“I’m Not Like Wes Anderson Designing His Own Clothes”: Trey Nelson on Lost in the Sun
It can be dangerous to make bold claims for a filmmaker on the basis of one feature, but then Lost in the Sun’s Trey Nelson is hardly a novice. While Lost in the Sun is his writer-director feature debut, Nelson has been working in television, documentaries, and commercials for years, racking up hundreds of credits for networks like A&E, National Geographic, and the History Channel. His experience is evident in every frame of Lost in the Sun, a remarkably assured sun-drenched noir that invites comparison with the early work of Malick and Bogdanovich but has a tone and sensibility all its own. The movie traces the relationship between Louis (Josh Wiggins), a newly orphaned teenage boy, and John (Josh Duhamel), a petty thief who takes him on a road trip that turns into a crime spree. Like Clint Eastwood in A Perfect World, Nelson uses the “man and boy on the run” premise to meditate not only on fathers and sons but on the disconnect between the realities of post-World War II America and the values for which that war was ostensibly fought. Nelson shares in common with Eastwood an ability to let these ideas emerge organically from his visual design, particularly in terms of an expert use of rural Texas locations and architecture. His confidence in both his own ideas and the audience’s intelligence also earns comparison with Eastwood’s best work. With their poetic, expansive use of the 2.40 frame, Nelson and cinematographer Robert Barocci convey an aching sense of lost time and lost potential, making Lost in the Sun not only one of the best acted independent films of the year (Duhamel and Wiggins are both terrific), but one of the most beautiful. I sat down with Nelson the week before his movie hit theatres and VOD to discuss his approach to the material.
Filmmaker: I wanted to start by asking you a story question, because one of the things that I think is special about the film is the delicate way in which you reveal information. The whole meaning of the movie could shift if you moved certain revelations just a little earlier or a little later, and I’m wondering if that was something that you had to spend a lot of time on to get right.
Trey Nelson: Definitely. The script was very different from what we ended up with by the time we got out of the editing room. It was nonlinear; where act two sits now is where act one was in the screenplay. I really wanted a nonlinear structure, but when we watched it put together it just didn’t work. The performances weren’t getting across. Editor Mike Choi and I tore the movie down and put it back together from scratch; we took cards with the scenes on them and put them up on a board in the editing room, and I basically rewrote the film.
Filmmaker: How long did that take?
Nelson: We had five days to reedit the film, and I think we did it in two, because it was just a matter of reordering scenes. The one thing I don’t think really works is the transitions, which just got lost in the shuffle of making a movie, to be honest with you. But what we did put in that hadn’t been there before was a flashback that pulls it all together and carries the tension throughout the film. That flashback was in the script, but it hadn’t been in the initial cut of the movie. Structurally, the way information is revealed is important, but this isn’t a movie about the big secret – if the audience figures out the secret, who cares? It’s important, but what the movie is really about is what comes after, the emotional fallout and impact.
Filmmaker: That emotional fallout is nicely expressed in visual terms throughout the movie. Did you have any other films or directors you were thinking about as influences?
Nelson: The big one for me is Peter Bogdanovich. I really wanted to shoot in Marfa, Texas, where they shot Giant and There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men – in fact, I would say that visually No Country For Old Men was another major influence. We shot some of the scenics and B-roll in Marfa, and I was thinking a lot about No Country, which is tonally a very dark film with a lot of daylight exteriors. Our film is also a daylight exterior movie that has dark content, and we really aspired to capture that quality Roger Deakins achieved so beautifully on the Coens’ movie.
Filmmaker: Where did you end up shooting the bulk of the film?
Nelson: Austin. We were going to go to Louisiana for the tax breaks, but I convinced the producers to do it in Texas. Aside from the fact that the crews in Austin are terrific, I felt that Texas would give us that quality the Bogdanovich movies like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon had, that feeling that something is vanishing right in front of your eyes. Shooting in these small towns outside of Austin, there’s a real sense of mid-century decay that both gives the imagery a timeless quality and delivers a subliminal message. For me the whole movie is about failed promises – the failed promises of the characters to each other on one level, and of post-World War II America on another. When you see those decaying buildings from that era in the frame, you don’t have to make that point explicitly in the dialogue, you just feel it.
Filmmaker: The movie has a palpable sense of loss in the end.
Nelson: I think every generation looks at their parents’ generation and thinks they really fucked things up – and I’m sure the next generation will look at us and feel that way, and we’ll have to answer for how we’ve messed up the environment and everything else. I think that’s necessary, for each generation to call attention to what has gone wrong before, and this film is a commentary on that, hopefully in a very subtle way. We have a decaying country and a decaying system. Now, nobody’s going to pick up on that unless they read this interview, but hopefully they’ll absorb it as a kind of unspoken truth – that, to me, is what filmmaking is all about.
