“Death is just a horizon”: Deadland director Lance Larson talks his new thriller

When a detained immigrant is killed, US border agents dispose of the man’s body in an unmarked grave. But like their dark secret, the victim refuses to remain buried.

As Deadland releases in Australia on various VOD platforms June 26, Nick L’Barrow spoke with the films co-writer and director Lance Larson about creating the visual styling of the film, mixing a border story with a ghost story, and the personal inspiration behind this father-son tale.

Nick: I really appreciate you taking the time to chat! I watched the film last night, right before bed, which definitely left an impression on me with some of that dream imagery as I was trying to fall asleep!

Lance Larson: [laughs]

Nick: But outside of its thriller elements, Deadland feels like it has more of a father-son story at its core. So, I have a “chicken, or the egg” type question regarding whether you wanted to make a father-son story initially, or this tense border thriller? And then, what was your process in blending those two elements together?

Lance Larson: That’s a great question. And it’s a big question. With Deadland, my dad was, at the time, dying of liver cancer. He’s an amazing father, you know. A wonderful guy. I always wanted to be him as a kid.

So, I thought maybe I could develop something, a father and son type of story. And I was just searching for something. I usually like to tell psychological thriller, so I didn’t know how I was going to make that as an ode to my dad, who was such a great dad, you know! I just don’t make those kinds of movies.

Then I came across this article in The Guardian about a border patrol agent, first generation. And I thought that is some serious duality. You got this guy whose parents snuck across the border with him, and he grew up to become a border agent. How ironic!

But this article was really interesting. This guy would say he felt like he had his badge in one hand and is heart in the other because of his Mexican heritage. It wasn’t lost on him. And he was asked about what helped him sleep at night, and he said that he saves a lot of lives.

I think a lot of filmmakers, when they’re starting out, make the mistake of coming up with a plot and story, but those stories can be hollow because you don’t know who your character is. So, I always start with character first, and with some like a first-generation border agent, there’s already a story there. So, that’s number one for me.

Nick: You also co-wrote the screenplay with Jas Shelton, which I found interesting in the sense that he has a fantastic career as a cinematographer, and you have incredible experience as an editor. So, I’m curious to find out whether there were elements of “editor” Lance and “cinematographer” Jas that bled into your screenwriting process?

Lance Larson: Jas and I have been working together since college! Close to 30 years! We’ve literally been shooting together ever since the University of Texas. To call Jas a director of photography is a real disservice to him, because he’s a filmmaker through and through. A lot of people have told us how much they loved the cinematography in it, and they love how connected it is to the story, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because he [Jas] wrote it.

It’s so funny because when we were shooting, I’m an editor at heart, and Jas is a DP at heart, and he was just landing every shot perfectly. I mean, he knows exactly where the camera should be. And he made really interesting choices too. He wanted the film to look gritty, so we shot on 16mm because we wanted that grain. And the location we filmed on was in Southwest Texas, right on the border. It’s real rough country.

Then Jas also found these Eastern European lenses that we had to build a special attachment for the 16mm camera. But the beauty of those lenses is they create the amber lens flare. We only really see blue lens flares, like in J.J. Abrams movies. But amber worked so well for the desert with these brown and red tones. It looked gorgeous.

Nick: I’m so glad you brought up that distinct visual aesthetic, because there is one element of the film that involves a lot of haunting dream imagery for the character of Angel. How did those scenes evolve from script to screen?

Lance Larson: It’s interesting – so when we were trying to raise money for the movie, Fred Baker, the head of this group that invested in us, he gathered a group of investors into this room and he’s like, “So, you’re going to do a visual presentation for this movie right?” And I was like, “Nope.” And he said, “You should do a visual presentation!”

I didn’t want to undersell the film at all, so I said I’ll do a visual tone piece, which was more important to me for the investors to understand. So, I was living in California, and we went out to El Mirage, this dry lake bed, and shot this really cool one minute piece which was very dream like.

So, for the movie, we wanted these dream sequences to really stand out from our other locations, so we muted the colours with a skip bleach process, and it had this really cool magenta look to it. It was such a different colour palette from the rest of the film.

Nick: I want to discuss the tagline of the film, which is also an incredibly impactful line of dialogue later on in the story, but that is: “Death is just a horizon”. How important was that line of dialogue to not just include in the film for a narrative sense, but also the importance of having it be representative of the spiritual aspects of the Mexican characters in the film?

Lance Larson: Well, I think that is a great question. Nobody has ever asked that, and it’s such an important one. The film deals with borders, and they’re universal to every country. But it’s not just physical borders, but metaphysical borders too. I always say that love and time laugh at all borders. Because borders didn’t exist before man, and when man is gone, borders will cease to exist.

I think it’s a through line for the film. There is the physical side of it, looking at the Mexico and US, versus any other country in the world. And I tried really hard not to get too political with this movie, because it’s not the point of the film. People may not want to watch a movie about the border, but they might want to watch a ghost story. So, I wanted to keep the ghost story element grounded in something real like the border.

Nick: As we’re wrapping up, I’d love to know what the experience was like for you premiering this film at SXSW last year.

Lance Larson: I went to the University of Texas in Austin, and I would drive by that Paramount Theatre, which is a historic theatre that holds 1200 people. The acoustics in there are amazing, the picture quality is amazing. And I drove by that thing for years and always just thought, “Man, maybe someday!”

So, to premiere Deadland at SXSW was awesome, you know. The sold out line wrapped around the block. Elizabeth Abbey, who was our producer, she is like the fairy godmother of film in Texas, and she’s the vice president of Robert Rodriguez’s company, so to have her as part of the experience was incredible.

Thank you to Lance Larson for his time, and to Walkden Publicity for organising the interview. Deadland is available on various VOD platforms on June 26.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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