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IFH 549: Sundance 2022 – God’s Country with Julian Higgins

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Julian Higgins is a Los Angeles-based director, writer, and producer. His first feature, GOD’S COUNTRY – a neo-Western thriller starring Thandiwe Newton – will premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Julian’s short films have screened around the globe and won dozens of prizes, including the gold medal Student Academy Award, two Student Emmy Awards, and the grand prize of Ron Howard’s “Project Imagination” Contest. His most recent short, WINTER LIGHT, was a top ten finalist for the Oscar.

A New Hampshire native, Julian holds a BFA in Film from Emerson College and an MFA in Directing from the American Film Institute. He currently teaches directing at both institutions.

Based on a short story by acclaimed author James Lee Burke, God’s Country is a character-driven thriller set in the snowy wilderness of the American West. Thandiwe Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a Black professor living and working in a rural college town. She’s also grieving her recently-deceased mother, for whom she’d served as primary caretaker. On the day of the burial, Sandra discovers a mysterious red truck parked in her driveway.

She soon learns it belongs to a pair of local hunters seeking to enter the forest behind her house. Sandra turns them away politely but firmly – her experience tells her these are not the sort of men to welcome freely into her world. But they won’t take no for an answer, and soon Sandra finds herself drawn into an escalating battle of wills that puts her most deeply-held values to the test.

Enjoy my conversation with Julian Higgins.

Right-click here to download the MP3

Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome to the show Julian Higgins. How you doin Julian?

Julian Higgins 0:14
Very good. Thank you so much for having me on.

Alex Ferrari 0:17
Thank you so much for being on the show, man. First of all, congratulations on getting into Sundance, you've, you've won the lottery is all downhill from this point on the money should be the truck of money should be coming in at any moment now. Right. dumping into your front yard.

Julian Higgins 0:34
It's backing up to my house right now.

Alex Ferrari 0:36
Right! And, and the next in your next movie should be about 200 million, right? That's generally well, you could do whatever you want with it. Right? Is that the way it works?

Julian Higgins 0:44
That's what I've observed. That is what I'm expecting? Yeah. Well, it really is, like, he said, It's like winning the lottery, it is is an incredible privilege to be involved at all and to be included. So we are super excited as a team to be sharing the movie with the world this way.

Alex Ferrari 1:06
Absolutely. There's no question. I joke about it. Because a lot of filmmakers think that that's the way it goes, Oh, you got into Sundance, that means it's smooth sailing from this. From here on out. I always like now I've been involved with some Sundance films in my day. And I've seen it firsthand.

Julian Higgins 1:20
It's yeah, and it's also like, it's the the journey was making the movie, you know, and then the catharsis that we felt when we finished it is the best, you know, I mean, I mean, I'm sure we'll get we'll get into the whole process. But yeah, absolutely. No, this is all kind of, honestly, you don't expect anything else beyond just trying to finish it. So

Alex Ferrari 1:42
That you got a movie made is a miracle in itself, let alone in these trying times. And we'll go into what happened in the middle of your shooting of this film. But before we go down that road, man, how did you get started in this ridiculous business?

Julian Higgins 1:59
Yeah, I mean, you know, I, I had a, an instinct, as a really small child to draw. That was sort of the first kind of creative instinct that I had was drawing. And, and I think it was, I think it was just a, you know, I grew up in rural New Hampshire, there was, I was an only child, it was a I was pretty imaginative kid. And drawing was just a natural outlet. But it translated also pretty naturally into acting. I mean, when I was pretty young, I realized that there were actual human beings in these movies that got to go on these adventures, you know. And for me, it was pirate movies. I wanted to be a pirate real bad. And so and then something clicked for me at one point that, you know, you could actually be an actor and go be in a pirate movie. And that became my, my one goal from about second grade onward. That's awesome. Yeah, and like, you know, then that sort of developed into a much more serious love of acting. I mean, that was really it. For most of my youth, especially, I mean, even into college, I thought I might try to actually be an actor, I'm greatly relieved, that I'm not, because that talk about a tough profession. But um, but yeah, like, I think all of that experience, just thinking about acting and, and doing it and learning about it. And honestly, I'm just kind of a geek about acting, you know, I'm fascinated by all the different approaches and, and thinking about the interaction between performance and storytelling, and all these things. So that has been the most valuable experience I've had as a director, and then somewhere along the line it, you know, I think, as it occurs to a lot of actors, maybe I should write stuff that I could be in. So acting led very nicely into writing. And then, you know, it was in seventh grade, my friends, and I had written a bunch of silly sketches. We were all watching Monty Python, you know, and we were like, we should film some of these sketches, just just for a couple laughs. And for me, it was very much like, the first time I had to think about where the camera would go, based on what the scene was about. That was the moment I was like, Oh, I see. This is what it's, this is what I'm going to be doing. Like, it was drawing, acting writing. It was the imagination, the creativity, like all that all that came together into this beautiful puzzle that is so satisfying to solve. And, and every scene you do is completely different puzzles. So it just never gets old. And so I really haven't looked back since then. And as far as like getting into the business, I mean, the, you know, I knew, as I said, quite young, this is what I wanted to do. So I went to a school Emerson where you get to start your major the first year, that's why I wanted to go I just wanted to get into it, you know, start making things. And you know, because I had I had shot some projects in high school and things but I wanted to, you know, get into the real thing as soon as possible and Emerson was, you know, a great, really creative environment, I made a film that I thought represented me really well. And that's what I used to apply to the American Film Institute, which, you know, that was coming out here for the first time to LA and going to AFI was, you know, led to the work that really opened the doors on my career. So that's sort of, I kind of had the classic, you know, find it young and go to film school approach. But yeah, it's been my focus.