The real subject of the film is the tragedy of unrealized potential. You know, it took a long time to make this movie. I wrote the script in 2006, and it’s now 2015, so it took nine years to get the movie made. There were a lot of times when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen – it would keep falling through, and I almost gave up many, many times. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but in the end what I’m most grateful for and proudest of is the way Josh Duhamel’s performance articulates that tragedy of someone who hasn’t fulfilled their potential.
Filmmaker: It’s the best he’s ever been in anything, and Josh Wiggins is amazing too. Where did you find him, and how did you create such a strong rapport between him and Duhamel?
Nelson: Kat Candler, who directed Hellion, let me see a couple of Josh Wiggins’s scenes in that film – it hadn’t gone to Sundance yet – and he just blew me away. As far as creating an environment for the actors to have that on screen relationship that you’re talking about, so much of being a director is just getting people to buy into your vision. You start with the script, and get people to buy into that. Then you’ve got to get them to trust that the way you’re going to execute that script is the right approach. I think the secret sauce to making a good movie often has nothing to do with you as the director – it’s really the alchemy of personalities. I got really lucky with these two guys. But what I really wanted everybody to buy into, from the PA’s to the executive producers, was the idea that no one person is bigger than the story. I’m not trying to make a movie for me, I’m making the movie to tell a story, and both of the actors shared that point of view.
Filmmaker: It all kind of rests on them, since you’ve got long passages where the whole movie is just them in a car. Was it challenging to shoot those scenes, both from a logistical point of view and aesthetically?
Nelson: We didn’t have a process trailer, and we had a new key grip every week, so yeah, it was challenging – at times it felt nearly impossible. I would have loved to get more coverage in the car, but I couldn’t – there’s one scene where I got two angles, and that was it. In those cases you’ve just got to trust that the acting is going to carry those scenes, and when you can’t get everything you need you have to rewrite some scenes, taking them out of the car or shortening them.
Filmmaker: How did your background directing documentaries and television help, and how was it different?
Nelson: We had somewhere around fifty locations to shoot in a little over twenty days, so I knew from my experience that prep time was essential. I spent weeks driving everywhere, all around Austin, to try to find the perfect locations, because we didn’t have much of a budget. I knew that the locations and the props were going to give us production value. I also thought about how to get production value out of the camerawork. We shot on the F55 with a range of prime lenses, and I tried to stay away from handheld. I wanted the visual evolution of the movie to be from control to a loss of control at the end, so the visual style loosens up as the film progresses.
In terms of the differences between this and the other kinds of filmmaking that I’ve done, it’s really the long game vs. the short game. I’ve done commercials, and sometimes you shoot those in one day. The similarity between all of these types of filmmaking is that no matter what, you still have to convince people to give you money and that your vision is the right vision.
Filmmaker: Well, I liked the fact that the movie felt so expansive. So often these days I feel like the tendency in low-budget filmmaking is to constrict everything and go for contained stories. But it speaks to that whole idea of shooting in Texas vs. Louisiana; you might have gotten tax breaks in Louisiana, but you wouldn’t have gotten the same production value for this particular story.
Nelson: Someone asked me if I think of the story or the characters first, but for me it’s the place. If a place is unique and interesting to me, that’s something I can build a movie around by placing characters within that landscape. We put a lot of thought into the locations, and into the consistency of locations. I put a look book together based on inspiration from other films that included tiny little details that I wanted to find their way into the movie. Now, I’m not like Wes Anderson designing his own clothes or something like that, but I want to capture a tone that’s really unique. The idea was always to make it look like we had more than we did. These days, with all the tools at your disposal, if you really know the craft of filmmaking you can make a million dollar film look like five million, and a five million film look like ten.
Filmmaker: I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, which is the length of time it took to get the movie made. Obviously that was frustrating and heartbreaking, but was there any way in which the delays made the movie better?
Nelson: I had a daughter in 2009 and a son in 2011, so I became a father between the time when I started the script and when we shot. The movie got so much better after those things happened…it retained a fear of living a domesticated and safe life – which is something I still fear – but the value in that way of life, and the knowledge of what you lose by living like more of an outlaw, became more resonant after I became a father. You know, it sounds a little cheesy, but for me the movie was about seeking the truth – not only for the characters, but for myself. I knew that I could make television, I knew that I could make documentaries, but could I make a feature film? It’s so challenging, and you take so much abuse…ultimately you have to ask yourself why you do it. For me it’s the process. If you don’t enjoy the process it’s not worth doing.