Filmmaker Asiel Norton has come a long way from his childhood growing up in a remote mountain cabin with limited electricity, water collected from a nearby stream, and that horror of all horrors: no television. But the Northern California native — and son of real-deal hippies — credits his off-the-grid youth for sparking his deep creative streak.
"When you're up in the woods and there aren't a lot of people around, you're always imagining stories to yourself," said Norton, 32, during a recent visit at his publicist's West Hollywood office.
This homegrown inventiveness and bucolic upbringing informs much of his debut feature, "Redland," a dazzlingly shot slice of dark rural drama that earned the USC film school graduate a 2010 Spirit Award nomination for the Acura Someone to Watch prize and a place on Filmmaker magazine's 2009 25 New Faces of Independent Film list. Norton calls his unique, impressionistic movie "a metaphoric retelling, in a way, of my childhood and my family." He added, "It's not a coincidence that I went back up there [to the mountain area of his youth] to shoot this film."
"Redland," which opens Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5, was inspired by a single image that came to Norton of a man in a hat firing a rifle. It grew into a provocative tale of a Depression-era family struggling with poverty, mortality and shadowy behavior, and the teenage daughter whose secret affair has both devastating and strangely reparative effects on them.
Norton, who co-wrote the film with producer Magdalena Zyzak, ultimately pared away much of the script's dialogue on set, choosing to focus more on the visual than the verbal. "I'd find myself asking, 'OK, what are the bare bones of exactly what the characters have to say?'" the director recalled. "I wanted there to be a bit of mystery, so I didn't want the dialogue to be on the nose.
"I wanted to create a visual experience, one that would be psychological, spiritual and visceral." Norton added. "I wanted a look for the film that was a bit antique, but I also wanted it to be beautiful. 'Redland' is about life at its most organic level, so I wanted the film itself to be organic, to look like it was alive."
To that end, Norton hired Serbian-born cinematographer Zoran Popovic ("Feel the Noise," "War, Inc."), who helped him create the movie's singular, sometimes dreamlike visual style, one that evokes the work of such unconventional filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick.
But fulfilling Norton's vision was complicated. "Special camera lenses were required and every shot had at least six filters on it," he said. "Processing was very complex. The film had a very long postproduction process." (Norton identifies the latter as one of several reasons the picture, though filmed in 2005, is only now receiving its theatrical release.)
Despite the movie's budget of "well under $1 million" (raised by producer Zyzak via her family and their various friends and "non-industry" connections), it was shot on 35mm film rather than on more cost-saving digital video. "I'm not a purist," Norton said, "I just wanted to do what looked good and would fit what I was trying to accomplish with the film. It couldn't look the way it does now on digital."
Norton is aware, however, that his movie, with its deliberate pacing, risky visuals, elliptical storytelling and disturbing themes, may distance as many viewers as it captivates. "When you're pushing it, when you're going to the wall, some people just aren't going to like it," he acknowledged. "Many of the artists I respect the most, in any art form, are people who divide their audience. Love my film or hate it, I want that kind of strong reaction."