Alex Ferrari 5:30
Yeah, I didn't discover my I didn't get bitten by the bug until I was at high school. But I was working in a video store throughout high school. So there there was that so that that kind of like, Hey, I got 3000 VHS tapes around, maybe I should do this.

Julian Higgins 5:45
Yeah, and I should say, like, you know, a major. My parents, my mother writes about film and teaches film and my father's you know, film lover like he just you know, whenever my mom would go to a academic conference, he would bring home some sweeping war epic for us to watch. So I got I got like the sort of Truffaut and Curacao childhood from my parents, my mom teaches the French New Wave. And so I definitely had a very sort of film snobby upbringing, which I'm so grateful for. But, you know, there's a lot of American movies I have not seen yet.

Alex Ferrari 6:20
I, one of my prized possessions is an Akira Kurosawa our autograph movie, still that I got in LA. Like, it was, it was a pre it was a pre baby purchase, meaning that you wouldn't, I wouldn't, I would have a conversation with my wife about it. Now. They're like, really, really, we have girls now what's wrong with you?

Julian Higgins 6:44
Exactly. Before your money had destination from before it was even made? Exactly. I get that, you know, like, my dad was. My dad grew up watching, you know, you know, big American epics of the 50s, as they came out on the big screen, and he has a real kind of nostalgia for, like, the kind of they don't make them like that anymore movies. You know, like, he wanted to make sure I saw Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as a kid, you know. And I'm, you know, I definitely got my love of sort of epic storytelling from him. And then my mother is so you know, invested in, you know, the filmmakers themselves. And she writes, you know, books on directors and things like that. So, I definitely was very aware from a young age that this was like something you could do, you know, and I think that all that really helped a lot.

Alex Ferrari 7:37
Is there any film that kind of lit the fire? That really lit the fire? Was there that one movie you said, Oh, man, because we had Shea on your co writer on God, and God's country and his, his believing that was rocky for? And I was like, Yes, we understand that man. Don't apologize. It was awesome.

Julian Higgins 7:58
Yeah. I mean, it's funny, because like, I grew up in such a kind of like, movie scholar household, as I've said, I realized my mom had all these films on her shelf. And like, I knew the covers before I'd ever watched them, you know? And then and then like, one day, I was like, Citizen Kane, what is that? Because she keeps talking about that. Maybe I was just watching. I just watched it one afternoon. And I realized this is this may strike some people. That's funny, but like, I realized that I had seen it before. I thought I was watching it for the first time. But I'm actually pretty confident that I saw that movie before it could even like, speak or like, remember, you know, like, I think my mom was, I was absorbing a lot of great films and classics, classic films, as like, as a baby, really. I mean, I think I Citizen Kane was kind of like, I know, it's so cliche to say Citizen Kane, but it really was the case like that That movie was very eye opening, because it has such a fragmentary structure. She was like, Oh, I see, you can tell a story in a totally on, you know, nonlinear way. And I saw that, I would say, probably in maybe like, fifth grade. You know, that's when that's when this happened. And I was already thinking about just like, you know, acting and drama and stuff. And that movie really did make me I watched it over and over again, trying to figure out how it got built, you know? And it's, you know, again, it's super cliche to say

Alex Ferrari 9:29
It but it really, it isn't it isn't because, I mean, you're literally coming from a you know, a family of film scholar, so it makes all the sense in the world that Citizen Kane would be the movie that kind of did it for you, as opposed to like, you know, I mean, I, for me, I think the first time I haven't thought about it was et. I saw it and I was like, I was like, what? In first grade or second grade, I went home and started writing a script, which is basically I wrote for a script that's second grade, by the way, and this is what I wrote, young boy meats alien. And that's pretty much the end of that script. So that's a winner. I think that's, I could sell that for 3 million. I guess I'll guess a 5 million later. But, so Alright, so your first feature you got off the ground was mending the wall? If I correct is that correct?

Julian Higgins 10:22
I mean, it's so generous of you to call that a feature, I really do appreciate it. This wall Mending Wall is a project that I you know, it's one of those. I mean, I made it as a junior and senior in high school. Okay, so it was never released or anything. But at the time, of course, I was like, I gotta get this IMDb, you know,

Alex Ferrari 10:46
I saw that, but it was 80 minutes, but it was 80 minutes. So it's like, it's technically your first feature

Julian Higgins 10:50
I had done. I had done like, I'm gonna call it a feature length video. Okay, so I've done I've done some pretty, like ambitious projects, if you're like an eighth grader, you know, yeah, before, but like, that was sort of the one where I was like, Okay, this time, I'm going to cast grownups in the grown up roles, you know, it's not gonna be my friends playing the roles. So like, I actually had some, you know, really lovely community theater actors from the, you know, the, the upper valley where I grew up, there was like, a great regional theater there. So, you know, just trying to find people that knew more than me about, you know, acting on camera. And, yeah, that was like, an incredibly important project, for me just to like, go through it go through the entire process from writing it to, you know, trying to fundraise it, even though I think it cost maybe $3,000 over the course of two years, you know, like, but but, you know, that's, that has been that has turned into my main advice is, like, I don't think there's any substitute for just getting stuck into it, you know, like, in whatever way you can manage, it doesn't have to be a huge ambitious, you know, project, it can be something quite small, it just need to go through the process as many times as possible. And I'm really grateful that I got to do all those projects, when I was in, you know, even before college just to go through the process, you know, so, it's one of those things where you're the one man band, you know, like, I shot it, I edited it, I was, you know, we didn't even have a boom, or like, external sound, it was all just in camera sound, you know, so it was his homemade as

