The Frontier

SXSW Interview: The Frontier Writer and Director Oren Shai

One of the many cinematic gems to have made its debut at this year’s SXSW is writer and director Oren Shai’s pulpy noir thriller The Frontier. Set in 1974, The Frontier stars Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil, Insidious: Chapter Two) as Laine, a woman on the run from the law who finds temporary shelter in a quiet desert road diner. Unfortunately for Laine, however, she’s not the only one whose secrets have brought them to this remote location. sat down with Shai, Donahue and co-stars A.J. Bowen (You’re Next, The Signal) and Izabella Miko (Clash of the Titans, “The Cape”) to discuss their stylish approach to the crime thriller. Check out their thoughts below and check back throughout the week for more interviews with the talented men and women behind all sorts of different SXSW debuts. 

CS: Where did The Frontier begin?

Oren Shai: It began about five years ago. I met my writing partner, Webb [Wilcoxen] at a screening. We have a mutual friend in Roy Frumkes, who wrote “Street Trash” and directed “Document of the Dead.” He invited us to a screening of “Frankenhooker” and we met there. We had coffee afterwards and, as we were talking, realized that we have very similar sensibilities. I had some ideas. He had some ideas. We started putting them on paper and they just grew into “The Frontier” out of there. We spent a year or two on that.

CS: So it all began with “Frankenhooker”?

Shai: [Laughs] Well, I take it really, really back, it began with “Parent Trap,” but this particular script started with “Frankenhooker,” yes.

CS: Jocelin, when did the project first come your way?

Jocelin Donahue: It was only a few months before we started shooting that I got the script. Oren had contacted me maybe a few years before. I had seen his short, “Condemned,” which blew me away. It also has his same style. His voice is really in that and made me want to work with him. When I read “The Frontier,” my role was such a badass character. That’s something I had never gotten to play before. It’s such a page turner, too. You want to see how her plan is unfolding and then, by the end, when stuff is starting to go crazy… It was just so unique. I hadn’t read anything like it. Then, when I met with Oren, he was so brilliant. He told me he wanted to make a movie that was about a woman who not defined by men. That is a gift for an actress.

CS: “Page Turner” seems to be a very appropriate term. There’s a very pulp novel aspect to “The Frontier.”

Shai: Oh, yeah! Really, I want the movies I work on in general to feel like they are pulp novels. I wanted it to look like one visually, to match the covers, but there’s a quality to reading a vintage paperback and sometimes having it fall apart in your hand, that makes it feel lived in. There’s something magical about it that I wanted the movie to feel like. Like when I read “The Postman Always Rings Twice” the first time or David Goodis’ “The Burglar.” That’s really what turns me on. There’s also the idea of making it about a woman. Women are not defined by their relationship with men. They’re not necessarily wives or girlfriends.

CS: There’s also a haunting sense of artificialty in the visuals. Does it make any sort of difference as an actor when you’re playing within a specific aesthetic like that?

Donahue: That’s interesting. I think that Laine, out of everyone, is probably the most grounded in the real world. She’s watching these really zany characters around her. But whenever you’re in a period piece, it does help you get in character just being on those sets. It helps make you feel like you’re in that time period.

Shai: It’s a tricky question in that I think everything is an aesthetic. Yes, this is highly stylized to one degree, but realism is an aesthetic as well. Movies that are succesful are ones that understand that realism is an aesthetic and know how to manipulate that aesthic accordingly. If you watch [John] Cassavettes or [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, they are using it. It’s not necessarily that there’s naturalism or there’s realism. It’s all an aesthetic. It’s a recreation of something. It doesn’t matter what you do. Sam Fuller said, “Reality is just a bunch of bulls–t”.

CS: AJ, it seems like you run with a very cool crowd of indie filmmakers. What brought you to Oren?

AJ Bowen: Literally, every crew and cast member was such a joy for doing something that was going to be potentially grim in spots in terms of the on-set energy and performance. How I got involved was that Oren and I have some mutual friends but had somehow never met. We ended up getting together in LA to talk. It ended up being like a three-hour conversation about every random movie. We started talking about Golan-Globus and Cannon Films. Then it was, “Maybe we could work on this.” In the indie world I live in, what I sometimes don’t know is if the script I’m reading is going to properly translated to the screen. That’s always a concern. It might be a great script, but they might not know how to realize it. After meeting with Oren, I was ready. I really got what the tone was going to be. The cast members that were in it had me going, “Holy s–t!”

