[SXSW 2023] Writer-Director Tony Tost Talks His Star-Studded Feature Debut AMERICANA
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the most star-studded premieres of this year’s SXSW was Tony Tost’s Americana, an ensemble Western following a community of people whose paths intersect around a Lakota Ghost Shirt. Writer-director Tost is no stranger to the Western genre, having been a writer on the shows Longmire and Damnation, but Americana represents his feature debut as a director.
We at disappointment media had a conversation with Tost about his influences for the film, why he loves the Western genre, and working with such a talented ensemble. Check it out below.
On Americana’s Influences
disappointment media: So it seems to me like the film is very influenced by modern classic crime movies like Pulp Fiction and the Coen Brothers films. Would you be able to discuss some of your influences?
Tony Tost: Talking about influence, I could put it into buckets. There's influences specifically on the chase, and those will maybe be the things that are a little bit less on the tip of your tongue — ‘70s crime movies like The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical film. That's the movie I asked everybody on the crew to watch. If there's one movie to watch to get the vibe I'm going for with it, that's it. And that whole realm of really well done, unpretentious crime genre films that could potentially show at a drive in movie theater. So anything from like John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Don Siegel’s Charlie Barrett, things like that. That’s what I was aiming for. Then, to Nigel Bluck, our great cinematographer, the photographs of William Eggleston, who's my favorite photographer, and anything that Robert Mueller shot like Paris, Texas, or Ghost Dog. Then there's the other bucket of stuff that's so deep in my brain that I'm almost trying to escape its influence, but I never quite do. That would be Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, all the stuff that kind of made me fall in love with cinema in the first place as a teenager. Whether you like it or not, in the film, it’s like “Oh yeah this dude loves Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.” Just the tonality, or moving around structure, and moving from violence to humor while trying to still have some sincere emotions in there as well. That’s so deep in my DNA, into my love of storytelling, my love of film. First films often really wear their influences on their sleeve, and maybe as I go, I can find ways to like, submerge those influences even more. You know, it's pretty inextricable from what I love about the movies and what's a good time at the movies for me, it's those filmmakers.
disappointment: And you mentioned the cinematography of the film, I thought that it gave it a very epic feel, which — given that your DP worked on the Lord of the Rings movies — isn’t surprising. How did you contrast the epic visuals with a story that was often more restrained and intimate?
Tost: Well, thank you for that. In my head, and with Nigel, it was always like, “We’re shooting a Western.” I mean, it's a crime film, and it's got these other influences, but the heart and soul of it turns into a weird Western. And the iconography of the West, the open landscape, and the kind of residue — both like narratives of the West and just the actual history of the West — should be soaked in. So in terms of how we designed shots, that is just the emotional landscape. And then within that, we try to get that big arch, where you feel the weight of the Western itself and of the history, but then you get this miniaturist kind of emotional sketches of these overlooked outcasts. It's trying to find the balance between those. You want to feel the indifference of the landscape to these small lives and how they still have to live their lives and they still have to pursue whatever they're after, or find their identity in this New West. It's part of the design, and then you just try to figure it out, shot by shot, scene by scene on the budget and schedule that we have, which was generous for a first film, but we had 26 days. So you have to pick your battles and do what you can on that schedule. A big part of the directing job is prioritizing and figuring out, “Okay, we gotta move on to the next thing, because we've got five scenes we have to hit today.”
On the Unique Perspective of Americana
disappointment: Having written also for Longmire and Damnation, and now having Americana, what is it about the American heartland that you think makes it such an interesting setting?
Tost: Part of it is that I grew up in a small town. I was born in the Missouri Ozarks, and then we moved, when I was very young, to rural Washington State. First, we lived in a camper trailer in my grandparents backyard, and then we lived in single wide and double wide trailers — sometimes in trailer parks, but sometimes out in the country like Kyle and Mandy and Dylan. That outer landscape in which that kind of came to be became my inner landscape in a way, and that's just where I feel comfortable. Like, if I close my eyes and start thinking about a story, I'm never setting it in New York, I'm never setting it in LA. I'm a tourist there. I feel at home in a rural setting, and especially among blue collar people of whatever demographic. I feel kinship with them. It may not be reciprocated, but I feel, even though I work in Hollywood, I consider myself like a blue collar dude. I graduated high school and started working at a pickle factory and worked fast food jobs and went to community college. And that's when I discovered I was a writer. I graduated high school, working at a pickle factory, and it's like, “Oh, this sucks. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life.” So I started taking classes at community college, and then I took a creative writing class and a literature class. I started thinking, “I really like art. And I think I'm a good writer.” And then I got into films. But nobody in my family had ever gone to college. My parents, they're working people. They’re the day and night janitors in my elementary school. We didn't have art at home. What we had at home were Westerns. We watched Clint Eastwood Westerns or Burt Reynolds movies, country music and pro wrestling. That’s what so much of the material of Americana is. And part of it is that because I have this blue collar chip on my shoulder, Hollywood looks down on that stuff or doesn't put it in here. Like oftentimes you’d only see rural people like, a white collar professional goes into a small town and, “Oh, they're all inbred people, and they're going to kill you.” Or, “Let's tell a story about how everybody's on opioids.” Obviously, there's problems in real life, but you can also just tell a story there without having to have some big social commentary. I love that about ‘70s cinema, blue collar people could be the leads of movies, they don't all have to be like architects or influencers or shit like that. So it’s a little personal for me. I cut my teeth on Westerns. Left to my own devices, I'd rather just watch a Western or a samurai flick at home. That's the kind of stuff I like. I like violence, morality plays, and open landscapes. I think people still like stories set here. You don't have to necessarily do some kind of commentary on it, you can just take people and put them in an interesting story, and that's something I'm focused on. I mean, who knows what I do after this, but doing crime or Western-inflected stories in “flyover settings,” I wouldn't mind doing that just for the foreseeable future. There's a lot of stories I can tell with those ingredients.