Alex Ferrari 12:33
Well listen, you know, I feel you, I've been there, I've done that I completely understand where you're coming from. But it's something that you're right. It's kind of like, you know, we're craftsmen, you know, we have to perform our craft, and it's as a writer, you get to write as much as you want. As a painter, you get to paint as much as you want. As a musician, you get to play your instrument. But for directors, it's so difficult for us to practice our art. And, and the thing is, is like, we spent an entire career, not doing our art very much, it's more about getting revved up to get the project up and grow. But the actual onset directing, it's such a small percentage of our careers, that as much of that as you can do as possible, unless you're Ridley Scott, if you're really Scott, you direct five movies a month, and

Julian Higgins 13:26
But, you know, like, I think that has been something that I've thought a lot about, especially in the last few years is how do I create opportunities for myself very low stakes opportunities to just practice the individual, you know, like exercising at the gym, like you got to isolate the muscles and just keep them in shape. So like, one thing that I've been doing that I think has been critical for me is just this was pre pandemic, obviously, but, you know, I'll start it up again, as soon as possible. Just once a week, a few actor friends and I would just get together for a few hours and work on scenes, I would direct them, they would often they're not to shoot them. They're not I'm not is not seen as I'm writing, who just pick good material, and just work on it together just for the exercise. Yeah, and I think things like that are so important, because as you say, it's like, like, in the last five years, you know, I've been on set as a director for, I don't know, 60 days, in five years, you know, and like, I'm thinking about it all the time, and all the time. But like the amount of time we actually get to do this beautiful thing that we are, you know, we believe are the purpose of our lives. You know, it's such a small percentage of that. So

Alex Ferrari 14:35
It's it is the it is it is the sadness, it is the beautiful sadness of being a director. You just don't get to direct you just don't get to direct as much as you want. And that's for everybody. By the way. I mean, it's not just for the Masters as well.

Julian Higgins 14:50
I can see why people are so enthusiastic about television, you know, I mean, you got it. You had a great interview with Dan audience the other day. I mean, Dan is such

Alex Ferrari 15:00
He's a master. He's like, Yeah,

Julian Higgins 15:02
I had the opportunity to shadow him at one point, I don't think he would ever remember that it was on house. And, you know, the the executive producer of the show, Greg Atanas. Who, by the way, no slouch. Greg Atanas is also like a very high level, he poked his head in the door, he was like, Daddy, yes. You know, like, anyway, my point is, I can see why doing, you know, 300 episodes of television, and how appealing that would be to just constantly be working, constantly solving problems and constantly getting into new material. Like, that's extremely exciting.

Alex Ferrari 15:36
Now, let me ask you, I mean, so I'm assuming that you know, out of college, you didn't go straight into, you know, a career and making a lot of money and just directing all the time. But either like now. Now, now, you're obviously you arrived, you've arrived already, you've arrived? You're standing on bricks of $100 bills stacked? I understand that. So no, but generally speaking, but you were more you're more established. Now. You have actually have you directed union? Have you directed features, you've cut television, and so on. But when you're starting out, what was the thing that took you? I mean, from from mended wall, to Mending Wall to all the way to God's country? There's a there's a lot of even up to your first episode of House, which was your first TV job? It took years? How did you keep going? Because it's so much of what we do is the resilience of just showing up and keep going, even though there's no hope of making it the way you want to, but yet you keep going. So what did you was it? What was it for you?

Julian Higgins 16:42
Yeah, I mean, so it's interesting, because like, you know, I, in film, school, or whatever you hear stories about, you know, like, I remember hearing, Derek, Shawn, France took him 10 or 12 years to get Blue Valentine made. And at the time, I was like, Oh, my God, I don't know if I could do that. Yeah, it took five years to get God's country made. And it was so enjoyable. Like, even though it was really difficult at times, and like, it definitely presented all kinds of unforeseen challenges. You know, the fact of engaging with a project that you really care about, that means something to you, and is, you know, deeply personal in that way, carries you along through thick and thin. So it's, it never really feels, I mean, here's the thing. I was extremely fortunate to have parents that weren't trying to talk me out of being a filmmaker, they were, it goes back to the parents again, as always, you know, like, they were so encouraging of my creative interests, they never tried to say, well, we want you to be a doctor or a lawyer and the classic story, you know, and then I had a school system around me, that allowed me to do the things that I was excited about within the program, you know, that my high school had an independent study elective, where you can work on your own project, you'd have to propose it. But you know, if you've got, you know, ran to the opportunity, you can work on, you know, like, that's what, that's how I made Mending Wall, you know, right, it's like, and so and then Emerson, and, you know, it's such a nurturing environment. And then AFI is a very brutal environment, but it's like, you know, it puts you to the test, you know, the learning curve is very steep. And so really, what the thing that has carried me along is, I have never felt like there's no hope, when I'm working on a project that I feel is is extremely personal to me, and, like, emotionally compelling to me, because then I have something that keeps my eye on the future, you know, and, and so for me, if you look at the, I mean, you referred to the years that I spent, I mean, for me, it was a sequence of projects, I don't even think of it as yours, you know, like I don't, I kind of lose track of how long things take. But what I know is that I made a string of projects, that at the time, I poured my heart and soul into and did the best I could do, you know, whether they were whether they came out, you know, I don't know, I don't know that there's objective like, Oh, this is great. This is not great. But you know, obviously, you always have complex feelings about your work, but But you know, like, I don't regret any of it. Because I, you know, you always try to find your way into the project, whatever it is, and what speaks to you about it. And then you grab that and you develop it as much as you can. And God's country is no different.

