Filed in: Camera, Direction, Featured, Film, Interviews

Film Showcase: Freeland Directors Mario Furlani and Kate McLean on the Drama, Starring Krisha Fairchild

October 14, 2021 08:30 | By
Freeland

Krisha Fairchild in Freeland

When you spend time watching independent films on the film festival circuit, every once in a while, you’ll find a real gem, a movie that ends up being so much better than you may have expected, maybe because you’re unfamiliar with the filmmakers.

That was definitely the case with Mario Furlani and Kate McLean’s Freeland, a movie I first saw at the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi last year (actually, a virtual festival), but it’s a film that really stuck with me, and one I’ve watched a few times since then.

Freeland stars Krisha Fairchild as Devi, an aging pot farmer in Humboldt County, California, who is struggling to keep her business going as marijuana is legalized in the state, and she finds she needs to change her operation to accommodate government regulation, which would just make everything too costly. At the same time, she’s having some struggles with her long-time employees, who clearly want to go legit but don’t realize the problems Devi has been having with all the legit competition.

It’s an absolutely brilliant and beautifully-made character drama that I can’t urge people enough to try to seek out, if not when it gets a small theatrical release by Dark Star Pictures this Friday, then definitely when it hits VOD on November 19.

Below the Line got on Zoom with the co-directors a few weeks back for the following interview.

Below the Line: I guess my first question is how did you and Kate get together to make this movie? Had you two worked on something together before this?

Mario Furloni: So we met in grad school, in journalism school, here in the Bay Area. While still in grad school, we made a short documentary together up in Humboldt called Pot Country. It came out in 2011. That was my first experience going up north. Kate grew up in the Sonoma area, so she knew Humboldt, and she knew more of the stories, and she took me out there. We’ve worked together since for the last 10 years, but we’ve kept finding reasons to go back there. We had been starting to work on a new project, and decided it should be a scripted project and then started working on a script and going back there once every couple months and talking to people and drinking [in] the place, so to speak, and writing.

BTL: What were some of the things you wanted to focus on as directors when tackling a narrative film?

Furloni: In that doc, what we wanted to talk about was the arrival of the hippies and the transformation of the place with pot arriving there. We had a character that was a homesteader hippie, pot grower, grandmother, and then we had a fifth-generation former logger, who owned the Radio Shack in town. We wanted those perspectives. We wanted to also have a sheriff as a third perspective, but that didn’t pan out. But then after that, we kept thinking about, “Okay, what are the limitations of doing it as a doc?” and all the stories that we had heard that we couldn’t really do as journalism or as a documentary that we wanted to explore, and the access that wanted to have into the inner world of these characters. We thought, “Okay, I think we can do this better as a fiction,” but it’s a fiction film that is very close to reality, very naturalistic.

Freeland

Kate McLean and Mario Furlani (Photo courtesy Laura Heberton)

BTL: What were the roles that you and Kate took on as co-directors, and Kate, you can feel free to jump in even though I can’t see you.

Kate McLean: I think the roles, in some ways, have been somewhat consistent from our documentary film days. In the doc, I did audio and Mario shot, and we kind of made decisions together and worked together to produce the film, so it was the smallest possible team, really. For the fiction film, we moved to a situation where Mario still shot, and the camera became the tool that we used together to direct, but we added a monitor. I stopped doing audio, and we expanded our crew to what felt like an enormous size of like, what did we have? Seven people? Mario? Is that right? Yeah.

BTL: That might seem big if you only have two or three actors at the same time on camera.

McLean: Yeah, totally, and I think just because we worked in doc, and by doc standards that, in some situations, would be a really large crew. I know for a fiction film, it’s not a huge team.

BTL: Krisha must have been a big part of the casting from the beginning. How did you approach her? I know she made that great movie called Krisha that was released by A24, I’m not sure that many people had seen it, but she obviously was great in it.

McLean: We saw that movie, and sort of thought, “Oh, this is the person that could carry the whole story.” We kind of started this correspondence with her, and she sort of shared that in a way, this story and this character was kind of a path not taken for her. Her life could very well have been like this if she had made a slightly different set of choices, so the character felt very close to her. We talked about it, and this took a while to kind of get everything put together to make the film. So over the course of several years, we were corresponding and talking, and then in that process she kind of became a real true collaborator, and we sort of built the character with and alongside her. She brought — I mean, not just in terms of her performance — but just in terms of like writing and thinking, she brought so much to the role.

