Interview: Take Me to the River’s Matt Sobel, Logan Miller, & Robin Weigert
A gay teen named Ryder (Logan Miller), heads to a family reunion in Nebraska with his worried mother (Robin Weigert) and diplomatic father (Richard Schiff), who insist he hold off coming out to “avoid conflict.” Already an outsider among the Midwestern family, an unseen event between Ryder and his younger female cousin (Ursula Parker) seems to cause a devastating rift within the family—specifically between his mother and her brother (Josh Hamilton), who is instantly suspicious of his nephew. Take Me to the River premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to raves for creating a moving coming-of-age film about family, sexuality, and memory, and it manages to be both mysterious and truly unsettling. Writer-Director Matt Sobel, Miller, and Weigert spoke about their new film, audiences’ reactions to the subject matter, and why they hope it will lead to more conversations as the movie begins its roll out in select theaters across the country.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Having shown the movie to audiences, I imagine some memorable reactions and questions have come up. Do you have any which come to mind?
Logan Miller: The response has been very positive, but it’s just interesting to have dialogue about what people have been interpreting. Everyone seems to have their own unique interpretation of what they see, so everyone’s interaction and debate has been great.
Matt Sobel: I remember one question from the Q&A at the Sundance premiere, a man who raised his hand and asked with a sort of baffled expression, how much of that was in the movie and how much of that was in my head. And I answered that by saying “well, I’m not in your head, so I can’t answer that. But I’m interested in why you asked that question.” Because for me, the kind of negative space we leave in the story is an invitation for the audience to read their own assumptions and fears into the story and bring a little bit of themselves to it, as a co-creator. And honestly, I was more interested in hearing what you think happened between those characters than I am in confirming or denying anything you think you just saw.
TMS: Have you met people who were uncomfortable even voicing their ideas and interpretations because of what having those thoughts and ideas might say about them?
Robin Weigert: I can certainly imagine that people were holding themselves back in Q&As because they would be fearful of what a question might imply about them. I notice the questions in Q&As are often relatively safe. So I imagine some of those more important conversations will be had in private. They’ll talk with the person they went to the film with at home or over dinner, rather than in a public space like a Q&A.
Sobel: All it takes is one person, and this happens in about half our Q&As, to raise their hand and say “was uncle Keith Ryder’s father?” And suddenly the entire audience bursts into opinions about whether that was the case. They’re more interested in arguing between themselves than they are in talking with us. And I’m totally in support of that, because I like to hear those conversations. I am more interested in hearing their interpretations than I am in talking about how we made the movie.
Miller: And I also hope this movie, which is about personal growth, a catalyst for helping people talk more openly about something they consider taboo. It’s opened me up a lot more, so I hope this helps others open up and talk about things that make them uncomfortable.
TMS: Before you started filming, did you have the time to rehearse and discuss how you were interpreting things?
Weigert: We did, which is rare on an independent film, to talk about the material. We actually spent some significant time together, on the phone and in person. But the discovery I made half way through shooting was that Matt was having different conversations which Logan and Josh than the conversations he had with me. So our subjective understanding about our character’s interpretation of the events were actually subjective. Because when things aren’t discussed over many years, things change and grow and are misremembered as something else. So I do believe that our Keith had a different memory from my Cindy’s.
Sobel: I remember when Josh arrived on set, Robin and I sat down with him to nail down some key elements about what happened in the past between them, but then separately, I worked with each of the actors independently to spin out their own narrative and interpretation of those facts.
Miller: Which is a great approach, because rather than generalizing the journey, we realized each of the actors were having their own personal journeys. And Matt was great at giving the details about what everyone went through on their own.
Weigert: I’ve only seen the film a few times, but something just recently occurred to me at a screening. The future tense Molly, who had that experience with Ryder down by the river, it is an open question as to how her own narrative will be spun in years to come. So we leave her in a very vulnerable place because of how the people around her could spin it. Is she left damaged or not? Nothing torrid or horrible necessarily happened, but if they spin it that way, it could leave scars. So my own character, who is kind of a version of a possible future Molly, I’ve obviously made it into something very heavy and tortured and guilt inducing. Which I’ve experienced in my own past, so I watch it now thinking, “What is this littler girl going to tell herself? Is she going to say it was wounding or is she going to say what happened was innocuous?”
