You probably have not heard of the film, Astraea and this is most likely to the fact that it has not released yet. Premiered at Cinequest 25 (after having won the New Visions Award at the Cinequest Film Festival), Astraea is a unique look at a post apocalyptic world; a world with literally only a handful of people left, as they try to survive, trust, grow and live. And amongst it all is a young girl who, in the silence of this empty world, has begun perceiving new signals.
We were lucky here at Don’t Forget A Towel to get an advance screening of the film, and then have a little chat with the team behind it. This includes writer Ashlin Halfnight, director Kristjan Thor, and actors Jessica Cummings and Scotty Crowe – all four of which were also producers for the film. So lets get started…
MOSES: Ashlin, I know for myself, an idea tosses around in my head for a great while (and I’m talking years sometimes) before pieces start falling together into something more firm. When did Astraea first come to you, and how did it progress to the point where you finally sat down to write it?
ASHLIN: Astraea was an idea that I’d been mulling over for a while – probably a year or two – the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic world, the concept of brainwave communication, a young woman dealing with the three-headed dragon of puberty, the apocalypse, and ESP. I had an outline together, I think, in a folder where I keep ideas that are still percolating, and then in the summer of 2012, watching Diving Normal come to life, I decided it would be an accomplishable narrative to undertake in the indie film model… so I started writing.
MOSES: And how long was it between completing the script until official pre-production began?
ASHLIN: I wrote the script in August and September of 2012, and we were in pre-production that fall. It was incredibly quick. Insanely fast, actually, because we were weather dependent. It was either go-go-go and get it in the can during February of 2013 of wait another full year.
The irony of the thing is that we ended up doing our re-shoots in the winter of 2014 anyway.
MOSES: Speaking of winter, it seemed to fit the desolation of the post-apocyptic world you created. Concerning the post-apocolpse genre, what book or movie of has been one of your favorites growing up?
ASHLIN: I loved – and this is going way back – The Boxcar Children. They’ve made it into a series of books now, I think, but I only read the original. The idea of kids, alone, isolated and self-sufficient, living off the detritus of society, was really an eye-opener. It was a fantasy that resonated for some reason. More recently, I’d say The Road – a beautiful, scary, heartbreaking book – and movie.
MOSES: I’ve head of those, though never had the chance to read any… Kids living on their own always makes me think of Lord of the Flies! But The Road, I have seen/read… and yes, amazing.
Kris, same question to you… There was a certain eeriness to the world in the film… one not captured in your average dystopian/post-apocalyptic film, as those tend to have more people left over (or creatures, or one thing or another). Astraea focused on the emptiness and desolation of a world missing its inhabitants entirely… has the been anything particular that influenced you when working with Ashlin to bring this world to life?
KRIS: The loneliness of an empty world fascinates me. Ashlin and I spoke a lot about how big the earth would feel if something like the drops were to actually happen. What it would mean to walk across the country on your own two feet. Spending all your time with one other person. Those simple realities were where we started when figuring out what the film would feel like.
As for other works, a lot of my inspiration came from the winter watercolors of Andrew Wyeth. He painted a lot in Maine and was such a good starting point to find the tone of the film. Anytime we were up against a wall, we would open up a book of his paintings or drawings and the answer seemed to be in his work. Ashlin mentioned, The Road, which is an amazing book and film and was very much an inspiration to me. I also kept coming back to Tarkovsky’s films, especially Stalker, in terms of a director who really captures the beauty of emptiness and desolation. He’s one of the all time greats and it was such a pleasure to revisit his films.
MOSES: I’ll have to check that one out. Obviously, the original Solaris was another great film of his that worked with it’s own type of vast emptiness. One that brought about anxiety in the characters.
Scotty, I was extremely impressed with the tension and nervousness you brought to the film… especially in the beginning when Matthew and Astraea are traveling and basically you have begun worrying about what sort of people you would run into (if any at all). How did it feel playing this role? Have there been any characters from past films that inspired you?
SCOTTY: First of all, thank you. I felt so empowered by the role and was drawn to the mix of stoicism and wonder at the beginning of the script, and trying to figure out what made the most sense to “protect” in this new world. I loved the dynamic between Matthew and Astraea as siblings and as peers, each taking the lead on certain aspects of the journey.