Alex Ferrari 19:30
Now, so. So you got your first when your first TV director, Job was house, not bad first TV gig, by the way. Not bad at all. You're coming in on the tail end of I think it was last season, right? If it wasn't mistaken

Julian Higgins 19:46
It was actually, there were only seven episodes after mine. Right. So you were so I really didn't catch the tail end.

Alex Ferrari 19:53
You got the tail end of it. And so I have to ask you the question, because I know how it felt when I first walked on set up Real set? What was it like? You were what, like, how old were you?

Julian Higgins 20:05
At the time. And, you know, the, the, the director that I mentioned before, Greg Atanas, is the one who really, you know, made that opportunity happen for me, he was the producing director on house at the time. And he, once again, like, it really does come down to the work ultimately, like, I would not have been able to even enter that, that sort of that opportunity at all, if I hadn't made a short that really represented who I wanted to be as a director, which was thief, my piece of foam. And Greg, just, you know, this is not, you know, a plan you can make, the plan has to be, I'm going to do the best job I possibly can with the projects I choose to work on, you know, with the resources and the people that I have at the time to work with. And, you know, so thief was at the time, I felt like, this is the best I can do. And putting that out in the world is kind of where that ends, you know, even you have to start thinking about the next one. And but Greg was actually the presenter of an award that the movie won. And i i That was the first time I met him was I saw him on stage, he presented the award, I happen to win. And then backstage, he was like, Hey, are you interested in TV directing at all, it never occurred to me, and I don't think it occurred to him at the time. I can't put words in his mouth, but that I would actually end up directing house, he just wanted to know if it was something I was interested in. And, and, you know, one thing led to another we had conversations that months went by, you know, he was like, why don't you come shadow me on an episode, you know, it's just sort of slowly built this relationship over maybe six months, you know, and I showed up on the show a lot. That's when I watched it, it is direct, a lot of other excellent TV directors that I got to kind of learn from and watch. And, and, and then I think through that process, he got to know me what my priorities were like, what how I thought about directing and the work. And he saw that I was really committed to being there and learning as much as possible. And then he actually dropped out of an episode that he was going to direct and gave it to me, which is in addition to being very generous. It's also kind of like the break that people dream of, you know, now that walking on set for the first time as the director, it was Friday the 13th. It was a massive, massive scene in the LA Convention Center downtown with 300 extras and worse, you know, techno crane and steadycam going up and down escalators and like all this stuff, I knew that was going to be the first day. Obviously, I'm so excited. But you know, the answer to all the director stresses, in my opinion, is prep. You know, I mean, that so I knew was gonna be a big day, I prepped the hell out of it, you know, and, and that, that, that I think really helped. Because I came in with a plan, I knew what I needed, I knew I didn't need, I wrapped the day on time, which is the most important thing you can do. Anyway, you know, what I found, which was surprising to me was that the actual job of the director, you know, and what I have to deal with, doesn't actually change that much, whether it's a pretty small, short, you know, an independent feature like God's country, or, you know, big television show like house, I'm still at the end of the day, I'm communicating with the heads of department communicating with the actors. I'm trying to tell the story cleanly and clearly and effectively, you know, it, it's always kind of the same job, just the scale of it goes up and down. But you know, and by the way, directing house was a real treat. I mean, I don't want to it was it was difficult, like everything, but it was, it was a really wonderful show to work on.

Alex Ferrari 23:58
Now, did you ever I mean, because I remember being the young guy in the room, that that doesn't happen anymore. Very rarely, it does happen every once in a while now I'm still the young guy in the room, which I always find like, am I the youngest guy in the room here? That's awesome. But I remember always being the young guy in the room. But when I walked in certain sets, there was the politics of the set that they don't teach you in school, the the DP that might be like, No, I'm gonna shoot it my wicked, or the production designer doesn't want to play or the actor who doesn't want to play. Can you kind of touch a little bit on how if that if that ever happened to you? And how did you deal with it?

Julian Higgins 24:31
Yeah, I mean, it makes sense to me, that people would be skeptical. I mean, I think you you may be referring to two different types of things. Like obviously, there's people that are gonna act a certain way no matter who it is. Sure. But then there's, you know, it's just like the, I think, a perfectly natural skepticism of someone who, either visually or for whatever reason, just appears to be kind of young, you know, and I think it makes sense actually, because you know, especially if Care, the more you care about what the work you're doing, the more you need there to be trust, you know, and for me, like, like Hugh Laurie, who I grew up watching his work. I love you, Laurie, you know, I mean, he's just an incredibly intelligent actor. And, you know, he carried that show on his shoulders, like he, he was the one who need to make who needed to make everything work. And so, when, uh, you know, I had been on the show hanging out, like, I don't think anybody knew who I was, I think they maybe thought I was an intern or like, somebody whose nephew or something like that, you know. And so then to be referred to as the director, I could understand why that's a little alarming, you know, like, wait a second, that's the director. Now, again, the way that you win, the trust of people you're working with, in my opinion, is you do the work before you ever walk on set? No, I mean, the way you show people that, you know, what you're doing is you execute the work. And slowly that goes away. But there's absolutely that, like, for me, I made some strategic decisions. One was, I bought a big fat pair of director glasses. You know, like, I needed to look like I could make bold decisions.