Sobel: And I think the only reason we can believe this cycle will be different is Ryder telling his mom, “you did nothing wrong.” Which is sort of the arc of his coming of age. His companion for his mother she did nothing wrong and his ability to lift some of the weight she’s been carrying for 35+ years off of her. It adds a little bit of hope that perhaps things won’t repeat.
TMS: And Ryder and Keith are also parallel’s, but Ryder seems to lack the cruel streak we see from Keith. What was it like working with Josh on those scenes where he is trying to make you feel guilty and intimidate you?
Miler: One of the pivotal moments for Ryder is when I go over to Keith’s house for dinner. And filming that scene was so uncomfortable that it almost lead to an uncomfortable laughter. You see that within Ryder’s character that the only thing he can really do at that point is to respond in a humorous way. And there are moments when you just don’t know what Keith could be thinking. There is a darkness in his eyes, but he’s almost unreadable. And Josh did such an amazing job in that role, because Josh in real life is just a sweet and generous person. But he managed to just dive deep into this dark, ominous role and seemed to get completely immersed.
Sobel: I think that no matter how you interpret what happened and the history of Cindy and Keith, it is pretty clear that Keith enters the story with pretty strong feelings about his sister. And has a desire to prove something about her to this family. He wants to tarnish this boy, I thing he was tarnished as a boy himself. And whether or not those original accusations came from Cindy, he believes that the California contingent of the family looks at him, as Ryder says, as a stupid redneck. So a lot of his mercurial manipulation, he seems to get extreme pleasure out of outsmarting this teen who just called him a stupid redneck.
TMS: There is the comment from Ryder that he hates seeing how different his mother is around her family, that she reacts to things differently around him and even the way she talks seems different. What did you do in those scenes to make that change evident to Logan and the audience?
Weigert: It’s interesting what a hybrid the character of Cindy became. Matt’s mother from Nebraska was offered to me early on as a character study, which I always appreciate having someone to look at and listen to and soak things in. But my own mother also snuck her way in. And without this just becoming a therapy session and disclosing too much about my own childhood, I would say my mother resorts to a very childlike persona when she’s overwhelmed. She adopts a persona you couldn’t possibly blame for anything. She forgets how to do the simplest things because she is projecting an air of helplessness that allows her to escape blame. And it’s an aspect of my mother I’ve always been fascinated by, and this was a character I could explore from the inside and see what that would feel like. And what I found was a profound sense of anxiety, which has to be what that’s initially born from. Because I went in thinking, what does that feel like? Wanting to try on someone else’s clothes. But once inside, I felt such a strong sense of anxiety. Someone so afraid of being exposed and judged at every moment. So it was a gift of a movie for me, to get an intimate glimpse into some stuff that had affected me as a child.
Sobel: I’ve noticed a tendency in myself, when I go back to Nebraska, to change my speech. My family is from Nebraska and the farm in the film is the one my family still owns and place where my mother grew up. But I was born and raised in California, so the architecture of the family is relatively true to life. But when I go back to Nebraska I notice myself changing my vocabulary, and I want to say it was an effort to make them feel comfortable. But it’s also an assumption I’m making that they would be uncomfortable with me as I am. But in general, I think I’m the type of person willing to be uncomfortable to make others feel comfortable, but I don’t think it works ever. And I don’t think my changing my manner of speech does anything helpful at all. I don’t know why I do it, but I know I do it, so I put that in the movie.
Weigert: It’s one thing when the diction changes, but it’s another thing when her attitude changes. I’ve heard a lot of people who grew up in the south and when I hear them get on the phone with their family, it’s like a completely different person comes out. But it’s very different to go back into your own skin to where your childhood safe zone had been.
Sobel: But her going back to an old speech pattern, is just a physical way to show her going back to the power structure she used to have with her mother and brother. And that is much more meaningful for the story.
