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Redemption Trail Director Britta Sjogren Talks About Her Modern-Day, Northern Californian Feminist Western

Interviews
by Kelcie Mattson
June 27, 2014 1:31 PM
1 Comment
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"Redemption Trail"

Whether we like it or not, some fictional genres are associated with men. What is more essential to American iconography than the brooding cowboy, standing alone on desert plains as he stares down the evils of his corrupt world? 

That's one of the many things making Redemption Trail remarkable: the reinvention of classic cinema imagery through a feminist lens. The film follows two radically different women brought together by personal tragedy: Tess (LisaGay Hamilton), the fiercely hermetic daughter of a murdered Black Panther member, and Anna (Lily Rabe), a successful doctor driven to failed suicide after the loss of her child. Both women are crippled by grief, anger, and a desperate need for titular redemption, shunning all emotional connections capable of bringing further pain. 

Yet their understanding of one another's trauma succeeds where other relationships fail, allowing the women to reclaim their identities as powerful survivors. Not only do they overcome haunting pasts -- a deeply inward heroism -- but they discover within themselves the potential for outward heroism, evidenced in a stunning shoot-out against a vicious drug cartel. 

At its heart, Redemption Trail is a beautifully meditative film about the slow and perilous road to recovery, for even though trauma at times seems unendurable, it does not control. 

Women and Hollywood spoke to Redemption Trail director Britta Sjogren about the inspirations, challenges, and serendipities of making this film, including her deep love of Westerns, interviewing former Black Panther members for the script, and a horse accident involving LisaGay Hamilton.

Redemption Trail opens June 27 at the Arena Theater in Hollywood.

W&H: What were some of the biggest challenges creating this film?

BS: It’s very difficult to find funding for a film focused on women using radical political movements as a base theme. This film engages with the history of cinema -- and the place of women within it -- as well as with the history of race and class relations in the U.S., and asks the viewer to consider the social-justice issues from a complex point of view. 

This is not necessarily an easy sell to either the relatively few granting agencies out there, who are generally looking for fairly clear-cut issues grounded in more straightforward narrative structure, nor is it easy to draw on more conventional funding avenues. Luckily, we found the right team of investors who really believed in the project, and who empowered us to make the film as written.

aOn a practical level, filming for three weeks on location at the Stubbs Vineyard in Marin, though an incredible adventure, was extremely challenging. With a crew of 20 and a cast of about 40, there were huge logistical issues to overcome, especially with our very low budget constraints. About half of the crew slept in tents and converted wine barrels on the Stubbs property, using an outdoor shower thoughtfully put in by the Stubbs family, and holding nightly campfires despite the freezing fog that rolled in every evening after a blisteringly hot day. The main cast and a few key crew members stayed in Petaluma and at Pt. Reyes, commuting in each morning. 

The cold at night and early morning was arctic, wind toppling the light-stands, and most of us wearing parkas more suitable to Alaska than to Marin in full summer. The crew was valiant in lugging equipment up and down steep hills, setting up lights with a generator that always seemed to fail just as we were ready to take a shot, and chasing after llamas when they escaped, since they made our horse star “Tug,” who plays Tess’s horse “Searcher,” extremely skittish. 

To accommodate Searcher and his “Entourage Horse” (who knew that horses had to have a companion nearby to keep calm?), we needed to bring in massive amounts of water, schedule plenty of breaks, and trailer them in and out each day. On one particularly demanding day, LisaGay Hamilton was thrown by Searcher when he encountered a snake -- I fully expected the production to end at that moment. But not only did LisaGay get back on the horse, she did her best riding later that afternoon, galloping after the outlaws in the forest. 

W&H: You re-envision many recognizable and very male Western styles/images through a feminist lens. What is it you enjoy about the iconography of Westerns, and was it refreshing to cast a woman (especially a woman of color) as the stoic hero role typically reserved for men?

BS: I am a huge fan of Westerns -- in particular of the films of John Ford, which actually have some pretty interesting women characters. It was fun to think of ways to reverse the tropes of the genre. In particular, having a woman of color playing the John Wayne figure, it was fascinating to consider what kind of person she would be, what her emotional and psychological makeup would be. 

This character, Tess, like the character of Ethan in The Searchers, has been damaged by history, specifically by having been involved in a kind of failed war (the Black Panther revolutionary movement and later militant actions.) Ethan’s “lost war” was the Civil War, and it seemed fitting and important to reverse that narrative element for Tess’s story. Like Ethan, though, the past has marked her -- she has prejudices and rage that motivated her life choices, but which could cripple hopes for a better future if she can’t evolve, can’t pass that threshold. 

The character of Anna combines a couple of familiar Western figures -- the “Doctor” (the educated man, often a representative of the stifling class system of the East, who still has much to learn about the ways of the world) and the “Eastern Lady” who finally sheds her fancy clothes and material comforts and is transformed and toughened by her ability to survive grief and hardship, an ability she profoundly doubts in herself. 

Another movie that was a touchstone for us in making Redemption Trail was King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun. I love Jennifer Jones’ wildness in that film -- her strength and sexual intensity and fury -- and I think there are elements of that influence that got passed along to both Tess and to Anna. It was also interesting to think about how to recast the men as representatives of hearth and home -- as figures who tend children, who believe in the importance of love, and who want to connect emotionally -- whereas the women are wary of the loss of freedom that comes with commitment. 