Alex Ferrari 26:21
So like, Tony, so Tony Scott glasses. So Tony, Tony Scott glass,

Julian Higgins 26:25
Ridiculous, like, hunt down some stills from that episode, you'll see these are some big big glasses. Now, it's like, that probably doesn't make much difference. But I actually think certain people didn't recognize me, which frankly, helped, you know, but honestly, what it is, is like, there is going to inevitably be discomfort. I mean, I don't know that there's any way you can solve it in advance, like, there's always going to be a part of someone with news, a new director on a TV show. You know, if you're working on that show, every day for months and years, a new person shows up, you're like, Okay, are we going to be safe? Like, are we good? And it's totally understandable. You know, and so a big part of, especially the TV directing job, but any scenario where you're, I think working with new people is, you know, come in ready to work. Because that's how you show people what your priorities are, you know, and like that you're paying attention, and you are going to listen to them and say yes to their ideas. And like, you know, I mean, the problem would be is if I walked on, instead of house and tried to tell people what to do, like, it's not that it's always a collaboration, if you're the director, you know, so

Alex Ferrari 27:37
Now, I always love asking this question of directors, you know, we all when we're on set, there's always that one day, that the entire world's coming down upon you. And then I always get from directors do you mean every day? I will? Yeah, there's, so every day could be but like, there's always that one moment in a shoot or in a movie or on a show that the camera bro, you love you losing the lie that you're at your actual broken ankle, a COVID head? Something, something happens? What was that day for you? And how did you overcome that day,that situation?

Julian Higgins 28:12
I do tend to be more of the happy warrior in these in the process in general. I mean, I do think I'm very aware of just what a privilege it is to even be able to do this at all, or even consider spending my life force on this, you know, so like, even the challenges, I do think I do a pretty good job of bouncing back quickly. I think the answer, of course, that comes to mind, when you ask that question is, you know, we were making God's country and Montana. And we were in that perfect window, where aardige thing three weeks later, the entire world shut down because of a once in a century pandemic, you know, so, and of course, my it was like, oh, yeah, of course, of course that would happen. You know, like, are we ever going to make movies again, much less when we finished the movie, you know? And and, you know, we had to make the decision which was the only decision obviously, but you know, to shut down production with about half of the schedule remaining to shoot and kind of pack our bags and go home with no no idea when or even if we would get a chance to finish it you know, and on top of the all the other uncertainty of that time you know, that was that was definitely a dark night of the soul for me. Because I don't know because I for everybody, but

Alex Ferrari 29:39
I can't even imagine. Like you've got an amazing star amazing cash. You've got the movie you've been working on for five years. everything's running smoothly, and all of a sudden, yeah, we got to shut the entire thing down because the world is ending, essentially. Yeah. And what I love and what I love about you said something very, very It's a sickness that we have as filmmakers, you said, Will we ever be able to make movies again? That is where your mind goes first is that like, not that the world's coming to an end? Like, wait a minute, am I going to be able to finish this? And that is that is the sickness. That is the beautiful sickness of being a director.

Julian Higgins 30:18
I mean, for me, it was like, I just don't know who I am. If I am not going to be able to make movies, like I really did spend some time thinking like, Okay, if this continues forever, like, What if we never come out of lockdown? You know, like, who am I going to be? And you know that that was a moment, I haven't really experienced a moment like that before. But, you know, to my credit, my manager, Jake Weiner. We were on the phone, like maybe two weeks into the pandemic, and he was like, I was like, Jake, are we ever going to make movies again? And he was like, Yeah, we will, you know, and, like, he had no reason to say that, in my mind. Like, that was completely we didn't have enough information to say that. But I seized on those words. And I like trusted my manager, you know. And, anyway, so yeah, I mean, that decision was clearly like, not a difficult decision to make. It was it was difficult emotional decision to make, but we had to send everyone home, especially Tandy way lives in England, like, we needed to make sure that everybody could get home before it shut down for real. So they pulled the plug on the movie. And like you say, like, it's really about overcoming it. You know, I had a couple of weeks there, where we, you know, where I've talked about what I was feeling, but, um, but then, you know, I will say, in hindsight now, it really was largely upside. And I will say, the reason for that is, we got to stop in the middle of the project, and reflect on what we had done, you know, which you don't get to do normally. And the way I would want to work, maybe not a year, maybe not a year of interruption, but like, you know, to stop and be like, Okay, let's look at what we have. Let's, let's start editing it, let's see how it's working, like what decisions are, you know, what choices are we making, that are really panning out? What choices are we making that, you know, aren't necessary? How are the performances coming together, and then Shay, and I, you know, we started rewriting things. And we involve Tanya in that process as well, like, we were talking, the whole time we were down, the cinematographer got to weigh in, like everybody was looking at the footage, and the value of that I cannot overstate how much that helped the movie is such a better movie now. Because we had that time to think about, you know, what we had done thus far. And, and we did have to wait, you know, we shut down on day 17 of the shoot. And then 367 days went by, and then we started rolling on dating. And so we had, and like, that was an important year, you know, 2020 was an important year, for the world, obviously, for obvious reasons. But in America, you know, so many things, I think, provoked by the pandemic really came to the surface, and we started having conversations that were very much the meat and potatoes of the movie anywhere. And, and so, you know, finally, a lot of stuff came to the surface, as far as, you know, racism and sexism and misogyny, and like, the interplay between those things, and the way we have heard, we've set up our society, you know, and the movie felt more relevant than when we started even. And so we really, really went back with a sense of purpose. It was, it felt even more important than ever to finish telling a story. And I think it was also more sorry, I can go on about it. But I just want to say one more thing, which is the, the crew all the way down the line, I think, because we were all working on it. At the moment when the world ended, you know, it was so much more to to it meant so much more to come back and finish it. It wasn't a gig to anybody that worked on this project. You know, it was we went back pre vaccine, you know, we had to implement the strictest safety protocols, you know, and everybody was so committed to doing it. I think finishing it was like, you know, it may sound a little corny but like, finishing it was the kind of gesture of we can overcome this stuff together if we work together.

