Interview: Director Julian Higgins Talks About ‘Winter Light’
Even the wisest of men are not immune to temptation, as evident in Julian Higgins’ Montana-set Winter Light.
Based on a short story by James Lee Burke, Winter Light is a revisionist Western about an aging college professor named Roger Guidry (portrayed honourably by Raymond J. Barry). Abandoned by his family, and ignored by his peers, Guidry and his dog live an isolated life in a cabin, located next to a national forest.
But that comfortable stability that Roger is content with is soon interrupted by the arrival of Samuel (Vincent Kartheiser) and Michael (Josh Pence), two reckless hunters who trespass on his land.
At just under 30 minutes, Winter Light is a beautifully shot and compelling character-driven thriller about a man whose moral integrity is challenged in the eerie Montana wilderness.
Higgins, who reunites with his Here and Now producers, Pence, Justin Allen and Abigail Spencer, for this film, is now in contention for one of the final five spots for Oscar’s Best Live Action Short.
The team also includes screenwriter Wei-Ning Yu and cinematographer Andrew Wheeler, the latter of whom has already been recognized at the Las Vegas International Film Festival and Breckenridge Festival of Film.
With the nominations announcement fast approaching, I spoke to Higgins about adapting James Lee Burke’s short story, the moral complexities of humanity, and the challenges of filming during a blizzard.
ScreenPicks: What aspects of James Lee Burke’s short story resonated with you the most and made you want to both produce and direct it?
Higgins: “For me, it always starts with character. The main character of the short story, Roger Guidry, is such a rich and contradictory and conflicted character, he’s fascinating. He’s a gruff man, a curmudgeon, but he cares deeply and is capable of great affection. His students love him, but his family and his colleagues push him away. He’s intensely territorial, yet longs for connection with others. He’s adamant about his principles, yet unsure of his place in the world. All these contradictions made Roger irresistible to me. And I was also drawn to the way Burke relates the man to the landscape around him, using the beauty and isolation of rural Montana in winter to reflect Roger’s inner life. I’m always looking for that sort of mythical, poetic relationship between man and nature.”
ScreenPicks: As is the case with all adaptations, writers and directors add their own signature touch to a story. How did you and screenwriter Wei-Ning Yu ensure that the film was faithful to the source material but still had new elements?
Higgins: “Of course, you absolutely want to capture the essence of the material that attracted you in the first place. But the challenge with adaptation is that on the page, the author can simply describe what a character is feeling, whereas in a film, we don’t want to be told. It has to be understood visually. And the same goes for the thematic ideas — characters shouldn’t be explaining what the movie’s about, we just have to feel it.
“So that was Wei-Ning’s challenge. I think she did a brilliant job structuring the story to bring out the broader themes and ideas, and creating all kinds of new scenes and moments that help us track Roger’s emotional journey. And she was on set as well, doing rewrites based on what our actors were bringing to the table and what we were discovering on the day. It was an intense process. Everyone on the film was just so motivated to do justice to Burke’s story.”
ScreenPicks: Gretchen, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, has a small but standout role in the film. When Gretchen confesses a dark secret to Roger, instead of judging her, he shows compassion. In spite of the fact that he lives a very lonely and isolated life, how does Roger still maintain so much empathy for others?
Higgins: “We actually expanded the role of Gretchen for the film, because we thought she was such an important character. For me, Roger’s relationship with Gretchen lets us see the things he actually cares about in life. Roger is essentially an optimist — sort of an optimist with battle scars. Despite the regrets and grudges and hardships of his life, he remains invested in the idea that he can have a positive impact, that things can be improved, that he can pass along important values and ideas to his students and perhaps help them avoid his own mistakes.
“So to him, Gretchen represents his hopes for the future, all the things he’s fighting for. Without her, he’s just a bitter old man who basically just wants people to stay off his lawn. That’s a character I’m not nearly as invested in. And also, I think Q’orianka gives such a beautiful, vulnerable performance, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be able to empathize with her!”
ScreenPicks: Although we come to know Roger as an honourable man, when the hunters provoke him, his morals are tested. If a man of strong integrity can be provoked to abandon his moral code, what does it tell us about the complexity of humanity?
