Art and Experience: Angus MacLachlan’s Tribeca premiere ‘Abundant Acreage Available’ is a case study in good screenwriting.
What distinguishes a film from a play? Most people would say that films rely on visuals to communicate information, whereas plays utilize dialogue. But some of the most interesting films are indeed dialogue-driven. Abundant Acreage Available, from Junebug scribe Angus MacLachlan, could have been produced as a play; with only five characters, one location, and a screenplay full of idiosyncrasy and rich detail, it would have drawn audiences attracted to its Tennessee Williams feel.
But MacLachlan, who also directs the film, was smart enough to know the key ingredient to bringing his soulful film to the screen: a delectably complex performance from Amy Ryan in her first leading role. Ryan plays the gruff and often indignant Tracy, who owns a tobacco farm in North Carolina with her born-again Christian brother (Terry Kinney). Their father has just died, leaving the dried-up farm to the siblings, who have conflicting ideas about what to do with it. When three strangers (Francis Guinan, Max Gail, and Steve Coulter) show up on the property claiming to be the previous owners of the farm, an intricate psychodrama ensues. MacLachlan’s characters, each written in their own language and with a distinct set of charms and flaws, must grapple with their impending mortality and the meaning of family legacy.
Ryan’s performance, along with that of an immensely talented cast, affords us the ability to see the story play out as it couldn’t on stage. The actors let the subtext of MacLachlan’s words play out on their faces, resulting in small moments of tragedy and deeply affecting character humor.
No Film School sat down with MacLachlan and Amy Ryan at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss working with Martin Scorsese, who saw MacLachlan’s feature debut, Goodbye to All That, and promptly came on board as Executive Producer for his next; the kind of roles that attract talented actors; making a first film in middle age; and why directing is more terrifying than anything else in life.
“Working with Martin Scorsese was the highlight of my life.”
No Film School: This is an incredibly strong screenplay, so I’d like to start from the script stage. How did you formulate the various idiosyncratic elements of the script?
Angus MacLachlan: It is always difficult to remember. I tell this a lot, but there was an initial photograph, which I can show you if you want to see it, that I saw in the New York Times of these three older Polish brothers returning to Poland, walking across this long field. And there was just something provocative about that. They had not been back since the second World War. But there was something about older brothers and the land.
And I can’t even remember how Tracy and the other siblings came about. Whenever I teach film writing, I always equate it to remembering a dream. You have this initial emotional event and you gradually remember more and more. So after you write the screenplay and get it out there, it’s hard to remember how it all emerged.
NFS: Each character is so distinct; they each have their own language. Do you take pieces from real life and transpose them onto characters, or do they just organically grow?
MacLachlan: If you’re an actor or a writer or any artist, you’re observing all the time. You’re always soaking up local color and making notes: “That’s how that feels,” or somebody says a funny line and you jot it down. I was an actor for a very long time, so when I write, I really want the characters to not all speak alike. It’s really important to me as an actor to have all the characters have a range. I will sometimes go back after I’ve written a script and say, “Okay, so do we get to see this person happy? Do we get to see them sad? Do we get to see them angry?” And if the character doesn’t have at least some different colors, I put them in there. Because I know, as an actor, that it’s harder to play a role where you don’t have a range. Characters with range attract actors.
NFS: Is that what attracted you, Amy?
Amy Ryan: Building on what Angus just said, I tend to selfishly love more character-driven pieces. And I find the land in this as much a character as anyone. We always say that it’s just five characters in this movie, but really the farm is another character. It feels so alive.
I love if there’s darkness in a script and suddenly, out of nowhere, humor comes out. I find that’s very true to life. And that is evident in all of Angus’ work. And also, I had seen his other films, so I wanted to work with him. Also, I got to play the lead in this film! I’ve never done that before.
MacLachlan: It’s not like this movie is a laugh riot, but for example, at the premiere, there were some nice ripples of laughter. A lot of it is intentionally funny. Some people don’t think they don’t have the permission [to laugh] in the middle of something dark, but I think the way that people speak is humorous. Or the way people look. There’s a line when Amy’s character just drinks water, and you see her tolerance of her brother’s [religious] beliefs that she might not especially share. From the way she drinks it, you see her saying, “Oh, fuck. Jesus.” It’s those kinds of things that I love that actors do. You write it in, and good actors will recognize it.
