Film Roundtable: “Orion” – a post-apocalyptic, visually striking film and a David Arquette harsher than we’re used to seeing

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David Arquette (L.) and Asiel Norton (R.) discuss their film ORION during the 2016 Dallas International Film Festival.

By Gordon K. Smith

The 2016 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF 2016), which concluded in April, featured no less than three films with a “post-apocalyptic” theme; the most visually striking of these was ORION, by second-time writer/director Asiel Norton and starring David Arquette in a role harsher than what we’re used to seeing him in.   Norton’s visionary fable is typically bleak but set in a bombed-out Detroit (not a big stretch) instead of the usual barren desert, and features Arquette as a hunter wandering in this wasteland who must rescue a mysterious virgin (Lily Cole) from an evil magician (Goran Kostic).  Norton also designed the poster and the custom deck of Tarot cards that form the structure of the narrative, an ingenious storytelling device.   We discussed ORION with them at a roundtable interview an hour before the screening, wherein Arquette saw the finished film for the first time.

ASIEL:

I got interested in films as a kid.  My dad had this old beat up truck. There was a small town about 45 minutes away with a university.  We would go down there and crash the film classes…one of my earliest memories of seeing a movie is BRINGING UP BABY.  I loved Cary Grant – HIS GIRL FRIDAY, all that stuff.  DR. STRANGELOVE, that kind of thing.  I always really wanted to make movies.  When I was 12, I had a buddy who had a VHS camcorder.  I would go and shoot movies with that, then get two VCR’s, put them together, hit play on one, record on the other, stop and start.  That’s how I edited it…fast forward, I ended up going to USC film school.  While I was there I met up with a music video production company, and we started shooting low budget videos, then bigger and bigger videos up to my senior year at college.  After I graduated I made my first movie, REDLAND, that did pretty well and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award.  Now this is my second movie, and I’m happy to be working with him.

DAVID:

I used to go to movies by myself too.  Saw THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN about eight times…(ORION) was such an interesting script, and I’d seen his previous film.  Loved the character, loved the story.  So we had a literally magical meeting…we hit it off really well.  He gave me the opportunity to do the role.  I had to lose a ton of weight so he sent me to a survival school. I went to the outback of Utah for five days, didn’t eat for two.  Pine nuts and buffalo berries.  Learned how to make a fire, skin an animal, make a shelter.  I didn’t want to kill an animal ‘cause it’s not my thing, but I knew I had to skin something.  We were on our last day, walking, and see a bobcat.  It sees us, drops off something and runs away.  It was this little gopher.  We skinned a gopher, then we had to eat some of it because we didn’t want to waste it (laughter)…it really did prepare me for the film, like these people were animals in this desolate land, just trying to survive.

Asiel talked about the creative process that led to the film’s story.

ASIEL:

Some ideas come to me in images.  I had this image in my head of a hunter figure playing cards with this shamanistic deathlike figure in a dark room.  They were using Tarot cards, but they weren’t reading Tarot, they were gambling…more images in my head, a woman chained up, giving birth, but she’s a virgin…based on different mythological texts and stuff like that. That was the genesis. I wrote it down in a notebook.  Then I go back through to see if there was a story there.  First, when you think “post-apocalyptic”, you think of a desert, but that’s a bit stereotypical…if it was more realistic, people would be living amongst the ruins.  I was thinking of Rome during the Dark Ages.  After Rome fell apart the early Christians were living in Rome, the population collapsed, and they were living among the ruins of this ancient civilization they knew nothing about.  I thought it would be more like that with all the urban decay in Detroit, it was perfect…the classic spot, the Packard Plant, was a great place to shoot. The main set – we built this magician’s cabin between Detroit and Dearborn.

Some of the problems we had?  We started getting into late November, early December, and we had Dave chained up in a loincloth.  That had to be pretty painful (Arquette nods and laughs in agreement)…then I stepped on a nail and so I got tetanus.  That was pretty brutal – the night before the last day, was up all night, then had to go to the shoot, after getting about 24 shots.  We ended up going all night.  Brutal, but actually a lot of fun (more laughter).  The thing with Detroit, it’s like a really cool city.

DAVID:

The music is incredible, the people are incredible.  The art there is really great…the street scene is outa control.

ASIEL:

I met some local artists who lived there, and went over to their house.  Their whole life was post-apocalyptic.  They’d created all this great art and sculpture.  Super rad.  Their whole life was like what my movie was.  They get it.  So I brought them onto the movie…during the course of the movie, we just leaned on them so much, particularly Monica (Canilao), in terms of costume, art, and props.  They even cut David’s hair for the movie.  Their role kept expanding.

DAVID:

Being chained down was challenging.  It was freezing cold and the chains were super cold…but we just had to do it.  I lost my cool on that one!  But it actually added to it, you could scream, you’re angry and freaked out when you’re in those sort of spaces.  It breeds in your eyes…a lot you can take from animals. We really did feel like animals, primitive.  You see how animals act, they’re always looking out, could be killed at any moment – hyper-aware stuff.

Asiel spoke about how he uses art in conceiving the look of his film.

ASIEL:

I’ll do storyboards, shot lists, stuff like that.  A shot list is like the basic template, then I’m always trying to expand off of it, change it up, based on what’s going on – what the sun is doing, what the actors are doing, the wind, etc…I don’t like to use any lights on exteriors.  Interiors have to be lit.  I like simple lighting schemes, big fan of Caravaggio or Rembrandt, baroque painting.  Definitely a lot of single source (lighting), and try to be as natural as possible.  I wanted it to be rugged and tough, but at the same time have some artistic beauty to it.  It’s a fairly ambitious film in terms of art.

There was still room for fun while making this dark, grim movie.

DAVID:

The fun would be doing a drug scene and going too crazy – “Okay, you gotta pull it back”.  Or when he discovers a new lens he just wants to start using, he just gets like a little kid.

ASIEL:

Every time we break out the blood effects, I just have a blast.

KNOWSHI: ORION is set in a neo-medieval landscape resulting from an apocalypse.  Would you like to make a real, period medieval adventure?

ASIEL:

I don’t want to get too pretentious but some of the inspirations on this film were THE SEVENTH SEAL, CONAN, THE CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT by Orson Welles…

DAVID:

Does that make me Conan (laughs)?

ASIEL:

The idea of him playing cards came out of SEVENTH SEAL, a movie I love, though it’s not post-apocalyptic.  MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR I really love, Tarkovsky’s STALKER, the book “The Road”…but not like I wanted to rip off Cormac McCarthy.  CHILDREN OF MEN, unbelievable…I’m definitely into mythology, a lot of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and stuff like that.

The way I cast is kinda different – I didn’t audition anybody…when I met (David), it was like…I just felt David’s energy and could see him in the world I wanted to create.  With Lily, who plays the damsel, when we were casting for her…I was getting all this stuff from agents and none of them were right.  They were all pretty girls, but “next door pretty” or whatever, and I was like “No.”  I was panicking because nobody was right…I need this girl who looks like she’s a bird in a glass cage.  I sent them this picture of a painting and they sent me a photo of Lily Cole…I just looked at the picture and said, “I want her, that’s it.  Don’t even need to see her act.”  I knew she could do it.  I met her and thought, “she’s so smart and cool, she’s perfect.”  She came on set and just killed it, she was so good. Goran’s a great actor, and him, too, I just looked at his image and said, “that’s him.”

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