takemetotheriver-posterA Nebraskan family reunion couldn’t seem more backwards to a gay Californian teenager. If Ryder had his way, he’d choose a moment just like this to come out, the bigger the scene, the better. For his mother’s sake however, Ryder agrees to keep quiet, except for parading around the picnic in a bright red pair of short-shorts and his vintage shades. Ryder’s antics raise eyebrows from his cowboy relatives, but 9-year-old Molly can’t get enough and she follows her cool California cousin everywhere. After lunch, they walk to the barn to look for a bird’s nest in the rafters. Their strange encounter, and whatever happened while the two escaped their family’s watchful eyes, makes Ryder the sudden target of suspicion, and places him at the center of a long buried family secret. Anchored by an incredible performance by Logan Miller as Ryder and rich, dramatic turns by Robin Weigert and Josh Hamilton and Ryder’s mom, Cindy, and his Uncle Keith, Take Me to the River has more nail-biting suspense than many horror films and constantly forces one to question the culpability of various characters. I talked to writer/director Matt Sobel about this unusual and powerful film.

Danny Miller: I so love movies that don’t “explain” all the facts or tell us what we’re supposed to feel. Did you play with the amounts of exposition you wanted to include as you were making the film?

mattsobelMatt Sobel: Oh, yes. We called it “narrative negative space” and we played with it a lot. We wanted to invite the audience to project their own fears, assumptions, and suspicions onto the characters. That happened in the writing and the shooting, but a lot of that work was done during the editing process. Sometimes we’d remove an entire very crucial scene and then add it back one line at a time until we felt like it just barely made sense. And then we’d test it with an audience to see what they got out of it and then maybe we’d remove a few more lines. It was a very additive/subtractive process like that.

Fascinating. So you actually shots scenes that aren’t in the final cut that explain “what really happened?”

Well, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to have these narrative negative spaces and Uncle Keith does reveal what happened with him and Cindy by the end of the film but by then we don’t know whether to believe his version of their childhood since Cindy clearly has a different take on it. One thing we cut back on significantly was the grandmother who seemed to be the most unbiased of all the characters in terms of the backstory. So when she said something we took it more as fact compared to when the siblings talked about it. We ended up cutting out a lot of her dialogue. There were other things we edited out to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. For example, when they’re scrubbing the graffiti off the car, Ryder asks his mother, “Who would do this?” When we shot that scene, she had an answer to that question but we thought it worked better without her response.

The whole cast was just extraordinary. And yikes, “nice” Josh Hamilton ended up making me more tense than a character in the scariest horror movie!

(Laughs.) When we were casting that role, people kept suggesting actors who you’d expect for that kind of part — people like John Hawkes or Michael Shannon. As much as I like those actors, I was adamant about finding someone who would not broadcast how mercurial or manipulate that character was going to become. I wanted Uncle Keith to completely blend in with the crowd at the beginning and I was very excited about Josh. I don’t think we’ve seen him like this before.


I think every film is a bit like a Rorschach test in terms of what audience members bring to it but this one seemed even more like that with every character. Have you had wildly different reactions from people about what they think is happening in the story?

Absolutely. I’m so glad that you mentioned a Rorschach test because that was definitely our intention. I love movies where when I feel like I’m a character in the story. This film is about the dynamic of a group of people who are asked to make a snap judgment about this boy even though they didn’t see what happened based solely on the evidence they had such as the blood on Molly’s dress and the fact that Ryder is already slightly “off” in their eyes. And we’re asking the audience to make those same snap judgments throughout. I’ve definitely noticed at screenings that it feels like some people saw a remarkably different movie than what others saw, even their own friends or family members they came with. I’m a firm believer that if you have 200 people in a theater, there are 200 movies being seen. I think the real film is happening inside our heads and not on the screen.

I think some moviegoers are going to resonate with that in a big way and others are going to be very challenged by it, maybe even angry.

Oh, sure. There are a lot of people who see the film who get quite angry about a variety of things, including having a story that rests somewhere between realism and surrealism and deals with taboo subject matter like childhood sexuality. It got the point where when I intro the film, I often say something like, “Many of you are here after a long day of work ready to relax and escape so I just need to warn you that this might not be the right film for you!” Don’t get me wrong — I love movies that let you relax and escape, but this just isn’t that type of film!


When you worked with your talented cast, did you talk to them about the “facts” of their character’s history?

With Ryder, no, because he’s like us, he doesn’t know anything. There are things that are mysterious about his family and his mother’s past for us and they’re just as mysterious for him. But with Cindy and Keith, I sat down with Robin and Josh together and we agreed upon the facts of the incident that occurred when they were children at the river. And then I spoke to each of them separately about what that situation had grown into over the years that fueled their feelings toward each other. I think that’s true in life — at least it is in my family — that when you don’t speak about something for years, it can grow in dramatically different directions. I find that kind of stuff very interesting. Memories are very fluid.

I constantly talk about stuff from my childhood and my sister, who I’m very close to, says, “That never happened.” It often feels like we lived two different childhoods.

Exactly. I think we all tell ourselves a certain story. That’s what this brother and sister are doing, that’s what all of the people in this family are doing, and that’s what the audience members are doing.

It’s so interesting that at first we think that Ryder being gay is going to be the dominant part of the story but we soon realize that this is not going to be a familiar gay coming-of-age tale.

The film starts out with a tight close-up of this kid with his headphones. He clearly believes, as most kids that age do, that he’s starring in the movie in his mind but over the course of film, this world that seemed so black-and-white to him becomes a whole lot grayer. In a way, I do think it’s his coming-of-age story and I think one of the most profound things that happens is that his lens widens and he comes to realize that he’s not the only character in the story, he’s not the only one who feels the pressure to be understood. Many people feel misunderstood in this family.

And while he’s forced to hide his identity, that’s what many of the other characters are doing as well.

Absolutely. And while we may get the audience to telescope a different kind of coming-out narrative at the beginning of the film, I was interested in showing a more complex dynamic. This character is used to defending himself with logic and reasonable discussion but that kind of thing doesn’t work here.

Matt Sobel’s Take Me to the River is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and will be opening in more cities on April 1.