“Whenever I teach film writing, I always equate it to remembering a dream.”
And, of course, in the editing process, you realize you don’t need all of the lines you wrote. I had a line where Amy responded to a question. On set, she did it all without the line being there. That’s what’s great about actors.
NFS: In many ways, this is a very theatrical film: it’s a contained atmosphere—one location—with just a few actors. Much of the movie rests on the script and the performances. Did you have a long rehearsal process?
MacLachlan: Yes. We had about six weeks of rehearsal. This is just the second film that I’ve directed, I was a playwright before. I remember asking all of my movie director friends, “When do you rehearse?” And they said, “Well, you know, you’ll come on set and you’ll read it through and you’ll discuss on the morning of shooting, then you’ll block.” I’d been on sets and I’d written other films that I haven’t directed, but it was sort of shocking.
We had one day where we read through the screenplay and talked about it. There were a lot of scenes just sitting around a table going, “Okay, so you have to sit here, and you’re here and you’re here, and then you’ll get up and go.” Just logistics.
Ryan: We took a visit to the farm. Angus brought me and Terry out to the farm just right before we started shooting. We got lunch—
MacLachlan: —at Linda’s Diner.
Ryan: Having seen the farm and getting to sleep there, I put that somewhere in my emotional bank. That was really helpful.
“In the editing process, you realize you don’t need all of the lines you wrote.”
MacLachlan: I remember Steve Coulter saying, “Now I understand what you were saying about the scene that we shot four days ago. I wish that we could go back and do that again.” That probably happens a lot.
Ryan: I feel like it happens on every job, except for theater where you get to go back and do it again.
MacLachlan: If you see a scene more than once, you’ll see, “Oh, now I understand what’s actually going on with that character because I know what eventually happens to them in the movie.”
NFS: But when you’re in the middle of life, you don’t get the privilege of foresight, so I guess it’s all good and fair.
MacLachlan: Although I do have to say that I do love a lot of neorealist films with non-actors. But because I’m actor, I really do love professional actors’ work. A professional actor can hold more than one emotion at the same time. They can play at different levels at the same time. Amateurs can’t. You can cast children and capture a realistic performance, but actors can bring in all these other colors.
NFS: Do you remember any scenes where you encountered some sort of blockage and you were trying to figure out, “How do we make this scene work?”
MacLachlan: I can mention one for you. Amy had this one scene where I could tell that she was feeling a little uncomfortable that day and was struggling a little bit. She said later that she knew [she was struggling] because her accent went away. Finally, at the end of day, I said, “That’s really my fault because I think the writing was not there for you. It did not support you in that scene”
Ryan: But I think we solved it by not doing too much about it. Almost don’t act, don’t react—just say the words. When you come to an impasse, your character doesn’t know what to do here, either. So I might be experiencing what they’re going through. So sometimes, feeling out of sorts is right.
“Directing was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.”
NFS: After writing your first screenplay, Junebug, which was successful, how was it transitioning into being a writer-director?
MacLachlan: Directing is the most terrifying thing. And I’ve bought a house, I’ve been married, I’ve had a child, I’ve lost parents, I’ve lost loved ones. I was a visual arts major in school and then I was an actor for a long time. But directing was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Directing my first film, Goodbye to All That, was scary, but this one was even scarier, for some reason.
I can’t imagine directing again, frankly, because it was so stressful, it’s scary. Being a director is like being a dad in a good mood all the time. You have to dependable and you have to be enthusiastic and you have to make people feel like they’re loved and safe and good. Not all directors are that way, but I know how scary and vulnerable it is to be an actor. You want a safe environment to lose your mind so you can let go.
Ryan: Yeah, I find that directors that direct in a belligerent way aren’t getting the best out of their actors.
MacLachlan: Although there are some great directors who do that. But I can’t imagine it.
Ryan: They just shame you.
MacLachlan: And terrorize you.
Ryan: And make you cry for other reasons and say, “Brilliant!” But you’re like, “No. You just made me feel bad.”
