Fugitive Dreams Interview - Director Jason Neulander

Yesterday, we premiered the teaser trailer for Fugitive Dreams, marking the directorial debut of filmmaker Jason Neulander. The film follows two lost souls who form a surprising bond with each other as they confront their traumatic pasts while drifting across the American Midwest, meeting a handful of intriguing characters along the way.

Ahead of the film’s virtual premiere as one of the official selections of Fantasia, /Film was offered a sneak peek at the movie and a chance to interview director Jason Neulander to give a more thorough introduction to this film. In our discussion, we touch upon some of his cinematic influences, what compelled him to make this story his feature directorial debut, how the medium of film afforded him more creative freedom to tap into the story in a different way, the difficult of cutting a trailer for a low key movie like this, and more.

Based on Caridad Svich‘s play Fugitive Pieces, which Neulander also directed for the stage, Fugitive Dreams serves as an allegory that touches upon the themes of homelessness, mental health, and addiction, and has some tinges of the films of Joel & Ethan Coen (albeit indirectly) and Jim Jarmusch. It’s emotionally grounded, but the narrative has a surreal, almost mythical feel to it where the viewer isn’t always sure of what’s real and finds themselves feeling like they’re wandering right alongside the characters.

If you’d like a tease of what kind of movie we’re talking about, make sure you watch the trailer, and read the synopsis:

In this allegorical road movie touching on themes of homelessness, mental health, and addiction, two lost souls embark across a dreamscape America. Their darkly strange journey confronts them with their traumatic pasts, and bonds them in compassion and love.

Mary, a homeless drifter, is filled with anger and deep depression. When another drifter, John, inadvertently thwarts her suicide attempt, the two form an unlikely partnership across the American Midwest. John brings a certain innocence to their relationship, Mary, a hardened practicality. Mary’s destination is “anywhere but here.” John’s is a place that only exists in his imagination. Along the way they meet a series of figures — ghosts of the road, voices of other cast-outs — deemed disposable by culture. These encounters challenge and torment John and Mary as they journey through a landscape that offers little solace for those living the most precarious of lives. The final leg of their wanderings brings them to the place of John’s dreams where the gray of the real world melts into color and the troubles of their afflictions dissolve away. Over the course of their story, John and Mary come to understand that the home they seek is not a particular place within this country. As they discover in the end, their home is one another.

This interview has been edited for clarity, length and content.

You directed a stage version of the play on which this film is based. What about it compelled you to make it your feature directorial debut?

Oh, man. That’s a great question. I had been thinking about directing a feature for a long time. My background was in the theater, and I’ve been a writer and director in that medium for a long time. It was the lead up to the 2016 election an all the vitriol that was happening on social media at that time that made me feel like I needed to make a movie that was about love. So I went back and read some of the plays that I directed in the past, and the stage play version of Fugitive Dreams, which was called Fugitive Pieces, I just couldn’t believe how moved I was by the script after re-reading it. Maybe more moved by it than I had been when I originally did it. At the end I just found myself crying. I felt like the way these two main characters find a connection to one another was just incredibly relevant to the time them, and even moreso, maybe the time now. And I thought this was the one.

Making a movie affords you a little more creative freedom than a stage production. Were there any specific elements of this film adaptation that allowed you to tap into the story in a more substantial way than you can on stage?

That is an ever better question. One of the things that was really interesting to me when I got really deep into the process of writing the screenplay was realizing the stage version has this kind of Waiting for Godot quality to it. It’s kind of self-aware as a play, and even through it never talks about being a play within the dialogue or anything like that, the characters are very much stuck in the same space with one another because they’re stuck on a stage. What I realized pretty quick in the adaptation was you’re not stuck anywhere. There’s no reason for Mary not to just leave when John starts interacting with her. Why would she stick around with him? That particularly effected how I re-envisioned what became the first act of the film, which is very different from the stage play.

The other big difference between the film and the stage play, obviously film needs a lot less dialogue, but Mary in the play talks a lot. But I just thought, why? She’s not interested in interacting with other human beings. Why would she talk to them? The power of that, I think, is when she actually does say something – it’s actually the monologue that’s in the teaser – it forms what I think of as the core theme of the film. It’s this idea of grace leading to compassion, leading to forgiveness, leading to love. Thematically, that’s similar to the play, but maybe is more focused in the film. I wouldn’t say the film is better or worse than the play, but it’s definitely a totally different animal.

There aren’t a lot of movies about homeless people or drifters, and those that are out there tend to veer into melodramatic or sappy territory. Based on the trailer, it doesn’t seem like this film feeds into that trend. Was that something you intentionally wanted to avoid?

The film itself, I would not call it conventional realism.

Yeah, it definitely has a surreal quality to it.

Yeah, but it’s very emotionally grounded. It’s interesting because I didn’t make this film to advocate about homelessness. That’s not, for me, what the core of the film is about. The characters happen to be homeless and that puts them in a series of situations that are extreme. By telling a story in which characters are in extreme situations and circumstances, I think the extreme things that happen in the film feel more grounded because you feel like there’s real people reacting to the things that are actually happening.

One of the key elements, you don’t really get this in the teaser, but the other main character John, and we never say it outright, but he definitely seems like he may be mentally ill, which is a huge factor in homelessness. Much of the film is through his perspective, which is definitely askew from the perspective of people who don’t have mental illness. So it adds this unnervingly strange quality that also lends itself to the magic that happens within the magical realism framework of the movie.

