On the set of In Our Nature, the four-character drama shot in a cabin in the woods of Mount Tremper in northern Ulster County, the cast and crew had a good time ribbing director-screenwriter Brian Savelson.
During the three-week shoot, they took to calling the first-time filmmaker Seth. That was the name of the protagonist in the film who spends a weekend trying to heal a rift with his overachieving, uptight father. After all, the team reasoned, this keenly observed story was clearly autobiographical, fashioned from the raw material of Savelson’s own life.
Not quite. “I think I have a good relationship with my father, so…,” the director says. But Savelson was actually flattered; their presumption meant that he had crafted a story whose emotions and situations possessed the sting of real life. (After he wrote the screenplay, Savelson saw two fictional script plots occur in his own life: His father announced he was marrying his longtime girlfriend, and he decided to sell the family cabin.)
Originally an off-off-Broadway actor and then producer, most notably on the Broadway revival of “Raisin in the Sun” with P. Diddy, Savelson had worked on animation shorts and music videos before graduating to his first feature. In Our Nature was an effort to combine familiar and unfamiliar narratives. “The inspiration was to do something that we feel we’ve seen before—two couples in a country house for the weekend,” he says, “and then delve into areas that we have not explored. Or at least I haven’t explored and do something a little different and allow these characters to go places we haven’t seen them go.”
Navigating the emotional twists and turns of this uneasy alliance are four solid actors: Zach Gilford (“Friday Night Lights”), Jena Malone (“Hatfields and McCoys”), Gabrielle Union (“City of Angels”), and John Slattery (“Mad Men”). As father and son circle each other warily, the girlfriends try to bring the two together.
Shot mostly in and around the remote cabin, In Our Nature relies on emotionally packed dialogue to convey the conflicted feelings of the men. Many industry colleagues, Savelson said, citing his background in theatre, were puzzled that he hadn’t mounted this four-actor story on a Manhattan stage instead. Savelson had his reasons. “[I] tried to explain that it was all about finding those intricacies, those nuances, that get lost on stage,” he says. “This was about getting to what you can only see in close-up on the big screen and that’s what interested me in taking it out of the theater.”
The rapport between the actors is palpable, suggesting a tangible back-story. This is as much a testament to their acting chops as it is to Savelson’s preparation. In addition to city-based rehearsal on this low-budget feature, Savelson was able to bring the cast up to the cabin a week before the shoot to acclimate them to the setting. The director led his cast through the rooms and explained the narrative arc of the film and what each person would be doing. “It was more like theater in a sense, where you get to block it out.”
While shooting in a real cabin lent the action a realistic dimension, the same could not be said for the authentic Hudson Valley weather. “Crazy thunderstorms” and recurring rain prevented many night scenes from being shot outside. Behind in the film schedule, Savelson resorted to shoot day scenes in the house at night, using artificial daylight. These scenes would usually start at sundown “and go all the way through to breakfast”
In one scene as Savelson wrote it, the father is supposed to do what is called a kayak roll in the lake. Slattery had never attempted one. Savelson hired an instructor but there was no Manhattan pool big enough to conduct the lessons. The pair had to practice the maneuver in the Hudson River, as barges and boats went by.
Savelson, who watched the procedure, winces at the memory of what he forced his star to do. Each time Slattery attempted the kayak roll, “he comes up, gasping for air, and he spits out this water and [says], ‘This water tastes like sewage; it’s disgusting.’ He was a real trouper and he learned how to do it.
“That image of John spitting out water in the river in New York is something I will not forget anytime soon,” Savelson says. “It was like, 'You owe me for this'.”