In “The Driftless Area,” a bartender named Pierre (Anton Yelchin) returns to his hometown after his parents die. He finds himself in danger and intertwined with a mysterious woman named Stella (Zooey Deschanel) and creepy criminal Shane (John Hawkes). The story is based on the novel of the same name by Tom Drury. It’s about time and fate and shifting realities.
I never thought about time not being time until I saw this movie. I was mesmerized and jumped at the chance to sit down with the screenwriter and first-time feature film director Zachary Sluser. Here is our exclusive interview for TheBlot Magazine.
Dorri Olds: First of all, I have to ask about your dog. I saw him on your Facebook page.
Zachary Sluser: [Laughs] He’s a miniature dachshund, and I’m embarrassingly obsessed with him. He has a large personality.
What’s his name?
Aw, that’s so cute. OK, now lets get to your movie. I loved it — so creative, but I want to see if I got it right.
There is no right or wrong way to interpret it. I don’t want to express how things should seem. That defeats the purpose of the movie. Things are not clear in the book, either. The story deals with questions about the afterlife, multiple universes, reincarnation. I don’t profess to have all the answers and neither did Tom [Drury] in the novel, but it’s funny and thought-provoking.
It seems intentionally confusing, but not frustrating. It invites audience participation.
Very much so. As a viewer, I don’t like when movies pander down to me. I like movies that treat the audience with respect and invite them to participate. Those are movies I get the most out of and find myself going back and thinking about again and again. I like when I’m not given the answer to everything. I’m so glad you’re still thinking about it. That makes me feel great as a storyteller.
I am thinking about it. I liked the film. Let’s talk about the cast. Is Anton Yelchin shy in real life?
I don’t find him shy. Are you asking because of something at the premiere?
No, more from last year’s. He seemed shy, and he often seems shy in roles he plays, which I find endearing.
I didn’t find him shy. He wanted to actually learn bartending to play Pierre. In pre-production, we got him a job bartending at a bar across the street from the hotel, so he was mixing drinks. He’s thoughtful, intelligent and there’s an innocence about him, so I can see how you might see him that way.
I’m a big fan of his. Is he more talkative off screen?
Yes, and he’s very likable.
What about Alia Shawkat?
She is one of a kind, her own thinker and she’s got an incredible sense of humor, composure and, as an artist, she’s enviably talented. Alia’s a great painter, singer and actor. I could not think more highly of her. As wonderful as she is on “Arrested Development,” in films she’s even more impressive.
What is her personality like? Is she irritable? She often plays irritable.
[Laughs] No, not at all. She’s sweet and has a sharp sense of humor.
How was it working with Zooey Deschanel?
She’s amazing. I’m a big fan of the independent films she’s done, including her work in David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls.” She’s funny, ethereal and magnetic. A lot of people discovered her and got excited about her in “500 Days of Summer.” In “The Driftless Area,” she gets to show her acting chops, and her newer fans get to see how much she is capable of.
Have you worked with John Hawkes before?
Yes, John shared a short story of his called “Path Life,” and we decided to make a film; he played the lead in that short. Ever since then, we decided we wanted to keep working together. I feel very fortunate. He’s focused, disciplined and an inventive actor and not only is he one of our best actors, he’s also kind, generous and faithful. He’s a true-blue friend. It shows in his dedication to the film and me. He was instrumental in assembling the cast, and as a first-time director, it felt critical that John was willing to say this is a story worth telling.
You said there are no standard villains, but I thought Hawkes’ character was a villain. I couldn’t see any redeeming qualities.
For me, what I like about John’s character — it’s true in both the book and the film — is that without him Pierre and Stella never would’ve met. I like looking at the universe that way. That there’s action that creates reaction, and it doesn’t need to be judged as bad and good. Out of his actions came something good, which is love. His character is a criminal, and his actions are not “good,” but he is good at what he does until he lets his emotions and ego get frustrated by the string of bad luck he’s dealt. That overtakes his competency. He does feel guilty about the crime he didn’t intend to commit. He didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt in that house fire, he just meant to burn the house down. That was his job. The fact that someone was there was unintended. I think in Shane’s world, he would’ve liked to have either been paid more or told about it. He’s not the traditional menacing criminal. I’m able to empathize with him and laugh as he messes up.
I loved the humor. When he steals that plant, it was so terrible — but so funny.
John does such wonderful physical work, like when he gets out of the truck and that woman is trying to help him and he pulls out the knife. He is so exhausted and looks at her as if he’s disappointed, thinking, “Do I have to show you the knife in order to take the car?” It’s all in John’s body language. He does that in every movie he’s in. It’s so fun to watch.
What was the casting process like?
John was the first one in. He vouched for me. Every film is about your champions and allies, and Charlie Jennings helped us put together this cast. Anton was our first choice for Pierre. John Hawkes came to my first lunch with Anton, and we talked about the script. Then Anton and I had further conversations after Tom and I did the next draft, and Anton came on board. I met Alia through a friend at dinner one night. I went home and thought she might be perfect for Carrie. Then I went over to John’s house to play poker and he said, “I have an idea for Carrie. I watched the movie ‘Cedar Rapids’ and there’s this actress.” He showed me Alia’s photo. It was a wild coincidence. Then Zooey came on board. Ciarán Hinds, a wonderful actor, came on. And Frank Langella, Aubrey Plaza. I could go on and on. It’s a dream of a cast.
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.