As the film progresses, Matthew starts to open up, and it was a joy to work on the character as he rediscovers what it is to be fulfilled and happy.
Though it’s a book and not a film, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came to mind in developing the sibling relationship dynamics with Astraea.
MOSES: Interesting. I’ve been meaning to check out his book The Wild Things (loosely based on the classic “Where the Wild Things Are”. Looks like I might need to get on that.
Jessica? Same question for you from an acting perspective. Callie brought a sense of calmness and hope to the scenes.. something I found reassuring and “comforting”, when you take in perspective the world these characters are in. What actors/actresses growing up have left an impression on you, and any in particular for your role here?
JESSICA: It was a challenge to live inside a character who is struggling with the realities of the apocalypse – loss, loneliness, survival, desperation, boredom. But a wonderful challenge. It was so rewarding to explore the character of Callie – to track the journey of a severely depressed woman who is rediscovering hope. There are so many actresses that have inspired me throughout my life. To name a few: Laura Linney, Meryl Streep, Melissa Leo, Carey Mulligan, Amy Morton. I can’t point to any one person in particular for this role, but I was inspired daily by Dan, Nerea and Scotty – what they brought to set every day was exciting and contagious. But I have always been a fan of sci-fi and post apocalyptic stories – Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Kingkiller Chronicles, and The Road being some of my favorite books and movies.
MOSES: All great books (and films/shows for that matter).
Ashlin, after having written the script, were there any particular scenes you were worried about being shot when production would come around?
ASHLIN: Ordinarily, I think a writer tends to worry most about the heavy emotional scenes, but I knew that we were in good hands with Kris’ direction and the combined talents of Nerea, Jess, Scotty, and Dan, so I really wasn’t concerned there. The two scenes that did worry me were the standoff between Astraea and the dog, and the climactic scenes, which take place in the middle of a half-frozen lake. The dog scene went great, thanks to Luciano and his owners John and Tina – he’s an award-winning trained show dog, so I was expecting good behavior, but the shoot really couldn’t have gone any better. The lake stuff was awesome and exhilarating, but our augur broke while drilling holes in the ice, so we had to take matters into our own hands – literally with axes – which was wet and cold and inefficient. It took a long time to make it safe, realistic, and shootable, but ultimately it worked… with a little help from the VFX department.
MOSES: What about you Kris? What would you say was the most difficult/challenging scene to direct when considering set/location/production (lighting issues, weather issues, etc)? Which scene would you say was the most challenging when considering the actors/dialogue/action of the scene?
KRIS: Well, the obvious answer is the ice/lake scene, but Ashlin touched upon that already! It was a doozy though.
I think the birthday party sequence was quite difficult but it was also one of the scenes I’m most proud of. Having spent so much time in a world without electricity, it was a real challenge to find a way to make that scene emotional (and hopefully beautiful) but still live in the world of the play. I think the little theater that we created for the King Lear sequence was such a good use of resources but also had a DIY feel to it that kept you in the world of the film.
As for the most difficult scene in terms of dialogue and acting, I thought, for sure, it was gonna be the “drunk” scene. That, however, turned out to be a blast. The actors killed it and everything fell into place. We actually shot in half the time we had budgeted!
Beyond that, the early scenes where they are all first together in the living room and at the dinner table were very challenging. We all needed to constantly remind ourselves what it must be like to see “new people” after so long. It was a challenge tracking the re-socializing that the characters were going through. All of the actors were amazing at staying on top of that through line and they kept close track of their trajectory throughout.
MOSES: You know, I kind of thought of the birthday scene as a difficult one myself. But you all made it work so well… when Astraea looks at the projector… I definitely had the feels” as they say.
Jessica and Scotty, after having read the script… any particular scenes either of you were anticipating in particular?
SCOTTY: There were so many! Growing up in south Georgia and then moving to Los Angeles, I’d never been on a frozen lake, seen heavy snowfall, snowshoed, or experienced so much of the world described in the script, so I was excited to learn and live these things.
From a storytelling standpoint, I found the scene at the library very important for Matthew – we see his connection to the past and understand so much of why he is the way he is. It also ends up being a very tender, meaningful moment with Callie.
On set, the proposal sequence felt special – from the confrontation with Astraea to the beautiful production design and proposal to Callie, so much happens in Matthew’s world as both of those relationships heighten in opposite ways in a matter of minutes.
