The Four-Sided Triangle

The explosive illogic of Matt Sobel's Take Me to the River

The opening scene of Take Me to the River—Matt Sobel’s incendiary debut—unfolds like the epigraph of a light, introspective coming-of-age tale. Ryder (Logan Miller), listening to music in the back of his parents’ car as they advance toward a family reunion in Nebraska, removes his headphones and asks his mother (Robin Weigert), with the taint of moral superiority in his voice: “Do they know I’m gay?”

The answer, we learn from her strained expression, is no.

Sitting in a theater in Wroclaw, Poland, during a work-in-progress screening at the American Film Festival’s U.S. in Progress last October, I braced for a movie I felt certain I’d seen before. Boy wants to come out to conservative family. Mom warns him against it. Boy keeps secret for a while, but understanding uncle (who’s maybe also gay?) sees through the veneer. Finally, boy (and maybe uncle) comes out. Some relatives can’t tolerate it. Others learn they can. Honesty trumps secrecy. In the end, everyone feels good, and Nebraska is a little less bigoted.

WRONG.

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Within minutes of Ryder’s arrival at the farm, he’s ambushed by three of his adolescent nieces. The nine-year-old Molly (the revelatory Ursula Parker)—intelligent, capricious, and capable of evincing the sort of vulgar, heavy-lidded gaze that made Humbert Humbert reach for his pen—vies especially hard for his attention. She leans on him as he sketches her a horse, stretches her legs across his lap as he ties her shoes, and holds his hand as she leads him up to a hayloft.

It is in this barn that the film completes its transformation from solipsistic identity drama to controversial psychosexual tragedy. We don’t see the action that throws the story into turmoil. We hear only a distant scream. Then Molly, a spot of blood blooming on the front of her dress, runs wailing through the yard. Ryder, confused and increasingly terrified, jogs behind.

The brilliance of Take Me to the River, and what made it one of the most contentious films on the 2015 festival circuit, is the uncertainty with which Sobel attributes agency. Did Ryder molest Molly? Or did Molly get her first period? Does Ryder’s sexual orientation impugn him from pedophilia? Or, in the eyes of his Nebraskan relatives, does it make him more suspicious? Is Molly acting out her own burgeoning sexual desires? Or is she following orders?

Take Me to the River’s unstable ethical foundation, shaken constantly by fresh tremors, never settles. Sobel is pitting the urbane Coasts against the rural Midwest (and by extension the South), and in so doing proposes that our political and cultural differences might be irreconcilable. It’s a reductivist, pessimistic thesis. But it may be more accurate than we want to admit. (See Donald Trump’s campaign)

Sobel is pitting the urbane Coasts against the rural Midwest (and by extension the South), and in so doing proposes that our political and cultural differences might be irreconcilable. It’s a reductivist, pessimistic thesis. But it may be more accurate than we want to admit.

I met with Matt Sobel at a café in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in late November, three days after Take Me to the River was accepted to Sundance. When Blessing Yen and I saw the film in Wroclaw, we felt confident it would premiere in Park City. Sobel, to put it mildly, was less certain. As he shared the news he still seemed in disbelief. The film had taken six years to finish.

BRIGHT IDEAS: Take Me to the River unfolds on the same isolated farm in Nebraska where your mother grew up, and which you visited as a boy. But does any part of the story come from your experience there?

MATT SOBEL: When I was 14, I was in Nebraska swimming in the same river where we shot the film, and some of my young cousins were playing around in these silty puddles by the bank. I didn’t think anything of it, but one of the girls’ mothers ran up suddenly, yelling, “Get out of there! That’s not good water!” She pulled her daughter out, and there were leeches all over her legs. It was like when you put watercolor paint on a saturated sheet of paper—how it just bleeds all over the page. It was like that, these red lines of blood streaking down my cousin’s legs. I think that’s where the idea of the period came from. But there are at least four others.

BI: Four other origin stories?