BTL: What kind of time frame are we talking about as far as when the doc was finished versus when you shot this? I assume you must have shot this a year or two before it debuted at festivals in 2020?

McLean: The doc was a long time ago. The doc was 2010, so we made the doc, and then the process of writing Freeland was a process of Mario and I working on other projects as doc filmmakers, but still being haunted by the stuff about this place that had been stirred up in us when we first made the doc and wishing there was a way to capture it in a film. Out of that, we wrote Freeland, and then tried to put the pieces together to make it around the edges of other projects. It took a while for the timing to be right, and it took several drafts to hit that sweet spot of having the cast in place, we have the resources to go do this, the timing is right, and also, because we wanted to shoot with real weed, the time of year is right. That was literally the Venn Diagram of stuff that we needed to have in place, and it took a couple of tries before we finally got all the pedals to overlap.

BTL: I have to imagine things must have been changing because back in 2010, pot wasn’t legal in California yet, so was the story changing as you were working on it?

McLean:  Totally, yeah, 100%. In 2010, we could feel that there were like seismic shifts in terms of there was a ballot initiative to legalize that failed, that we were filming the doc during, so you could see react to that and get anxious and talk about it. We could sort of see that when it did happen, it was going to be a cataclysmic change for a lot of folks. And then, years passed, and we watched as it did happen, and we talked to people about it. We were trying to keep the film very close to the real. Even though, it’s a fictional story, we were really tracking things that were happening in this place and thinking about how to incorporate real life into the script all the way up to the end. So we just kept rewriting as things kept changing. 

BTL: Mario, having shot the documentary, did you think you’d be shooting this in a similar way, almost documentary style with a lot of handheld work? Was that built into the idea for the movie? 

Furloni: Yeah, it was built into this idea of materials available filmmaking we were trying to do, and have the camera there thinking that way, too. So thinking of the simplest way of telling a scene, and often, we would be trying to capture things as they were happening as you would do in a verité doc. For instance, in that scene, when they go to the commune, for instance, we brought the actors in. It was a real commune that had been uninhabited for about 10 years, and we hadn’t gone in yet. When they opened the door, they were opening the door for the first time, and we’re trying to capture. We have some dialogue that they knew they had to deliver at some point, but we gave a lot of leeway. Similarly, in the convention scene, we shot that as you would a documentary, almost like Borat. Krisha is there in character interacting with people, and afterwards we would go to people and say, “Hey, this is actually for a fiction film” and explain and get releases and whatnot. 

BTL: When we talk to cinematographers for Below the Line, we try to find out what cameras and equipment they use, so what is your go-to camera.

Furloni: For this, we used the camera that I own and that I shoot documentaries on all the time, which is the C300 Mark II, and we had a zoom lens that we shot a lot of this stuff that was more on the fly, so to speak. And then, we had a set of old rehoused Leicas that we shot some of the night scenes, and scenes that we had a little more setup time.

Freeland

Fairchild with John Craven (R)

BTL: Kate, how did you find the locations where you wanted to shoot? You obviously had spent a lot of time there, so were these places where you knew you wanted to shoot, and did you have trouble getting permits or permission to shoot in those places?

McLean: I think it was a process of building relationships, and we had an amazing an integral member of our crew, who acted as a field producer. Her name’s Claire Weissbluth, and she grew up in the area and had deep relationships, and had been a part of our team from really the scripting stage. We would go to her to say, “Claire does this pass the smell test? Is this scene correct?” All the way to the space of finding locations and making sure that as we made this film, we were making it alongside people with deep roots and connections in the place. It not only opened doors, but I think it really helps to keep the film true to the spirit of the place, which is what we wanted.

BTL: You mentioned using real pot. Were all the actors comfortable with that? When you think about a pot movie, you think of Cheech and Chong or something like that, and not in this context where it’s a business, and a changing business. How did the actors feel about that?