disappointment: I found it very interesting that much of the film was seen through the eyes of a character that would be considered innocent, or, perhaps more accurately, oblivious — like the child character or Paul Walker Hauser’s character. Why did you find it interesting to take this approach?
Tost: Sometimes they just emerge when you write, so it wasn't necessarily a strategic thing. You know, Sydney Sweeney's character is also a pretty innocent character in a way, even though she kind of conceives of this idea. She doesn't know what she's getting them into. Just for me, I get a little bit impatient or uninterested in stories where everybody's like dark and edgy. I wanted to do an ensemble film, and with that, if every character has the same attitude, it's gonna get monotonous. I love Robert Altman, and a movie like Nashville, part of the thing I love about Nashville — it’s one of my favorite movies — is that you have this whole range of characters that are borderline oblivious in a sense, and others that are completely kind of almost cold-blooded careerist types, and then there's a whole range in between. And that's, to me, that's just an interesting canvas. It’s nothing really beyond that — trying to come up with characters and combinations of characters that can just keep my interest because in writing this, I had a couple ideas, but I just kind of wrote it to discover I was just curious about these characters. I knew I wanted to have a showdown, and things like that, but like, I let the characters kind of surprise me as I was going, so I didn't necessarily know different elements about them until like, halfway into writing the script.
On Assembling a Fantastic Ensemble
disappointment: I also want to talk about the massive ensemble, which is filled with lots of talented people. What was it like recruiting and working with them?
Tost: It was a blast. It's my first film, so it's not like I'm walking in Mr. 800-pound Gorilla, people lined up to work with me. Being a first-time director is spooky. And it’s kind of a weird script, so you don’t know how people are going to respond. But my producer Alex Sacks — who has been my partner on this from step one, to the whole thing — and I, we knew it was a little bit of an oddball story, first-time filmmaker, ensemble, a nonlinear story. We're not hitting a bunch of commercial bull's eyes there. The thing that's going to get us to get this film made, is if people get excited about the cast. So it's like, “Okay, who would be exciting to financiers, but who also maybe haven't played these roles before and would be interested in this.” So like, Sydney Sweeney hasn't played a character like this. Penny Jo isn't a very sexualized character. I mean, she's shown that she doesn't have to play sexualized before, but she is mostly known for Cassie in Euphoria, which she’s amazing on, and White Lotus, which she was amazing on, she's an incredible actress. But we thought she might be interested in this because this is an opportunity for her to show a different shade. And then Paul Walter Hauser, one of my favorite working actors, Lefty’s kind of the male lead, and almost like a romantic figure. He always jokes like, “Are you sure you sent it to me on purpose, and you weren't actually trying to send it to Miles Teller or someone like that? These more traditional-looking leading man types.” But I love Paul, and he’s amazing. And I thought it might be worth the jump if he liked the character because it’s maybe a role he doesn’t get a ton. The one role I wrote for a specific actor was Ghost Eye for Zahn McClarnon because we worked together on Longmire. And he liked my writing on that, we hit it off there, he knew that I'm a huge fan of his. But I also know that Zahn is just like the coolest dude, so chill and dryly funny. And he doesn't often have roles that lean into that, of him being like, the coolest guy around. So I wrote Ghost Eye specifically to try to be dryly funny, and he’s just cool, so that maybe Zahn would take time out of his super busy schedule to come do this, because he could play a little bit of a different shade. That took at least like a year to put the package together and try to get it so everybody's schedules would line up. And Halsey actually got on my radar because she's a big Lakers fan. I'm a big Lakers fan. And she has a really entertaining Twitter account just for her play by play commentary on Lakers games. And I'm just like, “Oh, she's so fun. She's really interesting. She really knows her basketball.” And I started kind of checking out her music more and her music videos, and I was like, “Oh, shit, I think she's actually how I picture Mandy?” And I had no idea whether or not she was interested in acting, but I suspected that she was. So we told Alex,”Why don't we just try sending it to see if we can somehow get it to Halsey and just see? Maybe it would be cool to have her come in.” And maybe if she's interested in acting, maybe she would take the leap. And she did. She really dug the role and was totally game on anything. I'm so glad that people are really responding to her performance, because I think she's great. So it's trying to find those interesting people, but also knowing as a first-time filmmaker and everything like that I have to offer them something too. I think they may be interested in doing something a little different.
Americana screened at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 10-18 in Austin, TX.
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