Interview: Skyler Lawson
Finalist in the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project with his short film Nora, writer/director Skyler Lawson was praised by Pipeline execs for his distinctive approach to filmmaking and his striking ability to combine classic cinematic technique with a definitively modern sense of storytelling.
Nora stunned us a little. Predominantly with its style. Not sure many directors have this type of look and feel anymore. Across the board, too: the directing, the score, the cinematography, the locations. . . . As you know, we’ve affectionately labeled it “Neo-Americana” (if that term has already been taken, so be it—we’re giving it a new definition). What gravitated you toward this approach? Did it happen organically, through a direct influence of classic cinema and the rural areas you were accustomed to? Or was it a conscious decision to give your work an identity unlike other filmmakers?
Thank you so much for all of your kind words toward my work. It makes me so happy when people connect with it, because I’m only trying to tell the stories the way I know how. From my heart and my gut. I always follow a gut feeling on things, and once I commit to that personal vision, no one can stop me. I like to follow through and make the best piece of cinema I can and embrace the restrictions of the production.
The most important thing is letting my true feelings out. That is what every director should be doing, in my opinion. No artist should be afraid to let their heritage and identity take center stage in their work. I’m from Indiana. I grew up on a grain farm that has been in my family for over 100 years. I didn’t take over for my father, as he did for his, and so on, so I take this opportunity very seriously. The moment I decided to honor that history and put it at the forefront of my work, whether that be location or tonality, everything changed for me. I don’t hide from the intuition that has been gifted to me from my family. It’s a unique voice. That of pride and handwork, but also faith that when you put the work in, it’s going to rain and something will come of it. It’s all about timing and bloodying your knuckles when no one is looking. That farm is not too far off from the mentality you have to have as a filmmaker, in my opinion.
We see it even more in the feature screenplay of Nora, this aura of nostalgia with a modern slant. It’s a romantic yet brutally stark portrayal of Middle America. The realities of a changing world colliding with the familiar conventions of the past. Like the style of the short, few are willing to grapple with this subject matter. What was your intent with the script, thematically speaking? Why is this story so important?
That is such a flattering breakdown of what I tried to accomplish with that script! You are spot on. Nora is the most personal thing I have ever written. Everything in that script is based on real life in some way or another. And not just my own life, but my mother and father’s as well. Nora takes place 15 years in the future. . . . I did that so people would accept some of the struggles of the small-time farmer, what small towns are facing now and not pass judgment. It’s about the burden of lifetimes of work and land changing hands between generations. It’s about committing to keep what your family built even though the world is turning its back. It’s about two brothers squeezing every bit of youth they can out of their lives before they are thrown into the riggers of running the farm for their father. They build and race cars to distract themselves, they get mixed into some dark business operations, their hands are never clean and made of stone. . . . This is Middle America.
A line from the film is “In this country, if you’re gonna own anything, own land. . . . They stopped making that a long time ago.” That is a direct quote from my father, and it’s 100 percent true. But the game is rigged against a small-time farmer in a lot of ways. It’s hard to make money, as production costs go up but the market goes down. The most interesting thing about this script, though, is that the struggle is experienced by an immigrant girl who is seeking refuge from deportation. The audience sees it through her eyes, a fresh take that suggests that the immigrant and the blue collar worker are after the same thing, no matter the politics involved. It’s called the American Dream. I’m trying to put an authentic portrait on the screen, the good and the bad of that place, and let the audience decide what’s right. That’s all I can do is hold up a mirror to that theater and take them to a place they’ve never been.
You’re obviously a talented director. However, you’re also a composer—and already finished literally the entire score to Nora. Pretty ambitious. And it’s a brilliant score, to be honest. Why was it important for you to lay the groundwork for the music? Did you do it before or after you completed the feature?
Well, let me just say that this means a lot. Most people don’t know that I am a composer as well. I quit my design agency and freelance jobs cold turkey to write Nora, so it was a six month battle with myself to put the most authentic portrayal I could on those pages. Everyday, all day, I was pouring my soul out, and for the first time in my life, I was focusing all of my energy on one project. If I’d get stuck in the script, I’d turn off Final Draft and start composing. Letting all of that organic flow into the music without passing judgment. In a lot of ways, it would help inform the cinematic language of the project. It was unlike any score I had heard because I was relentlessly chasing down the “sound” of my home and my version of it. There aren’t movies about where I grew up, so I was freed of expectation. A script is meant to be performed, not read so it helps the reader get a sense of where I’m headed as well.
