“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”  Robert Frost’s famous line could apply to Moss,  a sensitive coming of age tale set in an isolated, rural area of the South. The film centers on Moss (played by Mitchell Slaggert) who, on his 18th birthday, embarks on an odyssey through the rivers and forests of his native environment. Along the way he encounters a beguiling and free-spirited young woman (Christine Marzano). Moss’ relationship with his father (and almost certainly Moss’ inner life as well) is complicated by the fact that Moss’ mother died while giving birth to him.

Directed by Daniel Peddle (Sunset Edge), Moss is highly atmospheric with artfully selective use of dialogue. We spoke with Peddle about the film, along with some of his other accomplishments, including being a children’s book author, painter and casting agent  (who discovered Jennifer Lawrence).

Q: I understand that you are from North Carolina.  Did you grow up in a rural environment similar to that depicted in Moss?  Are you particularly interested in stories from the South, and how has being from the South impacted you as a filmmaker, if at all?

Daniel Peddle: I basically spent my childhood in the woods! It was absolutely my favorite place to be and everyday after school I would disappear down paths I had worn down myself. I spent a lot of time by myself sketching in the woods. Socially I always felt like an outsider but in the woods I felt at home. So of course this experience has had a huge impact on my work.

I love the South. People are avid storytellers down there. I also pretty quickly embraced my “outsider” perspective and found purpose in it. I assumed the role of the documentarian very early. By twelve years old, I had amassed a large portfolio of photos I took of the “country ways” of the farming community being replaced by suburban sprawl in my neighborhood. My neighbors on the dirt road I grew up on nicknamed me “the professor.”

Q: As per one of your previous films, Sunset Edge, there are significant periods of time in Moss in which there is very little or no dialogue, which gives both films something of a meditative, dream-like quality.  You have also published a wordless children’s book (Snow Day). Do you prefer to tell stories more with images than words, and is this a directorial strategy that you think you will pursue in future projects?

Peddle: I’m interested in what people do when they are alone, when they are quiet. I love to portray introverted and isolated people. So of course dialogue is not the tool I rely on to share their secrets. And when my characters do speak, what they say is intensely important. Both of these films deal with father and son relationships where the dads have distanced themselves from their sons in order to protect them in some way. These are men who struggle to express themselves and, in the absence of women, they sort of “hole-up” in themselves. So this silence between them always is looming, like a storm cloud. It adds an intense mood to the films.

Q: You are also a noted painter. Has your painting impacted your filmmaking, particularly in the composition of shots?

Peddle: Yes, I always tell my cinematographer that I want “every single shot to look like a painting.” I am relentless with this goal. What I mean by this is simply that when composing our shots that we enter that painterly mindset where every aspect of the image has huge symbolic repercussions and resonance. When I shot on actual film in film school, you think of it as this precious resource. Now with digital it’s cheap and endless, so I try to return to that respect for the white canvas– getting ready to make our first stroke.

Everything we show means something. Everything! How that branch shatters the sky in the corner vs. if we cropped it out, will actually impact how the viewer reads the image. I have a lifetime of experience making these kinds of choices and I don’t take them lightly.

Q: What themes are you exploring in Moss?  The film seems open to a number of different interesting interpretations.  Is there some symbolic significance to the fact that the lead character is named Moss?

Peddle: Oh boy! Moss is loaded on every level. The name/title was the seed for the film. Where we shot is literally covered in all kinds of moss. It’s also a man’s name you hear down South. So it was perfect. I wanted to create something that seemed super simple and had the structure and elements of a fable. Something visceral that burrows into your subconscious. A character you would never forget. I wanted to play with biblical iconography. Super basic stuff like Adam & Eve and the serpent. To bring these into a “modern” tale that still seems timeless, to somehow slip these things by the viewer.

Not many people who see the film realize it’s a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, even though throughout the film, Moss wears a red hoodie! In this sense, I am being the trickster. I’m using imagery everyone already has in their mind but has forgotten. When you see Mary give Moss a hit off her apple bong, you might not be thinking “oh that’s Eve tempting Adam” and yet the imagery builds on what already exists in the viewer’s mind. It’s on a subconscious level that the connections are made.

Q: The cinematography of the river and forest environment by Juri Beythien is quite beautiful and the music by Ian Hatton is very distinctive.  What was it like to work with Juri and Ian?  Had you worked on other projects with them before?

Peddle: For Juri it was his first feature film and first time in the USA. I took a chance on him because he barely had a reel. I was connected to him through a friend in Berlin. We only skyped before the filming and I just got a hunch. So when he landed everything was surreal to him and therefore to me, too.

We were meeting in person and I could see everything through Juri’s eyes. Imagine this is your first experience of America – this small isolated island off the Carolinas with all its redneck culture and weird island ways. This was one of the many risks I took making Moss that paid off! Juri was absolutely incredible to work with. His stamina and focus were incredible. I would be quite happy to shoot all my films with Juri!

With Ian we had worked together on three of my earlier films and so we had that to build on in Moss. Ian is amazing at what he does and almost equally important to me, he’s extremely humble. When we work, we set our egos aside and let the project take control.

I believe the film, like a painting, wants to be a certain way. It always has its own volition and voice. You just have to listen to it and that is what Ian does so well. It’s actually a magical process. The sound design for this film is sublime. Literally every single bird chirp is carefully placed. We actually “cast” certain birds to be associated with certain characters and pick our crickets depending on the mood of that moment. Again it’s all to operate on a subconscious level, to transport people into this dream world.

Q: As a casting scout, how did you discover Jennifer Lawrence?

Peddle: It’s a simple story. She was on vacation in NYC from Kentucky with her mom and I scouted her for a job on the street. She just had something I could feel. It was again, a hunch. She was only 14 years old and after her first job in front of the camera that I cast her for, her mom said, “Jennifer has found her passion!” I helped her get her first agent and from there it just snowballed.

Q: Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about Moss?

Peddle: It’s a simple story… like a languid canoe ride down the river…”She takes you where she wants to”…Just relax and let go, enjoy the beautiful journey!

Q: Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Peddle: Sure! I’m working on a film about a teen boy from China with Tourette’s Syndrome who immigrates to NYC to fulfill an indentured labor contract and falls in love with a local girl. It is a modern day Romeo & Juliet story. My brilliant editor for Moss, Zimo Huang, inspired the story. Working on the film we became so close and he turned into a muse for me. This will be my first narrative film shot in NYC. I realized I have now been in NYC longer than I was in those woods down South and I finally feel ready to start this urban exploration… wish me luck!

Moss premieres at the Arclight Culver City on June 21 at 8:30 pm.

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