Alex Ferrari 34:36
That's yeah, I can only imagine like I said that when Shay told me the story as well, I was like Jesus you guys had you went through the wringer. But it was upside. It was a lot of time to reflect and filmmakers don't generally don't get to do that. But I also saw your film, Winter Light, which is essentially the precursor to God's country. Correct.

Julian Higgins 34:59
It's really interesting. Seeing how that happened, because like, you know, the film is based on this short story. James Lee Burke wrote the short story, Winter Light in the early 90s. And I read it in 2010, after I finished AFI. And my mom handed me this book of short stories, because she's a fan of James Lee Burke. And, you know, when your life's the first story in there, and by the time I finished reading it, I knew, it was one of those things where you just kind of know, like, this is speaking to me, in a way I don't even understand yet, you know, but I know I'm gonna have to engage with this. And so for a few years, I tried to figure out how to make it into a short, it is such a contained story. It's a wonderful story, but it's it's very abrupt. It's very short. And it's very, like internal character study. So, you know, the whole time I was working on the short, because it was kind of an expensive, short to be honest, like,

Alex Ferrari 35:58
You shot 35 millimeter, like, how did you guys even get the financing? How did it get off the ground?

Julian Higgins 36:02
Yeah, I mean, you know, the financing came in from a bunch of different places, from individuals from groups from grants from we did small crowdfunding campaign, like, it was the typical story of doing a short, but just trying to get, you know, trying to kind of pull out all the stops, you know, and my cinematographer and I have a very good relationship with Panda vision. So like, you know, you call in your favors when you're making a short, something like that, like, you know, and anyway, so we pulled off the short, but the whole time, I was like, you know, I don't think there's enough story material here to turn into a feature. Because, you know, the short was so expensive, it was like, Okay, why don't we just make a feature, and I genuinely did not think that was, there was enough material there. So it kind of when I finished that short, I just sort of felt like that was the end of my engagement with it, you know, and flash forward a couple years. After the 2016 election, the the sort of themes of the story, really, like, bubbled up for me again, I was driving home from Whole Foods. And it like really struck me like, Oh, that is a very relevant story. Again, and, and I had this idea, which I'm sure she talked about, as well, we basically decided to, you know, as a way of kind of incorporating the things that we were seeing happening in the world and in the country that we were, they were making us moved and angry and, you know, just sort of agitated as a way of talking about those things. We decided to repurpose the story. And, you know, change this sort of aging white male protagonist to a 40 Something black woman in order to have a different view on what's happening. And, you know, I'm the whole subtext of the story, changes with that change. And suddenly, we were able to get into these things that were making us feel so motivated. I mean, it's Shay Shay says that that choice was our was our kind of activist choice. And I think that's, you know, it was a huge responsibility to tell the story from that perspective. And it took us a really long time and a lot of, you know, attention to translate one thing to another, but it's not exactly your classic like, short to feature story,

Alex Ferrari 38:37
Right! No, no, without Without question, but I was just curious about that. When I saw it. I was like, it was a beautiful winter short was Winter Light was beautiful. And I was like, Okay, I just figured out where it came for workouts country came from, okay, this all makes sense. Now. I always love asking

Julian Higgins 38:53
It's kind of like it's two adaptations, completely the same source material. Yeah, but like, you know, when we were when the script was circulating, if someone had actually seen the short, they would get very confused, because these stories are about completely different things, you know, right. Like they have some special elements in common that are shared by this source material, but it's a it's a it's a rat pretty radically different meaning and intention. Sorry.

Alex Ferrari 39:22
No, I always love asking people who get into Sundance what it was like getting that phone call, because it's just like, it's like it's the it is the lottery ticket. It's every every filmmaker wants to do it. You know, ever since the 90s of mariachi and Tarantino and everybody else, Sundance is the holy grail for independent film. It's so what was it like getting the call?

Julian Higgins 39:45
You know, it's funny because like, it was a text.

Alex Ferrari 39:49
No, it was no way they didn't text or they called your manager.

Julian Higgins 39:54
And no, a programmer texted me directly saying, Hey, could you just chat quickly? And I happened to be on the phone at the time with our producer, Amanda Marshall. And I was like, what does this mean? You know? And she said, Well, it's very early in the process. So they're probably checking to see like, how you're coming along with the movie, and you're done in time and stuff like that. So I was like, very kind of relaxed. When I, I was like, not prepared to be told the news. And I honestly, I couldn't process it for like, days. You know, I, it took me it took so long for it to sink. And it did not feel real at all. I didn't think it was like a practical joke or anything like that. But my reaction to it was like, oh, because a new thing is like, we didn't really, we were not done with the film. You know, like, as I'm sure you've heard many times before, like, you know, people are working on their movies, right up until the last second. I mean, we were not done. We, we had picture picture locked to the film about a week before I got that call. So we still had sound mix VFX color, like score, like all this stuff to do. So to me, it was like, Oh, my God, like, what are we going to do? Now we have, we have our work cut out for us. So once again, that was kind of like, just got to keep going because we want this thing, which right now feels so kind of, it feels like a fantasy of something that could happen in the future. You know, did not it did not feel real until we actually started getting, you know, programming emails from stuff, you know, really sunk in a long time after. I know, that's not maybe the story that is the most exciting like, but, you know, that's really the reality of it. For me, it was I immediately thought, Oh, well, now we have to finish the movie.

