“We Can Shoot the Sun and the Characters Dramatically, but the World is Humble”: Writer/Director Max Walker-Silverman on A Love Song
The sun is harsh in Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song. Intense in the mid-day, it beats down on Faye (Dale Dickey) — ruddy, her face lined by hard living, her blonde hair lightened further by all the incandescent days. Ensconced in her small trailer sitting in a lakeside patch of dirt somewhere in Colorado, the widow waits for a man, also familiar with loss, she knew decades ago. She wrote to him — will he show up? It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he does, in the form of Wes Studi, and theirs is a bittersweet, gently melancholic connection with a poetry underscored by ’50s love songs in the lamplight of Faye’s trailer and given relief by the starkness of the mountains that loom above her on her nighttime walks.
A Sundance 2022 premiere that also played in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, A Love Song follows a trio of well-received shorts by the NYU graduate, including Colorado shoots Chuj Boys of Summer and Lefty/Righty. The former is about a teen Guatemalan migrant, and the latter about a divorced dad’s connection with his young daughter in the wake of his father’s death. His films all share a core team, including producer Jesse Hope and DP Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, and they are all all intimate, human stories told with a paucity of dialogue and informed by their region’s culture and landscapes. Over the course of the films, you can watch Walker-Silverman hone and develop his style, which is one that mixes elements of observational slow cinema with the deadpan humor you’d find in an Aki Kaurismäki film. In the interview below, conducted over Zoom during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, I talked to Walker-Silverman about avoiding magic hour, casting veteran Dale Dickey (Justified, Winter’s Bone) and how certain narrative structures are baked into us as viewers. A Love Song is in theaters today from Bleecker Street.
Filmmaker: I like your movie, and, previously, I’ve seen your shorts, which I’ve liked a lot as well. So I’m curious, your shorts got enough attention on the festival circuit that I imagine that maybe there were different roads you could have gone on in terms of making your first feature. How did A Love Song wind up being that debut film?
Walker-Silverman: Well, the reality is that this shoot probably doesn’t happen if not for the pandemic, and that’s because I was back home in Colorado, and I had just graduated from graduate film school, along with all of my friends. In that moment the world was so uncertain — I was totally unsure of what it would be like to work again. So I put pen to paper on this idea that had been my head for a very long time, largely [because] I just wanted something on the horizon, like something to hope for, to look forward to, and for all of my friends to look forward to as well, and in the process of doing that I discovered that when one acts like something’s gonna happen, it sort of begins to.
Filmmaker: The old school “set a start date and make a movie” approach.
Walker-Silverman: Yeah, I suppose so. Honestly, at the end of the day, I probably thought, is this really all going to come together? Probably not, but at least we’ll have worked towards something. Hopefully we’ll have met some cool people and life will have moved forward in some way, which seems so desirable at that moment when everything was so static. On the ground, the structure [of the shoot] was very much the same as the short films. The same small cast size, many of the same locals, my closest friends who acted, basically the same crew from NYU, about nine of us I think. Same local producer, Jesse Hope, who I have literally been born and raised with. The exception, of course, was the new COVID protocols. But we figured those out pretty well and created a safe world in our own way. And then the broader architecture of putting together a feature, all of those things that we weren’t familiar with, like investors, lawyers, music supervisors and casting directors, we were guided by the knowledge and generosity of [producer] Dan Janvey, who knows all of that very well. So the movie’s basically just us and what we’ve been doing in Colorado with the addition of some of New York’s cool, old indie pros who just trusted in the thing and really helped us out.
Filmmaker: Making a film that deals with aging and looking back on love as a relatively young person, I’m interested in what attracted you to these protagonists, these characters, and this particular vantage point in life in terms of looking at love and looking at just existing in the world.
Walker-Silverman: It’s a hard question to answer. I guess one of the things that I like about my life here is that I’m surrounded by people of all ages, and I’m lucky to love and be loved by young people but also a lot of older people. The film is in some way so born out of the place, out of the landscape. What’s so strange, alluring and confusing about the west is that it’s inherently nostalgic but also almost violently charging into the future somehow. It’s really caught between looking forwards and looking back. So many of the people I know are wistful of the past and hopeful for the future. So I suppose it’s out of that and then just out of this actor, Dale Dickey, who I’d admired for so long that this character was born, the bones of it at least, and then the flesh and blood and skin of which she of course added herself.
Filmmaker: So you wrote it for her?
Walker-Silverman: Yeah. From the very beginning, never pictured anyone else, considered anyone else. She was in my head the whole time.
Filmmaker: At what point did you reach out to her?
Walker-Silverman: It was once the script was basically done and once the movie was starting to feel real that we reached out to Dale. I remember the first text message she sent me — this is someone who I’d never met and only seen in sort of scary roles. She sent me this lovely text message full of emojis and smiley faces and winks and thumbs up and swear words and excitement. At that point, I think, we knew we really had a movie.
Filmmaker: Was the script pretty much shot as is, or did you then work with her to develop any other parts of the character?
Walker-Silverman: Through our conversations I think the character evolved a little bit in the script, but so much of the movie is in silence, and so much of her role is in silence. Where she really brought everything is through those long quiet portions of the film in which I relied on her completely and trusted her completely to fill the world.
