What began as the short story “Winter Light” by acclaimed author James Lee Burke, developed into the feature film “God’s Country” by co-writer and director Julian Higgins, who, inspired by the surge of racism, sexism, and misogyny transpiring in the United States, decided to combine art with activism. He changed the protagonist, a retired white male, into a fortysomething black female, played by Thandiwe Newton, who confronts a couple of hunters trespassing on her property. The face-off develops into a volatile situation in the modern-day western that sticks with you long after viewing thanks to Newton’s powerful performance.
Eight years ago, Higgans adapted Burke’s “Winter Light” for a half-hour short film which won top honors at various film festivals and was shortlisted for the 88th Academy Awards. He had no idea then, that two years later the 2016 election would change the pulse of the nation. Like many, he was outraged and felt grief as it seemed the world was falling apart. Burke’s story which dealt with morals and ethics suddenly took on a new meaning. Together with writer Shaye Ogbonna, he decided to take the source material and adapt it once again, this time changing the context to reflect current events while keeping the spirit of the author’s work intact.
Newton plays college professor Sandra Guidry who lives alone in the snowy rural American West, her isolated home lies nestled among the towering trees and mountainous landscape. The film opens with the passing of Sandra’s elderly mother, who relocated from New Orleans against her wishes at the insistence of her daughter.
With just a dog to keep her company, Sandra’s grief is temporarily buried by her focus on establishing a diverse environment at the small university where she teaches. The all-white and mostly male faculty can be overbearing but not intimidating to our protagonist whose aggressiveness and tenacity are later explained as her backstory comes into focus.
While on a morning run, Sandra discovers a red pickup parked in her driveaway. The unoccupied vehicle belongs to brothers Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), hunters who trespassed on her property to gain access to the nearby woods. She leaves a note on the windshield asking them not to park on her property. The next day they return, Sandra’s note discarded and crumpled in the snow.
She confronts them face-to-face after they come down the mountain and the conversation becomes heated as Samuel exclaims, “I heard about you” while approaching Sandra. Nathan holds him back and they leave, returning the next day prompting her to have the truck towed. The tension escalates, the acting sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) attempts to diffuse the situation, however, he’s no match for the small town’s good ole boy mentality.
Sandra’s actions, while justified, further alienate her from the community. Racism, sexism, and misogyny rise to the surface as the slow-burn thriller begins to percolate while the excellent score by Deandre James Allen-Toole intensifies the atmosphere. The character-driven film features a solid cast led by Thandiwe Newton’s powerhouse performance which culminates with a finale that lingers long after viewing.
I spoke with co-writer and director Julian Higgans about his inspiration, motivation, and adaptation that became “God’s Country.”
I want to begin with your choice to revisit “Winter Light” based on the events that transpired after the 2016 election.
JH: Our adaptation was really born of the historical moment. Essentially my writing partner Shaye Ogbonna and I had a conversation in which we both felt the need to respond to what was happening in our country, in the world, and in our hearts. Speaking personally, I was wondering if I could even justify being a filmmaker anymore. It felt like too much important stuff was happening. The norms and expectations were collapsing around us. I then decided my activism would merge with my art.
You changed the main character’s sex and race for the new adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story. How did that come about?
The changing of the main character from an older white man to a 40-something black woman meant there were so many dynamics at play you can’t talk about them in isolation, they relate to each other. We wanted to make an intersectional movie. We wanted to place the audience in the shoes of someone who is the most affected by the dynamics in play in the country at the time. It was coming from a place of anger on our part, we felt a huge responsibility, especially for me as a white man, I was asking myself constantly, what role do I have to play in this dynamic? I am the person that the culture and society privileges. I wanted to draw attention to what’s not working and why our country isn’t a safe place for everyone. I couldn’t remain silent. Shaye and I worked on the story for a very long time before we even showed it to anyone. We were trying to make it reflect all these complicated feelings we had.
Thandiwe Newton delivers an amazing performance. What was her reaction to the script and as a black woman in her 40s, like her character Sandra, did she bring any personal experiences to the role?
JH: Definitely. In our first phone call, she expressed to me that she wanted to be the person who told the story. She identified with her character very strongly for a whole bunch of reasons. As a director, I think you give the actor the role. It’s not mine anymore. I wrote the script with Shaye but once you cast someone it’s theirs. We really let her take the lead. Thandiwe is not afraid to say what she thinks, and she had all kinds of ideas which were great. We had great conversations throughout the shoot. That level of commitment and engagement from an actor is unusual. She wanted to keep exploring farther and farther. We had a great trusting relationship throughout the process. Making a movie in the middle of nowhere, in rural Montana, is a very bonding experience. We became a family.
In the film, there are quite a few moments when Sandra acts in a manner that many of us would see as irrational because of the potential repercussions. She acts the way many of us wish we could but fear and maybe foresight holds us back.
JH: We wanted a character that was allowed to make mistakes. Someone human, not a saint. She does make mistakes and I think she would acknowledge those mistakes; I think that’s the difference. She’s a person with an ethical and moral code but she’s human like everyone else. It was important that all the characters resemble three-dimensional humans even though they have much less screen time.
Halfway through the film, Sandra’s backstory is revealed and suddenly her actions and disposition make complete sense. I feel the timing of that reveal is crucial to the film’s impact. How do you think the film’s dynamic would have differed had you revealed her backstory upfront or possibly at the very end?
JH: That’s where people have different reactions to the film, which is great. I enjoy being curious while watching, trying to put the pieces together. We contemplated how long we could hold the information back. We could have revealed some backstory up front but that’s not as fun for me personally. When the audience finds out what’s going on with Sandra, on some level they already knew. I don’t like everything explained to me, I want to figure it out on my own.
“God’s Country” is a dark film peppered with small pockets of hope like the church scene with Sandra and Nathan. To an extent, it changes the dynamic of his character. Were you tempted at some point to lighten the story by delivering a more hopeful message?
JH: We weren’t thinking in terms of what sort of message we wanted to deliver, odd as that may seem. Our motivation was, to be honest, and truthful about what we felt, and what we were observing.
The film’s powerful ending stays with you long after the movie is over. As I wrapped my head around it, I concluded that it was the only way the story could have played out.
We kept trying to find an ending that made sense and felt honest, and we couldn’t do it. Initially, there were several different endings. We discarded a lot of Hollywood endings because we were lying to ourselves. We didn’t want to admit that there was only one way the story could end. So, the fact that the ending sits with you is a real compliment. I feel a film can be judged by how long it lingers after watching.
Finally, I wanted to highlight Deandre James Allen-Toole’s score. It’s atmospheric, laid back, and thrilling at times. It blends so well with the film. I understand you two connected through the Sundance Composer Lab. How closely did you work together? And how big of a challenge was it to get the film done under Covid lockdowns?
JH: We worked extremely close on it, and I really love that you’re calling out Deandre. It’s his first feature score as a composer and it was important for me to be able to offer that opportunity to someone who so richly deserved it. We met during the Sundance Composers Lab during COVID in 2020. I shot half the movie and then the pandemic forced us to shut down production. We went a whole year with a half-shot film. So, Deandre and I had this very unusual experience of being able to talk about the score for literally 18 months. He knocked it out of the park. He single-handedly coordinated an orchestra during COVID and got the score recorded remotely. It’s remarkable.
“God’s Country” opens Friday, September 16 in theaters