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Arts & Culture

SXSW 2013: Quietly Affecting Family Drama, 'This Is Where We Live'

The quietly moving rural drama “This Is Where We Live,” follows the friendship that develops between August Sutton, a young man with cerebral palsy, and Noah, a local handyman hired to help August’s family around the house. Their relationship eventually changes the family dynamic and lessens the burden on the matriarch, Diane, who’s been carrying the family on her shoulders for years.

“This Is Where We Live” was written by Marc Menchaca ("Homeland," "Generation Kill"), and co-directed by him and Josh Barrett. In this interview, Menchaca, Barrett, and Tobias Segal, who stars as August, discuss the themes of the film, why they decided to shoot on location in Llano and Mason Counties, and how big-hearted character actor Barry Corbin drank them all under the table.

Nathan Cone: What is it inside Noah that draws him to August and this family?

Josh Barrett: Noah had a very traumatic experience, growing up with the death of his brother, which he was accidentally involved with. And his family sort of pushed him out, and he was raised by an uncle, and he’s really a loner. He’s on his own. I think that when he goes and he meets the Suttons, not only does he see the warmth in the family, despite the problems they’re going through, he sees that same role of brother, potentially, in August.

In some ways, the family is different than the one that I grew up in, but I feel like I know the people here and what they’re going through, because you have a mom who is shouldering the entire family’s operation on herself, you have a father that is losing himself through Alzheimer’s, and a sister who I think looks at her family and knows that she’s going to inherit it, and that’s what makes her bitter. How did you create this family? Were they [based on] people that you knew?

Marc Menchaca: The character of August was inspired by a good friend of mine, Thomas Mitchum, and the relationship that I had with him. The rest of the family—the house that we shot in, when I got in that house, it kind of started informing me of the other characters. And I wrote specifically for CK [McFarland, who plays the mother], and the father…my grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and it’s something that I’ve always been intrigued with, what it does to you. So he just kind of came about and added another layer to the film.

Tobias, you’re playing a character who has cerebral palsy. What is the most difficult thing about playing this part? What do you do physically, and what is happening in your mind?

Tobias Segal: It’s a really difficult thing, because it’s so physical. This role was based very much on tension, and I do use that normally when I’m acting, but this was a whole nother level. I was able to spend some time with Thomas before we shot the film, and I was able to see how his chiropractor worked with him, and the therapist, and they got me involved in finding out how his muscles were tensed. He has a very specific why that he carries himself, and I wanted to bring that as much as I could to the role. And so I spent basically three weeks tensing my body in ways that I had never done before. It was very difficult, and as far as the internal life [of August], I think that was very much informed by the fact that I was unable to communicate verbally, so a lot of what you see is just what I’m trying to say with my eyes and with facial features, and Josh was very good about telling me what was reading and what wasn’t.

Yeah, what kind of direction did you get?

Tobias: A lot of the time it was really just sort of saying, ‘We need you to respond in this way’ to something someone said. It became much more about how much I could portray through my facial features, and again, that was very limited, because there’s still a lot of tension going on there.

Josh: To add to what he’s saying, I think there are a lot of times that the character of August has the facility of language only within his own head, and he loves literature and poetry, but he’s not able to communicate that way. So a lot of times when we were working on a scene, Tobias and I would talk, and I would say, just make sure that you’re giving us his very specific thought. He’s very poetic in his language, and even though we’re not hearing any sentences, or what’s coming out of his mouth, there was a very specific intention of that sentence going forward. So even though we don’t hear it, Tobias’s work becomes very specific because of that.

You mentioned the poetry in the film, and there’s a lot of literature, specifically from the Bible in the movie. What from the Bible did you pull to go in the film, and did you choose specific passages for certain reasons?

Marc: I did. I grew up in a Christian home, and so I have a knowledge of the Bible. I specifically went back and found passages that [explored the theme of] water in the film. So I went back and found passages that used that as an analogy. And then the poetry that was used was Letters To A Young Poet. That just resonated with me. That did, specifically because of a letter that Thomas, my friend that inspired [the character of August] had written me, that said ‘heal your beast.’ That book has always been a big influence on my life, and it’s always felt very close to how Thomas communicated with me.

How did y’all communicate with your own families growing up, and did that influence any of the writing of the characters, and the way they interact with each other at all? 

