Written and directed by Haroula Rose and based on Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novel, Once Upon A River is a total revelation. Newcomer Kenadi DelaCerna is Margo, a teenager in1970s rural Michigan who, after an unexpected tragedy, travels to find her estranged mom (Lindsay Pulsipher). Rose talked to Deepest Dream about her own journey in making this nuanced and immersive story.
Although this marks the feature directing debut of Haroula Rose, Once Upon A River holds a firm command of story structure and understands the intricacies behind human connection. Rose is also a musician (she released her EP Grass Stains in August), and she also discussed how music has shaped her own filmmaking experience.
John Ashton, who is best known for his work in Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, delivers standout work as Smoke, a dying man who finds an unexpected friend in Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna).
The music in this film was a very organic part of your story rather than a tacked on element. Can you talk about how that seamlessly fit into the narrative?
Yeah, I love this question. So this music felt, on some level, as important as the visuals. Just the soundscape of what does the wind sound like and what is it going to feel like to be in her shoes outside a lot and alone and who she meets, and what those scenes will sound like. And how it evolved essentially with her journey.
After I finished a script that I felt was (ready) to be able to shoot, I sent it to a composer and we just started exploring different sounds before we had even shot any of the film. That was a front and center thing. We used some of those themes and songs and sounds at times when I would want to drop us into a zone as we were filming.
We also had these incredible songwriters contribute (to the soundtrack). Will Oldham wrote a song that, on our first night of shooting by this campfire, we played that and it was such a privilege to have the sound as a tool before we even started shooting.
J.D. Souther’s “Younger Than Your Eyes” is just one of the many songs I love from your film.
Thank you so much. J.D. is amazing and he was at one point, because he is also an actor – he was going to play the character of Smoke. Things got a little complicated with his tour schedule and as things go everything always ends up as how it’s supposed to be because John Ashton was the perfect person.
He also wanted to write something for the movie and that was amazing and I was honored. He came up with that song.
I am assuming Bonnie Jo Campbell really loved the movie. Can you talk about your collaboration with the author?
We have gotten to become such good friends. She has been really cool and respectful in the sense that the movie is the movie and the book is the book. She has always been that way but obviously I wanted to make sure that I would have her creative blessing.
I sent her the same version of the script that I sent to the cast and producers and the composer. (I said) “Bonnie please read this and tell me if you have any issues and let’s discuss them.” She said she got really into it and was emotional. She still feels that way.
She said this really cool thing; “When I think of my book, I see your movie now.” (It’s) such a trip.
That must have been a gamble casting Kenadi DelaCerna with your movie. It’s her first film, but she is absolutely perfect for the role.
She is really special. I knew when I saw her in the casting tape that “Oh this is the girl.” It was really amazing to see her blossom. She already had a kind of qualities that Margo had, a kind of inner confidence, but also a quietness that I also loved about the character. Very thoughtful, and you see a lot of her evolution in observing her.
She is just so open and the way she had this chemistry with everyone else. It was all very easy and organic. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience on so many levels. Even though it was challenging, just working with this group of people was really special. I’m just so happy that it is finally coming out.
This movie feels like it was made by someone who knew the area. Was this a part of your life or was it a world that you learned about while making the film?
Both. Once I got to know this specific area – we basically moved up there. We got to know every nook and cranny of this area. I had kind of known it in terms of what it feels like and looks like, but I had gone deeper into it. We were living in these little lakeside cabins while we were filming, and you just get to know an area so well and all the people there. That all definitely helped.
Did you always have dreams of becoming a filmmaker because you’re also a singer/songwriter. Did both of those roads converge at the same time or did one grow out of the other?
That’s a great question. I was really tortured for a long time on if people would take me seriously as a musician if I’m also making films and vice versa. In many ways this was such a perfectly fulfilling convergence with this movie.
I also feel like they are both are great loves of mine. I will always felt like I had to get a certain amount of being on the road and touring as a musician and putting out records first while I was still learning filmmaking and working other people’s films.
I love doing both but I was more focused on music for a while. I do think there is a way you can do both. But right now I’m focusing a bit more on trying to get another film off the ground while still writing new songs.
I just think there is a way to do both now and this movie taught me a lot and gave me my own sense of inner confidence.
Kenadi DelaCerna and John Ashton’s chemistry felt absolutely real. Is there a key to making these scenes feel more like real life than an actual movie, because that is something Once Upon A River achieves. That seems hard to do.
On some level it seems hard to do but if you cast it correctly it does feel really organic and very meta. In the real world, John Ashton is a veteran actor who has done so much work on the stage and film and television.
Kenadi, it’s her first film ever, and she’s very new and inhabits a lot of these qualities so the two of them together augmented each other. That chemistry was amazing to see. They made each other better in a sense. She made him better and he made her better in certain ways. It was amazing to watch and be working with these two people that are at very different stage of their careers.
But at the end of the day, those real moments . . . there was so much to choose from. In the edit, I was floored by it, really. It was great. I think if you cast it correctly, you end up capturing a lot of those authentic moments based on how people feel and if they are comfortable in the skin of their character.
Can you name one of your favorite films and what is it about this movie that stands out for you?
There is actually just so many to choose from.
I know that is really tough. It is really hard to pick one.
I remember seeing this Nic Roeg film called Walkabout that really blew my mind. I would say Walkabout changed a lot of what I thought film was and what it could be. Obviously all of his films do that, but that one in particular I saw at a time in my life when I hadn’t seen many films like that.
It just blew me away because I still think about it and I have images that are from that film that sort of occur to me randomly.
The full audio interview with Haroula Rose is available on the Find Your Film podcast:
The end of Walkabout has the main character (Jenny Agutter) yearning for a place in time, and with Once Upon A River there is also that sense of location. That said, there is a bit of a transformation that occurs amidst that journey.
I think so much of what we yearn for is watching people transform in these characters. There is a version that is heightened when we watch a superhero ,but the ones that are more grounded and subtle I think can inspire us to do similar things. I like the idea that she comes back to where she’s from and she’s changed.
I feel that is a little of what we do all the time, every day. We are going back to where we come from, but ideally you are evolving and growing each day.
Take a listen to my review of Once Upon A River on the latest episode of CinemAddicts (starts at 25:37):
Haroula thank you so much for your time and I really love your film. It’s such a mature work and I can’t wait to see what comes next from you in music and film.
Thank you so much. I also love your site and the name of it. It’s super cool. I was really excited to talk to you.
Once Upon A River is now playing in virtual cinemas via Film Movement.