Some people need the truth to live. Others not so much. On Halloween night, the lives of two suburban couples unravel forever under the influence of a Peruvian wine brewed from the toxic skin of blue dart tree frogs. This tribal elixir effectively reduces all inhibitions to nothing, and soon friendships and relationships are revealed to be not quite what they seemed. By turns brutally funny, wickedly honest, and unashamedly human, the film explodes personal and cultural taboos and lays bare the horror and beauty beneath our carefully composed public personas. Imagine a bobsled ride down Mt. Everest…on a moonless night…during a blizzard. That is the essence of “Vino Veritas.” Just hang on, and hope for the best.
Anticipating the January 15 iTunes VOD release of ‘Vino Veritas‘, we spoke with the film’s Director Sarah Knight about its development, the difference in approach between documentary and narrative filmmaking, the state of Indie Film in Nebraska and much more.
How were you first introduced to the film’s script?
My mom, who has fantastic taste and is a great lover of the arts, saw the play performed here in Nebraska a few years ago. She fell so in love with the writing that she came back to every performance. She encouraged me to read it and I loved it as well. I met with David MacGregor (writer) and we hit it off, realizing it was a piece we could do fairly quick and cheap.
Having a background in documentary, how do you approach constructing a narrative feature and how does that differ from the way you approach documentary?
I started out doing narrative shorts and that is where I feel the most comfortable. I had taken a couple of years off and did two documentaries, which were two stories I really wanted to tell. One was about a female blues group and the other was about the head groundskeeper of the Baltimore Orioles who is a woman.
With ‘Vino Veritas’, I was so excited to get back into narratives. I just think it is more fun and exciting. I love documentary as a viewer and I am proud of the two I made but it is such drudge work. I think they are important and I will probably make another if the right story comes along, but it is more engaging to do narrative work.
Specific to ‘Vino Veritas’, what is the truth behind the Peruvian hallucinogenic wine?
It is funny because David just made it up as a theatrical device. When I went to show the film at Oaxaca in Mexico several people approached me and asked if it was based on a real Peruvian truth serum. I had never heard of it but apparently there is a real truth serum that exists, but I did not get to try it.
How did you approach the look and visual tone of the film?
There were two things I wanted to do, both having to do with the world we see prior to the wine drinking and after. The first thing we tried to do was include a slightly desaturated look at the beginning and dress Phil & Lauren in their street clothes to serve to that end. When Claire takes her drink there is an 8 minute color bump that you may not see unless looking for it, but it ramps up to the height of the color. I wanted the production and costume design to resemble old fashioned Technicolor since the idea is that this is the most vibrant night the characters have had in a long time.
The other thing we tried to do was (in the beginning) hang back and see people in wide shots and profiles. Once the wine is drunk we slowly move in to get to the heart of the characters with closeups.
We also wanted to move the characters around the house to break things up visually .
Did you draw from any influences when developing the film?
We got very lucky with our location because it is a large house that gave us the comfort to move around. I know that they shot (for example) ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf‘ on a sound stage, so that would be a dream to have flyaway walls and all that, but we were lucky in the amount of space we did have.
How did you come across the four lead actors?
I did not do any auditions. I had seen Heather Raffo and Bernard White in two separate off Broadway plays almost tens years ago. They both blew me away and had stuck in the back of my mind. As I read the script I thought about both of them immediately.
Carrie Preston, I knew from her TV work and the film ‘Duplicity‘, but she also came out with a film called ‘That Evening Sun‘ the same year. A friend of a friend had gone to Julliard with her so we were able to get her a copy of the theatrical script. Brian Hutchison does a lot of theater work in New York so my casting director turned us on to him.
Was there any particular film festival experience that stood out to you?
There were two. My favorite festival was Oaxaca. The film was subtitled in Spanish, which was fun. Oddly enough it was not the largest audience due to severe weather conditions but that particular audience was a treat to watch the film with. They cheered when Claire drinks the wine and were very engaged and audible.
The second would be the Wine Country Film Festival where it was shown in a wine cave. Carrie and Bernard were there and they got to watch it for the first time with me. It was a very relaxing and lovely experience.
How much mind do you pay to the idea of distribution when developing the film?
I did not. I am not saying that is a smart way to do it but I wanted to focus on the story. Personally I would rather see films in the theater but I appreciate that there are other platforms out there. We did not have anything in mind, we just wanted to make a film and tell the story the way we wanted. When it was completed we got it out and it landed where it landed.
What was the most difficult part of getting this film completed?
We ended up shooting in Lincoln, Nebraska where we got the production design team from the University who were graduate students. They did a great job and my parents did catering so many great things came with that. One of the thing you find when shooting in the Mid West or somewhere that is not Los Angeles, New York or, maybe, Portland is, despite having fantastic crews, they are really used to working on commercials at rates 10 times what we could afford. We had many great people working on the film but we also had to bring people in. In housing and transportation the costs cancelled each other out. I know that is one of the great difficulties of not shooting in a “main” area.
Also, we had a fantastic editor, colorist and sound designer but all those figures were in different locations as well, being Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati. It is amazing what you can do virtually these days, but also a drag since it was a year and a half of isolation for me, which is too much alone time. This is one of the benefits of the modern world but can also be a drag.
Finally, can you speak to the general interest in independent film in Nebraska?
We ended up screening the film in Lincoln. The local paper was incredibly supportive and we got a lot of press out of it. We were only going to screen it for one week for fun but it was so popular they held it over, and this was at a commercial space with mostly people I did not know. It was a real treat. David MacGregor got to come back for the screenings and local people saw the film multiple times.
I know that they have a wonderful center called the Ross Theater which plays indie films, as well as the Grand Theater. That is a commercial space but is starting to branch out and include indies as well. I definitely think there is a growing interest in independent and alternative cinema here.
– Interview Conducted (via phone), Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson