I met Aharon Keshales during the junket for Big Bad Wolves and found in him something like a kindred spirit. A former teacher and film critic, he spoke fondly of his love for 1970s cinema and provided cogent defenses of modern blockbusters. Both his co-directing debut, Rabies (the first Israeli horror film), and its follow-up, Big Bad Wolves, demonstrate a strong distaste for hewing to conventional narratives and resolutions. His first American film, South of Heaven, finds Jason Sudeikis at the moment of his superstardom, bolstered by a supporting cast that includes Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham, and Jeremy Bobb, each delivering career-highlight performances in the service of a script that feels personal and, above all, wise. Keshales spent eight years from his last film to get to this point and has some scars as proof of the hazards endured along the way. Like the weather-beaten films that inform his taste, South of Heaven begins as something like a love story and ends, as all great love stories must, in terrible tragedy. (Keshales is absolutely unafraid of the "down" ending.) Its obvious touchstones are Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway and Beat Takeshi's Hana-bi; to say it's exactly my jam is an understatement. I love Aharon as a person, so take this with whatever grain of salt you feel it merits, but South of Heaven is fantastic.
On the eve of South of Heaven's American premiere at 2021's Beyond Fest, I got on a Zoom--as is the custom now--with Aharon, who spoke to me in Denver from a very white room in Tel Aviv. "2001," I said. "Exactly," he laughed.
I began by asking about an early shot in his new film in which Jimmy, played by Sudeikis, is released from prison and stands in extreme long shot behind a chain-link fence looking at his girlfriend, Annie (Lilly).
AHARON KESHALES: I wanted you to think that he's getting out and it's freedom and everything is nice--he sees her and she sees him--but my idea was what if you're never really free? What if you're a part of a machine--a design, a prison? Whether you're literally in prison or out of prison, it's all the same. You're a cog in a big machine and the machine will never let you go. We wanted to construct frames within frames, find stuff that looked like vertical bars wherever we could to trap him--or them. The conventional way to shoot that first "free" scene is to show the close-up, the tender hug, but let's do the opposite. Let's put them in a cage. The prison is always there, looming. It's not gone. The gate opens, but behind is the prison. Either with lighting or composition, we wanted to show that Jimmy couldn't run. Jail is inside of him.
WALTER CHAW: This carries into the noir lighting in the parole officer's office.
Yes, the Venetian screens in Schmidt's office, casting bars across them and also speaking of Schmidt's duplicity.
And machine sounds on the soundtrack.
Yes. For the sound design there were two goals: we wanted to express time in some way, to feel time as a ticking of a clock, so that's the first thing you hear. And the other thing was machines. We want romance on one side and then we wanted the romantic theme to submerge itself into the machine. On the one side there's the hope, and sunshine, and the nostalgia--and then on the other side we have the machine and the tick-tick-ticking of the clock like something out of Modern Times. It's this constant reminder that the things we can't recover are ground up by the machinery of our lives. The costume design, too--the shabbiness of Jimmy's shirt, where he can never separate himself from his imprisonment.
Expand on the notion of time.
Time is the essence of cinema. You can shorten it, prolong it, play with it. Tarkovsky said it all: "Sculpting in time." That's all there is. It started for me, this story, with my honeymoon in New York. We married very late. In Israel, usually you marry in your twenties. I got married when I was 37 and my wife was 39. When you marry this late in life, time becomes very important to you. You lose all sense of proportionality. We went on a half-year honeymoon because we were so delirious that we found each other after all this time. We wanted to make up for lost time. How do we make up for these twenty years we should have been together in half a year? How do we squeeze in all that emotion, all those emotions of love and relief and gratitude...all in half a year? She was a television anchor and I was obsessed with her. She was 20 and I was 18 and we didn't know each other. We never met even though we were at university together. I used to joke, I used to tell my father, "I'm going to marry that girl one day," and then 20 years later, it happened. When it happened, I lost sense of proportion, but I gained a sense of what was important. I distilled all those years alone into these years now not alone.
But you can't really do that.
No! You can't! You're 37, you're not in your twenties anymore, all that time is lost. I realized I couldn't be that guy who saw these movies with the girl I loved in the cinema when I was in my twenties. All these foundational experiences...
It's funny you say that. I was 24 when I met my wife, but I immediately started remembering key events in my life before I met her with her in them.
