Directing duos are all the rage these days, from The Daniels to the Russos to the Safdies. But in a time when even the Coen brothers have gone their separate ways, few filmmaking pairs have had the staying power of Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
Since their striking 1993 debut Suture, McGehee and Siegel have been particular about the projects they pursue. It was eight years after Suture that their follow-up, The Deep End, emerged, and it’s now been nine years since their most recent effort, the underseen child custody drama What Maisie Knew. But with Montana Story, their patience and ours has been rewarded.
It centers on the relationship between siblings Cal (Owen Teague, It) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson, After Yang) after their father is incapacitated by a stroke. Erin returns home from New York after being estranged for years, under circumstances that grow clearer as the story unfolds. Cal is preparing to sell the over-mortgaged family ranch, and to euthanize the one aging horse left in the barn, which Erin fiercely objects to.
Intimate, sometime ferocious family drama plays out against the Big Sky backdrops, with Dad’s hospice nurse a perceptive and sympathetic observer. Both leads, especially Richardson, deliver rich, authentic performances, and while some of the story beats are predictable, the ways in which they come to life aren’t.
I spoke via Zoom with McGehee and Siegel about the ideas behind Montana Story and the ways their collective resume has evolved.
OREGON ARTS WATCH: Your earlier films, especially Suture, were formally inventive and often surreal, while more recent ones, including Montana Story, are much more naturalistic. Has that been a conscious evolution?
SIEGEL: It’s dictated by the subject matter to some degree, and also by the logistics of trying to make a movie in the teeth of the COVID pandemic. We stepped out of our normal way of doing things with this one, writing this script. We wanted to write something that was very conversant in emotional conflict.
OAW: What does the division of labor look like between the two of you?
McGEHEE: I just let David make all the difficult decisions, and then I take as much credit as possible.
SIEGEL: He strokes my ego. We didn’t go to film school, so when we started making movies together, we were completely ignorant of the way things went. Over the years, it’s just been a very organic, fluid process. Our roles on set are slightly different, but in terms of planning and writing and all the other work, we really do it together.
OAW: One of the main themes in Montana Story is generational trauma, which is a theme that seems to be present in a lot of popular entertainment in a way that wasn’t always the case.
McGEHEE: That’s an interesting observation. I hadn’t thought about if that was a trend. Maybe it’s because older people have messed things up so badly that we’re grappling with how to move forwards.
SIEGEL: That is something that we were thinking about writing the story. The conflict between Cal and Erin, the catalyzing agent for that, is the father, and the question is if their generation grapple with and then move beyond something that came before them.
OAW: There’s a scene where we briefly see Ace, the hospice worker, reading a book, The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez. I then read afterward that you had been planning on filming that novel.
McGEHEE: Thank you for noticing that!
SIEGEL: It’s either elegantly placed or really sophomoric. That’s the movie that we were trying to make before the pandemic. It’s a beautiful book. There’s a character in the book that we were talking to Haley about, and we got to know her while exchanging ideas about this character and the script. It remains to be seen whether schedules will align, and Haley will get to do that with us or not, but that was how we got to know her.
OAW: It was a notable decision on your part not to use any flashbacks in telling this story that is so much about things that happened in the past. There’s a central scene in which Cal describes events that took place during his childhood, and the camera simply stays on Owen’s face as he delivers it in monologue.
McGEHEE: It was tempting to do flashbacks, both as we were writing and even during production. But we really wanted to keep the movie in the present, whether the present was Cal describing the past, or whether it was Cal and Erin grappling with the past in the present. We felt that would make the film feel more immediate. It would keep the audience bound to the present story and the experiences that the characters were going through in the present.
SIEGEL: It’s a very unconventional thing to do in a movie, to have a scene right in the middle that’s so expository, where the audience is filled in on all the emotional stakes of the characters we’ve been watching and setting the ground for everything that’s going to follow. In writing it, we were both aware of how risky it was and that it would depend on having an actor who could carry that. It’s a big burden to put on a young actor. That was the scene Owen auditioned with, and he did such a great job that we had a lot of confidence in him.
OAW: It really adds to the sense that the film is about people learning to not keep living in the past.
SIEGEL: Cal is stuck in a cycle of regret, and Erin is stuck in a cycle of anger. The idea that they could find a way to let that go and move into something else, that is what we were hoping for.
(Montana Story opens on Friday, May 27, at the Living Room Theaters, Regal Fox Tower, Bridgeport Village, the Sandy Cinema, and the Salem Cinema.)