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‘Above the Trees’: Q&A with director Gary Lundgren about his latest southern Oregon-shot feature

Lundgren talks with Marc Mohan about his new film, creative independence, and Krzysztof Kieślowski ahead of a Wednesday night appearance at the Hollywood Theatre.

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Danielle Kelly in “Above the Trees”

When Gary Lundgren rolls up to the Hollywood Theatre on Wednesday night, he’d be forgiven for seeming to be running on fumes. After all, he’ll be at the tail end of a statewide tour premiering his new film, Above the Trees, having screened the ambitious, Rogue Valley-shot drama in Ashland, Klamath Falls, Eugene, Salem, and elsewhere over the past couple of weeks. But it’s exactly the sort of dedicated effort you’d expect from an independent filmmaker who has carved a fertile cinematic niche in southern Oregon, with Above the Trees now the fifth feature from Lundgren’s Joma Films. (Lundgren’s last effort, Phoenix, Oregon, had the unique distinction of being number one at the national box office during the first weeks of COVID lockdown, when almost all movie theaters were closed.)

Conceived during a time when those closures had subjected many Oregon Shakespeare Festival performers to enforced idleness, Above the Trees is part character study and part courtroom drama, with just a pinch of metaphysical sparkle. In the opening scene, Gabriel (Julian Remulla) is the victim of an assault from an unknown assailant and lapses into a coma as his fiancé Coral (Danielle Kelly) seeks answers from Gabe’s friend Gustavo (Luis Rodriguez).

The film then flashes back to explore the relationship between this trio: Coral, we learn, is a singer and deejay for Jefferson Public Radio (as is Kelly); Gustavo is a former prizefighter who runs a local gym, and Coral’s ex; and Gabe is the man who helped Coral achieve sobriety and proposes marriage to her on the air mere hours before being attacked in Ashland’s Lithia Park. Gustavo becomes the prime suspect, but as his trial plays out, an eccentric poet (Barret O’Brien) begins to suspect there’s another side to the story.

I spoke with Lundgren in the midst of his travels about the film’s origins, the independence of working in southern Oregon, and, of course, the genius of Krzysztof Kieślowski.

OREGON ARTSWATCH: The film has an interesting chronological structure. Was that always the intention, or did that arise during the editing process?

LUNDGREN: It’s a little like a true-crime podcast. You’re looking back on a story where someone’s been in jail unjustly for thirty years and trying to figure out what happened. There’s a troubling aspect to these stories—if only someone would have done this, or if this piece of evidence had been known, none of this would have happened. Here, though, I can control the outcome, which is what I did. And making it non-linear means that even though the audience knows he ends up in a coma, we can still see Gabe and Coral fall in love and get to know them.

Q: This is now your fifth feature shot in southern Oregon. What keeps you there instead of bolting to Hollywood, or at least Seattle?

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A: I was in Hollywood for a long time. I was in the editor’s guild, working on bigger movies, in my 20s. I got disillusioned faster than most people—I had big ambitions, but I saw right away that I didn’t quite fit the mold of pitching stories and trying to come up with high-concept pitches that could be fast-tracked. I was a [Krzysztof] Kieślowski fan, I wanted to make films like Red, Blue, and White.

Q: Also films that have nonlinear narratives.

A: Exactly. And multiple points of view. Films like those, or The Dekalog, that weren’t afraid to just tell human stories where suddenly we might be with another character. I realized early on that I was going to have to be pretty stubborn and tack my own course to becoming a filmmaker. Being in southern Oregon is freeing, whereas Los Angeles can be a hall of mirrors. I have friends there who’ve had a lot of success, but I’m not envious of it. We’ve done it our way here. It’s tough not having enough resources sometimes, but it’s satisfying. Especially this last one—I felt so free to just make art with friends as opposed to having to come up with some entertaining story that’s going to please everybody. You always feel those pressures when you’re raising money: is it commercial enough? are the performers popular enough? And I don’t like feeling those pressures. I’d rather just tell a story I’m interested in and do the best we can. And I feel like we did that with this one especially.

Barret O’Brien in “Above the Trees”

Q: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because just looking at the outline of Above the Trees, it’s the closest to a typical commercial genre that you’ve done. Phoenix, Oregon and Calvin Marshall, for instance, were more leisurely character studies, but this one is at least sort of a courtroom drama.

A: If you can put it in a genre, that’s helpful. But I see it more in how it flows as opposed to those “What’s going to happen next?” moments. I don’t think the film goes to those moments much. It’s more interested in how people act and how something like this could happen.

Q: There’s also an aspect to the film that’s critical of the justice system and institutional racism, but it never feels didactic.

A: Yeah, I never tried to make the police seem two-dimensional. They’re just doing their jobs. But now there’s a guy who’s on trial and he might go to jail for thirty years on nothing more than circumstantial evidence. But I felt more of a curiosity about that idea. Those inherent biases are more in the subtext of the movie.

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Q: And, without giving too much away, there’s a real randomness to the way Gustavo’s ultimate fate is determined.

A: Exactly. It always goes back to the characters and the ideas. Novelists have better luck with that than filmmakers. It goes back to those podcasts, and why they bother me so much. You can never solve them in a satisfying way. When I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I didn’t know if I could handle it because I knew that Sharon Tate was going to get killed. This horrible, sick feeling came over me. And the fact that Tarantino didn’t go there really excited me. He just did what he wanted. There was a little bit of that with this movie.

Luis Rodriguez and Julian Remulla in “Above the Trees”

Q: You wrote some of the roles with specific performers in mind, including Danielle Kelly. How did you incorporate that while also meeting the needs of the story you were trying to tell?

A: My original idea was to do an anthology. I would make seven short films, kind of like The Dekalog, using a murder as the common denominator. So I wrote those, including the part for Danielle, because I knew her, I thought she was real talented, and she hadn’t had an opportunity to star in something. I wasn’t quite going for a documentary style, but close. I wanted the characters to inhabit these places in a very real way. Having each short film center on one character also meant that I wouldn’t need to monopolize the actors’ schedules—I’d only need them for a specific time. Eventually I dropped three of the stories and kept four, and then I started seeing it as more of a single narrative.

Q: And the availability of some of the actors became less of an issue once the Shakespeare Festival was shut down.

A: The fact that I had all of these actors here in town, out of work, and wanting to work, opened up the possibility of shooting the movie chronologically and filming with Danielle from day one until the last day. Doing that allowed it to evolve a little bit as we shot it.

Q: The most eccentric character in the piece is the poet, played by Barret O’Brien, who types up verses for passersby for six bucks and seems to be able to look into people’s souls. Was this a case of writing for the specific actor?

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A: Barret’s become a good friend of mine. He has a flip phone, he writes poetry, he’s a novelist, he’s an actor. He’s a guy who treats people really well. That was the foundation of the character. I had worked on a show with him and Mark Duplass called The Long Long Night. That was during the pandemic, too. We shot that in early 2021 in Los Angeles. It just played at Tribeca and South by Southwest. I learned a lot about Barret during that time, especially his range as an actor. He really became an anchor on this project.

Q: There’s one big plot point that you have avoided mentioning in other press. That seems to be a conscious choice and, without spoiling it here, can you talk about why that was?

A: I know, I know! I wrestled with that. It would be a better pitch if we revealed it up front. They say that the best thing to do in a trailer is to give the movie away, because the audience wants to know what happens when they buy the ticket. But it also drives people crazy when they feel like they saw the movie before they saw it. So I don’t know the answer to that.

Above the Trees screens on Wednesday, May 22, at the Hollywood Theatre, followed by a Q&A with director Gary Lundgren and producer Annie Lundgren.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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