W&H: How do you approach writing a script?

BS: I work very hard on my fundamental research. I spent quite a lot of time, for example, learning about the Black Panther movement, which of course had its birthplace right in Oakland, where I live. I met with [former Black Panther member] David Hilliard and got some first-person understanding not only of the movement itself, but the emotional repercussions of having been part of a powerful idealism, only to ultimately see much of a fight for justice trampled and friends and comrades killed, self-destructed or incarcerated. Some of the actions taken by these revolutionaries (and those who followed in their footsteps, like the Black Liberation Army) were radical, and controversial from many standpoints, but these were passionate people fighting for, and willing to die for, the dream of a better world. 

I wanted to bring forward the importance of that movement, which clearly had a huge impact on the course of civil rights in this country -- without romanticizing it or neglecting the fact that violence scars all those in its orbit and tends to reproduce itself.

I find it useful to create a detailed back story for each character. So in the case of Tess, I saw her father as someone like Fred Hampton -- in her case, murdered in front of her as a small child. She sees her father as a hero, but her attempts to take on militant action, inspired by her rage at his death, haven’t brought her any productive result.

I also spent time researching and thinking about immigration issues -- learning about the grip of the Mexican drug cartels and violence within Northern Californian immigrant communities, the difficulties migrant women face in particular, etc, as well as learning all I could about the agriculture of wine-making. 

W&H: What were some of the reasons behind your decision to set the film in California, and what story opportunities did it open or close?

BS: Living in the Bay Area exposed me to, and inspired, many of main issues brought up in the film: the wide gulf between the wealthy “Hills” people and others in the flatlands of Oakland itself; the important history of radical political movements, like the Black Panthers, in Northern California; the agricultural world of wine-making in Sonoma/Marin/Napa and the enormous importance of Mexican and Central American immigrants on the culture and economy here; and the fact that our “Western” roots are still very present in how we live in California -- both in our values and in the kinds of social conflicts that we still need to address.

The first version of the script, though, was set in Southern California -- David was a sound mixer, Anna a psychologist, and Tess lived as a hermit in Joshua Tree! Once I moved the story to Northern California, the Western connection became clear to me -- so for me it was always a question of opening up the story once I had made that realization about the geography, and the connection of the history of the place to the history of the characters. 

W&H: How important was it to you to tell a story of recovery from a woman's point of view? Likewise, how important was it to show Tess and Anna as independent, active women responding to their trauma?

BS: All of my films attempt to tell a story from a woman’s point of view, but what was particularly interesting for me here was to think about the differences between these two women and their perspective of themselves and of those around them.

I wanted to show how their difference inspires them -- it's not so much that they “understand” each other because they are both women (because in a sense the two men may understand these women better than they even understand themselves), but that they, in a sense, bear witness to each other’s struggle and begin to perceive a new vision for their own future in doing so. It was crucial that they heal on their own terms, that they make their own choices, and arguably, even mistakes, rather than be “saved” by anyone else, by love, or even by friendship.

I also wanted to respect the temporality of grief, so it was particularly important that Anna’s tale not have some easy fix, or clear resolution -- but rather just that we comprehend that she is finally stirring from her paralysis, moving forward, ready to take life on again, with all its risk and uncertainty. Tess, of course, is further along on her quest for self-knowledge, and thus she may be ready for a more radical rethinking of what she needs to be happy.

Both these women are very strong, and they also have characteristics that turn people off. It was fascinating to observe, while cutting the film, the intolerance test audiences had for shows of female strength that don’t adhere to certain social expectations -- and there was lots of pressure to soften the edges of these characters in the edit. It is very clear that the merest bit of edge, of aggression or a lack of traditional female softness/maternal warmth, goes a long way very quickly when it comes to storytelling.

We had to find a way to balance the toughness of these women against the prejudices against tough women generally, to make their force and need for independence clear, without allowing the audience to dismiss them as b-words. 

W&H: What advice would you share with other female writers/directors, especially beginners?

BS: Surround yourself with people whom you trust, and whose work you admire, and take full advantage of their collaborative gifts. Get honest feedback from the people that you most respect, and listen to it. Make sure the project is something you are willing to sacrifice a good deal of your life and family harmony to accomplish.

Filmmaking is a tough path, especially for women. I continue to experience hurdles that I think are probably confronting many other women in this career. Some obstacles are clear, systemic, external to us, while some obstacles are internal: girls and women historically lack confidence, and we are also cultivated from early on to care about people “liking” us -- this is not generally an asset on a film set when you are trying to keep a crew focused, or motivated to stay up an extra hour, or trying to talk your DP into another set-up when she or he is tired! To be in a leadership position means you will not always be in the friend position.

So my advice, generally, is to try to keep your emotional balance and believe in yourself, playing your fiddle as beautifully as you can, even as Rome burns around you.

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1 Comment

  • lskinvfal | June 27, 2014 1:58 PMReply

    "It was fascinating to observe, while cutting the film, the intolerance test audiences had for shows of female strength that don’t adhere to certain social expectations -- and there was lots of pressure to soften the edges of these characters in the edit. It is very clear that the merest bit of edge, of aggression or a lack of traditional female softness/maternal warmth, goes a long way very quickly when it comes to storytelling."

    I call B.S. Or rather, B.B. for ban bossy.

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