Take Me to the River

By Hans Pedersen, July 2016 Web Exclusive.

Take Me to the River starts out as the story of a California teen who’s going to come out to his extended family in Nebraska, but the narrative takes a sharp right turn. Director and writer Matt Sobel and actor Logan Miller (Stanford Prison Experiment, Ultimate Spiderman) spoke with Echo Magazine about their intriguing new film, which premiered at the Sundance 2015 Film Festival and is not available on iTunes.

Echo: Can you talk a little bit about the dream you had that inspired the project?

Director and writer Matt Sobel.

Sobel: I’ve been going to this actual family reunion for every year since I can remember. And in my dream I was falsely accused of something, something inappropriate, with one of my younger cousins. But I couldn’t remember exactly, when I woke up, what it was. I just remember feeling like this cordial, and what should be a very warm environment, suddenly turning toxic, and everyone looking at me, and feeling like there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I was just digging myself in deeper Feelings stick with us from dreams more than plot, and I think that good movies may work in the same way. And I wanted to make a movie about that visceral sensation ...

Echo: What attracted you to the project?

Miller: The unique sensibility of it. Matt and I had met a year prior to the film actually going into production. I remember reading it and thinking this had been the strangest storyline that had ever taken place in Nebraska. What was interesting to me too is, I come from a background that’s very similar to this. My parents are both from Midwestern Kansas; my mom grew up on a farm, my father grew up in Emporia, Kansas. This entire lifestyle the people are living in Nebraska, the setting itself was very familiar to me.

Echo: You take what initially seems like a coming out story and it gets taken over by this other story. It’s like a cliché and you kind of explode it.

Logan Miller as Ryder.

Sobel: The title of the film, until this last year, actually, was Explosion, because it was the explosion of a cliché, like you just said … I realized instantly it was in total with conjunction with the coming of age. We do, at 17, feel like we’re on firm ground, with our understanding of the world, because we’re probably reading James Joyce in school, and listening to interesting music. And we’re having interesting conversations if we’re going to a good high school. But we don’t know anything about the way the world really works: it’s actually a lot more gray than it seems to us at that point. So I realized pretty quickly the structure could mirror his experience, because it’s so much a [point of view] story, I wanted it to be really united, not only on a plot level, but also on a structural level of the story and tonal level to his experience.

Miller: Yeah, we were talking in other interviews and had come to the conclusion that we’re in a second generation of queer cinema, in a way, where it’s not necessarily about the coming out ...

Sobel: They called it post-gay cinema … what somebody else said.

Miller: Exactly. It’s more about the journey, the realization of who you are. It’s not just about being gay, but finding out who you are as a person.

Sobel: I strongly believe that every story with a gay central character should not be a coming out story. I think that’s a pretty reductive thing to continue to do. And I didn’t really realize it, necessarily, until we were shooting it ... His orientation is one aspect of a more complicated story.

Echo: Did either of you have anybody express some sort of resistance to the project? People saying “don’t go there” with the subject matter?

Sobel: The first person I showed the script to, before I even had any confidence built up around it, said “I don’t think you should make this story at all, drop it right now” ... I went to a film development lab in Amsterdam called Binger. It was mostly Europeans and none of them of course were going to tell me to not go there, and that’s where the film took shape. And I think the film does have a more European sensibility in terms of sexuality. And I realize in the U.S. it will make people more uncomfortable than abroad. But then again, we have shifting cultural standards on that topic.

It was only in the '80s when Brooke Shields was taking extremely erotic photographs in Vogue, but now when a photographer shoots Miley Cyrus with a bare shoulder, everyone is in an uproar. So I think rather than children becoming sexualized, it’s really the adults who are to blame for most of the bad energy that could potentially surround that.

Miller: Which is also to be said of this film … What happens to children in their adolescence, something that was innocent, when they couldn’t even conceptualize what was going on, this label is put on them, “oh you did something wrong.”

Sobel: Quite simply, definitions about these things, words like masturbation, these labels and the judgment placed on children by adults, is unfortunate. And I also think it’s unfortunate how we much more willing to watch young females be hurt in films than to have any sort of sexual agency, and what does that really mean about us?

Miller: As a human race.

Echo: Can you talk about how you wanted the viewer to be the co-creator of the story? You really succeeded.

Sobel: Thank you. That is my favorite part of reading a book, and also I realized why I love serials so much, and that’s because I have to picture all of the things that they were talking about on that podcast. And I found myself naturally investing a lot more of myself in the story. So it began as an experiment to see how to do something like that in a film. You could do that by having that action take place off the side of the frame ... You could also do that by leaving negative space in the narrative to allow people to put their own or inject their own story inside. Now that was step one.

Step two for us – and this is where I ask you if we succeeded – was to, at the end of the film, ask the audience, almost to put a mirror to the audience to say, to what extent are you responsible for creating this story? In the way that a lot of the people at the reunion inserted their worst fear into a moment they did not see ... One more point I wanted to add on that, in a story that seems like it’s going to be good guy versus bad guy I wanted to, by the end of the story, complicate it to the extent that there is no pure evil in the story, but everyone is culpable, including the audience.

This award-winning Sundance hit bypassed local theaters; and is now available to rent on iTunes for $4.99.

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