God’s Country, Emerson Los Angeles faculty member Julian Higgins’ neo-Western thriller, may be set in the snowy wilderness of the American West, but it owes its existence, in part, to a classroom on balmy Sunset Boulevard.
“I don’t think I would’ve made this movie at all if I hadn’t been teaching,” said Higgins ‘08, who took time off from ELA to complete the film. “I’m the teacher putting the chairs in a circle. I learn a lot about what I think through teaching.”
Higgins screened the film, for students, faculty, and alumni on September 2, at ELA. Following the advance screening, he joined actor Kai Lennox and Cooper Vacheron ’16, who served as visual effects producer on the film, for a Q&A.
Based on the short story, Winter Light, by acclaimed author James Lee Burke, God’s Country stars Thandiwe Newton as Sandra Guidry, a professor living and working in a rural college town who’s drawn into an escalating battle of wills after she confronts two hunters trespassing on her property. Co-written with Shaye Ogbonna and directed by Higgins, the film premieres in theatres nationwide on September 16.
In the film, Lennox plays Arthur, a department head at the local college, who shares a pivotal, intense scene with Newton’s character. It was one the actor had a tough time filming, saying that he had a “visceral response” around having to film the difficult scene.
“I was literally having a moment of paralysis,” said Lennox, who was the first person cast in the movie. “It was incredibly challenging.”
To help foster a safe space for Lennox and Newton, Higgins reduced the number of people on set and talked Lennox through the moment.
“I sort of see my role as a director as facilitating,” said Higgins. “Creating a space where people feel they’re safe to try things.”
Since filming wrapped, Lennox says he’s become buddies with Higgins.
“It was one of the most wonderful collaborative experiences I’ve had,” said Lennox. “Julian’s an incredibly thoughtful person. It was like getting to collaborate with a really great friend.”
The journey to getting the film made was a long one. Higgins first directed a short film adaptation of Burke’s story that was released in 2015 and became a top-10 finalist for the Academy Award. That’s what he thought would be the end of the project.
After processing his feelings following the 2016 presidential election, Higgins says the story came back to him in a very different context and he envisioned it in a new light, changing the main character from an older white man to a Black woman. The switch added new layers of subtext to the story and gave Higgins access to themes and feelings he sought to explore. He and Ogbonna worked on the script together, spending several hours a day on the story.
When it came time to casting, Higgins says Netwon was the only person he could imagine playing the challenging role of Sandra. After writing her a passionate letter inviting her to read the script, they talked, and she accepted the role. Filming began in Montana in February 2020.
After just a few short weeks, production on the movie came to a halt because of the COVID pandemic. Uncertainty loomed. In the meantime, Higgins reviewed the footage with his editor, Justin LaForge, and developed new ideas. He revised the script with Ogbonna and kept in touch with his producing team.
Three hundred and sixty-seven days after the production stopped, filming finally resumed in 2021, pre-vaccine. Rigorous testing and safety protocols were implemented to keep everyone healthy.
Having to piece together scenes shot in different years offered some challenges, but Higgins had a friend he could count on when it came to the movie’s visual effects: Vacheron.
“Cooper, to me, embodies the Emerson spirit. I know that sounds really corny, but the people he met at Emerson they all get together and collaborate with each other,” said Higgins. “It’s inspiring watching these filmmakers work together.”
Vacheron took Higgins’ internship class while attending ELA and the two developed a friendship after he graduated. Knowing that Vacheron was working in visual effects, Higgins decided to offer him the job on the spot at a party they attended for another Emersonian. Vacheron put a bid together and began working on the film at the end of 2021.
“It was awesome,” said Vacheron, who also worked with Ethan Feldbau ’07, a visual effects artist on the film. “It was really fun. It was all over Zoom. We worked very well together.”
Among the attendees in the audience was ELA faculty member Scott Cooper, who taught Higgins himself in 2008 in his Film & Television in the Age of Anxiety class. Cooper recalled speaking with Higgins about the film in its early days.
“It’s fascinating to see it all done having had Julian tell me about it and learning about the film when it was in pre-development and he was casting,” said Cooper. “It’s great to see Julian and see his success.”
After the screening, Lennox spoke with students and posed for pictures. Thomas LaGrange ’22 counts himself as a fan.
“[Kai] has great range. He’s one of those actors who can fit in any role,” said LaGrange, who mentioned that the advice that resonated with him from the filmmakers was to “make what you want as soon as you can.”
Lennox also spoke with Mercer Whitfield ’22 and the two made plans to chat more down the line. Whitfield said she appreciated speaking to a fellow actor “on a common level” and complimented the film’s cinematography.
“There were some good perspectives shared,” said Whitfield. “I like that the film will get people thinking.” Wrapping up the evening, Higgins shared advice for aspiring directors: “Just start making the movies you want. Whatever you can manage, get those reps in. Everybody