infuses her story with a wonderfully understated tone. The picture centers Ellie (the always engaged Imogen Poots), a young woman who travels to a small town in Texas to bury her estranged father. Understandably shattered and conflicted as she comes to terms with her father’s passing, Ellie finds comfort and friendship with an entirely new family (Mackenzie Davis is a wannabe country singer with moxie, musician Ryan Bingham as a hard working single father, and Mary McCormack as the father’s former companion).
A Country Called Home is a refreshingly subtle yet affecting drama. Can you talk about your decision to keep your story grounded to reality as well as your early inspirations to become a director?
That was something that was important to me from the get go. I wrote the story a while ago and then collaborated with Jim Beggarly out of New York on the script. When I was a teenager, I was exposed to theater at a young age because my older sister is a playwright and a theater director. I always loved going to the theater but felt that it was kind of a bummer that the really small moments, the little gestures, and the little look in the eyes and the quiet, subtle beats were hard to get across in theater.
So early on I felt it was really intriguing that the camera could capture those moments and so that was something that was just inspiring to me and that was driving me. A lot of times those are the most interesting times in life as well. That was really the driving force behind not amping anything up with the story and just leaving it and letting it breathe and let it be as authentic as I thought it could be.
A big part of the film deals with theme of unconditional love, as Ellie (Imogen Poots) attempts to find peace with her late father.
Dealing with family is obviously such a huge, universal experience. Every character in the story is dealing with family, front and center, in a way. It’s a really big part of the growing up process – how you deal with family and how you get to the point where you can accept people with all their shortcomings and their mistakes and see people as a whole rather than want them to be an idealized version of themselves.
And then loss is such a universal experience as well. The loss of a parent is something we all experience at some point or another and when you experience it at a younger age it catapults us into growing up.
Dealing with family and identity – the male character, Jack (Ryan Bingham) struggles with his identity as a father and accepting those kind of situations and questions and scenarios that we find ourselves in is not always black and white. Most of the time not the way we expected them to be. But then accepting them and moving forward in a positive way even though we imagined life would be very different.
Can you talk about Ryan Bingham’s acting? He seemed very natural with the process.
The idea of him playing that role came a little bit later. It was not something I envisioned from the get go and something that he hadn’t thought about. Other people started suggesting it to us. In the beginning we thought it was kind of a joke (laughs). But over the course of a year, I warmed up to the idea. At some point I thought he could bring a lot to the role. First of all, he’s familiar with those spaces just because he grew up all over Texas and moved a lot and seen a lot of those little towns. He could put himself in those shoes fairly easily and although he left Texas and started on a different path, I think he could easily imagine what it would have been like to stay in a place like that and then have a feeling of being stuck a little bit.
Along with being familiar with that landscape, I just had a feeling that he would be a very natural actor and he would just bring something very natural to this character. He didn’t do a lot of preparation and he didn’t do many things (one) would kind of expect. At some point, I actually got nervous (laughs) and (asked) ‘Don’t you want to do anything?’ He just said ‘No, once we’re in the location and I’m there I feel like I’m going to feel it.’ That was exactly how it was – once we were in the scene and the location he just entered into that and then let it naturally unfold.
Imogen Poots is a fearless actress and a total scene stealer, but with this role she dials it down as Ellie, giving a more understated performance. Can you talk about the collaboration?
We had met a couple of times and she really liked the script and wanted to be a part of this so she came (on board) fairly early on and just kind of waited until we had financing. Luckily everything worked out and we (were able) to make this work with her scheduling.
I love her work too and I’ve loved her in a bunch of stuff and love her range. Obviously we talked about Ellie quite a bit but it wasn’t extensive. I trusted and had the feeling that she deeply understands this character, and when she came to set, she came a week earlier to acclimate and get familiar with the town and soak up that atmosphere. We just spent time together during that week and she came on set and did an incredible amount of work on her own. She made it seem so effortless and made the right choices all around. It was really quite mesmerizing to watch.
She was great to collaborate with. Every once in a while when I felt something was weird or she felt something was weird – we had this trust in each other where we could just bring anything up and talk about it. It was never a long conversation and it was never anything difficult. It was just making sure that we were doing the right thing and that we were on the same page and doing Ellie justice.
What are the challenges of making an indie film, whether it’s finding financing or getting distribution?
It was a really long and difficult journey. I think the most difficult part, hands down, was getting it financed just because independent film is difficult to finance. Independent drama is difficult to finance and just drama that is female centric is even more difficult to finance. It took a long time and a lot tenacity and not giving up and believing that we could eventually get there.
I had a great producer who was with me along the way. His name is Nicolas Gonda and I couldn’t have done it without him because he was the same way. He did not think of giving up whatsoever.
Once we had financing – it’s challenging to shoot something on such a low budget in such (and) a short amount of time but we were prepared enough to there was never amount where I (said) ‘Oh this is falling apart’ or ‘We can’t get it done’ or anything like that. It’s just more challenging when you don’t have access to a whole bunch of money to have a longer shoot or have easier choices in terms of locations and your transportation and then all that kind of stuff.
Then once it was made, the editing process was super fun because you get to rediscover the film again and find so many different things that maybe you hadn’t imagined even when you were shooting.
We premiered at the L.A. Film Festival (LAFF) which is great and it took a minute longer to get distribution but we finally did. And now it’s kind of out of our hands a little bit because now the distributor calls all the shots.
What were your thoughts on Ryan Bingham’s song and music for A Country Called Home?
Yeah, it was a great moment. I didn’t show the script to anyone or told the story to anyone until there was a solid first draft. I gave Ryan the script to read and he immediately went to a room and wrote the song (laughs). So the song had been there since day one. And then when he scored the film he came up with this idea that (during) the moments when Ellie is spending time the most intimate time with her father, when he is in the hospital or when she’s spreading his ashes, the music is a variation on that song. That came together in a good way – and I was blown away by the song. It made a whole lot of sense to me and it fit perfectly.
How personal was this story for you, and also where do you see your film path going after A Country Called Home?
It wasn’t, in any way, autobiographical but it was personal in certain aspects. I lost my father a couple of years before I started writing it. My relationship with my father was entirely different from Ellie’s relationship with her father. Still, that experience of losing a parent informed some of her experience.
A lot of people that I met, friends around me, people that I met through Ryan with spending time in Texas, definitely inspired the story. It’s kind of personal, but not in a kind of direct way if that makes any sense.
As far as where I want to go from here – I’m writing another story at the moment and I would love to be able to realize it as a film at some point. I’m also interested in directing something that somebody else has written because it’s a different experience that I would love to have and bring a whole new set of challenges that I would love to take on. I would love to tell stories one way or another. I’m excited and looking forward to whatever comes my way.
You mentioned screening your film at LAFF. Have people talked to you about their own stories of loss after watching A Country Called Home?
That was a really rewarding thing to hear these stories especially after the premiere at LAFF. We had a little party afterwards that was open to anyone who was at the screening. A lot of people that I had never met in my life came up and told me about their parents or their family or their stories and experiences with alcoholism. That obviously means the world that the story and the film was able to touch someone in some way, shape, or form.
That’s really why I want to do this – it’s a way to communicate. And if that communication worked, and someone who sees it feels something or it inspires something or it reminds them of something, then that’s all I could ever ask for.
Thank you so much for your time!
**I also discuss A Country Called Home on CinemAddicts. To listen, check out the Soundcloud clip below (it starts at 32:21)
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