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I recently sat down with filmmaker Daniel Peddle, the director of two documentaries (The Aggressives and Trail Angels), about his first fictional film, Sunset Edge.

Set in a rural abandoned trailer park in North Carolina, the film is an intriguing and very atmospheric experience, centering on a group of teenagers and lends itself to a variety of levels of interpretation.

In a very positive review in the L.A. Times, critic Michael Rectschaffen wrote, “The film, tonally reminiscent of 1987’s River’s Edge, sets a hauntingly evocative stage with its images of rot and decay (poetically photographed by Karim Lopez) and a naturalistic soundtrack that heightens the Southern Gothic feel with buzzing insects, insistent breezes and dry, crunching grass.”

In addition to being a filmmaker, Peddle is also a painter, children book author and a casting director. In fact, he takes credit for discovering Jennifer Lawrence.

I understand you went to NYU. Were you there as a film student?

Peddle: “Yes, I went to graduate film school there.”

How did you become a casting agent?

Peddle: “The way I got into casting, I was casting my student films on the street. A friend was an agent at a modeling agency and he said to me, “You should do this for the fashion industry.” So one of my first jobs was to take a stack of Polaroids (because that is what we were using back then) into the agency every Friday and they would give me $500 cash. That’s how I was supplementing my film school experience.”

I understand that you discovered Jennifer Lawrence.

Peddle: “Yes. Once I started getting a clientele, my partner and I incorporated and we created a casting company. One of our clients back then was Abercrombie and Fitch. They had a kids line and they basically hired us to do street scouting for them. I was out scouting in NYC and I met Jennifer when she was 14. She was on vacation there from Kentucky and she had never thought about acting or modeling or anything like that. I stopped her and took my Polaroids, met her mother, got all her information and actually was able to cast her in that Abercrombie ad. That was her very first experience in front of the camera. Her mother called me shortly thereafter and said, ‘Hey, just FYI Jennifer loves this whole experience.’ From there they started pursuing [acting and modeling] more and more. So yes, I discovered her.”

A lot of the reviews for Sunset Edge have commented on the limited use of dialogue. Was that intentional?

Peddle: “I didn’t want there to be much dialogue at all. At one point, I was going to try to do it with no dialogue. But I loosened up on that kind of restriction. I am a painter and I’ve done a series of wordless books and I am just very interested in communicating with visuals. I have written several screenplays and my new narrative has a lot of dialogue so it’s not that I am totally avoiding it… When I was researching the location and spending time there I would often go with my nephew, Jacob, who is one of the leads in the film, and his friends would come with him. Two of them are also in the film…

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“Those three were hanging out with me at the trailer park. It was just interesting to see how these are three best friends who have been together since they were three and four years old, and really they weren’t talking that much. They would be texting or they would be playing physically, throwing rocks – doing the kind of things you see them doing in the film. But they weren’t having that many small talk conversations. That was just interesting to me to portray that youth culture, that generation in a very true, real way.”

Was only natural light used in the film process and how did you find Karim López, your editor and cinematographer?

Peddle: “Karim has edited my last two feature documentaries and he is just an amazing talent. I cast for him. He directs as well. His editing is just really amazing. So I knew I wanted him to edit. I have seen some of his cinematography and I thought that it would be an amazing package to bring to the table – to have your editor be able to shoot the film. Obviously [he would be] thinking ahead of how all this is going to come together.

“The decision to use natural light was both an artistic choice as well as just to simplify the production. When you’re dealing with a location like that…you don’t have to tamper with it too much to really get its beauty. And I didn’t want to have to deal with generators and plugging in lights to emulate scenarios I knew we could get just naturally.

“It was a challenge for Karim. The film was called Sunset Edge and a lot of the shooting was done during the magic hour [twilight]. He squeezed the magic hour out to a good three hours… He had all sorts of tricks that he was using with the lenses and exposure, etc. to trick you into thinking that this was still sunset hour when we were pretty much into later dusk.

“For me, I’ve always loved naturally lit films. Even on this new film that I am working on, which has a much bigger budget, I am going to push to do as much as possible with natural light just because I love the way it looks.”

A number of reviewers have also commented on the rich sound design.

Peddle: “I spent my childhood playing in the woods. Everyday after school I would go home…I would take my sketch pad and I would go into the woods… People think that if you grow up in a place like that you are just surrounded by quiet. I know having spent so much time in the woods that actually the woods can be really, really loud and if you’re not used to it, it can be quite scary at night. When I made the choice to use so little dialogue I just decided at that point that I wanted the soundtrack to be a little over the top and a little uncomfortable…

“There are certain ways to manipulate the sound to go into people’s subconscious. They don’t even really know how its impacting them until probably mid-way into the film and they start realizing that the sound is really kind of creepy. We worked with Ian Hatton who has a huge library of natural sound. That was one of the main reasons why I hired him… It turned out that he was just an amazing sound designer as well as composer. He did a lot of the scoring for the film as well. We wanted to have a very lush soundtrack and that’s what we got.”

We discussed the mysterious character Dora May Moon, played by Liliane Gillenwater, as an elderly spectral woman with flowing white hair. Peddle said Dora was partly based on the ancient Biblical character of Lilith, a figure who is banished from fertile territory and exiled to wander a barren wasteland.

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He added he was having difficulty casting the role locally and was about to cut it from the script when at the last minute he discovered Gillenwater at a nearby grocery store in North Carolina. Consistent with the symbolism of Lilith, I commented on the general sense of isolation and decrepitude in the picture.