Josh: That’s a good question. I think that there’s something about families, when the door is shut and no one’s around…. Problems are very splayed out and there can be one moment of joy and happiness, and the next minute [folks are] upset, and there’s grudges. Our approach was to be fly-on-the-wall, and not give too much exposition, but let things happen, and that you would pick up on these relationships. Another thing that we talked about Frankie [Shaw, who plays August’s sister Lainey] before, and there’s something about her character that Marc and I talked about as he was developing it, which is that often the siblings of people with disabilities growing up, tend not to get the same resources and attention as the children that do have the disability. It’s been an experience of friends of mine and family that I’ve known. And I think that that’s one of the things that rang true to me about Frankie’s character, is this acting out sort of comes out of this way that no one’s ever seen her other than in her relationship to her brother and what she needs to do for him. 

Marc: I think that that specifically with Frankie’s character, I think that it all comes from a place of love, and it’s just a result of the circumstances that they’re in. August requires more care because of his cerebral palsy, but in the end, I think that her lashing out does come from a place of love, that she just doesn’t know how to express. And it comes out harsh at times, but in the end she comes around and is the head of the family.

What are some of the other filmmakers that y’all have looked toward as far as story, style? Who are your inspirations?

Marc: I guess films that were on my mind were “The Sea Inside” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The way that they were told and the honesty of them is really what I loved and wanted to do with this film as well.  We didn’t want to present the character of August as a saint. And we wanted to just [show him] as a regular person. He’s kind of a jerk to Noah sometimes, and Noah’s a jerk to him. That’s the beauty of the relationship.

I see y’all filmed in Llano?

Josh: It was Llano where we set it, and there were a lot of town shots, and there’s another smaller town outside of Llano called Pontotoc, which is where Marc’s high school football coach has a family farm. And they let us use that house, which we actually stayed in as we were shooting. All the family stuff is shot around that.

What led you to a smaller town setting as opposed to a bigger city? What made you choose a smaller town, aside from having relatives nearby?

Josh: A lot of that dictated it; the availability, where we could shoot in that house. Marc grew up in Texas, and so did our producers, so from square one we had Texas on the mind.

Marc: Originally we were going to shoot Austin [to stand in] as a small town. We were going to use a house here. I went to this farm house growing up, and we’d go out there to go dove hunting or deer hunting.  We were down here doing location scouting, and we got out there, and were going to shoot one scene on the porch of that [farm house], and we were about to go to Houston to meet with our cinematographer, and I had this moment of inspiration. And I went inside the house, and it opened up the world [of the film], and I kind of re-wrote the script with that house [in mind].

A great character actor that I love, Barry Corbin, has a small role in the film.  I was wondering if he told any great stories at all while he was on set with you guys.

Josh: He did indeed!
Marc: They were non-stop. He was such a fun guy to work with! When he was there, all he wanted to do before we started shooting was rehearse. And I finally started asking him questions. I did ask him specifically about the Coen brothers, because he worked with them on “No Country For Old Men,” and I asked him how that was working with them, and he was like, [goes into deep Barry Corbin drawl], “I don’t know…didn’t really talk to ‘em.”

And I said, “what do you mean??” [back to Barry Corbin impression] “Well, I read for ‘em at the audition, and then came back, and we shot, and they just kinda waved, and I finally went up to ‘em and I asked ‘em, ‘you ever direct anybody?’ and they said, ‘If we cast it right, we don’t have to.’” [laughter]

Josh: Barry said that’s the smartest thing a director has ever told him! [more laughs] He came up as a Shakespearean actor, and I don’t think he was on TV and film until he was 38. He has some pretty amazing stories.

Marc: [His scenes took place] on our last day of shooting, and we went to the bar and had a few drinks afterwards. All of a sudden someone was like, “Barry Corbin!” And he went over, and he was hugging everyone, and kissing girls on the forehead, and he had a ball with it. And he actually outlasted all of us [at the bar]. I was done—I slept in the back of my car, because I was so tired.

Lastly, Tobias, what’s your biggest takeaway personally from this role and from working on this picture?

Tobias: It was such a unique experience working on something where you really didn’t have much dialogue.  Everything that I was doing in the film was all about trying to portray an emotion just through a look and it’s very rare that you get the chance to do that on film. Having worked with Marc before, I knew that he would trust me with this. And having Josh to bring it all [together], there was a feeling of trust there that I really appreciated…This was just an incredible experience for me.

“This Is Where We Live” premiered at the South By Southwest 2013 Film Festival on March 9, and screens once more at the fest, on Friday, March 15 at 9:30 p.m. the Alamo Ritz downtown.