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INTERVIEW: Aharon Keshales Breaks Down South of Heaven

Jason Sudeikis and Evangeline Lilly standing together in South of Heaven

South of Heaven is an interesting film for a number of reasons, but one of my favorite things about the Aharon Keshales-written and -directed film is that you never really know where it’s going. Starring Evangeline Lilly and Jason Sudeikis, the movie takes us on a love story fated for disaster from the jump, and that’s all thanks to the twisted imagination of Keshales.

Getting to talk with him about the movie, it’s clear he wanted to explore the idea of lost time and what one does to try to get that time back, but in his own warped way, he wanted to do it with a time limit set on it, with two tragic characters at its core. The film follows Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis) as he gets out of prison after 12 years because his fiancée, Annie (Lilly), has one year to live. His goal is to give her a wonderful life for that last year, but when things keep getting in their way, like a crooked parole officer (Shea Whigham) and a car accident that is out of his control, Jimmy and Annie must fight to have their year of happiness.

Keshales was inspired by his own love story to bring this to life, telling me all about his wife, who he fell in love with at 18 years old from afar, only to marry her 20 years later, and how that, combined with his sense of darkness in his writing, led to South of Heaven.

“I have a big thing with love and romance, but at the same time, I’m obsessed with death because I’m a little bit neurotic, like most Jewish writers. So the idea came to me on my honeymoon. I got married at the very late age of 37. In Israel, it’s a big deal. Like when you’re 37 people think you will never get married. And it’s a whole thing here. And my wife was 39 at that time. And you know, I was obsessed with her ever since I was 18. She was a news anchor lady in Israel, a very famous one and I was 18. She was 20. I, you know, I was like idolizing her from afar.

I told my father, I’m going to marry her one day but it was for the joke. But 20 years later, opportunity presents itself. I had Big Bad Wolves that’s coming out for a premier in Israel and people told me you should invite VIPs. So I invited her as a VIP to come and see the movie, but of course I had a hidden agenda. And then, you know, we started dating, got engaged in three months, then got married three months later, and then we went on a honeymoon, right? So what happens when you get married at a very late age of 37 and 39, you try to compensate for everything you didn’t do for 20 years, right? I didn’t get the see her in her twenties. And I didn’t get to see the movies I saw when I was 20 with her.

I didn’t go to, you know, get to see parents with her when I was 28 or 27. So we went on a long honeymoon for six months and tried to do everything we didn’t do in those prior 20 years, within six months, right? Movies, CDs of the worlds and everything. And then it hits me that I want to write a movie about a guy who goes to prison for 12 years. For 12 years and he can’t marry his fiance. And when he comes out has only one year to give her, you know, to compensate for those 12 years, that he didn’t give her the best time of her life, but then what happens, right? He tries to give her the best here, but he just can’t. And I think what happened for me during that moment, where I thought about the film is that I can not operate on a romantic tone.

I could not operate on one tone at all. Like I always have multiple tones when I write. So I immediately tapped into darkness and said, what can go wrong about a guy that comes out of prison after 12 years and tried to give his wife the best year of her life. And then I said, yeah, of course, you know, I’m not going to write love story with because that’s not the movies I write. I write, you know, dark fairytales. And I said, okay, so stuff needs to happen to him. And then I got with the idea that he will be involved in a car accident that will veer the movie into a different terrain. But I said, I will never lose sight of the one thing that is most important in this film, which is a bigger than life love story, but it’s love story. That’s, you know, too much of a good thing could be a bad thing, right? Too much of like a disproportionate love story and where it takes you.”

We talked a bit about the tone of the film, which is all over the place, and the improv that Sudeikis got to do on set, but the inspiration for the film truly tells you all you need to know about South of Heaven. I never really knew what was coming next, and it made for a wonderfully weird and tragic love story that we all can enjoy. Because who doesn’t want to watch Jason Sudeikis fall in love over and over again?

South of Heaven is available in theaters, VOD, and digital now.

(image: RLJE films)

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Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. A writer her whole life but professionally starting back in 2016 who loves all things movies, TV, and classic rock. Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. Star Wars makes her very happy. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast. And also a Harrison Ford one.