The Place Beyond the Mines: Writer-director Sara Colangelo on ‘Little Accidents’

This piece was originally published at Sound On Sight, which is no longer active. The below is an edit from 7 May 2018.

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The feature debut of writer-director Sara Colangelo, Little Accidents is an intense small-town drama that premiered to positive notices at the 2014 instalment of the Sundance Film Festival, and is now seeing a release one year on. Starring Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Lofland, Josh Lucas and Chloë Sevigny, it concerns several players in a town recently devastated by a fatal mining accident. There’s Amos (Holbrook), the sole survivor of the accident that killed ten of his colleagues; Owen (Lofland), whose father was one of those who perished; Bill (Lucas), a mining company executive whose role in the accident has made his family a target of contempt for the town’s anger and sorrow; and Diane (Banks), Bill’s mostly housebound wife, who finds herself drifting away from her partner, and not just because their teenage son has gone missing.

In the week leading up to the film’s debut in American cinemas, Colangelo was kind enough to speak to Sound On Sight about the story’s roots, her cinematic inspirations and intentions, and her experience with the Sundance Institute’s famed Screenwriters and Directors Labs.

Little Accidents shares its name with one of your earlier shorts, which also premiered at Sundance a couple of years back. I must admit I’ve not seen the earlier film, but on the basis of plot synopses I’ve seen for it, it seems like something of a different beast. What in terms of content or filmmaking process did you carry over from the short to your feature debut?

Well, in both the short and feature film I’m definitely interested in the idea of an accident or traumatic event that is set in the past that we never experience on screen, but instead understand through its ripple effect on characters or on a particular community. In the short film, we follow a young woman who works in a soda factory and who we observe manipulating a sort of debilitated, special needs co-worker. We don’t at first understand the relationship between the two of them. But over the course of the film, you realize that he was her high school sweetheart, someone she really loved, and that he had moved away to pursue college and a career. And you learn that, after being in a terrible car accident, the young man is now relegated to small-town life and to factory work like his friends. In both the short and the feature, the accident ends up being a sort of elephant in the room that no one is talking about in a forthright way– and the audience is trying to put together the details of it as the story unfolds. In the feature, I decided to set the story in small coal town after a mining accident has occurred, so a lot of the same elements are at play.

In addition to that common thematic thread, I suppose both short and feature are set in industrial or post-industrial landscapes. I’ve always been fascinated with settings of work and manufacturing. I grew up in a factory town in Massachusetts and as a result, I guess, there has always been a part of me as a filmmaker that wants to pull back the curtain and explore the inner-workings of industry and look at what’s really going on behind the scenes. We live in a world with so many objects and conveniences and with such a high standard of living, yet we’re completely alienated from how things are made, and from the infrastructure that supports them. When I started to do research on coal country for the feature I realized that I knew very little about what the day to day work of a coal miner was like, what the dangers were, what it was even like to be in a mine, etc. And I realized that I had this total lack of understanding while a huge energy debate was going on in the country, and while more than half of the U.S.’s energy needs were still fulfilled by coal.

What inspired this particular story? And did any other works regarding communities dealing with trauma like this inform the film at all?

Well, I knew I wanted to set the feature, as I had in the short, in a one-company town. I thought there would be some dramatic fodder in that. And I was interested in creating a portrait of a town in crisis, while at the same time following three characters very closely within that town. When I first started writing, I really thought of the three protagonists as “walking ghosts”– three people who, in different ways, are reeling from the coal mine disaster, and who cross into enemy territory in order to heal their wounds and become whole again. Owen has lost his father in the accident, Diana is disillusioned by her husband’s culpability in the matter, and Amos is the sole survivor of the accident and is dealing with a host of physiological and existential traumas. To me the story is all about their connection, and how each character spurs the others into action.

In terms of inspiration, I was definitely looking at The Sweet Hereafter. But also films like How Green Was My Valley and The Last Picture Show — not so much for their take on trauma, but more so for seeing how they captured the feeling of a town. How were they revealing the shared history, psychology, and geography of a community… what techniques did they employ? Another film I watched a lot was Silkwood. I love how it conveys the contextual while at the same time never impinging on the three-dimensionality of the characters or on their psychology. It’s just so brilliant.

The film’s most striking performance, for me, comes from Jacob Lofland, who got somewhat overshadowed in reviews by his other great co-stars in Jeff Nichols’s Mud. Was he deliberately sought out on the basis of his work in that film, or did he just happen to audition? And how did the casting process for the film, in general, go about?

Thanks — I’m very proud of him and his performance. And yes, I deliberately sought him out. I had watched Mud a few months before the casting process began, and I was a huge fan of both the film and Jacob’s performance. He had a certain lightness and ease on screen that felt so real to me– so a light bulb definitely went on in my brain. We actively and consciously contacted him and asked if he might send us an audition tape. I had, of course, looked at some local boys for the part of Owen, but once I watched Jacob’s audition tape I was convinced that he was the one to cast. He has such an interesting way of conveying both darkness and levity. And that’s what I needed for the character: someone who could be an affectionate and playful caretaker of his special needs brother, and at the same time someone who has lost his father in the mines, is burdened as the new “man of the house,” and is a tortured young soul.

In terms of how the casting unfolded, we attached Boyd Holbrook first. I had actually cast him as Amos for Sundance Directing Labs and he ended up travelling with me to Utah to workshop a few scenes of the script. He really blew me away. Besides being a very talented and intuitive actor, he grew up in the Kentucky coal fields and is the son of a coal miner. So he had a visceral connection to the script, and he certainly understood the world of the film inside and out. In early 2013, we sent the script out to some of the agencies and heard that Elizabeth Banks was very interested in it. She and I met over Skype soon thereafter and I was really struck by how smart she was and how sensitively she approached the material and the character of Diane Doyle. I think in that first meeting she said something like, “Oh, this woman isolates herself in her materialism. It protects her,” and that was right on. From there, we attached Chloë and Josh, and the rest of our financing quickly fell into place so we were rushing to get down to West Virginia and shoot the movie.

The Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs have played an instrumental part in guiding all kinds of filmmaking talent over the last few years. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience with those?

Going though the Sundance Labs was a hugely invaluable experience for me. Both Labs really encourage you to look inward and to ask yourself why you’re drawn to your story, what the characters mean to you, and what you want your audience to feel as they’re leaving the theater. I think they really help you gain clarity on your intentions as a filmmaker. During the Directing Labs you workshop and shoot five of the most challenging scenes from your script with a small cast and crew. You’re given the opportunity to experiment with the scenes, to try new techniques, fail, test your range. One of my scenes was actually Amos walking Owen through a coal mine as they broach the subject of the accident. So our crew built an amazing 50 foot long wooden structure and covered it in black garbage bags. It was pretty rad. It really looked like a mine on camera and the experience of shooting the scene in this makeshift tunnel totally prepared me for when I had to shoot it in a real coal mine in West Virginia. I ended up using a lot of the same blocking and camera moves.

A year on from the Sundance launch, the film is now getting a non-festival release in North America, with, I imagine, some international distribution also on the way. How have you found the audience reception at the overseas festivals where it’s played?

I think it’s played well overseas. I’ve only been to screenings in London and Karlovy Vary, so I don’t have a lot to go on. Sometimes I wonder how the regionalism of the film translates across different languages and cultures, but I trust it’s all working. It played particularly well in the UK due to, perhaps, the rich history of coal mining there… in the Q&A there was a lot of curiosity about Appalachia and the state of modern American mining.

Aside from all of the above, what final thing would you like to say to those interested in seeing Little Accidents either on the big screen or through VOD?

Take a break from the boring winter blockbusters and go see it in theaters! It’s shot on 35mm and Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is stunning!

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