Max Walker-Silverman directed two short films before making his spectacular feature debut at Sundance 2022 with A Love Song. It, Chuj Boys of Summer and Lefty/Righty all see the young writer/director immersed in the landscape and communities of his native Colorado. Rural and intimate, these stories are far from Denver’s modern-day gold rush of legal weed. His early work is family-focused—-intertwining melancholy and dry humor just like those working through hardships—in both the isolated immigrant experience of Indigenous Guatemalans and the soft-stoic cowpokes of modern masculinity. A Love Song allows this yearning, post-Western romanticism to mature, translating it through the incredible Dale Dickey and Wes Studi as their characters rekindle a school-days flirtation after decades apart. A new talent flourishes while two old hands explore facets that the industry foolishly ignored.
The leads’ relationship is awkward and lovely—“puppy love,” as Studi tells me. It reminds me of my widowed grandmother who fell into a giddy, teenage-like relationship with an ex-rodeoer in the middle of the pandemic. It’s also the first time Dickey, a longtime theater and character actor, had a film lead written with her in mind. Hell, she’s not even used to doing press interviews. The responsibility left her insecure, as did A Love Song’s slew of close-ups: She told cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, “I know this camera’s close enough that all you can see is my alligator nose.” But she was reassured that she looked beautiful (she does) and that she could handle setting the tone at the top of the call sheet.
The performances perfectly reflect the resulting novelty. She fills the vast quiet with gravitas, but clumsy nerves feel natural and real because they were. Dickey and Studi kept plenty of separation between work and play during production, not beating scenes to death with rehearsals, to try to maintain a semblance of their characters’ unfamiliarity. “It worked very much like real life. People come together close enough and then all of a sudden some sort of magic happens and they come together into an embrace,” Studi says of playing his first romantic lead.
In fact, A Love Song was the first time Studi or Dickey—veteran actors with a combined 240 screen credits—had a romantic kiss in a movie. Ok, sure, Dickey has a pair of technicalities, a sloppy bar makeout and an incestuous kiss in Bloodline, but she doesn’t count them. Studi also has a caveat, a kiss in the PBS film Coyote Waits, but A Love Song gave the pair their first real big-screen romance. And they seize the opportunity, finding chemistry just as beautiful and believable as their lives at the film’s campground.
“I was very fortunate this time to cast two actors…who honor the people who actually live in places like this and who both come from backroads places themselves,” Walker-Silverman says. “It would’ve felt really wrong to throw in some ‘actor’ to this world. I don’t think that’s a very respectful thing to do.”
The world he threw them into is one he’s cultivated since film school at NYU, rooted in his Telluride home and personal relationships. “I imagine it must’ve been pretty strange for Dale and Wes to roll up to our little campsite and see my eight friends from film school and I, and my mother cooking food,” he says of the COVID-bubbled production. “They probably did wonder, at least for a moment, what the hell they’d gotten themselves into.”
Groundedness is important to the filmmaker. His movies are set near home, and many of his crew, like Salcedo, and cast have been with him since the beginning. “When you’re telling stories about the place you live and doing it with people who live there, you have a fundamental obligation to try to be true to the place. Simply out of respect,” Walker-Silverman says. “‘True’ is kind of an interesting word there: It can mean the look of it and the people, but it can also mean the feel of it.”
Whether that means leaving the Chuj dialogue up to his nonprofessional cast in Chuj Boys or taking scenes directly from real-life incidents, Walker-Silverman is seeking emotional honesty over material honesty. It’s not that he’s beholden to some kind of non-fictional ideal. A Love Song is broken up by amusing, deadpan, oddball incident—feeling as if the “Wes” in “Wes Anderson” stood for “Western.” (The subconscious influence “sneaks its fuckin’ way in there,” Walker-Silverman explains.) He calls the idea of chasing realism in film a “bewildering exercise in futility,” referring to A Love Song as more fable-like than anything else.
“There’s a big-ass camera and people with radios and a table with snacks and coffee on it. It’s not reality and I feel no pressure to make people look for it,” he says. “The earlier people are able to accept the world and the story on its own terms, and that it might be a little stranger, a little different, and have its own version of beauty, the better. Drawing a little attention to the craft of it and to the artifice of it may ideally be a way to let people slip into the fiction of it.”
It’s an easy-going relationship to reality that values feeling over fastidiousness, something the soft-spoken filmmaker—one who values the “eloquence of silence,” observes Studi—brings to his sets. “Sets don’t have to be these stressful places where people go to war against God,” Walker-Silverman says, calling the kind of pressurized productions you tend to hear about in apocalyptic making-of documentaries “very sad and macho.”
“We try to avoid the hectic loudness of your traditional film set,” he explains. “Some of that is conscious, with this small crew and the rhythms with which we work, and some of it winds up being dictated by the rhythms of nature. I found there’s something beautiful and radical about waiting for a cloud. It can reduce an experienced production person to rubble, but it’s meaningful and important and, in my experience, tends to pay off in unanticipated ways if you allow nature to run things a little bit. Lord knows we don’t have the budget to fight it anyways.”
In his mind, working on a film is tough, but it doesn’t have to be part of some dehumanizing, abusive power play. “You can have a nice drive to work. The food can be good. You can do good work and then go home to get a good night’s rest,” he explains. “That should be the goal.” That leaves room for flexibility, “a way to work between total control and improvisation,” and space “for nature to do its thing, to throw that goddamn sunset in the background that you could’ve never planned or paid for.”
It also allows two underappreciated actors to shine in roles Hollywood never thought to give them. Now Dickey, at home in nature—she and her now-husband went canoeing after a first date where they were the only two laughing at Natural Born Killers in theaters—is hungry for larger and more challenging roles. Leading a Western on horseback, or something Shakespearean. Studi, who’s hilarious guest spot on Reservation Dogs also let him stretch his talents, has been shedding his own ingrained professional preconceptions. “I don’t take myself so seriously anymore—which is very freeing,” he says.
Both should see nothing but open doors in the wake of A Love Song, as they prove that their abilities have only grown sharper over time, regardless of genre or subject matter. “The hopeful part of [A Love Song] is that, yeah, we may age but we never grow old,” Studi says. “Our youth almost always stays with us until it’s time to move on.” Whether that youth is on the surface, leading an idealistic filmmaker like Max Walker-Silverman, or under the surface of its stars’ experience, A Love Song should be a fresh start for all involved.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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