Fugitive Dreams Trailer

What cinematic influences did you take cues from for this movie? It feels like there might be some Coen Brothers flair in there.

That’s interesting. I wouldn’t list them as one of the influences directly, although how could they not be since I’m a huge fan. For me the biggest influences are probably early Jim Jarmusch movies, specifically Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Really specifically Down By Law. Some of the more avant-garde films of the 1950s and 1960s. Ingmar Bergman is a big influence on this, specifically Persona and Fanny and Alexander. Also some classic Hollywood movies, specifically Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. Are you familiar with that movie by chance?

Unfortunately, I’m not.

So you know the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, right?

Yeah, definitely. That’s actually what prompted my observation of their possible influence on this movie.

Maybe you’re catching this connection then. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the title of a film that the main character in Sullivan’s Travels is trying to make. So the Coen Brothers are definitely nodding to Preston Sturges very overtly. Sullivan’s Travels is about this director who wants to make this serious Depression-themed movie during the Depression, and he disguises himself as a homeless person to try to get to the reality of what it’s like to be homeless. And it’s a comedy.

Also, The Wizard of Oz, which is probably pretty obvious after watching it.

I think it goes without saying that many of the movies you listed are why you chose to shoot a majority of the movie in black and white.

Yeah, very much so. And in 4:3 aspect ratio too.

Can you elaborate on the the creative decision to not only shoot in black and white and that full screen aspect ratio, but what that brings to the story?

Well, the theme of The Wizard of Oz is, “There’s no place like home.” For these characters, they don’t have a home. In the original play, there are a lot of references to The Wizard of Oz in the dialogue. I loved that idea. There’s a character you meet at the end of the film named Henri Gatien. For me, if the Wizard of Oz were pure evil, and he really could do magic, he would be Henri Gatien. So what I decided to do was, when we’re fully in John’s head, things shift to color. Earlier in the film, he describes this place that he says Mary is taking him too, and we see that in color as he’s describing it. But it does an abrupt shift to color when we get to the middle of the film, when we’re in this world where we don’t know what’s real or in John’s imagination. And that all ties into the different title of Fugitive Dreams. I wanted to create an experience in which you’re not entirely sure, as a viewer, whether or not what you’re watching is actually happening or just in a character’s head.

There seems to be a touch upon the magic of movies in how they bring us together in addition to the surrealism that’s there.

Yeah, I think there’s something incredibly magical about the movies. This just occurs to me as you mentioned that, but I think that there’s something that will maybe add to the emotional experience for the viewer at this premiere, because it’s a virtual premiere, we’re not all in a theater together. There’s something, by its very nature, that’s kind of sad about that and maybe ties thematically to these characters who also never really find that community of folks to share experiences with. That’s a sad thought.

You know, when I was watching the movie, I didn’t entirely make that connection between where we’re at right now as a society dealing with a global pandemic and being isolated from each other and what happens with these characters in this movie. But there really is a shared experience between us and these people who are lost and wandering through life. Obviously there situation is much more dire since we have homes, and food, and things to distract ourselves with, but we’re missing that personal connection.

Yeah, big time.

Since we’re premiering the trailer for the movie, I wanted to know how you go about cutting a trailer for a movie like this. It’s not a traditional studio movie or blockbuster where it’s easier to pick the trailer beats that really sell the movie to an audience. It’s very quiet and very grounded, so how do you create a trailer that conveys what the movie is without digging to deep and letting people’s curiosity lure them in?

Man, I love your questions. It took me many, many, many edits to get the teaser to the place where it is now. So I wasn’t sure of the answer to that either. It was kind of like throwing clay on a wheel, putting my hands on it, and seeing how the organic shape of the thing took place. A pretty late discovery in the editing process was for me to use voiceover. My first pass on the trailer just had music, the song that plays over the opening credits of the movie, which is an original song that we recorded just for the movie. It was the voiceover that helped me realize how the shape of the trailer would be. I already had most of those images in the trailer as an almost abstract collage, but then I realized I could actually directly tie some of the imagery to the things that Mary is talking about, and that would give the trailer a shape that hopefully would be enough to get people to watch without giving any of it away. I don’t know whether we achieved that or not since I’m pretty close to the project but –

That’s specifically why I wanted to ask, because it does such a good job of making you curious about the imagery and you want to know more about the story. And that can be supremely difficult with a movie like this.

Oh, great! Thank you for saying so. I really appreciate that.

Once this movie arrives and people have a chance to see it, what is it you hope they take away from the experience?

I think different people are going to react to this movie different. For me, the film has this dream logic to it that goes towards an emotional truth rather than a fully articulated logical or rational truth.

During this part of the interview, Jason Neulander mentioned a major spoiler that we don’t want to include here since the movie hasn’t premiered yet. All you need to know is that there’s a sequence involving something that John does at the end of the film’s second act.

At the core of what I’m trying to do with the movie is ask what our capacity is as humans to forgive. I don’t really know what the answer to that question is. These days it seems like we don’t have a particularly big capacity for that. But I guess that really is the core of it. What is our capacity for forgiveness?

Fugitive Dreams premieres virtually during Fantasia on August 31, 2020, but it doesn’t have an official release date yet.

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