MacLachlan: But even William Wyler, who I love, you look at his beautiful movie Roman Holiday and apparently Audrey Hepburn couldn’t cry, so he berated her and then she broke down and cried. And it’s the sweetest film. There are directors who do that way. But I don’t want to.
Ryan: Life’s too short for that.
NFS: Angus, what’s so scary and stressful about directing for you?
MacLachlan: I was the producer for this, too. And the writer and the director. And I raised all of the money. It’s just so fucking hard. Just so hard. For my last film and the films that I’ve written, someone else was the producer. For this one, I have to get the DCP. There’s nobody else. I had a fellow producer, but she’s taken a more than full-time job at another place, so she doesn’t have any time to do anything. So I have to get the DCP. It’s just so hard and also just to believe in it, because nobody cares about film anymore. Nobody cares. Nobody goes to see movies. It’s kind of like making buggy whips. You know, when cars first came out?
Ryan: That’s another thing. You never know, even with a big-budget film with a lot of celebrated creatives involved, you still don’t know if it’s going to resonate with an audience or if people will go see it. So you have to think about what it feels like to wake up at five in the morning and go to work. Picture yourself on set, driving to work, getting your cup of coffee. Does this feel good? Are you happy to be here? Rather than going, “I’m just gritting my teeth through this because I want to go to the big premiere and hope that gets me the next job.” You can’t, because it’s hard to get out of bed if you don’t feel excited about it—for all of us in life, no matter what our job is.
Make the film you want to make now. Don’t make some other choice in hopes that later on, you get to do your other film. Because it’s all hard. Big budget to small budget. It’s all hard.
MacLachlan: Martin Scorsese is our executive producer on this. It was so fantastic to talk to him and ask, “How do you do it? Don’t you get tired of directing?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I do. I hate to travel. For Silence, they pulled a rope around me and dragged me up this mountain and I hate heights and I don’t like leaving New York.” He’s 74 or something. And I said, “How do you keep believing in it?” And he said, “You know what? You have to.” It’s just so hard for me ’cause nobody saw Goodbye to All That, my previous film.
Ryan: Martin Scorsese did. That’s the thing—you can have a film that has this giant box office attendance, but maybe none of those people are ones you want to work with creatively. And you say no one saw your other film, but your hero, Martin Scorsese, has seen it. So yeah, it may not have made 20 million dollars at the box office, but one of your great heroes saw it and because of that, you got to work with him.
MacLachlan: Working with Martin Scorsese was the highlight of my life.
“Steven Soderbergh says all directors should retire at 50, and I made my first film was I was 56.”
NFS: Angus, as a writer and a teacher, what advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
MacLachlan: There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t have to go to LA to be a screenwriter. You don’t have to make a certain kind of film. You don’t have to make a genre film. You don’t have to do it in a certain time. Look at me—Steven Soderbergh says all directors should retire at 50, and I made my first film was I was 56.
Try to have faith in the uniqueness that you have as a person. It’s what you have that no one else has. At the same time, I truly believe in training and education. I have a 15-year-old and there’s a whole generation who has been told that they’re wonderful all the time, so they have a very difficult time not succeeding and knowing how to take a critique and knowing that they have to learn the basics. I’m always telling her, “The greatest ballet dancer has to do the barre every morning.” These hard, little, painful lessons enable you to dance. It’s the balance between believing in yourself and accepting that you’ve got to learn the craft.
Interviewer: And Amy, if you were to look into working with a new or up-and-coming writer or director, what would you be looking out for?
MacLachlan: Like me!
Ryan: If it’s not on the page, it doesn’t matter how wonderful of a director you are. Without a story, it won’t be good. It might look good, it might sound cool, but it won’t add up. Actors need a strong text to really hold on to. Those are the buoys along the way; if you’re unsure, you just go back to the story and that’s going to emotionally map it out for you. So it’s vital to have a strong script.
But I would also be curious. I would never imagine that I know more than that 20-year-old first-time director. I feel they’ve come with their passion and what inspires them, and I’m not going to say, “Well, this is how I’ve done it for all these years and you should do it this way.” I would say, “What’s your take on this? What’s the tone of this film? Share it with me.” Because I’m going to come into the game as the last-minute ingredient to this movie. It all starts with the idea.