Alex Ferrari 41:45
Oh, shoot, this is serious now. Yeah, well, I'm gonna I'm gonna ask you, if this just got real. Let me I'm gonna ask you a few questions asked all my, my guests. What advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?

Julian Higgins 42:00
I mean, I did touch on this a little bit earlier, as far as like, you know, trying to find ways to go through the process as much as possible, even if it's just for yourself, you know, but I do think that you have you have control over very few things. As a, as a filmmaker, you know, I do try to really keep my eye on the ball of like, what do I have control over? What don't I. And what I think it boils down to for me is, there are basically two things that you actually have control over. And one is generating your own material that you care about, in whatever way that works for you. Whether it's writing shorts, spec commercials, like getting together with your friends, making music, video, or even, you know, trying to get an independent film off the ground, like whatever you can do generating material for yourself to direct or producer, whatever, you do have control over that, you know, you can generate that those ideas. And then once you have those projects that you know you want to do, you have to announce to the world that you want to do them. You know, you have to share what you're faking as widely as you possibly can. And like, what that means is like, every time you finish a short, you should be sending it to everyone you know, and you don't even need to like hear back about it, you know, you don't know never needs to watch it. They just need to know that you're out there doing things and generating things, you know. And then what I what I have found is if you keep doing that you keep your eye on the ball of actually making things and whatever way you can manage, you share it as widely as possible, where people will start thinking of you for things, you know, because they know like, oh, once every six months, like something's showing up in my inbox. Oh, yeah, right. Like Julian, that's cool. He's still out there doing things, that's great. And then that's how they start to think of you and you know, what they do with the material that you share? You don't have any control over. But I do think those are the things that matter the most.

Alex Ferrari 44:00
You know, it's funny, I actually, that's exactly what happened to me when I got a TV gig to do a series. It was a high school friend of mine, who followed me on Facebook, he's like, Hey, he was an exec at this place. He's like, Hey, man, do you want to come in and like, talk about making this show? And I'm like, yeah, why did you call me he's like, I've been following your short that you did, like in 2005. And I know you can pull a lot, you can squeeze a lot out on $1. So that's what we need for this project. And it's so true. It's just literally someone just following me. He's like, Yeah, do you want to? Do you know, do you want

Julian Higgins 44:34
A beautiful story about this one point, which is a friend of mines. Grandfather, was a big fan of Charlie Chaplin when Charlie Chaplin's movies were coming out. And it was that I guess that was the time when you could just write a fan letter on your paper with a pen and like put it in the mail and it would show up at like Charlie Chaplin's office somehow. So he would just write these letters. So You know, every time when we came up with right Charlie Chaplin a letter, just send it off. And, and then I guess, later on in his life, you know, you, I guess was visiting Paris and he saw Charlie Chaplin sitting at the back of a like little bar in Paris. And he was like, Okay, I can't just can't just leave, you know, so he walked up to Charlie Chaplin, he was like, you know, Mr. Chaplin, I haven't read any letters for years, I just want to say, I'm such a big fan of yours. You know, and they talked a little bit. And Charlie Chaplin was like, why would you stop writing? You know, and I think that's kind of how it works, you know, like I do, I do think that is sort of like, the basic concept is, if people don't know what you're trying to do, they will not be able to help you. You know, so you do have to let people know, if you finish something, share it with you, or trying to raise money for a short film, let everyone know, you just don't know. And you have no control over how that's gonna, you know, work its way through the world.

Alex Ferrari 46:00
Absolutely. You've no idea what what little thing you do here will affect that little thing. It's kind of like the butterfly effect. You just don't know exactly how it's gonna happen.

Julian Higgins 46:09
And by the way, like, everyone has stories like that, oh, that's not like, like, that's just how it works. When it works. That's how it works is you keep your your nose to the ground and make your work. And, you know, keep doing that, because that's that should be the focus.

Alex Ferrari 46:23
Is it? Is it just me or did you also go through the process of deconstructing every successful director that you looked up to, on their path of how they got to where they are, and maybe even tried to? emulate it? So like, Okay, I'm going to make a $7,000 action movie in Mexico. Like, like, I didn't.

Julian Higgins 46:48
Yeah, I didn't really like I would, I would, I would get really fixated on certain directors, and of course, watch everything they did. And, you know, and then I would go in and like, frame by frame, trying to figure out like, how did they achieve that effect? You know, I mean, what one director that was really important to me, even though I don't, I don't think I will ever make anything that's in that kind of vein is Terry Gilliam No, because yeah, because because his movies are so inventive. And you can see that he has had his hands on every aspect of the movie, you know? And I have no idea what he's like to work with or anything like that. But his movies were so inspiring to me as a as a young filmmaker just because they were so specific. And I think that's what I responded to was when people were able to do something that felt really really personal and sort of their own strange little V worldview Sure, but with you know, with a bigger budget or something like David Fincher obviously like his movies are so so David Fincher and yet he's able to do that that thing that he does in a big

Alex Ferrari 47:52
Well like um, I mean, Time Bandits. Let's not even get going I've ever seen bandits in the theater when it came out and blew my mind. And Fincher features basically a scalpel. Like he is so precise as like, there's sharp edges on everything he does. It's so perfectly constructed. And I had the pleasure of talking to his DP Jeff Cronin, well, coronal well, and I was just like, dude, how'd you do fight? Like, how do you do Fight Club? How did you grow up with a dragon that did like, and asking them all these questions and how David works and how he worked with David, it was just like, Everyone listen, you gotta listen to that episode. It's absolutely mind blowing if you're a David Fincher.

