South of Heaven – Interview with Filmmaker Aharon Keshales

Interview with 'South of Heaven' filmmaker

South of Heaven is the 2021 action | crime | drama that follows Jimmy (Jason Sudeikis), a man recently paroled after being put away for 12 years for armed robbery. Annie (Evangeline Lilly), the love of his life, has only a year left to live due to being terminally ill from cancer. Jimmy aims to give her the best last year of her life — unfortunately, things aren't that simple.

Borrowing Tape had the opportunity to interview the co-writer and director of "South of Heaven" Aharon Keshales. The film is available on VOD, Digital HD, and theaters on October 8, 2021

Watch South of Heaven in theaters or via Amazon or Apple TV
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What was the inspiration for the film, and the meaning of the title, South of Heaven?

I came up with the idea during my honeymoon. My wife and I got married at a very late age and when you get married so late in your life you want to compensate for all the years you weren’t able to be together. So we went on a very long honeymoon, 6 months long, all around the world. Completely disproportional. And then it hit me, I wanted to write a film about a couple who tries to play catch up with time, but then time catches up with them. So I came up with the story of a man who comes out of prison after 12 years and tries to give the love of his life — now dying from cancer — the best year of her life. Her last best year. As for the name, it’s both an homage to Writer Jim Thompson (The Getaway and South of Heaven) and also a way to sum up the hero’s journey in this film. It takes place in the south, It has a character who’s about to leave this world behind, and finally, there’s a hero who wants to create a heavenly fantasy for his woman but eventually, everything goes South for him. Hence, South of Heaven.

How did you go about co-writing the screenplay with Kai Mark and Navot Papushado?

When I came back from my honeymoon I already had most of the first third of the script in my head, right up to the accident. I pitched the ideas to my partners in writing and they immediately responded. We started working on a treatment together and during that process, we each came with an idea that made the story more intense. It’s really very similar to a TV writer's room where everybody gets to throw the craziest ideas and you need to pick the right idea, the one that can co-exist within the realms of [a] truly tragic love story.

This is a talented cast of actors - Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Shea Whigham, Mike Colter. Did you have specific actors in mind when writing the screenplay? What was the casting process like?

I didn’t have any of the actors in mind. In Israel, I usually write for specific actors because I know I would be able to get them. This is my first English-speaking film, so I had no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t think I could get big stars. We wrote characters. Then, when legendary producer, Roger Birnbaum, came on board to produce the film we started casting it. I really love casting actors against type, I did that in both of my Israeli movies. I usually like to work with comedians. They have the best timing and as you may know, they have this huge source of sadness deep inside of them. That’s how I got the idea to cast Jason Sudeikis. I knew I needed an actor that has a down-to-earth personality and the ability to generate immediate empathy. I knew his character is going to enter a very dark place and I needed an actor that will make certain that the audience stays with him until the very bleak ending. With Evangeline Lilly, it was a similar process. I was looking for an actress that can generate almost a bi-polar persona. Sad and happy. Fragile yet strong. And at that time Evangeline was looking for this kind of role herself. She wanted to project a female character that can be more than just a warrior or a nurturing mother. She wanted a character that’s close to the way she views femininity. It was really a match made in Heaven. So that’s my working process. I look for surprises. Price could have easily become this over-the-top bad guy, but I knew that Mike Colter would make him seem more elegant and charming. As for Shea Whigham, he was certainly one of the actors we thought of while writing Schmidt’s character.

How was it working with Cinematographer Matt Mitchell on the movie's aesthetic?

I was looking for a cinematographer who can shoot a documentary as well as he can shoot a more stylized genre film. My producer, Chadd Harbold, suggested Matt Mitchell. I watched a beautiful film called “Little Woods” and then I watched a crazy dark comedy called “Villains” and I knew Matt had the ability to shoot South of Heaven. When we started talking about the shooting script, I told him I want this film to look like something from the ’70s. A film that is set in our days but looks like something that got stuck in time. We talked about “Rolling Thunder”, “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and the list goes on and on. Then we talked about graphic patterns with our brilliant production designer, Freddy Waff. We knew we wanted a feeling of a person who can’t really escape prison so we made sure that objects would continue to entrap Jimmy as he goes back into society. We also decided to play with mirrors and reflections throughout this film, as if we’re making a Douglas Sirk film. We also knew this film deals with time, so we made sure clocks will play a major role in this movie.

Can you tell us about working on the score with Composer David Fleming?

Finding a score to fit the many tones of this film was the hardest task. Ronen Nagel, my go-to Sound Designer, and I listened to a lot of composers and were about to pick one when we were asked to listen to this guy, David Fleming, who usually works with Hans Zimmer. He blew our minds. We knew we needed a score that can carry the feeling of an old-school movie, but also bring something new to this world. David likes to interpret scenes and themes. He created a romantic theme for Jimmy and Annie that sounds like a very old broken record. As if their music is stuck in time almost like the characters. For Jimmy, he created a world of ticking and clicking sounds that becomes more and more violent as the movie progresses to its inevitable ending. Working with David and Ronen was an artistic journey that brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

In South of Heaven — there are extremely unexpected gory/violent moments. How did you handle this particular element of the filmmaking process — in terms of subverting viewer expectations and filming violence/gore?