McLean:  They were very cool about it.  Krisha had one rule at the onset, which was, like, if we’re filming around real pot, we have to keep a sober set, so that people are safe. I thought was really reasonable. But she was happy to trim it and be around it, and everyone was. We just had to get some lessons. We had to get some memorable, hilarious trimming lessons, because we were working in a real trim room where people were processing marijuana that they wanted to sell, so we had to do a good job at it. There were real trimmers with us who were like beautifully manicuring, but incredibly rapidly, and our actors had never done it before. So there was a bit of a learning curve there. We had to be careful of the real plants that we were around too, because you don’t want to kick up dust in some way, because that can get stuck to the pot and ruin it. We just tried to be careful and thoughtful of the fact that we have these props on the sets that were really valuable and that people had spent a  year trying to make it perfect, and it’s a long agricultural process. 

Furloni: People had invited us into their farms, and for the harvest, the actors had to learn how to harvest correctly so that they were doing the right job also because they’re so valuable. That was a learning curve and then finding the pot to throw in the river, that was an epic search. It wasn’t easy to find, and the whole crew after was just looking at that pot in the river that we then had to collect and throw away. [laughs] Sadly collecting that wet pot.

BTL: I do want to ask more about that end scene, but going back, when you were finally filming, how much time did you have? Was there a lot of moving around to get everything or did you have to go back for certain scenes?

Furloni: We had 20 days total, is that right, Kate?

McLean: Yeah, that sounds right.

Furloni: We had a first shoot that was a big shoot, and then we had a pickup of about three or four days, once we had a rough cut, edited. It was great to be able to do that, and it was super helpful. We tried to keep things fairly contained geographically, so we didn’t have to travel too much. I think that puzzle piecing together of when to shoot what and being in the right place at the right time, because the film is mostly exteriors, and being at the right place to catch the sunrise, and then you know how does that affect, can you get good light afterwards, whether you shoot during the bad light. All of that was a really delightful puzzle to figure out together.

WARNING: The next question and answers talk about the end shot of the movie, and while not a huge plot spoiler

BTL: You touched upon that end scene. She’s in the water, and you have this amazing 360-degree panning shot around her, which seems like it would be hard to pull off.

Furloni: I remember it was incredibly cold, and we only had one take that day, right? Because once she got all wet, we were far away enough from our location that we couldn’t really go and get dry again and do it again. I remember the tension a lot…

McLean: I remember we had a waterproof camera housing, and the whole crew had to hide in the bushes.

Furloni: That’s right, to be able to do the 360.

McLean: But it was really difficult, because it was this really desolate beach. We had to scout and it has to be this bush, and you really have to get in there, guys. [laughs]

Furloni: I also remember that we had talked about, do we need something else for the ending? Is this the right thing? And then, we had gone back and forth and talked about maybe there’s an epilogue of sorts, and then we shot it, and we looked at it. I remember when I was shooting it, but then watching it, that look that Devi, that Krisha has, and just looking at each other, and we were like, “No, this is it.”

SPOILER WARNING OVER

BTL: It’s a very effective ending for sure. I do want to ask about the music, because besides the music the characters are listening to,  you also have a little bit of score in there. Can you talk about how you dealt with that?

Furloni: Absolutely. We worked with our long, longtime collaborator, William Ryan Fritch, who is just incredible. He probably made, I don’t know, 100 pieces of music for the film. He started working during the script phase, and we would exchange ideas. He’s a very prolific composer. We just kept trying things, and then he and the sound designer, Peter Albertson — who is incredible — when they got together, and they started talking about how the music would blend in with the sound design and vice versa, that’s when things just really got so, so, so good. It’s great, because now they’re working together, they’ve made a few films now together, and with that collaboration of sound design and music and not having a score. There are a couple moments in the film where the score swells, but really, they’re very, very few and far between. One of the guiding principles for us is that the music shouldn’t guide it. The emotion should come in the film and then the music comes and accentuates or plays against it, but the music is not guiding your emotion or is not pulling your heartstrings.

McLean: We’ve been really lucky with collaborators, and Will and Peter are both awesome. We’re lucky to have them.

BTL: Freeland has been at a lot of virtual festivals and QnAs. Have you had a chance to show the movie in front of a real live audience yet?

McLean: No, not since the rough-cut screening. No one has seen this in a theater yet, including us. It’s going to be cool when it happens.  

BTL: Have you been working on anything else since finishing this and figuring out what you want to do next?

McLean: We’ve been writing a bit and kind of daydreaming about some next things. We’re working on a few new things, but nothing that’s quite ready for an exciting announcement yet.

Freeland will be released in select theaters on Friday, October 15, including New York’s Cinema Village.