The 8-year-old boy, Matthew, is clutching his mother’s sleeve tight and holding her hand. He looks very pale. As the director of photography, Arsenio Assin, sits on a nearby couch inspecting the Hi-Def camera, which is state of the art and still has that “new car smell,” and the filmmaker, Preston, assembles the costumes, which are, to say the least, quite bizarre (a white cowboy hat, white zip-up hoodies, white sweatpants and Texarcana cowboy boots), the boy seems to wonder just what he got himself into here. We load up the passenger van and drive out to the shopping mall, where we will proceed to shoot these actors in these strange costumes moving through this consumer-driven space. Matthew barely says a word to us; he is going through something completely interior—and completely personal.
Several months ago, almost on a whim, this brave young man auditioned for the feature film God’s Land, which is to be Preston Miller’s follow-up to his art house film Jones. It is a very ambitious project, set in Garland, Texas and documenting a Taiwanese family’s crisis of faith as they follow a religious cult to this suburban town under the belief that on a certain date, God will transport their flock to the fourth dimension. It is based on a true story, but the family is a fictional construct. In many ways, the husband’s faith-based belief in the cult reminds me of Preston’s obsessive belief in the power of filmmaking to convey and signify meaning.
But the story centers on the wife, Xiu (played by Jodi Lin), a non-believer who was used to a cosmopolitan life and, out of loyalty to the family bonds, is willing to go on this mad adventure with her husband, but remains ever watchful and protective—and at the first sign of trouble, or first threat of group suicide (though the benevolent cult swears they have no intention of doing this), she will immediately swoop in to protect her husband Hou (played by Shing Ka) and her child Ollie (played by Matthew Chiu).
Matthew has never acted before, nor does he have the fascination with stardom that most child actors seem to exhibit. When he went on the audition, he felt like acting would be of interest to him in what a grown-up might describe as a “philosophical way.” (How typical that adults find big words to describe what is so much simpler for a child.) He is a math kid, a little shy, and thought perhaps auditioning for a film—maybe even acting in a film—would build his confidence, and be a curious hobby. When he came in to read for Preston and me, he had an easy, relaxed likability, a presence onscreen that didn’t feel like one of those movie kids who knows how to smile on cue. Those children often remind me of wind-up robots. Matthew, on the other hand, seemed comfortable in his own skin, and this introspective, clearly intelligent young man had much in common with the stoic, smart, curious little boy in the movie.
As the start of shooting drew ever closer, Matthew started feeling that (very natural) fear in his heart that we call stage fright.
And he didn’t speak to anyone when he arrived. The boy looked so small. So drawn into himself. I’m sure his mind was racing, but he stood so frozen and still.
Shing, who struck me during the audition process as being quite intense and aloof, has revealed himself to be a man of strong character, and very kind; he went to the boy and softly asked, “How are you feeling? Nervous?” The boy nodded wordlessly. “Yeah, me too!” said Shing. And I thought it was such the right gesture, creating solidarity between Shing and Matthew, who shall play father and son. Jodi also stayed close to the boy, very often holding his hand in a supportive and maternal way, which to me says very much about the generosity of actors.
Preston’s shooting style is non-traditional, to say the least. He has more in common with non-American filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien or Béla Tarr. He has no interest in the traditional coded language of American acting, or of the coverage that movies have co-opted from television. His images, particularly on this first shooting day, were expansive wide shots of the family walking through a western shopping mall, allowing the characters to move through a space, taking in their behavior in real time. Something about Preston’s camera takes in a kind of reality about the actor, or performer, inhabiting this space at this time, and by not cutting we see right into the presence of this actor. It demands a kind of acting that is not acting; it also demands an actor who is inherently an interesting person, and without shields.
I think the combination of pure-hearted actors and Preston’s style, where the camera seems practically invisible even when in plain sight, immediately created a relaxed and positive atmosphere within the shopping mall, and it felt quiet and controlled and surefooted even as we were shooting in a hectic environment with so many people and shoppers roaming about. Yet Preston and his DP, Arsenio, are masters of stealth filmmaking, slipping around the mall and finding camera positions or hiding the camera in shopping carts and roving through department store aisles, and the camera rolls as the actors inhabit this space. Matthew, in a way, realized that there was no pressure in this style of filmmaking; that instead it is very far away, and doesn’t feel like pressure; it simply feels like living your life.
Matthew is a boy comfortable with himself, and once he realized, by the end of the first take, that he could simply be himself for Preston’s camera without fear of having to be some kind of magician transforming into something he is not, he found himself completely at ease.
But genuine, honest children who make movies without the pressure of wanting to be little movie stars are so good at this; so instinctive and intuitive in their ability to be real in front of the camera. I watch Matthew doing his work, and easing up between takes, smiling and staying close to Shing and Jodi. His real mother and father, Alice and Tony, also seem relieved in some way; as if their son has found his way, and the only struggle was an imaginary one. I’m glad we found this sensible, heroic and bright young man for Preston’s movie, and am also glad he found himself in front of the camera.
The House Next Door will continue the God’s Land production diaries when shooting resumes in April 2009. Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of on-set reports on God’s Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.