We chatted with Jamie Dagg, director of Sweet Virginia, which releases in select cities today. The River director dishes on toning down the violence for the film and working alongside Jon Bernthal and Christopher Abbot. Read the interview below.
What drew you to the script?
I'm from a small town originally so I've always been fascinated by the lack of anonymity in small communities. It changes how people relate to one another. It's difficult to keep secrets when everyone's woven into the fabric of the community. I'm also drawn to morally ambiguous characters. I think it's an interesting and accurate world to explore.
I heard that the original script was really bloody and intense. Can you talk about how you adjusted the tone of violence for the film?
It was definitely a bit of a bloodbath. I think portraying violence so explicitly in this film would take away from the story. It becomes exploitative. I didn't want the story to be overshadowed by that. I'm not appalled by screen violence. I like a lot of really violent films. There's a smarter way to tell the story. I don't shy away from the violence. I just don't go in for the extreme closeup of exploding heads.
Jon gives everything to his role - he has a huge physical presence, but he brings such warmth and vulnerability to his character. Tell us about how he got involved in the film?
That role was actually written for a 70-year-old man. We were exploring it with some actors. For various reasons we couldn't make it work. Some of the producers flipped the script to Bernthal. Initially I was apprehensive because I'm used to seeing him play a certain type of antagonist. This character really required a level of warmth. I didn't see it in Jon at first and then I spoke to him on the phone and any apprehension I had was gone. He was quite built too because he was getting ready to do The Punisher. We were trying to figure out a way someone like Chris would be intimidating to Jon. So Jon had this idea of having his character have a tremor caused by early onset Parkinson's from repeated head injuries as a former bull rider. At the end of the day, I think it really works and I can't imagine anyone playing that role now.
What did Jon bring to the table that made him the best actor to portray Sam?
Jon's a very warm, affable guy and very charismatic.
What about Christopher? I believe he was among the first actors to sign on for the film?
Yes, that's right. I was also apprehensive about him. I had only seen him in Girls. I didn't think he was right for the role but I saw James White and I called my casting director right afterward. I was blown away by the performance and such range in his acting ability. He's a really dynamic actor. We met and were both on the same page creatively.
The location was almost a character in itself. Tell us about choosing Alaska as your location.
Yeah, it was originally set in Virginia in the late '70s. We moved it to a fictional place in Alaska. For economic reasons we shot in British Columbia in a place called Hope. It's a beautiful location and lends a sort of claustrophobia.