You compensate. You go to places you've been and see things you've seen, but with your beloved now for the first time. And I thought to myself in New York on our honeymoon, how about a movie about this sense of lost time and compensation, when you have a time limit--an hour or a month or, in the case of South of Heaven, one year. You have one year to show the woman you love how much you missed her when she wasn't in your life. And he's so focused in on this task that he doesn't see all the darkness that's closing in around them.
Is that you?
You know, yes. I am. I am out of proportion. Rabies is about intolerance and misunderstanding and it goes off a cliff. Big Bad Wolves is about disproportionate revenge that makes villains out of the "good guys," the people who are supposed to protect you, who are clothed in righteousness. Because their response is out of proportion, they're the bad guys now. And now this movie, which is about the preservation of that perfect moment out of proportion with what it will take to do that. I think it's in my veins.
I felt that desperation in the performances you find in your cast.
It's interesting because you have no idea what's going to happen when you get to the set. I met Jason before he did "Ted Lasso", and he was looking I think for something that would bump him out of what was expected of him. When he read the script, he really liked that it was bumping him out of our expectations, but I'll tell you the script he read wasn't as dark as the film that resulted from it. Jason brought a lot of that with him in his interpretation of the script. He wanted to play Jimmy as an introverted guy who has a weight on his shoulders. This real pain and sadness, that's something he brought with him. It was something different with him and he stayed in that world for the whole shoot. He never broke character. He was shy, introverted, very, very sad for the whole shoot. Of course, it helps that it was autumn in Dallas where we shot--everything changes with autumn. The sky is grey, the opening shot there's fog instead of sunshine, and up until that morning, we don't know what it's going to be. When we shot it, we knew it was going to be an autumn movie.
Lilly's incredible. She matches Sudeikis in this.
She said to me, "Are we doing this this dark?" So we talked about it, all three of us, and yes, it's this dark. He's getting out of prison, but she's dying and there's a time limit here to how long they can be together. And because Jimmy is who he is and has done what he's done, he's robbed them both of 12 years that they should've been together, and that hangs over them both. She was amazing. She was like, "Of course." Like Jason, she wanted to break out of what's expected of her, you know, maybe just this very beautiful woman who in movies like this traditionally becomes the victim or the revenge motive. I didn't want that, she really didn't want that. She brings sadness, remorse, so many emotions she needs to play with. So from the theory of her performance, her look, Freddy Waff, my incredible production designer, made Annie's home into this Douglas Sirkian world that was modern but old at the same time. A time bubble. A glass-ball Texas noir.
"Time is the essence of cinema. You can shorten it, prolong it, play with it. Tarkovsky said it all: 'Sculpting in time.'"
Tell me more about the sex scene, because that's where we get the weight of what you're talking about here with time and being caught and regret.
As written, it was shit, honestly. The hero throws her in the bathtub and they come together and it's hokey, schmaltzy, they drink beer together--very cheesy. Before pre-production, I showed them The Getaway, the Peckinpah version, as part of preparation for the shoot, and Evangeline came to me and said, "Can I tell you something? The scene in the script after he gets out of prison? It's shit. But there's something very real in that same scene in The Getaway. How do we get closer to that scene?" (laughs) And she's right of course. She says, "When a man and a woman come together after so many years, it's going to be scary and awkward." So I rewrote the scene, but everything you see about Jason touching his tummy and Annie breaking down in the mirror--all of that is because of Jason and Evangeline, that timidity, that sense of authenticity. These are real people dealing with what they look like now as opposed to 12 years ago, just like we all do, right? But that's because these actors are all...
That's it. They have wisdom and they wanted their characters to share it. That's what time does to us and our relationships. Who am I now? Not who I was, but who am I now? I remember shooting and then Jason touches his stomach and you can see disappointment in his eyes. I can't write that. That's the moment that truth appears, that honesty appears. There's that scene in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where they're sitting under that tree talking about lost time and it's a beautiful moment in the middle of this violent, tragic action movie. She lives in the past, he lives in the future. She wants to get married, he doesn't mind anymore. It's this beautiful moment in the middle of this brittle movie.
Slim Pickens's death in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid... All of The Wild Bunch is an elegy punctuated by spasms of violence.