MS: [Laughs] Back in 2008, when I wrote the first draft, the film was called Explosion, or the Four-Sided Triangle. And it was a series of vignettes, the fourth and final of which was the story that I eventually expanded into Take Me to The River.

BI: What were the other stories?

MS: The first scene took place in a TSA security line. There’s a family of three, and the mother is reaching to pick up her luggage. She’s wearing a short skirt, and when she bends over, her underwear becomes visible. We hear the click of a shutter, and the father looks over to see a German tourist holding a camera. An argument breaks out over what may or may not be on the roll.

BI: How does the scene end?

MS: All the film gets ripped out of the camera.

BI: What happened in the second vignette?

MS: When I was a kid, my father used to tell me that I would sleepwalk at night. I refused to believe him, so he said, “Fine, I’m going to film you next time.” And apparently he did. But something that he filmed was too upsetting, and my mom destroyed the tape. So, the second scene was my re-imagining of what was on that tape. In Explosion, the kid sleepwalks into his parents’ bedroom, and the dad conducts a middle-of-the-night interview.

BI: Did you ever find out what you said that freaked her out?

MS: She won’t say, and I’m not really sure I want to know.

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BI: I don’t think I’d want to know, either, frankly. [Laughs] What was the third scene?

MS: When I was four, I was on vacation with my parents, staying at a hotel. And an old woman I didn’t know scolded me—for doing what, I don’t remember. But I went and told my mom what had happened, and she marched me back to find this woman, to tell her that it’s unacceptable to scold a stranger’s child. I pointed out the woman who I thought had chastised me. And my mom went right up to her and said, “I understand you’ve had an encounter with my son.” But the old woman was like, “I’ve never seen your son before.” And then suddenly I wasn’t sure if I’d pointed out the right woman or not, and I couldn’t remember anymore what the real woman looked like.

BI: For you, what unites these anecdotes?

MS: When I was in art school at UCLA, I was a big Michael Haneke fan. And after watching his made-for-TV version of Kafka’s The Castle in a film course, a friend of mine pointed out that the story seemed to take place in a world where the rules of engagement are related to, but not exactly, our rules. My friend used the word “uncanny,” which I think is perfect. It comes from the German word “unheimlich,” which means “un-homelike.”

The term “uncanny valley” is used to describe the asymptote that separates a real human from the humanoid approaching lifelikeness. Our ability to empathize with a creature increases in direct proportion to its humanness—that is, until it reaches a point where it’s too lifelike, but still not completely human.

And then we become terrified of it. Our brains are biologically programmed to reject anything whose strangeness we can’t immediately identify.

“She pulled her daughter out, and there were leeches all over her legs.”

BI: Where did the original title Explosion, or the Four-Sided Triangle come from?

MS: It came from a philosophical concept called the explosion principle. If you introduce an inconsistency into a logical world—say, a four-sided triangle—in a very explosive way it obliterates all other reality. If you were to walk down the street and see a four-sided triangle, it would mean that the world didn’t exist. That was the idea. A story about an incident that you cannot get a real answer to—did she have her period or not—that upends all other logic in the world after it happens.

What’s ridiculous, though, is that’s how I used to pitch the film!

BI: Is that why it took six years to make? Because you were trying to talk to people about the marketability of the explosion principle?

MS: [Laughing] Yes! In the spring of 2010, some advisers told me that I should go to Cannes. So I bought a ticket to Cannes, and got some crazy fucking expensive apartment. I was so cocky coming out of art school, but I had no idea what I was doing.

BI: You were just wandering the Croisette?

MS: I was literally carrying a copy of my script around! It was a disaster waiting to happen. And it did happen! My advisers at the time were like, “You need to get on the radar of some sales agents.” And I was like, “Great! Sales agents! What does a sales agent do?”

In the big Cannes film market book, the hotel rooms of all the sales agents and distributors are listed—because they’re doing business and sleeping in the same room. So I would walk up to room 22A of the Grand Hotel, or whatever, and just knock on the door. And there was the head of Fortissimo, or Wild Bunch, and I’d go, “Hi, my name is Matt Sobel. Let me tell you about a script. Actually I have it right here…”

And they were like, “All right, kid, we’re sort of busy selling films right now.”

