Valley News – Art Notes: Hannover-born director’s feature debut hits nationwide releases

In the short story by James Lee Burke winter lighta mixture of grief and conviction sets a professor in retirement across his inner circle and neighbors, with disastrous consequences.

Hannover-born Julian Higgins turned the story into a 2015 short of the same title and thought he was done with it.

But stories have a way of coming back, and the 2016 election brought back to Higgins’ mind Burke’s story of fractured communication and opposing worldviews.

“The themes of this one felt relevant in a new way,” Higgins said in a phone interview Wednesday. He called the story “a showdown between one person’s value system and belief system and a world that doesn’t seem to care”.

He did what artists around the world do: “I decided to trust my instincts and see where it led.

The result is God’s country, which opens in the United States, and at the Nugget Theaters in Hannover on Friday. Higgins’ feature debut, which he directed, co-wrote and co-produced, was made as a small independent film. But thanks to its blend of lyricism, realism and topicality, and an extraordinary performance by Thandiwe Newton, it sparked a bidding war and was picked up by IFC Films after its Sundance Film Festival screening.

In his second rendition of winter light, Higgins made substantial changes. He and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna recast the title character, turning a 58-year-old white man into a black woman in her 40s. Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a professor at a rural western college. (The movie was shot in Montana.) His mother has just died, and shortly after, Guidry finds a red van parked on his secluded property. She asks the two hunters who return there to leave, triggering a conflict that continues throughout the film.

I watched the movie on Tuesday night, but I’m not reviewing it here. I will say this about it: despite its beauty and build quality, God’s country was a tough movie to watch.

In a way, it’s by design. Higgins and Ogbonna worked on the script together in 2017, and although they started from the perspective of people who wanted to dramatize America’s strained relationship with race, the resulting film resists any straightforward reading and direct.

Part of that complexity stems from the time Higgins and Ogbonna had to work on the script. They started filming in late February 2020 and shut down after three weeks, sending everyone home before the coronavirus pandemic shut down transportation completely.

“We made a bunch of changes that I think made the movie stronger,” Higgins said. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked a new round of national soul-searching about race, and the screenwriters watched closely. “Throughout the process, Shaye and I tried to incorporate what we saw into the script.”

Depending on the broadcast, God’s country could sink into the murky waters of American discourse like a heavy, flat rock. It doesn’t take much to imagine a political crank turning the film’s carefully crafted characters into types who can be launched into our seemingly inexhaustible culture wars.

Such a possibility is less of a concern for Higgins now than it was when he and Ogbonna were shaping the script.

“Shaye and I are very aware of the politicized landscape in this country,” he said. “But we wanted to make a film that wouldn’t be easily dismissed.”

While the film embodies national tensions, it does so without many of what Higgins called “indicators” that would point to the political context.

“Our idea was to try to negate those indicators and make them harder to monitor,” he said.

That’s what art is for: showing us life, not political posturing.

“The instinct to make the movie definitely came from a place where we had to be actively engaged in an alarming situation,” Higgins said. But with the work finished, “our goal was to express the dynamics of what we saw.”

Newton’s casting was critical to the film’s success, Higgins said. Although he had already secured funding, he felt the film could not be made without her. He spent two weeks writing a one-page letter to the English actor and sent it to his agent along with the script.

“My hunch was correct that she would respond to it and want to do it,” Higgins said.

She also became “a true partner in the process,” he said, leading the way on set. Newton’s performance should make her a contender for major awards, he said.

Higgins is currently working on a new screenplay, a survival film which, like God’s countryfocuses on the inner life of a character in the midst of grandiose landscapes.

He credited his upbringing in Hanover with launching him into a career as an artist. In addition to being teachers, his parents are both moviegoers. His mother, Lynn, who teaches at Dartmouth, favors films centered on the characters of post-war French cinema; his father, Roland, a professor at Keene State College, prefers epic films. Director Akira Kurosawa is a favorite. Higgins’ tastes and interests, unsurprisingly, combine the two.

More importantly, the people of Hanover encouraged him to pursue the arts, not a common line of conversation between adults and teenagers.

“It’s so important when you’re young and passionate about an art form…to have people around you who say, ‘You’re doing great. Keep on going.’ said Higgins.

Another Hanover High graduate, Anthony Ciardelli, served as an executive producer on God’s country. Higgins has known him since middle school and they wrote together for the high school newspaper.

“Anthony single-handedly made this movie possible,” Higgins said. “He was one of the first to read the script, he was our first production partner, he was our first investor and he saw the film through to the end, from financing to production to exit.”

Despite changes to his original story, Burke supported the film adaptation and wrote enthusiastically in support after Higgins hosted a screening in Missoula, Mt. He said in a statement on his website that he and other members of the public were “astounded,” and Higgins said he’s seen this kind of quiet reflection in other audiences who have seen God’s country.

“People appreciate that the movie trusts the audience,” Higgins said.

Whether Americans can learn to trust each other is another matter.

Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.

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