Yes, [Slim Pickens] gets shot in the gut--you see his wife watching him, and it's silent. It's honesty. You don't see it enough. He freezes time. He lets you feel the agony. There's so much, that moment. You see it all. You see a man afraid to die, a man who sees the love of his life watch him die, you see the fear of death and pain of it, and you see his acceptance of death. It's all in his face. He doesn't talk, and the director just lets the camera run. No one is feeding you with a spoon, you just see it.
Sam Peckinpah trusted his audience. So do you. I'm thinking of the scene between Annie and Price and the concept of patience.
I learned a lot from the movies I love the most--the movies of the '60s and '70s. Which is not to say there isn't innovative camera work and blocking there, but that at least in my favourite movies, there's attention on the script and the actors. There's a focus on them that doesn't have anything to do with fireworks or how to cut things in the editing room. I call it "the dance." I love to dance with my actors. I love working with them. Everything is about human beings. It starts with the actor and they give you a lot of things. Take Shea Whigham, he could give you one-hundred interpretations of a line just looking to nail that moment between being a farce and being honest. It's a very shaky line sometimes. You could chew scenery if you're not doing that dance. You come with a plan and there are some directors who are very stringent about the plan. I can't do that. I think movies are a living organism and actors need space. When you engage in a dance with them, they bring things you could never think of on your own. They trust when you give them freedom. It feels honest and suddenly they're trusting you with something that's secret for them, or precious. In that scene you mention, I wanted them both to be human beings first who each have a role to play in a kidnap scenario, but they're not defined by the roles in which they're cast.
An idea that applies to both the characters and the actors.
Exactly. I remember telling Shea that I thought his character was the kind of guy who has a mother you really love. He visits her twice a week, brings her money, and she loves him more than anything in the world. That's her little boy who loves her and has never let her down. His last thought should be of his mother and who will take care of her now that he's gone? I think you can see that complexity in him in every single moment of his performance. And I believe that about his character, you know. I believe that everyone has someone he loves whether they're still there at the end, whether they ever loved him back. And at the end of their lives, they'll be thinking of that someone.
Is that morality?
Regret? Regret or the possibility of regret is certainly an element in morality.
Does that speak to why your characters are so morally "fluid?"
If you want to write a good villain, the hero should be the villain in the villain's life. Right? We should understand how these characters are always the heroes of their own stories and how the people who stand in the way of what they think they must do are their villains. I wanted to make a movie about a protagonist, and then I'm going to make a movie about an antagonist--and then I want to change sides. Price is bad, he is bad, he's violent. But I wanted to have a scene where he sits with his kidnapped victim and rather than being rotten to her or violent towards her, he would just be a grown-up and a person. And in that conversation, you have insight into the other person, and then in the process of meeting someone as an equal, something else enters the room. Price is just a man who loves his wife and his wife died, leaving him to take care of his son. To me the heartbreak of living is to discover that everyone has their own stories of losses and nostalgia for things that can never be recovered.
Annie reveals she's ill because of her profession--Jimmy and Price are both doing terrible things for their "jobs." Talk to me about the concept of work and being cast into a role in life.
Evangeline said to me early on that she wanted to be like Annie Hall. She wanted to cry when she wanted to cry, and be happy when she wanted to be happy. She wanted to play her as a person who is dying. She's strong but she's bound to break down sometimes. I told her to be free. To just be Annie. My only job is to be sure we didn't go too far into something else, but as long as she stayed within the scene, she had every freedom to lead in the dance. I didn't want her illness to be a device, I wanted her reaction to her mortality and her appreciation for time to be the focus of every scene. She was incredible. And Michael [Colter], he's... Whenever he enters the room, every man and woman swoons, he's a god. I wanted to play with that, let's figure out your hurt and your sadness. What are your sad stories? And in the sharing of them you find out that everyone has sad stories--after a certain age, everyone you meet is a survivor of things they didn't think they could survive.
My favourite movie from the 90s is Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi. I thought of it a lot during your film, particularly in the final home-invasion sequence. For all the freedom you talk about, that scene needs to be meticulously choreographed.