Julian Higgins 48:29
Yeah, I do think like, Yeah, I think I think for me, it's like, I get very fixated on directors that I think are consistently expressing how they, how they see the world through their work, no matter what kind of thing it is. And lately my, my, you know, my enthusiasm has been about, you know, interacting with the world. When I was when I started as a filmmaker is more about the pure imagination. No, and just like the excitement and you know, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen no example. Terry Gilliam is so which is just an extravagant like, you know, fantasy. It's just so much fun.

Alex Ferrari 49:11
Can you imagine that being made by studio today? Like, that's not even a car.

Julian Higgins 49:15
I mean, it almost didn't get made at the time,

Alex Ferrari 49:17
It barely, barely got made then.

Julian Higgins 49:20
And now I find myself you know, focus much more on like, what kind of conversation is the movie trying to have with the audience, right? What is the movie trying to get the audience to consider? And maybe even for the first time, you know that those are the things that really attract now?

Alex Ferrari 49:35
Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Julian Higgins 49:41
Oh, wow. Easy question.

Alex Ferrari 49:43
Sure. This is that trick question. This is the tree. This is the tree. This is the tree question. What kind of tree are you that's?

Julian Higgins 49:51
Yeah, that's a much easier question to answer. I mean, the thing is like, I think I'm I think less than that, I think a lesson that I that I sort of understood long before, I could Well, I guess what I'm trying to say is you can hear something 100 times and only understand it on the 101st time, you know. And like, one thing that I kind of knew intellectually, but didn't really understand was this idea that it is better to get the audience to ask the questions than to try to give the answers. And I think like, that is really a life lesson for me as well. Like, one thing that I have just been thinking so much about, as this movie comes to the end is, you know, you can't force it. Really, that's really what it boils down to like it. The the the, as, as I learned, in Dune, the mystery of life is not a problem to solve. But a reality to experience. I think that is basically the truest thing that's been said, you know, and I and I really like is as geeky as it sounds, that trickles down to like, the editing process to me or letter, you know, what we do, like, that's just so that's so deeply true about the mystery of life being a reality to experience. And so, for example, like, the first cut of this movie was two hours and 20 minutes long, the Final Cut is an hour 40. You know, so we cut a lot of movie out of this. And I was noticing that the parts we cut, are the parts that are trying to explain things to the audience. You know, and like, I really feel as a as a sort of value that like, I want to trust the audience, you know, but it's so tempting when you're trying to be telling a story you care about to try to make things really clear, but actually, it's about expressing something and letting the audience consider it.

Alex Ferrari 52:02
I agree. 100%. Yeah, I agree. 100%. And last question, three of your favorite films of all time.

Julian Higgins 52:13
Yeah, I mean, this is another, I mean, how could you possibly but today, today, I think like I'm gonna answer this question in the sense of movies that are really influenced me and like, inspired me. And, um, you know, I think like I mentioned Kurosawa, you know, I think he's made such I am much more of like the epic Curacao fan than the sort of social drama course our fan but you know, Ron is a movie that everybody you know, talks about throne of bloods incredible, but the one for me that really, I really encourage people to go see it, if they can find it. It's I believe it's on the Criterion Collection. It's called Dirceu Zala. And it is a story about a Mongolian guide, leading an expedition in Mongolia, for a bunch of Russian and cartographers. And it doesn't sound like, you know,

Alex Ferrari 53:08
Thrill ride type concept type concept.

Julian Higgins 53:11
Yeah, it's really like, and you should see that the biggest possible screen, this is a movie, they really don't make them like that anymore. It is such a personal portrait of two human beings, these two men who sort of, in a way like become brothers in a sense, there's it's almost a love story. It's like a platonic love story. But it is the like one of the biggest most sweeping epics ever made. So that's a big one for me, like, the the mix of character study and, and scale is something I really aspire to do. I would say foxcatcher is a movie that influenced me very deeply. foxcatcher is like right in the pocket of the kind of movie I want to be making. Yeah, and then I you know, I kind of have to go to No Country for Old Men for so many reasons. I never get tired of watching and I learned something profound from it every time I see it, both in terms of the content and the filmmaker. It's just love. It doesn't mean I've ever seen

Alex Ferrari 54:10
Right and I think that you're I mean God's country is in your western you know, it is a modern Western and there is an Misha, we're talking about it in our episode. There's no one doing better right now than Taylor. Sheridan. I mean, his high water winter when River and obviously Yellowstone I'm obsessed with the LFC. Um, and it's

Julian Higgins 54:34
White from Yellowstone. Yeah, God's country in a very kind of roll as well.

Alex Ferrari 54:39
Yeah. When I saw him, I'm like, Oh, that's awesome. Jimmy got work. He's fantastic. And by the way, he's fantastic in your movie, but listen, brother, I appreciate you coming on the show. I wish you nothing but success. Enjoy the ride. It is going to be it is short. You know, I've talked to a lot of sunrise at Sundance filmmakers that is just like it It's a world win. Unfortunately you won't be able to get there this year because of the world being the way the world is but enjoy all the all the benefits and all the wonderful things that come from being in the Sundance Film Festival. So, continued success, my friend and good luck.

Julian Higgins 55:16
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me and Shaye both on.

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