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And I would just say, “True, true. But next year, you’re going to be back here and you’re going to need more films to sell. I think we should talk.” And surprisingly, some of them let me in!

BI: Give me the elevator pitch you were using, then.

MS: [Laughs] “It’s a film about the indefinable explosion of the four-sided triangle. It’s explosion logic theory, when you introduce an inconsistency—” And their faces just went blank. It was so embarrassing.

“Our brains are biologically programmed to reject anything whose strangeness we can’t immediately identify.”

BI: Did anything positive come of that first trip to Cannes?

MS: Definitely! Just not in the ways I was expecting. For instance, I met Martin Roberts, who at the time ran the Binger Film Institute in Amsterdam. And he asked me to apply to the program.

When I got accepted to the Film Lab, I was totally shocked. I’d gotten so used to hearing “no” that I was certain they’d made a mistake and would rescind the offer. But they meant to invite me, and I ended up going, and I fucking loved it.

I didn’t go to film school, and I haven’t been to any of the other great film labs. But I couldn’t imagine anything better. You lived at Binger for a year. All of the filmmakers had to leave their home countries, so no one had any friends. And that meant we became incredibly close with one another.

To tell you the truth, Take Me to the River—which I workshopped there throughout the entire year—absolutely would not have been made without those people. When shit hit the fan, two months before we started shooting, and all of my production plans fell through except for the cast, I turned immediately to the friends I’d met at Binger. And they helped me find everything. All of the crew came through them. Two of my friends from Amsterdam flew out to Nebraska to help me on the film. It wouldn’t have happened without them.

BI: What shit hit the fan during production?

MS: So much shit! And it wasn’t just production. It was everything leading up to actually getting the film made.

Because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I listened to whoever seemed to have more experience than me. And because of that, the film started out as a Canadian/German/U.S. co-production with a $2.3 million budget. I was like, “I like this idea, but I don’t really think it’s a $2.3 million idea.” The person who’s going to be caught with his pants down if this film doesn’t make its money back is me. I mean, the line in the budget for transportation alone was $280,000. It seemed fucking insane!

And by the spring of 2013, we still hadn’t gotten that money together. We’d trimmed the budget to $1.8 million, and we went back out to Cannes in a last ditch effort to get the remaining cash. But in secret I’d hired a second line producer to make a $500,000 budget. That was my Plan B. Instead of shooting in upstate New York or Canada, we’d shoot it on my family farm. We’d film everything just the way I wrote it, using the real locations described in the script.

BI: Did that decision come easily?

MS: [Laughs] No way. It was May, we were planning to shoot in August, and the cast members—who were all locked by then—were starting to get offers that they were going to have to turn down. I was getting so queasy about it all. Can I in good conscience tell them that we have a start date if we don’t have all of the money? It was devouring me.

So I got drunk with a friend, and she just said to me, “Later in life, you’ll never look back and wish you’d been less bold.” And I was just like, “Let’s do it!” So we just did it.

For my whole life I’ve put myself in inescapable situations to make myself do things. I set up a situation where the only way out was to make the film. And then we made it.

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BI: You mentioned that youíd put the cast together. Was that as difficult as finding the money?

MS: Coming out of art school, my first idea was that Laura Dern would play the mother, Jeff Goldblum would be the father, and the uncle would be Val Kilmer. There was actually a Jurassic Park joke in the script at that time.

BI: [Laughing] That would’ve been a different film.

MS: Seriously, though, we sent the script to Robin Weigert about a week after Concussion premiered at Sundance. And she came on almost immediately. With the volume of ideas she brought, she was effectively like a producer.

BI: What did she add?

MS: The ending was different when she signed onto the project. When I first Skyped with her, she was like, “Okay, Matt, you’re close to having a potentially really good script, here. But you’ve got a problem in this last scene.” And she whipped out a pad of paper. She had 10 pages of notes!

