Off the Map
An interview with actor-turned-director Campbell Scott
By Devin D. O'Leary
Actor Campbell Scott (Dying Young, The Daytrippers, The Spanish Prisoner, Roger Dodger) first tried his hand at directing with a little film called Big Night. Now, some nine years later, he follows up that triumph with an intimate family drama shot right here in New Mexico.
Off the Map is based on Joan Ackermann's acclaimed stageplay, and tells the story of a young girl (Valentina de Angelis) growing up in rural New Mexico with an artistic but emotionally troubled father (Sam Elliot) and a funky free spirit of a mother (Joan Allen).
The film is finally being released here in New Mexico, and Alibi seized on the opportunity to chat with the multitalented Mr. Campbell.
Off the Map premiered at the 2003 Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival. I've been curious about the film, because I saw it so long ago, and I was like ...
Where has it been?
Where has it been? That's my question right there.
Well, it's been finding its way, and it's finally being released by the guys who made it [Welldigger Films]. They are distributing their own film because we couldn't find [a distributor] that wanted to do the film like we wanted to do it. It's hard, man! It's hard making these movies. But they're doing a great job. They are gonna release it pretty wide and hopefully the audience will embrace it.
I saw the list of places that are playing it. It does look like it's going pretty wide.
Not bad for one of my movies, man!
How did you come into the story of this film?
Tell your readers not to get scared, but I saw it as a play over 10 years ago and immediately fell in love with it. I bought it that night and got the writer [Joan Ackermann] to write some drafts, and that's how it all started. I'd been to New Mexico a number of times just as a visitor. So I knew the place, kind of, and I knew the Taos area, and I just thought, “I'm trying to become a film director, and this is the perfect kind of film for me. I love the subject matter, I love movies like this, and it's not too big, so I'll give it a shot.”
You said not to get scared, but that's always a hard transition to go from a play to a film.
Well, I think often when people only label a movie as that, people kind of go, “Oh, boy, it's gonna be talky and boring.” But what we do have going for us is Joan Ackermann, who wrote this screenplay and also wrote the play. What is lifted from the play is the long dialogue scenes and they are brilliant, because they were worked on very intentionally the way a playwright does. So you already have this great start before you film anything. Now, the hard part is what to take away, what to fill in with that amazing environment that you all live in down there.
That's another big part of it. This story is very much about the environment.
I love movies like that: Walkabout, Black Stallion, Days of Heaven. Those are my kinds of movies. I just love movies where people are out in the middle of nowhere and it's very natural and environmental and [Off the Map] obviously fits into that category.
How did you decide where exactly to shoot the film?
It was written by Joan, who was there north of Taos, and it always seemed like, "Why go anywhere else?" This was the place she wrote about. We ended up filming right up by the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, up there by San Cristobal, below Questa and above Taos, 10 minutes away from where she wrote it. It seemed appropriate.
How was it shooting in New Mexico? Did you bring in a whole different crew? Did you deal with the Film Office and all that?
Oh, sure, we dealt with the state for numerous years, and they were incredibly helpful. Jonathan Slator ran the commission up there in Taos at the time, and they were just beginning giving people tax breaks, which we took part in. Which is a great way to bring business there. Then I think they had rules. You have to hire like 60 percent of your crew from the surrounding area, which we intended on doing anyway. It's a great idea. Look, it's a movie about the strengths and weaknesses of living down there. Everybody lent their energy to the movie. You can't always plan this, but it was a great filming experience. It was a beautiful place, and everybody kind of gets affected by it, and that shows in the movie hopefully.
One of the obvious things about the film, besides the location, is your cast is pretty top notch. How did you lure these people?
How did I? Well, we paid them so much money.
Yeah, I'm sure.
You know, scripts and scraps, man. When I start thinking about shooting a film, I'm always thinking about actors years before. Joan [Allen], I asked a bunch of times. She said no a couple of times, which made her even more attractive. Usually, I'm not the kind of person who would harass someone if they say no. I usually take them at their word. There were some wonderful actresses attached various times after Joan had said no, and then they would fall out, and I'd go back to Joan. I just couldn't get her out of my brain. Then, when she did say yes, that was the sort of final step in saying our movie is a reality. Then, she suggested Sam Elliot, which is a great idea. We couldn't find [an actor to play] Charlie. She had worked with him in The Contender. I knew Jimmy True-Frost from Singles. J. K. Simmons was somebody else's suggestion. Valentina [de Angelis] we discovered here in New York. Each day you're trying to solve or resolve one problem, which is what directing is all about--the cast obviously being a huge part of it. Once one comes in, though, I've found--especially [someone like] Joan [Allen]--it starts to get more attractive to other actors.
One of the things that struck me when I watched the film is that it seems like a very "New Mexico" story. Growing up here, I saw so many of these post-hippie families living off the land, and it was such a part of our state. It surprised me that people from out of state would have felt that as well.
Well, Joan [Ackermann] got it. Again, that's where the good writing helps you. I'm lost. I mean, I've been to New Mexico. I love it. I knew something about the place, but you're right. I'm not a resident. Joan had [lived in New Mexico] and met people like this and written stories. So, already, I'm going to have to trust that she's right. When I saw the play, I thought, “Why is this staying with me? Why this and not something else?” That's unexplainable really, but it comes from good research, good writing, a lot of hard work, etc. I knew once we got [to Taos]--we're low-budget, we're not some big thing coming in--you want to be accepted by the community. You're hiring people and that's good, but you also want to get it right, 'cause otherwise you feel like a stupid idiot. I think the path to getting it right is realizing that you're not going to know everything. So, when you go and you have a bunch of people from Taos helping you--and that means every person on your crew and the designers and everything--you've got to just open up to them and say, “What's real and what's not?” and see what happens. And hopefully it all falls into place.
What kind of response did you get to that film coming out of the Taos Film Festival?
They loved it.
Was that good to unveil it here?
Yeah, and it couldn't have been nerve-wracking, because that's like going back into the place and saying, “Here's what we made.” It could so easily be a reaction of, “That's not how we live. That's bullshit. That's Hollywood bullshit.” There's always going to be, to some degree, a little Hollywood bullshit, but the fact is that you're trying to get as much as you can right. Joan Allen couldn't make it to the Taos Festival, but I remember calling her after our first screening and saying to her ... I don't know if you remember. There's a line that she says in the movie: “Mr. Gibbs, New Mexico is a very powerful place.” We're using it as a tag line because it's such a cool [line]. And, I tell you, when she said that in a Taos audience, the place went nuts. Because they knew what she was talking about. I called Joan Allen later that night and I said, “Well, I think we did okay.” Because I've never heard a reaction like that. Even in Denver, or anyplace nearby. Nobody gets it like [New Mexicans] do, and I think that they just gave us their stamp of approval because the next three times [the film showed] they were all just screaming. That was really rewarding.
So, what's next? Are you jumping into another project?
Oh, fuck, I'm exhausted. I just want to get this one out and that's where you guys come in. You're helping us. And it really is needed for a movie like this. I'm hoping--because I know it's probably going to play up in Taos and probably where you are—I'm hoping this baby will run for a while in New Mexico, because people's curiosity will be struck.
Off the Map opens Friday at the Century Downtown Theater.
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