A graduate of Reagan High School, he is producing a feature film, ‘God’s Country’, which will premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival

San Antonian Halee Bernard spent a lot of time researching the right script for her feature debut as a producer.

“God’s Country,” a neo-western that will premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, fits the bill.

“Showrunner and creator Damon Lindelof once said on a podcast that the way he decides what story he’d like to write when someone sends him something is that it’s not a choice, it’s a constraint,” said Bernard, a 2009 Reagan graduate from high school who works primarily in television. “I don’t mean to steal someone else’s turn of phrase, but I think it really sums up how I felt when I read ‘God’s Country’.

“I had read other great scripts, but when I read this script, it felt like I had to. I felt like I had a vision for how we could put it together and give it life.

Entering Sundance is a big step in bringing ‘God’s Country’ to the public. Julian Higgins, the film’s director, calls it “pretty much the best script for an independent film”.

The film is one of more than 80 films that will be screened during the much-vaunted festival, which runs until January 30. For the second consecutive year, the festival will be virtual due to the pandemic.

Bernard, who went to Sundance in 2017 with a TV project she produced called “Pineapple,” said she was disappointed she didn’t get the full in-person festival experience with “God’s Country.” But she is grateful that a wider audience, including her family, can stream the film.

She is also very grateful to have worked on the film.

“I always dreamed of doing a feature film, but the way the cards were dealt, I had more opportunities on television earlier in my career,” she said. “So it’s really a special moment, and I’m really happy that it’s this movie and this director.”

Higgins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shaye Ogbonna and is also the film’s producer, described it as “a neo-Western thriller”. It features Thandiwe Newton from “West World”. (Formerly Thandie, the actress reverted to the original spelling of her name last year.)

“Thandiwe plays a college professor in a small western town who finds two hunters breaking into her property and she asks them to leave,” Higgins said. “It’s a very simple starting point for a story that quickly spirals out of control, and it becomes a kind of battle of wills over who really owns the land and who has a right to be on it.”

What: A neo-western with Thandiwe Newton

Where to see it: Premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday and rebroadcasting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at festival.sundance.org.

Details: Tickets are $20. Registration is required to watch the film, and the number of tickets available is limited, so it is highly recommended to buy it in advance.

The film is based on a story by James Lee Burke.

When Higgins and Ogbonna were ready to line up a producer for “God’s Country,” Bernard was at the top of the list, he said.

“Halee and I had followed each other as graduates of the American Film Institute for several years, and I knew that she was someone who, despite having a very difficult job in a big company in the industry, was still producing short footage and was getting a lot of original stuff done on the side,” he said. “I knew she was a real hustler and an actress, and I sent her the script, and she got back to me right away and said she loved it and would love to produce it.”

Bernard worked on “God’s Country” while working as development manager for podcast company Wondery, a job she still does. She works as part of a team that develops podcast-inspired television projects such as “Dr. Death” and “The Shrinking Next Door.” The team has more than a dozen projects underway, it said. she said, including “Joe Exotic,” an upcoming Peacock series about the “Tiger King” reality star of fame.

It’s a very different career path than she imagined growing up in San Antonio. She was an arts-oriented kid—she loved reading and dancing at Reagan and the San Antonio School for the Performing Arts. But she was a premedication student at Boston University.

She made many friends there who were studying film and acting, and soon found that her own interests were moving in that direction. Instead of becoming a doctor, she wanted to find a way to work in film and television.

“I knew I had taste and loved telling stories, but I didn’t want to be a director or an actress,” she said. “I knew I had a managerial personality, and when production was introduced to me, it made sense, it felt like a fit, where I could work with artists and champion big projects and basically be the boss of project, which I think is the best way to capture exactly what a producer does.

“You synthesize the creative, fiscal and operational parts of a project, the art genre meets the business, and you are part of that fulcrum. And I decided that I wanted to make a career out of it.

She studied production at the American Film Institute and was considering a career in television and film.

She produced several shorts, always keeping an eye out for a feature project she could sink her teeth into. She said she was drawn to “God’s Country” because it was a well-crafted script that told a story that hit her in the gut.

She got involved in the production in 2018 and filming began in Montana in March 2020. They were about halfway through when production had to shut down due to the pandemic. Work resumed in April 2021.

She worried a lot between the two.

“I never thought about giving up on the movie, of course not, but I definitely had issues,” she said. “I was worried about the illness of the crew members and the safety of everyone on film. I was worried about losing locations. We have an amazing dog in the film; I was worried about the dog.

“I started getting night terrors at the producers about anything that could go wrong, and it’s so good that everyone is safe and we need to finish it.”

Having the “God’s Country” screen at Sundance could be key to the movie’s future. Ideally, says Bernard, it will be bought by someone who puts it on screens outside of the festival circuit.

It would be a great birthday present. She will be 31 on January 28.

“I would gladly accept this gift,” she said. “But honestly, just being a part of Sundance is celebration enough, really.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @DeborahMartinFR

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