“Dead Man’s Burden” premiered at the L.A Film Fest to excellent reviews and and plaudits for first time director Jared Moshé and his cast: Clare Bowen as the fierce Martha, David Call as her husband Heck, and Barlow Jacobs as her long lost brother Wade. Our review said the film “is worth the watch for its sheer beauty, but it’s also a slow burner of Western tragedy that hails many new talents to keep an eye on.” It’s a slice of filmmaking that harkens back to cinema’s past, and reminds you why shooting on film needs to be preserved. We sat down with Moshé, Bowen, Call and Jacobs last week to talk favorite Westerns, shooting in New Mexico and historical authenticity. Here are some of the highlights and insights from the wide-ranging conversations below.
Shooting on 35 mm was never in question for this low budget indie.
As director Moshé says, since the film was a Western, it had to be shot on 35mm because, “that genre is so much a part of our cinematic history, people automatically have things they have to see in order for the film to work, and shooting on film is one of them. They need that wide sense of space and depth that I just don’t think you can get on video, at all.” The New Mexico landscape where they shot was more than just a location, and deserved to be captured on film because “the landscape and the sun are characters, the wilderness is major story element, and I think it’s really important to be able to capture that in a way that’s really beautiful.”
Barlow Jacobs said one of the best parts about being on location was that, “you’re seeing it the way it was seen by the people we’re portraying and there’s something really unique about that.” The costumes and props affected, “even the way you move, the ways the clothes were cut,” which was something that Clare Bowen also mentioned, saying, “what you’re wearing, it’s so heavy, you’re wearing three layers of underwear as a woman-- it’s ridiculous. But everything has a weight to it, everything has a purpose to it, it’s all very deliberate.” The extreme fluctuations in the weather in New Mexico in October also “brought out that sense of survival, what you had to do. When the will to live takes over. I don’t think that you can fake that. I think that we were really privileged to be out there,” said Bowen. For David Call, the environment provided as sense of quiet not found anywhere else, “just having the quiet, at night and in the morning and on set, to exist in that world without any distractions.”
A great deal of preparation and historical research went into the performances before the shoot began so that the characters were fully inhabited before cameras rolled.
Moshé described the importance of this long preparation saying, “all of us knew the characters that they were playing intimately, and they trusted me to know them equally as such. So that when we got out on location, we’d rehearsed, we’d talked about, and everyone was able to really inhabit it in the right way. By our first day of shooting, the script evolved to the point where Heck Kirkland was David and couldn’t be played by anyone else.” Call described Moshé’s inspiration for him: “...one thing Jared said in the beginning of the process was, if these characters are archetypes, Wade is John Wayne and Heck is Clint Eastwood. And that performance style, that amount of weight that he can carry with doing very little, was a big influence.” Call also spoke about the sense of stillness and restraint he brought to his performance, drawing on Heck’s backstory, “Heck was a very violent person, and he doesn’t need to put anything on. There’s a sense that he doesn’t need to be threatening because he knows he’s threatening. Also, because he’s with his wife and he’s trying to put that life behind him, he’s also keeping a lot of that in check, and so he’s somebody, who is, to a certain extent, containing his impulses at all times.” For Jacobs portrayal of Wade, he mentioned that, “with any role, one of the first questions I ask, is what’s this character hiding? What’s the thing he doesn’t want anyone to know? And in Wade’s case, there’s just so much, he has so much baggage, post-traumatic stress that’s probably never been dealt with from the Civil War, coupled with the fact that his family disowned him, and he’s by himself in all of this, and in the way that he’s developed this maybe even skewed view of justice to justify all the decisions he’s made that are very counter to what he was told or taught growing up. How do we show the slow unraveling of this character?”
For Bowen, the historical research helped to ground her character of Martha, whom she describes as, “a bit of an extreme, in [that] that’s what happens when you’re put in a survival situation. She’s a creature whose natural instinct is to nurture, she’s actually quite a sweet thing, but her nest has been blown open.” With a Civil War buff for a director, Bowen relied on Moshé’s knowledge to make it real for her, saying, “it felt wonderful to have somebody like Jared at the head of all this, with such a massive knowledge of the Civil War and Westerns in general, just a mad history buff, and to be able to turn to him and go 'what about this, can you tell me about this?' and for him to go 'Yeah!' and then tell me about it for half an hour.” For Aussie Bowen, this knowledge “was really important because a character like Martha could have gone in a totally different direction. I’m tiny, I’m holding a really big gun, and she’s really extreme. She could have gone rocketing off into space. And it didn’t, it stayed really grounded because Jared knew his stuff.”