Robin Wright used to joke that her directorial debut had already been made. It was called “Blue Valentine,” it starred Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a couple falling apart, it came out in 2010 and it was directed by Derek Cianfrance, not her. And she’d always assumed that hers would eventually be in that vein, but then “Land” fell into her lap a few years ago.
The film, which is now in theaters from Focus Features, finds a successful Chicago woman leaving her life behind after a horrifying tragedy for a solitary existence in the mountains of Wyoming.
Wright had been dreaming of directing for a while. She can’t exactly pinpoint when it started in her almost four decades in the entertainment business, but the itch would come up every now and then, when she’d see a director unable to reach actors in the right way or just have a clearer vision for how something should be shot. She always backed away, thinking she wasn’t ready. Then, six seasons into “House of Cards,” she stepped up and got her own on-the-job training.
When “Land” came to her, she said, it was at a time when there seemed to be mass shootings almost every week. And this script resonated in a way that none had before, from the reason Wright's Edee leaves her life to the way she starts to heal.
“The beauty of human kindness that this movie has, that we all do need each other and we need someone to pull us out of difficult times and guide us through. I just feel like that message needed to be told,” Wright said.
She’d never intended to play Edee either, but nothing was lining up with the other actors she was considering and suddenly they had the financing and a start date and no lead.
“We couldn’t take the risk of would we have it cast in time?” Wright said. “We shot the movie in 29 days so we really couldn’t mess around.”
Her producers gently suggested that she consider it.
“I said, yep, I’m going to be there anyway!” Wright laughed.
For her counterpart, Miguel, Wright cast the Oscar-nominated Mexican American actor Demián Bichir She’d been taken by his turns in “A Better Life” and “The Hateful Eight” and was excited that he seemed to be both thoughtful and funny. “Land,” she knew, needed some levity. But it was sealed when they met. They were kindred spirits.
“He walked in the house and it was like we had known each other our whole life. It’s the exact dynamic that you see on screen,” she said. “We were like each other’s long lost sibling.”
Bichir said he just wanted to be part of it, “whether it was playing Miguel or being her assistant.”
He’d had his own devastating loss recently. His wife, Stefanie Sherk, had died by suicide earlier in the year.
“He said, ‘One day I will share with you my story. But I need to do this movie. It’s therapy for me,’” Wright said.
They set off to Alberta, Canada, in September 2019 to film a story that takes place over multiple seasons in multiple years. It would be an understatement to say that the weather was unpredictable, even for Alberta. Every day they were prepared with three different wardrobes, just in case the weather took a turn.
“It’s the first film that I’ve ever made that was scheduled by nature,” Bichir laughed.
But Wright had some seasoned locals on her crew who were more reliable than any app. She called them her “Calgary weather whisperers.”
The “film angels” were on their side, too, delivering unseasonably early snow at the perfect moment and then transitioning back to autumn. And everyone was committed, especially cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, a naturally outdoorsy spirit who went above and beyond to get spectacular shots of nature.
“The producer and I, we slept in trailers right behind the cabin. But he chose to sleep in the freezing cold cabin with all the rodents that lived in there so he could capture those amazing shots, those vista shots, all of the weather, the rain and the snow at night, the moon time lapse,” Wright said. “That was just him waking up at 2, 3, 4 in the morning to catch something.”
Bichir, who has also directed, was in awe of Wright’s skills.
“She’s as great as she is as an actor,” he said. “She knows exactly what she wants. She is just a natural captain, you know? She’s a great commander in chief.”
She finished “Land” in lockdown, which she said she never wants to do again, but she's already eager to get back behind the camera and continue finding her own style.
And the process did prove somewhat therapeutic for Bichir as well.
“All of us human beings, we will all go through a loss at some point in our lives. You know, sometimes it’s an expected type of thing, sometimes it will take you by surprise, but we all face that. And I’ve always believed that it is through art that we gain a lot of terrain in our healing process,” he said. “The most important part of grief and this particular story, this particular film, is that it’s important for everybody to understand that it doesn’t matter how tough or how sad it is. You will come back. You will overcome that. You will smile again. That’s pretty much what this film is about.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr