Take Me To The River explores the sensitivity of longstanding family tensions from the perspective of Ryder, a gay Californian teenager that reluctantly goes to visit his mother’s Nebraskan family. After an unexpected crisis occurs, Ryder realises that past family disputes surpass considerations of his sexuality. The film maintains an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension and the characters’ repressed pain and frustrations seem ever-ready to overflow.
FilmDoo interviews the film’s director Matt Sobel.
The film seems to allow family issues to surpass the issues of the individual – what was the motivation here?
Precisely correct. My intention here was to articulate what coming of age means for this 17-year-old boy. When we meet Ryder, his personal struggles are front and center. He is the suffering and misunderstood star of his own story. However, over the course of his tumultuous weekend, he comes to appreciate that his is not the only strife in our story. What he initially perceives as ostracisation because of his otherness, is actually just the latest retaliation in a feud that long predates him; an ambiguous situation that blurs his black and white understanding of right and wrong.
The exploration of pre-pubescent sexual curiosity is a daring subject – why did you decide to focus on this?
The inciting incident came to me in a nightmare, so in a way it chose me. I am, however, fascinated by liminal situations – the blurry line between childhood and adolescence, appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong, and how simply the challenge of putting an ambiguous situation into one of these boxes makes most people uncomfortable.
The film is remarkably successful in creating an oppressive atmosphere of tension – what techniques do you think are most important in achieving this and are there any particular films or filmmakers that you drew inspiration from?
Things that are uncanny, meaning familiar and strange at the same time, make us quite uncomfortable. Much of our technique to create tension sprung from the idea of sending the audience mixed messages. There are obvious examples, such as a character who should be upset acting the opposite, but there are also more subtle ones, such as color palette, production design, and the framing of shots that seem to run counter to the tone. My cinematographer and I developed a strategy to lean the film into an almost “childlike coloring book” feel, as the situations themselves became increasingly insidious. We intended to achieve a type of cognitive dissonance that gives an intense feeling of unease. I’ve seen similar ideas work in many David Lynch films, and more recently, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were raised in California, while your family are from Nebraska and the farm in the film is actually their farm – what motivated your decision to include autobiographical elements?
The nightmare that inspired the story took place at one of these real-life family reunions, so the decision seemed clear to me from the beginning. I do want to stress though, that nothing remotely this dramatic or traumatic ever happened at one of my actual family reunions. The goal wasn’t to re-create reality, but to re-create the feeling of the nightmare.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
Yes! Several. I’m creating a TV show based on a real life triple homicide in Waco, Texas, and the subsequent 35-year investigation. I’m writing another feature, set in a Chinese school for child olympians, that imagines a possible next step in human evolution. Also, an adaptation of the Young Adult novel The Scorpio Races. All very different projects, but the fact that they’re so different is exciting to me.
Watch Take Me To The River on FilmDoo now!
Featured image from Anthem/Victoria Stevens