As the world is aware, Jason Sudeikis is having a bit of a moment. The success of his feel-good dramedy Ted Lasso has catapulted the actor/writer’s career into the stratosphere in the last year, and that’s likely how many are going to find their way to director Aharon Keshales’ indie crime/thriller South of Heaven.
In it, Sudeikis plays Jimmy Ray, an unassuming guy who got himself arrested, convicted and sentenced for armed robbery. Good behavior and his desperate plea to be released early because of his fiancée, Annie’s (Evangeline Lilly), terminal cancer diagnosis puts him back into her waiting arms after 12 years apart. But a mix of messy history paired with the bizarre circumstances of life conspire to keep their impending marriage and quiet future just out of reach.
If you’ve seen any of Keshales’ previous films (with former directing partner Navot Papushado) like Rabies (2010) or Big Bad Wolves (2013), then you’re aware of his penchant to lean into situational absurdities and the violence that often comes from those extreme situations. South of Heaven certainly reflects some of those themes, but as his first solo directorial effort, Keshales admits this is also a deeply personal story that draws from where he is right now as a new husband and individual storyteller.
Feeling the weight of former creative demands, partnerships and creative compromise, Keshales shares with Paste how his real late-in-life love affair, taste in actors and experience working with Lilly have changed him as an artist going forward.
Paste Magazine: Let’s go back eight years to the heat you and Navot earned for Big Bad Wolves and how it led to your recent creative separation.
Aharon Keshales: Part of the reason it took us eight years to create something else is basically, I think, we were starting to see the world differently, almost completely; the world, themes, the stuff I want to make and he wants to make. But like married couples, nobody wanted to admit that we were being torn apart from the inside. Little by little I started gravitating towards the feelings I have towards cinema. I like genres when they tap into something more sincere and honest. I wanted to make a personal film. I wanted to write the movie about everlasting love and I came up with South of Heaven.
We tried to do Death Wish and you just can’t, right? When you have this understanding that you need a script to tap into your ideals and your values, it’s not easy especially. And I think it’s me. I’m at fault here. But it wasn’t easy for me to, I wouldn’t call it sell out, but for me to just say it’s not the best thing I want to do, or they’re not allowing me to make the changes I want to do that. I understood that I need to live in the sidelines of American cinema if I want to make an American movie. And I was okay with living on the sidelines because most of the directors I like during my years of growing up, and even as an adult, were the kind of movies that not always necessarily became box office huge hits. And I’m not against those movies. I like those movies. I go to every Marvel movie and enjoy myself. But sometimes you want to do one from your heart, right? It’s burning inside you to make something that you could present to your wife and tell her this is how much I love you. I want you to see my skin, my veins, my heart, my true personality. Even in Rabies, you could see hints of the fact that I like people. I’m not a misanthropic crazy guy who just wants to kill people and torture people. I want people to see that there’s a heart beating underneath all those suspense thrillers and horror movies that I make.
When did the idea for South of Heaven present itself to you?
Keshales: Once I was on my honeymoon, that’s how the movie came to be. I was married at a very late the age of 37 and she was 39. I was like obsessed with her and admiring her from afar for 20 years. She was a news anchor. Once you marry very late in life, you want to compensate for 20 years of not being with her and not being able to see the movies you saw at the age of 20 with her. Or, see Paris for the first time with her. It was like a very long honeymoon for half a year. And during that honeymoon, I saw that we became like this disproportionate love story, which I love, but it’s disproportionate to what most people go through with their relationships. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to write a movie about a guy who comes out of prison after 12 years. And those are 12 years that he wasn’t able to give to his loving fiancé. Then when he comes out, he’s not able to compensate for that. He has only one year because she’s dying of lung cancer and he has one year to give her everything he never could have given her. And that’s the tragedy of South of Heaven. That’s how it came to be the original spark that made me sit down and write it as a love letter to both my wife and the genres and the movies I love from the ‘70s and the Texas noir of the ‘90s.
After such a joyous year with your wife, what spawned the darker notes of the story? Was that just your cinematic inclination or do you find something darker always creeping in?
Keshales: I think you just dissected me very well. Yeah, I’m the kind of guy that when something great happens to him, he’s trying to figure out, “Okay, where is the bad thing going to come from? Where is the darkness? Because it can’t last, so let’s get it over with.” That was one thing. But sadly, I’ve been surrounded with cancer. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago and it came back just a week before pre-production. She’s okay now. But my wife lost her younger brother and her mother died during post-production on this movie. I know my DNA, like when the doctor asks if you have somebody in your family that has cancer, and my answer is always yes. And so, you have that ticking bomb and fear that someday you’ll notice something on your hand or shoulder or breast. It’s there all the time. Living in that kind of psyche is bound to be a part of your writing process and like I said, this one comes from the heart. It came to me very naturally that I would have to put something from the sadder aspects of life into this story I’m going to present.
You’ve assembled quite a cast here. Who was the first person to jump aboard?
Keshales: Listen, I’m very amazed to just make movies. I was a film critic. I wasn’t supposed to make movies, so for me making movies in Hebrew was a surprise and now I’m making movies with Jason Sudeikis. What?! The first actor I cast was Jason. I like to cast people against character. I did it in Big Bad Wolves and I did it in Rabies. I think that once you do those kinds of things, surprises happen and you have electricity on screen. Because when you take somebody who does this role a thousand times, it will be a very mechanical performance. But once you take somebody who never tried it, something very spontaneous will happen on screen. While finding our Jimmy for this movie, I thought I needed a comedian, because a comedian has great timing and a lot of sadness inside them. And I knew that Jimmy is going to walk through so many bad things in this movie, and also do some horrible, horrible stuff himself, that I need somebody that has the most likable, lovable persona that you can imagine. A down-to-earth persona too, so I thought of Jason Sudeikis because he has those crazy, beautiful, lovable puppy eyes. You just want to hug him and tell him everything is going to be ok.