Miller: But it is also a way to keep her son at bay. I think Cindy comes in with these general assumptions. First of all, she says “don’t talk about what you are or step on anyone’s toes,” because it’s just going to be one more thing for her to have to deal with. And you make these general assumptions, which is something I’ve witnessed in my own family, that they think that the elders of the family are going to assume something. So in order to stop that from happening, we have to keep secrets and make sure everything stays at a certain level of comfort so everything is where the elders would like it to be.
TMS: You start the film with this conversation between Ryder and his parents, discussing whether he should or should not come out to these side of the family. But while we know how they think the family will react, we never see if the family’s reactions to his coming out will mirror those assumptions, which I thought added a bit of tension.
Sobel: And I think everyone in the family already assumes he’s gay. But going into this, he wants the big coming out scene he’s seen in movies. And the idea that his family might already know and just not want to talk about it almost makes him want to have a fight.
Miller: and Ryder comes into the situation with pre-assumptions and wearing this colorful clothing and shorts. He’s trying to make some kind of statement. And when he sees what is actually going to happen, it might not be a disappointment, but it is a case where his preconceived notions aren’t entirely what he assumes.
Weigert: I think Cindy knows her family tends to judge, and she doesn’t want to give them something else to judge because she wants to protect her son from the emotional violence she’s experienced.
Miller: But I like the idea that all we know is she doesn’t think they can handle the truth. When the truth is, no matter where you’re from, there might be an accepting family.
Weigert: She can only go on her experiences however and she knows that the family has been very judgmental before.
Sobel: And I think that if you expand that to her feelings of shame surrounding this incident when they were children, she wants her son to be this judgement free, perfect little shining boy. She doesn’t want to see him dragged into this mess at all. That is her main goal, until this incident happens which drags him in anyway.
TMS: And she wants to project to her family this good life she found by escaping to California.
Sobel: It’s funny because my mom would always want to remind her family of the good things our family had been doing. And if I did well in school, she’d send my report card to my grandmother. Because she didn’t have much family out in California, so I think she was concerned they’d forget about her. And in my family, it was like the more kids you had, it was understood by the rest of the family that your life was going pretty good. But I’m an only child.
Weigert: Feeling good about yourself because of our child’s accomplishments is not an unusual thing, so if you feel your child is being judged, you feel judged as well. I think that’s a pretty standard parenting experience.
TMS: What made you think of casting Richard Schiff as Ryder’s father?
Sobel: Robin knows him, so that was how we got in touch with him. But I’d been interested in casting him for a while, before finding that out. This Aikido speech that he claims is his MO is a speech my dad gave me regularly. So I just lifted that speech pretty much verbatim. And I just saw that as representing the two masculine poles in the film, Richard’s peaceful Aikido beliefs and Josh’s shoot first ask questions later attitude. And the choice for Ryder is deciding what being a man really means. Can he be masculine in his own way? And I think that even though he’s at odds with Keith, he’s strangely attracted to how assertive he is, as opposed to his dad, who claims to know the correct way to deal with a conflict is by not engaging. But that said, the role was meant to be weaker than Richard ultimately played it. Because Richard is just the kind of guy he is, but that ended up being a happy accident. Because I hadn’t met Richard until the first day of shooting, and he just walked in with this character that I wrote, but not how I envisioned it. But he brought a gravitas which I think the film benefited from.
Weigert: We are actually good friends in LA and he came through for us at the last minute, but I think he ends up being just perfect for it.
Sobel: We hired him 4 days before shooting began.
TMS: Do you think that break for Ryder regarding how he’s affect by those two influences occurs when he says to his parents he’ll go to Keith’s house, but he’ll go alone?
Miller: What is great about Ryder’s dynamic with his mother and father, is they let him have his own journey. And so I think Richard’s character almost has to push Cindy down a little bit in order to allow that to happen. When Richard’s character realizes I’m so passionate about confronting Keith, he needs to let me do that on my own.
Sobel: That scene was a great example where Richard did something completely different from what was in the script. Because the scene, which was originally an argument between himself and his mother, with his father watching, became a scene where Ryder is indirectly telling his dad, “this is what I need to do in order to feel like I’m a man.” And his dad is the one who understands need and says, “Then go.” And that is a much better scene than the one I originally envisioned.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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