Filmmaker: I love the way your Super 16mm cinematography captured landscape in the film. There’s a really rough, human quality to it, and you feel all the texture and the grain. It’s also kind of high contrast at times at night — you really just let it fall to black. There are dark blues, and you don’t lean into some of the magic hour visual tropes? I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how and why you captured landscape in the way that you did.
Walker-Silverman: This is one of those reasons that I’m so grateful to have worked with so many of the same people from the very beginning, in this case particularly the cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, who’s also one of my very best friends. The way that we’ve approached these places in the landscapes is in many ways centered around embracing hard light. We shot all through midday, all through hard light right into the sun. And we could do that because we were using celluloid in a way that a digital sensor, for all its marvels, would really struggle with. I think that’s what gives the landscape [cinematography] its qualities, that along with Alfonso’s just beautiful framing. We used very little lighting — we really embraced the sun at all its points of the day, and we framed very patiently and very thoughtfully. Where we shot, which is outside Norwood, Colorado, is actually a much less dramatic landscape than many in Colorado — less sort of classic beautiful, perhaps, but we discovered that through the lens and on the film, it just comes out so spectacularly and even more beautifully than when we tried to shoot in the really classic mountain landscapes.
Filmmaker: That little campsite by the water, with that little beach-y dirt area, felt like a place I have been to, even though I have never been to that spot. It had an immediate familiarity to it that a more conspicuously beautiful location would not have had.
Walker-Silverman: That’s important to me. I’d like to believe there’s a modesty to the film, and I’m proud of that. We can shoot the sun and the characters dramatically, but the world is humble in its own way, and it should be. The mountains and their classic beauty are there, but they’re in the distance and on the horizon. That’s reflective of our characters and what they’re looking towards.
Filmmaker: We have lots of pieces here on young filmmakers and first films, and we are always interested in kind of career trajectories and where people go in their careers. Not everyone reaches for that modesty on a first film. Some people feel like they have more to prove, or they need to do something showier, but there’s a confidence in being modest.
Walker-Silverman: I can’t say it’s a choice or a decision. It’s just that this is my home, these are my people, these are my friends, this was the way to make the movie. It’s just how I do it, how we do it. It was really a pleasure to get to take that into a longer film, to begin to pay people who’d worked for free for all those years through film school. I hope we can continue at our own pace.
Filmmaker: Obviously the difference in features is there’s the durational quality that you’re not dealing with as much in a short. There are elements of slow cinema in A Love Song. Do you see this film as situated in any kind of tradition of filmmakers like Lisandra Alonso, or Apitchapong Weerasethakul? I guess there’s a question in so much American independent cinema regarding how much narrative a feature needs to have, and yours is very modest in that respect as well.
Walker-Silverman: I had a teacher who talked about how traditional structure and movie plots are irretrievably baked into us. We’ve seen endless hours of them, they are powerful, beautiful and useful. So many of the things that we love are built on that tried and true structure. Since it’s so deeply a part of us, there’s the opportunity, and maybe even the obligation, to be open to other paces and patterns in the film and to trust that the basic structures we need will be in there somewhere. I tried to lean into that. At no point was there ever the thought of, “it should be this type of film or that type of film.” It was just the film that came out of the world and the story we were working with. The truth is the influences that I thought of most throughout the whole process were songs — country and folk music and ballads — because that’s where you see this type of character get to fall in love. So if the structure comes from anywhere, perhaps it comes from those,
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?
Walker-Silverman: We shot for 21 days over a month.
Filmmaker: That’s a decent length of time these days.
Walker-Silverman: Yeah. It was not [an] uncomfortable scrappy film — I mean, it was scrappy, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. And in a weird way, a part of that comes out of COVID and these things we call COVID protocols: having enough time to rest and having comfortable places to sleep — these very basic things. But no, we were able to do the shoot in a way that didn’t feel too stretched or too challenging.
Filmmaker: What was the most challenging element of the shoot?
Walker-Silverman: Probably the most challenging thing was designing the bubble that we all lived in. Since we shot before film [shoots] had largely resumed, and certainly before location independents had really resumed, we had to create our own guidelines and our own decisions on how to protect people. And fortunately it all worked, and I’m really proud of what we did. So, it was challenging to set things up, but then all the more rewarding once we were in the bubble and being taken care of by the communities of Telluride and Norwood, who kept us fed and watered all through the shoot. Outside of that, it’s probably just your classic foes, the sun when it’s supposed to be cloudy, the clouds when it’s supposed to be sunny, the rain when it’s supposed to be dry. But, all you can do about that is have a good crew who you can deal with it. And we did.
Filmmaker: Did you do much work beforehand with Wes and Dale together? Or not because you wanted to preserve a sense of surprise or uncomfortableness?
Walker-Silverman: We weren’t able to, just because of life and schedules and the fact that everyone had to quarantine to enter the set. So Dale was on set first and Wes was still quarantining. It just logistically wasn’t possible to get a rehearsal process in. I would’ve loved to — I love rehearsing. Fortunately, since our days on set weren’t extremely tight, we were able to work together every day on location, even if we weren’t in rehearsals beforehand.
Filmmaker: Do you have plans for something next, after this first feature? Where do you hope your filmmaking career will go?
Walker-Silverman: There’s only so far one can see into the future of course, but I know that I would like to continue to expand my little version of the west out here where I live. I’m not done doing so.