I also saw Colossal with Anne Hathaway and saw how brooding and menacing he could be. So, if I could take Jason Sudeikis and get all of these things inside one movie, that will be a trip. I knew I wanted to work with Jason. Luckily, at that time, he didn’t start Ted Lasso yet. He was looking for scripts that would allow him to show different sides of his acting chops and to broaden horizons. We sent him the script and he loved it. We had a great meeting and great conversations. He immediately knew what he wanted to do with the character. We hit it off and just needed to wait for production to start. But luckily, a year later he did Ted Lasso, which was really great timing for me. Now people are gonna get to see him doing this after they love him even more, and are gonna be very heartbroken because they love him in Ted Lasso.
In the case of Evangeline, she is very specific about her project choices. How were you able to woo her to the film?
Keshales: One of my favorite things on South of Heaven was collaborating with Evangeline Lilly because she’s a real tough cookie. She will not let you go and she will not do any discounts. I presented her with a script and Jason was already attached. One, she always wanted to work with Jason. She loves him. Second thing, when she read the script, she told me, “This is the first time, Aharon, that I see that a male writer doesn’t try to write the female as only one thing.” She said she has no more strength to read scripts because most are allowing for one female entity only to be presented on screen. You either need to be a nurturing mother, or a warrior princess, or a lover. You never get to do all these things in the same movie. She said while she read South of Heaven, she noticed that the script allows the woman to be everything and that’s how she feels a woman should be portrayed on screen. Women aren’t just nurturing and they’re not just strong. And they’re not just this solid rock. She said, “We are fragile, we are crazy, we can cry, and then we can laugh. And then we can try again. And we can yell, and we can be tough as nails. And we could be the most fragile entity, all in the same 24 hours of a day. Nobody wants to allow us to have this kind of multiple personalities in one movie. You need to tap into one.”
What was your collaboration like on the set?
Keshales: Once I started working with her, she’s like a truth machine. She would tell you when your thing is not honest enough, or a little bit hokey or cheesy. One of the greatest examples was when I presented her with the first love scene when they come back to their house. She read the script and saw that scene. I told her to watch Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway to see the beautiful scenes between Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen for a little bit of inspiration. She came back to me the next day and said, “Well, Aharon, I watched The Getaway. That’s a great movie. That’s a great scene. Your scene is nothing like it and I want something as good as that.”
I just loved her for doing that because that’s the thing I look most to in collaborating with actors. Because when you write, you write in so many hats and so many voices, but your actors tap into what they need as an actor, in their performance, what their arc is, and what their journey is, even better than you do sometimes. When she said it reads false, I just knew she’s right. You’re going to laugh but the original scene was Jimmy Ray yanking her into the bathtub with him and they drink beer together. It was the hokey, untrue. cliché version of that scene. When she talked to me about that scene and the fact that after 12 years of not seeing each other, there’s bound to be some awkwardness and shyness and maybe regret and remorse from his side. I told her, ‘No problem, Evangeline. I’m going back to the writing room.’ I wrote for two days the scenes that you see now. I came back to her and I said, ‘Hey, I have this. Let me know what you think.’ She was like, “You got me The Getaway scene I needed.”
Working with her was I think the best collaboration I ever, ever had on movie. I learned how to write female characters better. I learned to listen to what an actress really needs in order to feel that she’s not just serving a plot. She’s a breathing entity. And what maybe actresses are really looking for when you present them with a script, which is not a one-note character.
Let’s talk about the ending. Was it always in your mind or did it come in the shooting of the film?
Keshales: I knew the ending before I knew the middle. I knew there will be a movie with a fantasy that ends when you see the reality. I did know that while shooting the script, even if I shoot it as it is, you could always decide in the editing if you want it to be real, or you want to be a fantasy because you could just drop the last shot of the movie and you have a different ending. But then again, I felt I will not be true to the message of the film. And I would not be responsible if I try to end on a fake happy note. And also, I do believe that movies are left for the viewer’s interpretation.
I have to say that I already heard people trying to dissect the ending of the film in at least three different directions and that two of them really surprised me. I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think it also has something to do with what I did with Big Bad Wolves and that ending. I have this tendency to give you an ending and then another ending, and then ask you which ending you’d like to have for your film. I think it’s very liberating as a viewer to have both those moments, but it was clear to me where the journey needs to end. I knew I could do whatever I needed to do. And by watching it while editing, I just knew I needed to go for the most heartbreaking scene there is because it’s a movie about that.
And I felt it would be great to write a movie about a dying woman that has only one year to live, but she is the last man standing and everybody else dies. I thought that would be such an amazing conclusion. What makes her live is that she’s the only entity in the movie that doesn’t want to use violence and she’s not quick to use guns or be vengeful. She even manages to bring Price (Mike Colter) from being this immoral entity into being this peaceful entity who says, “Go about your way and marry her.” I thought it would be great to just take the cliché of the damsel in distress and make her the strongest entity by just being a great, peaceful and more logical, rational entity in this movie. I think everything stems from that.
South of Heaven is available in theaters, VOD and Digital on October 8, 2021.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.