Playing with tones and subverting viewers' expectations is one of my favorite things to do. I did that in Rabies - a slasher comedy and even more so in Big Bad Wolves - a dark comedy about a father who kidnaps a suspected pedophile. It’s always tricky, but I do think an artist should at least try to surprise his smart and weary audience. I was a film critic and a scholar before I made movies, and that might be the main reason I’m always looking for a way to deconstruct genres and play with expectations. To be honest, South of Heaven was quite challenging. It’s really a sad film from the beginning. So, how do you introduce comedy and horror into this equation? I allowed this film to breathe more naturally. I didn’t go for the pacing I had in my previous works, and I let the actors carry the emotional weight of every scene. That way the audience could always experience these crazy shifts in tone as they happen to the characters on the screen. I was trying to create a special intimacy with the characters, so whenever something ludicrous happens the audience will understand the motivations and the thing that makes every character in this film tick.

Jimmy's gunfight at the end of the movie was shot impressively, in one-take. Could you tell us more about this scene?

I wanted to make an anti-action sequence. Usually, at the end of an action thriller, there’s this explosive shootout that you usually see from the point of view of the hero. This is the audience's favorite moment. The reckoning occurs and you clap your hands and cheer. In South of Heaven, I tried to break the dichotomy between good and evil, So, I did something naughty with the narrative — and I don’t want to spoil the surprise — I needed to find a unique way to film it. Matt and I designed this one-shot home invasion so the action scene will feel more like a horror film than an action scene. It’s half a De Palma shot and half a Takeshi Kitano shot (Sonatine). You find yourself with the hero but then you lose him, and suddenly you’re walking in the footsteps of another henchman and then back with the hero again. I wanted people to be enthralled, but at the same time feel bad about the violence that is shown on the screen. We had one day to get this scene. We did rehearsal all morning and then shot 7 takes. All with practical effects, no CGI. Jason Sudeikis was so pumped that night. It was a glorious day.

What were your favorite moments — from on the set and in the final cut?

The night we shot the shootout was one of my favorite moments, but, my personal moment was the bench scene, when Annie wants to pick her funeral song and decides “God Only Knows” is the way to go. When I wrote that scene, I had tears in my eyes. During editing, when I watched Evangeline and Jason perform that scene, I had tears in my eyes again. There’s so much honesty in the performances I can’t help myself. This was another challenge as we decided to shoot it in natural light during magic hour. We had to nail all the angles in one hour.

A truly heartbreaking ending for Jimmy and Annie. Could you tell us your motivations for ending the film in this way?

I always knew I was going to end this film on a devastating note, as Annie has only one year to live. So even if I chose a happier ending it would have broken your heart. As for the ending I chose, I think it’s only fitting that a protagonist that can’t let go of the past and can’t let go of his fantasy to create a perfect bubble for his dying wife and himself, will end up trapped in his own fantasy. That’s what gets him into all his troubles in this film. Caution spoilers: I also thought that making a film about a dying woman that ends up as the last man, sorry, woman, standing — will send a powerful message about people who use violence as a solution and people who don’t.

Where was the movie filmed, and how long was production?

The movie was filmed in Dallas, Texas, and the surrounding area. We had a super tight schedule — 25 days of shoot. Postproduction started on March 15th, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York — the first day of Lockdown. Most of the post-production was done remotely. The sound design in Tel Aviv, the music was composed in Los Angeles, the orchestra was recorded in Moscow and the final mix took place in Rome. What a ride.

Which films/directors have influenced you as a filmmaker, including South of Heaven?

Sam Peckinpah’s “Getaway” and “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” were the main sources of inspiration. I was also influenced by Takashi Kitano’s heart-breaking crime tale, “Hana Bi”, Dustin Hoffman’s underrated crime drama, “Straight Time”, Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”, Arthur Hiller’s “Silver Streak”, John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder”, The Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”, Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” and finally the westerns of Budd Boetticher and the brilliant melodramas of Douglas Sirk. I carried all of these films in my heart while working on SOH.

What are some of your favorite movies from the past decade?

That’s a tough one. There are so many. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”, Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”, George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”, Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”, Alex Garland’s “Annihilation”, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems”.

Which themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?

Determinism. The Myth of Sisyphus. The Book of Job. Time is an agent of chaos with a license to kill. Evil is relative especially if he’s a relative. Fairy Tales are the source of all evil.

Watch South of Heaven now in theaters or via Amazon or Apple TV

Get it on Apple TV