My only objective was to convey this intangible connection I have with that place and those characters. I’m sure a bunch of those tracks won’t make it into the movie, but I know some of them will. It is an incredibly powerful tool to have as I switch modes from writer to director. My job is to inspire everyone involved to do their best work. Having the score lets me offer a tonality to anyone who wants it to be a part of their process. It’s a good way to make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. It keeps the vision tight, but also allows for organic reactions when the scenes come alive for the first time on that celluloid.
What composers have impacted you most?
Man, you’re putting me on the spot. . . . I guess I can only answer as to who I listen to most: Jonny Greenwood, Hans Zimmer, Arvo Part, Chris Dudley, Fabio D’Andrea, Aaron Michael Smith, Ryan Taubert, Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Krzysztof Penderecki, Joep Beving, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, and the late Johan Johansson.
You’re shooting your first independent feature soon (on film, no less), Whelm. How did it come together? From idea to securing financing?
I had been shopping around a couple films, trying to find the right financial partners who could get on board with my vision and got really close a couple of times, but it wasn’t quite right. So after I got a phone call about some money falling through, I decided to not ask permission to make something good and write exactly what I knew I could pull off with the resources I had. I called up my DP and great friend Kassim Norris and ran an idea past him, and he was all in. I did the same with the actors that are in my last film (a WWII short called Left Hand), and they were all in. So I threw caution to the wind and started to write.
Whelm is an American Depression Era thriller and heist film, where a small family in Indiana gets tangled between a legendary bank robber and an eccentric and dangerous rival criminal. It’s based where I grew up as well and is a culmination of some local legends that I grew up with, but also me just making the movie I wanted to watch with my best friends. But don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly personal as well. You won’t have to dig very deep to find that it is a commentary on chasing fame and celebrity. It’s a cautionary tale about finding out just how hollow of an endeavor that is opposed to the people you have in your life. We need to shift our thinking to how we can serve rather than how we can gain. The spirit of the production is that we are all going to push each other as far as we can, with the promise that I have their back.
It’s just a bunch of people that I’ve worked with who are world class, but the industry hasn’t caught hold of them yet. Delil Baran in particular. I wrote the best character I could for him, he is an enigma and audiences should be ready to hear that name. He is a force to be reckoned with, as are the rest of the actors in the film: Ronan Colfer, Dylan Grunn, Francesca Anderson and Grant Schumacher. I have been telling everyone that the film is going down in October, no matter what financing comes through. . . because even if we fulfill our perfect budget or not, I know that I can pull off an impactful story with the ingredients that I have access to. Ten years of building relationships and constantly over-committing and delivering have led me to make this film, and I’m more than ready. That being said, I’ve been betting on myself my whole career, and if anyone wants to go on that ride with me and support my feature debut, my line is always open. All I can promise is my passion for the work and hopefully a great piece of cinema.
The best choices you’ve made thus far in pursuing a career as a writer/director? The worst? If you had to change anything or had to tell a fellow filmmaker what to do and what not to do. . . ?
The number one best choice I’ve ever made in pursuing this career is not waiting for approval from someone else. There is no one waiting to hand you a golden ticket, and you’ve got to earn it. I make only the films I can make, so hopefully, they will know me, for me.
I’ve made a habit of Over-Committing and Delivering. I constantly go outside my comfort zone and burn the boats after I take the island. I give myself no choice but to move forward. I think that’s how we have to be. I couldn’t do that without the support of my wife, Natalie. I’ve known and loved her since I was in high school, and she is down to get in the trenches with me when the money isn’t coming in. She knows how much it means to me, and I want to pay her back with all I have. If I can make a living doing what I love, that is what I’m chasing.
I would say to fellow filmmakers, surround yourself with people you want to go to battle with, people who are brutally honest, and people whose taste you admire. Talent is great, but has to be equal with taste and honesty or it doesn’t work. You can learn that the hard way. Always bring value to the equation, and never come to a conversation with your palms up. If you stick to your identity, personally and as an artist, you’ll attract the right people. This goes for audiences as well, especially since everyone can hide behind a cell phone. If it’s not for them, then that’s okay, everyone is different and it’s not Burger King.
Don’t ever change your voice to try and hit the zeitgeist. If you do, you will be late. Art isn’t sports, so please, I beg you, put authenticity into the world with your work. We are all starved for it at the moment!
Listen to Skylar Lawson's appearance on Reckless Creatives podcast.
Skyler Lawson is an award-winning writer and director known for his films Clayfist, Nora, and Left Hand. His sights set on telling visceral stories that reflect American culture as he sees it. Each one of Lawson’s films are trademarked with lush and evocative camera work, paired with challenging and personal narratives. His unflinching honesty often serves as a mirror of culture in the United States, but also offers an optimistic hand as it challenges the audience to look inward. His work is quickly emerging as a cinematic force to watch for as his focus is now on feature filmmaking.
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