Having grown up in rural Colorado, Max Walker-Silverman returned to a place he knows well for his directorial debut A Love Song. The Sundance and Berlinale selection, arriving in theaters this Friday, lovingly captures the American West with both a reverence for nature and a sense of quiet yearning as we follow Dale Dickey’s character at a campground as she awaits a reunion with a former love (Wes Studi).

Ahead of the release, I spoke with the director about casting, why he didn’t set out to make a Western, his cinematic influences, capturing ideas of memory, what he learned more when attending NYU, and more.

The Film Stage: Dale Dickey and Wes Studi have some of the most iconic faces in cinema. Can you talk about the process of writing with them in mind and getting them onboard?

Max Walker-Silverman: I first really noticed Dale, like so many people, in Winter’s Bone and was just powerfully struck by the sensation that “Wow, I could know this person. I could have been raised by this person. This person could be my neighbor.” And I was brought up by so many very strong, very tender women. And this character really felt like one of them. And it’s rare. It’s rare to see an actor who has whatever the strange and mysterious thing that we call “being true” is. But she just had it. And I started picturing her in my home and in the landscapes of my home. And that’s all sort of present at the conception of this story, the sensation of this actor who could play this part. And I think it’s because I’m drawn from the places that are beneath the sun and in the wind and rain and to people to have been in the sun and in the wind. And I just find that really beautiful and important. And also that’s the only way to actually honor the sort of places and people that I want to tell stories. I find it moving and magical.

And once you start picturing Dale in your head, it’s really hard to imagine who could even begin to share the screen with her––who can match that presence and that potency. And as you know, Wes is perhaps the only person who can really. So I first came to them just because I felt like they were right for the roles, like they’re the right people. Dale is from the mountains of Tennessee; Wes lives in New Mexico. It was just right and secondary to that, but also meaningful is that they’ve had these long careers playing really tough characters and doing so very nobly. And I think that meant something to me because I try to make movies in a place that’s been portrayed in very tough ways and to do so gently. So to have the opportunity to have actors and to bring all this history that they have of those sorts of roles was really appealing.

And it later turned out that with a hundred movies between them, this was their first screen kiss. Which is exemplative of exactly what I’d like to do. And working with them was just a pleasure. So professional, so good at what they do, able to fill all the silence of the script with meaning. And it all came from their affection for their characters and just what lovely people to work with them. And how lucky we were—because it was a pretty small, scrappy little expedition that we were out there on. And it would have been a challenge without such generous actors to be part of it all.

Max Walker-Silverman

Regarding the gentleness of this film, you’re really deconstructing and subverting the Western in a way. It’s not about violence. It’s about love. You have a strong female character as the lead, a major Native American character with agency, and also feature a Black lesbian couple on the journey. It’s great to see new territory being treaded. What is your relationship with the genre?

The truth is my relationship with the Western genre is very limited, and I think that’s true of a lot of people who live out in these places. It’s super-iconic in film, but it’s not really very familiar or beloved in the rural West. It’s the honest truth. And I can understand why people see A Love Song as a version of a Western. You shoot these landscapes and you have a character in a cowboy hat, it’s going to be classified as that in some way, and that’s fine. I don’t mind playing with what we expect from that a little bit, but if I’m really honest, I just tried to make a movie about the place I live and the people who live there. And this is what came out of it––and that’s it. If some piece of that is maybe lighting up and softening a really tough genre, I’m cool with that and I’m happy to do that––happy to be seen that way. That seems like a noble enough outcome, but it isn’t the goal. I made this movie for the people and not for the genre.

In terms of influences, you mentioned location was a huge influence. Were there any cinematic influences? You can certainly see a bit of Kelly Reichardt, but did you draw mostly from the landscape and your worldview?

I tried to draw mostly from the landscape, the way I see the world, from music because I found that that’s a part of the world that’s been allowed to have a poetry and softness in a way that hasn’t really been in film. But of course I admire Kelly Reichardt. I admire Debra Granik. I admire Alice Rohrwacher, Céline Sciamma, Aki Kaurismäki, the Coen brothers. We’ve all watched a hell of a lot of movies, and that’s in our blood—whether we want it to be or not. Those are people who I look up to, whether it’s their process, the worlds that they’re willing to show, the humanity of their characters. It’s encouragement, if nothing else, having the belief that we can do what we want to do and those are people who I’ve looked to see that these things are possible.