CS: Obviously, you guys are huge film buffs. Do you have a “required reading” for your cast before starting production?

Shai: Of course! It was a little different for everybody. All the characters had their own world in a way. There wasn’t one thing that I said to everybody, “You should check this out.” AJ did something that he gave to me that I loved. He made a playlist for the character. I listened to it and it was so, so great.

Bowen: Yeah, I like to figure out what the character listens to. That’s especially fun in a period film. I was literally having conversations with Oren that went, “What date in ’74 is this set?” Because there are songs that won’t be out yet. I don’t want to listen to a song if it dropped after the movie is set. I know that sounds crazy but once I lock that in, everything else is pretty much taken care of.

CS: That’s fascinating! Do you ever put in songs that are anachronistic if they really fit the character?

Bowen: That would be against the rules!

Shai: With Izabella, we looked at various things. I think “Bus Stop” with Marilyn Monroe was one.

Izabella Miko: Yep!

Shai: It was incredible. I think she channeled that completely. I asked Jocelin to watch a couple of silent films. “Diary of a Lost Girl” by [G.W.] Pabst and [Carl Theodore Dreyer’s] “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Every person had their own. Then we also had more general visual boards for everyone to know where we were and how the movie was going to look and feel.

CS: Izabella, when did you get involved?

Miko: My manager sent me the script. I read the script when I was actually in Poland for Christmas. We had a Skype call. I was in this family mood. Christmas gifts! Then I got this package with all the visuals and was like, “Wow! This is incredible!” Oren was just so clear with what he wanted to do. That’s very important for me. You need to be clear. Either you completely fail or you succeed. That’s also what I believe with acting. You can’t do a character just a little bit. You have to commit all the way. Either someone will love the character and really get it or they will just hate it. It’s okay, as long as there’s a strong feeling.

CS: This all takes place in a very confined setting and it kind of has a stage play sense to it. Does having that limited space help you, as actors, build the necessary intensity within the scene?

Donahue: It definitely did, just being in that space and knowing that everything is going to go down. For me, coming into that space and learning it and trying to figure out what’s going on, it definitely ups the stakes. It did feel like a play, even in the way that Oren staged everything. The fight scene outside where I get up, when I watched it, almost felt like “Manderlay.” It does feel like a play on film. Especially with such great actors to work off of, it felt like that kind of theater world.

Miko: Also, when you shoot on film, it’s not like nowadays where you just shoot and go with it. You have to really prepare. We rehearsed a lot. We knew what we wanted and that’s very much like theater.

Bowen: It was definitely a lot like a theater performance, which I’m a fan of. In particular, there’s this morning scene where, one at a time, every character comes in and they’re all dealing with stuff. The reason I mention it is because I’m a big technical guy. That really informs a lot of my performance, my relationship with the camera. The technical issues are like, “Okay, that’s a problem. Let’s solve it. Let’s find a creative response.” I got into that space and the way it’s set up is like an ‘L’. Right in the middle of that space is a giant red support structure. The second I saw it, I went, “Ooo. Where am I going? Where am I going, Oren? Okay, cool. I get to go into this corner. I don’t have to deal with this pole again. I’m not getting bumped. This is going to be fun.” Then I see Jamie [Harris] and Izabella coming. Because of where they have to be, I’m thinking, “Oh, s–t. There are these poles!” Instead, I got to see how good Izabella is with technical stuff. She’s a dancer. I could just instantly see that. She never made mention of it. The camera can only go in two worlds there. If you’re in the middle of that, it can mess stuff up. She was just dancing back and forth, no big deal. It was so much fun to work with actors where it’s definitely their craft. I’ve worked with actors where you get some real, organic moments but they’re not going to stick the landing over there. It was so nice to have an experience where you can just watch them actively interpret the script in the moment. It was rad, especially when everybody was there. I just wanted to stop acting and watch everybody.


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