BI: That’s when you know you’ve got the right actress.

“In cinema, do I remember the clever shit? No. I remember very specific and visceral sensations—like in Caché, when that guy slits his own throat.”

MS: Exactly! It was just what I needed. And what the film needed. We met probably five times just to figure out how this last scene should happen. How the backstory should come out. That was the most challenging part. And then when it clicked, it was so simple. Why didn’t we just do it that way?

BI: This is a film that hinges on the subtlety of its performances—especially Ursula Parker, who plays the nine-year-old Molly. How did you find her?

MS: I was familiar with her work on Louie, where she plays Louis C.K.’s daughter. I loved her on that show so much. So when I saw my casting director present her name on a list of possible actresses, I was like: “Oh my god. Get her!” But the thing was, at least half the girls we wanted to read, their parents got the script and pulled out immediately. The night before I was actually supposed to do auditions, I woke up terrified. Why would any parent ever agree to this? Nobody is going to show up tomorrow. But about 20 girls came in.

I was so grateful that anyone showed up at all that I would’ve cast any of them. But Ursula was the clear standout. She was absolutely, terrifyingly intense. She gives this certain look where she tips her chin down, and it looks like she’s going to eat your face off. She can oscillate from being a little girl to this commanding femme fatale. On set it was very time consuming and difficult to control. So, we shot a lot with her. But she’s incredible.

BI: How did you coax the performance out of her?

MS: We had a lot of methods. First and foremost, my friend Mina from Amsterdam came out to help me. She’s a children’s acting coach, and also a talented writer-director in her own right. Adult actors can turn it on when needed. But kids can’t get themselves there. So I would alert Mina that we were 10 minutes away from a shot, and she would start an improv with Ursula to get her into the right place emotionally. And when we’d cut, Mina would spin her down and make sure she had some rest time before working her back up again.

BI: Were there any special techniques that you personally used to raise her energy?

MS: Ursula is really into Taylor Swift. Like, monstrously into Taylor Swift. And we developed a story (a real story, Ursula, if you’re reading!) that Logan—who plays Ryder—had dated Taylor in high school. And we changed my name in Logan’s phone to “Taylor” so that if I texted him, he could let Ursula get a glimpse of the screen, and she would flip out. Suddenly she would be full of this manic energy that’s so crucial to some of her scenes.

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BI: Take Me to the River is very much a film about subtext and gradations of meaning and causality. It seems like a story that could’ve come out so many different ways in the editing room.

MS: I’d never worked with an editor before. For that matter, I’d never had a true collaboration, where I pushed hard against someone, he pushed back, and that tension produced something greater than either of us could’ve done on our own. But that’s what I feel like I found with my editor, Jacob Secher Schulsinger.

I think we threw four complete versions of the film away, remaking it from scratch every time. But each edit we honed in further on what the real purpose of each scene was. Take the scene at the beginning where Ryder is drawing the horses for Molly. In the first version, that sequence was 10 minutes long, full of exposition. Just as an experiment, Jacob removed the whole scene and made me watch the film without it. Afterward he asked, “So, what’s wrong with the story, now?” And it was totally obvious. We don’t know that Molly likes Ryder! That’s the purpose of the scene. Convey that she has a crush on him immediately, and move on.

BI: Take Me to the River doesn’t provide any satisfying answers, but it also isn’t mired in obfuscation. You walk away with enough information to reach a defensible conclusion. And that’s what I think is going to make it so controversial.

MS: There was a point right before I began writing the final draft where I was like, “Fuck all this clever shit.” I’m sick of metaphors that conceal the truth. Treating the audience like they’re fucking children. If you’re going to say something, why not just say it?

What is it that I really like in cinema? What is it that I really remember? Do I remember some clever shit? No. I remember some very specific and visceral sensations. Like, in Caché, right when the guy slits his throat. I still feel a chill in my blood thinking about it. If people watch this film and get that sensation, and that sensation lasts, I can’t think of a greater achievement.

Photos by Trippe Davis

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