Higgins: “You’ve hit the nail on the head with that question, because it’s the question that drives the whole movie. What happens if the world seems indifferent to the values we hold most dear? Does it matter, then, whether we’re peaceful or destructive, selfish or kind? The story leads Roger to a critical moment where those are the questions he faces. His ultimate choice is a strong one and I understand it completely. But the questions, not the answers, are the point of the film.
“I had a wonderful professor at the American Film Institute, Jim McBride, who always reminded us of the difference between ambiguity and confusion. Ambiguity has purpose: it makes the audience wrestle with the questions on their own. I hope Winter Light provokes audiences into reflection and discussion. That, to me, is the true test of a movie: how long its ideas stay with you after you’ve left the theater.”
ScreenPicks: I understand that authenticity was imperative for you — from big things like filming in the Missoula area, where James Lee Burke is from, to small details like having a local gun dealership owner play himself. What other things did you do to ensure that the film was as faithful to Burke’s story as possible?
Higgins: “For me, authenticity is a means to an end: that the audience buys into the world of the film and isn’t distracted from the emotional story. Burke as a writer uses gritty realism and genre to access more philosophical and poetic ideas. I wanted to do that with the movie as well, and it informed many decisions from cinematography to costuming to locations.
“For example, take the bar that appears in Winter Light, Harold’s Club, this old structure with neon signs perched on a hill above the train tracks, against a backdrop of snowy mountains. It looks like an Edward Hopper painting. You couldn’t design a more poetic, iconic location. But we decided to lean into the authenticity of it, shoot there when the bar was open, and put all the real regular customers in the movie. That was the approach: to take our cue from the real people and places whenever possible. And I think everyone on the production – cast and crew – drew so much inspiration from that.”
ScreenPicks: Mother Nature was a major factor during the shooting of Winter Light. What were the biggest challenges of shooting a film that was so dependent on the weather, and how did you overcome those obstacles?
Higgins: “I grew up in New Hampshire and I’m pretty familiar with snowstorms and cold weather, but I have to say, making a movie in those conditions is another story entirely. Obviously, safety is the number one concern. We were shooting in three feet of snow and temperatures between 12° and 20°. One day it got down to –18°. Also, we just happened to be there during the worst blizzard in Missoula since 1969, a storm the locals refer to now as ‘The Snowpocalypse.’ All of which looks amazing in the film, but took a lot of careful planning and quick decision-making to manage.
“I have to credit our producers Justin Allen, Josh Pence, and Abigail Spencer, our line producer John Hampian, our local Montana UPM Allison Whitmer, and my assistant director Gary Cotti for running an amazing show in extreme conditions where everything got done well and nobody got hurt. And I have to add: a great time was had by all! We got to play in the snow and make a movie — how awesome is that?”
ScreenPicks: In the past, the Western genre was very black and white. It was evident who the good guys and bad guys were. Nowadays, films like to challenge the idea of a hero, especially with the rise of the anti-hero. Why is the grey area so much more interesting to play in?
Higgins: “The clarity and simplicity of white hats and black hats was always a fantasy. The reality is that humans are complex, inconsistent, and contradictory creatures — grey hats. At its core, Winter Light portrays a struggle between two opposing worldviews. One is essentially optimistic, generous, and compassionate; the other essentially nihilistic, selfish, and destructive. But what makes the story truly compelling for me is that this primal struggle plays out not only externally, between Roger and his various antagonists, but also within Roger himself. It’s the internal struggle that resonates with me. That’s the part that feels most true. And I could not be more thrilled with Raymond J. Barry’s performance as Roger — I think he was able to capture that struggle beautifully.”
ScreenPicks: Are you working on any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Higgins: “Wei-Ning and I are currently finishing a feature screenplay based on a novel I’ve been passionate about for years — I’m very excited to start making that movie. And of course there are many other projects I’d love to do as well. We’ll see what happens!”
All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.
“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)
The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.
(Stills from the film are courtesy of Julian Higgins; the behind the scenes photo is courtesy of Chrissy Piper.)
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