Memory is the emotional lifeblood of the movie. When they are reunited they’re talking about things that may or may not have happened, how they remember it. Looking back is the only way to make a connection, in a way. Can you talk about exploring this idea of memory and how can translate it cinematically? There’s a lot of beautiful touches throughout, even the photograph that arrives later, where memory can be captured in either scattered ideas or a single piece of material.

Yeah, it’s just a great question. In so many ways it’s a movie about our past and how we relate to it, and memory is a piece of that. And the way that our pasts can affect our future and the way that we remember things can affect what we want and our memories can affect our hopes. Most importantly, the way that when we understand our pasts, can adjust and can evolve, and the evolution of how we see our pasts can change what we hope for and believe is possible in the future. At the end of the day, it’s a movie about someone who shifts the way she sees her past, and that opens up new possibilities for the future, which I suppose is what we call rebirth. And that’s one of the most beautiful defining things we could do as humans.

Maybe that’s something that can really set us apart, and I just wanted to honor that possibility and come to believe that one day it would be possible for myself for when I need it, as perhaps we all inevitably do. Often in film, memory is portrayed through flashbacks or lots of photos or lots of dialogue, and none of those things felt honest to the world or to the characters. It felt more noble to be with them in the quiet of their actual lives. And I just trusted these actors to bring the memory to life, even in silence and stillness. And I couldn’t have done it without these actors, but they both are able to convey so much past with who they are and how they often find space. I hope that it worked, but it was really just an act of trust and part of why it was important to have actors so true to these characters and so true to this world.

Diving a bit more into this idea of silence, there are some films that I could just throw on at any time—like Paris, Texas—because there’s such a rejuvenating spiritual nature. I think your film falls into this camp. When it comes to the actual editing and execution of that kind of rhythm, was it conveyed in the script or was it fine-tuning in the editing? 

You know, now we sit here and we talk about it as silence and understandably so. But in the writing of it and the shooting of it and execution of it, one doesn’t think of it as silence. One thinks of it as what are the things we don’t normally hear? So the stillness of the character to me is actually what are all the things the character is doing that we don’t normally see. And I hope, throughout the film, all of these moments are telling a story and getting to watch someone do things that may be quotidian but are actually really important. We’re getting to hear things that may be uncommon but are actually really meaningful, like hearing water, hearing wind, hearing flowers.

Those are all real sounds. We just maybe don’t hear them in movies as much as I might like. That’s the best way I can answer that question. Silence is never the goal. It’s just like, what’s beneath all of these added sounds if we take them away. Stillness is never the goal. It’s just like, what are the actions of a person once they’re not always being told what to do?

A lot of the crew is people you’ve worked with for many years in film school and on shorts. What did take away most from film school and how did that type of bond make for a natural transition on set? 

I went to film school in New York to NYU Graduate Film, and I took three main beautiful things away from that. One was I learned how to make movies there as much as I know how to make them. I’d never done any filmmaking before. I met the people I work with there, which is really nothing more complicated than making a few friends who luckily are very good at what they do. And I was gifted the confidence to make movies in the town I’m from. I didn’t really learn until going to New York for a few years and having a beautiful time there, but also being very homesick and struggling a great deal––it wasn’t until all of that I found a way to believe that success in the small town didn’t have to be leaving it. And that I was able to return home and feel like I could do something meaningful there. 

As far as how we work, there’s like seven or eight of us. We’ve done it before. They understand the world, they’ve been there before. Also, worked with people from Colorado. So it allows us to just be quiet and fast and we like each other. It allows us to have fun. One of the pleasures of this job I’m trying to carve out for myself is to pay my friends to come hang out with me. And I love sharing my home with people. And that’s true of the crew and it’s true of actors. It’s just a pleasure to invite them and most people really like it. I really want to believe that somehow comes through the celluloid. It adds a little bit of warmth to the stories what we shoot.

With this being your directorial debut, what did you learn most, on a practical basis, that you might do differently or expand on in your next feature? And what do you hope to do next?

It’s such a reasonable question that I’ve actually been asked very often. I think the hardest lessons I’m going to take from this all come down to trusting the people I work with: just how much I can trust right actors, how much I can trust the really good people who I work with. Even more so I hope to be able to just get out of their way and take credit for their work in the end, basically. Maybe I see my job as more of bringing talented people into this beautiful place and letting that be its own outcome. Hopefully I can get more and more out of the way.

And, moving forward, I hope to be able to hang onto these things, hang onto this place as long as people will let me. And to keep making movies in which people basically tell the truth and try to help each other. Hopefully that’s drama enough for a challenged world and the brave people who’ve supported it so far. I hope to just keep going, as long as they let me.

A Love Song opens in theaters on Friday, July 29.

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