Peddle: “I happen to find a lot of beauty in decay – it’s one of my favorite things. I love abandoned structures. Some of those trailers in Sunset Edge were totally gutted, they were almost like little stages that you could put whatever you wanted in there and suddenly it had a new context. And then some of the trailers were as if the family had gotten up from dinner and never came back. They were like little time capsules. It just spoke to me as an artist. Also coming from an anthropological background, this was our chance to go in and dissect and excavate the strata, as it were, and reveal things about our culture…

“The film for me is a slice of Americana.  Just as I did in my documentaries, I try not to impose my own judgment on what is going on but rather just reveal it for the audience to see and they can judge it if they want to or maybe from the perspective that we give them, it would be hard for them to judge as well… I’m just like everyone else. I see my nephew constantly on his phone and a part of me is frustrated and critical of that. Then there is also the other side  – if you can pull back from that judgment and say, ‘Hey this guy is communicating in a new and different way that maybe doesn’t make sense to me but maybe in a hundred years is likely going to make sense, and maybe we would see it totally differently then.’ I hope to make films in a way that poetically portrays all these things but doesn’t impose any kind of judgment on it.  It’s definitely a statement.  Everything in the film is symbolically saying something about our culture.”

Are there any particular filmmakers from the past that you particularly admire or wanted to emulate, or influenced you in any way?

Peddle: “Yes, there are a lot. Terrence Malick is definitely number one on my list. I have been very influenced by him and I think it’s pretty obvious in the film. He’s one of my favorites. I love the way he is really able to bring a kind of macro sensibility by really going into the micro. What I mean by that is he can do close-ups of natural things and incorporate it into the narrative in a way that you end up thinking on a kind of cosmic level about those things. I think it’s a real art that very few people have mastered. I actually think he gets criticized for it a lot because its not really understood what he is really trying to do. Definitely he would be number one on my list.

“I really like Steven Soderbergh. Bubble was a film that really influenced this work. As a documentary filmmaker it was interesting to see that there is this whole realm between documentary and narrative where you can go and work with local communities to kind of sculpt a narrative that is reflective of their experience and use them as actors in the film, even though they don’t have experience as actors. I just really love that whole idea. I have written two more scripts that will incorporate the same sensibility.

“Then there is Yimou Zhang (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern). I love his films for the same reason I love Terrence Malick’s films. I love the painterly quality and how it’s so symbolically rich. A lot of the time he uses very little dialogue.”

Peddle further elaborated on his film aesthetic.

“I like films that are quiet. You kind of feel as your watching them that maybe nothing is happening and then a few days later you realize that everything happened. It just happened in a subtle way. I hope to do this in Sunset Edge and in future films. I like to give the audience a chance to build their narrative themselves. When I do my wordless kids books, one of the things that is so amazing about it is you show these books to the kids and they can create their own story out of looking at the visuals. Every kid sees it differently and creates their own little narrative.

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“I think that you can do that in film as well. You just have to not spoon feed the narrative to people. And that’s why I did Sunset Edge in a non-linear way because it’s more challenging. You have to piece it together yourself. We don’t do it for you as the filmmakers. You’re left to do that. That becomes your challenge and responsibility. Of course, not everyone is used to that. The film is very polarizing because of that. Not everyone wants to be put to that sort of test. I understand that as well.”

Is there any advice you would have to give to young filmmakers?

Peddle: “When I was going to film school I edited on a Steenbeck and we shot in 16mm. All of that has gone out the window. And now the truth of the matter is anyone can make a film. You can make a film on your iPhone. Searching for Sugar Man is an example – a lot of that film was shot on an iPhone. There is just no excuse anymore for looking for the gatekeepers to give you permission [to make a film]. It’s ridiculous. You don’t need the gatekeepers to say ‘Yes, you can make a film.’ You don’t need a million dollars to make a movie. You don’t need fifty people in your crew. You don’t need a star. Everything that heretofore was said that you had to have to make a film you absolutely do not need anymore. I think that the key is having your own voice. If you don’t have your own voice then in my opinion there is no point in making a film. That’s the key. First you have to find you own voice and then work to express it.”

We discussed Sunset Edge as being an example of Do-It-Yourself filmmaking. Peddle also thought that some of the reviewers have misjudged the film, and he used the analogy of applying the standards of judging a water color to an oil painting.

Peddle: “I found out that the amount of money that we spent on the film actually puts it into the “no-budget” category. It was pretty incredible what we were able to accomplish with so little. I have to say, a lot of the negative reviews – and there were some – not so many- but some- I felt that they really didn’t take into consideration that when you are doing a movie with those kind of production restraints, ultimately it is going to impact your narrative. You’re dealing with trying to pick limited locations. You’re not paying a lot of money to actors. It’s going to limit what you are able to do… This is not a Hollywood film – I didn’t have those resources and I hope people can appreciate it for what it is.”

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Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readership of Screenpicks.com regarding the film?

“The film is going to have a nice ancillary role out by Kino Lorber later this year. I guess the one thing I would ask is that if people enjoy this film then I hope they spread the word. A movie like this lives and dies on word of mouth. I think this film has a lot to offer and say and it does so with very little means. And for that reason alone I think it needs people to lift it up and give attention to it.”

Sunset Edge was just released in New York and Los Angeles by CAVU Pictures and will expand into additional cities throughout the summer.

Peddle’s next film deals with the fashion industry and art world in the Big Apple. He is also finishing a documentary that was shot in Hawaii.