You nailed it. Kitano's Hana-bi is one of my favourite movies ever. When I saw it first in the cinema, I cried for a whole week. It shattered my heart. South of Heaven is a tribute to that movie. I took three movies with me to shoot the movie--that, The Getaway, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia--as a vibe reel. There isn't South of Heaven without Hana-bi. That last scene... If we did it in a traditional way, it would've taken a week, and then with a shooting schedule of 25 days, we would leave ourselves 18 for the rest of it. So part of the thinking behind it was bound by the realities of our schedule and budget. We could do a John Wick kind of thing and Jason was so excited to do that, but it would impact the, what's the word you called it? The patience we needed for the rest of it to feel mature and purposeful rather than just...
...a support system for an action scene.
Right. It should be opposite. The action like in Peckinpah, right? The action should support the characters. So we looked at the script with all this crazy-ass, slo-mo, two-handed, acrobatic... I never thought it was right for this movie. I said, "Look, I want to do it in one shot." It's a budget thing but it's not just that. I want this scene to be a flip of who we root for. We start with our "villain" talking to his kid, who's in a coma, and then this mad killer breaks into the house, armed to the teeth, looking to kill him, and maybe his kid, too. Now it's a horror film. I referenced Brian De Palma's one-shot sequences--Blow Out, The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill, all those amazing things he does in a single shot, [sometimes] with divided screens. I wanted to make sure, too, that we set this whole scene up as something that the audience doesn't want to see. We don't want to see this guy we like, Jimmy, doing this. We don't want to see him killing a house full of people in a rage. We don't want to see Price kill Jimmy, either. We want him to take care of his son and we want Jimmy to stop wasting all this time away from Annie. I want the audience to say, "No, I don't want this."
The anti-action action scene.
Yes! We need to mind the way we watch violence. We could've done it the hero way, but I want to do something that breaks the mold. Let's do something that's not easy to watch, that's not easy to digest. Even when we did a POV shot, my DP Matt [Mitchell] and I workshopped how we break it up so that he never dominates the point-of-view so that we defeat identification with him. He's never the hero of the shot. We go back, and lose him, and find him, and lose him again. A horror movie. We even looked for a house that looked like not one of those southern mansions, but a glass-walled thing where you discover frames within frames. There's that whole shootout Kitano does from outside and it's all in frames...
Exactly right, in Sonatine. Beautiful. I said, "Sonatine, but De Palma." I think it was the best day of the year for Jason that year. We rehearsed for the first half: the squib guys, the extras, stunt guys, everything. Then you have maybe seven chances to get it before you run out of chances and have to carry it over, and there's just not enough money to do that. So we do a take and the knife doesn't cut. Then another take and the squibs don't fire off. And finally, the last take, the seventh take, we did it and it was magic. We didn't use CGI, not even enhancement in the movie of the blood, just because I wanted the bottles breaking and things firing in the scene. Maybe nobody notices, but to me, there's something about it that's enhanced when the actor knows you don't have a safety net. If you fall you hit the ground. My team is incredible.
We started with time, let's end with it. What did this time, these last few years, teach you?
I learned that sticking to your guns might make you lose a tooth--and I lost one the last couple of years, my first extraction was from grinding my teeth in stress and grief--but stick to your guns. If I get to make more movies after this, I only want to make things that I believe in and, more than that, I feel so lucky to be able to even be here talking about this. I was a film critic and teacher, a theoretician, I never dreamed of being a filmmaker. But these last couple of years--friends I've lost, time I've lost--I can't do this anymore if I don't believe. I remember one day, my worst day, sitting in Kensington Gardens watching the swans on the lake. I felt so little. I said, "Look, this is life. Time is short. Spend it on things you believe in. Don't do anything for the sake of money or acclaim. That will kill you." I was sure my career was over. I started watching Monte Hellman and Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller. I watched the movies that were miserable box-office failures and I thought to myself, that's me. I was born on the sideline and I'm okay with that. That's fine. I couldn't say that when I began. When you start you want everyone to love what you make. You get older and you see what's really important and it's not any of those other external measures of success. You need a different DNA to make big movies. Losing out on bigger projects... I was always okay with it. I can say "no" now.
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
When you get older, when you get older. I never want to do anything for the money. I want to be a teacher. Anything above minimum wage is a shitload of money. Who cares? Just have enough to be the best version of yourself you want to be. If they let me make movies that matter to me, that allow me to spend as much of the rest of my life as possible with my wife, that's what it means to be blessed.