JESSICA: I was anxious about two scenes for very different reasons. The first was the sex scene – because that always has the potential to be awkward. There were, of course, nerves involved, but I trusted Kristjan (Thor) and Matt (Mendelson) to film the scene tastefully, which they did. That day we had a closed set, so only those crew members directly involved in filming were present. And Scotty was an incredibly respectful and professional scene partner – so that made the whole day much easier and stress free.
The second scene for me was the lake scene. And it lived up to everything I was anticipating. Being plunged into a frozen lake in Maine in the middle of winter is as wet and cold as you would expect! But I had a blast. I love getting the opportunity to experience new things. Would I do it again? I’m not sure that an annual “polar bear plunge” is for me – but for a film, absolutely.
And how about working Nerea Duhart? Her role as Astraea was excellent, exhibiting a perfect balance between a survivor, and a girl still young at heart. She did such an amazing job fitting into the world you all created.
SCOTTY: She was a blast. She naturally fit the character so well and was game to do anything and everything she could to tell the story. There was some magic at play – it being her first feature, she had a natural wide-eyed-ness, but she’s very grounded as a person. Nerea and Astraea were both after something new and unknown with all their hearts.
JESSICA: It was wonderful. Scotty put it beautifully. But Nerea is an incredibly hard worker and a gifted actress. This was her first feature film, but to see her work you would not know it. She brought her “A” game to every take and was a joy to work across from.
MOSES: It totally shows. And I know he’s not here for any questions, but I wanted to make sure it was mentioned that Dan O’Brien, like the rest of you, was also amazing.
SCOTTY: I second that. Loudly.
JESSICA: Me too. He’s incredible.
MOSES: The 4 of you were the entire cast of the film (sans the cut scenes)… how did it feel when shooting scenes that all 4 of you were in? Especially considering in your roles, you represented what might be the last 4 people alive.
JESSICA: I love group scenes – it feels like the whole team is together on the field. There’s more people to work off of, and you really get a feel for the different relationships in the story.
SCOTTY: These may have been my favorite. Each of us had a very specific dynamic with the other 3, and it was fun to show and hide those when we were all together. Even with the conflicts in several of the scenes, there was a sense of comfort in being as surrounded as possible by other people, and I think that’s why most of them have an excited or celebratory tone to them.
MOSES: The birthday seen in particular was one of my favorite moments.
Which was the first scene shot of the film, and which one wrapped it up? How long did the entire shoot take?
SCOTTY & JESSICA:
First scene: sunset on lake.
First scene with character: James hikes into the forest and chops wood.
Martini in Maine: Walking across Drive-In Movie theater lot
We filmed 19 days in Maine and then 3 pick-up days in Massachusetts the following winter.
MOSES: Just 3 pick up days? Despite having to get everything back together, that’s actually not bad at all. I noticed you all worked together with Diving Normal, which means there must have been good chemistry as a team going from then. Is there more to it? Do any of you know each other from before then?
ASHLIN: Well, in fact, all of the main creatives had worked together in some way or other before Astraea. It’s one of the things that allowed this film to work, I think – that shared language, proven trust, and artistic respect. Dan and Jess had acted opposite each other in Balaton – a play that I wrote while on Fulbright in Budapest – that Kris directed in 2009 in New York. Nerea was in a play that Kris and I again teamed up on – Dream Dead From Seven – and besides the film, Scotty had acted in the stage version of Diving Normal in Los Angeles.
MOSES: Well, clearly you all work well together. And the results are obvious… It’s great to see that the film has already won the New Visions Award at the Cinequest Film Festival. What are your next steps now?
JESSICA: Yes, thank you! We had our World Premiere at Cinequest Film Festival this month and were thrilled with how receptive audiences were to the film. We are early in the film festival circuit, so we will be announcing shortly where audiences can next see the film. And we are currently in talks with sales agents and distributors, so news about those developments will be forthcoming as well.
MOSES: Well, thank you all so much for taking the time to talk to us, and thank you for giving us the chance to watch you film. It’s an amazing film… one of those memorable ones that just stays with you, and getting to talk to you all about it has been great!
Stay tuned with us here at DFAT as we follow along Astraea‘s progress and keep you updated on when you might be able to catch the film yourself!