Anna Axster talks 'A Country Called Home,' Imogen Poots and Ryan Bingham

Photo Credit: Alchemy
March 4th, 2016

Director Anna Axster has just made her very first feature film and it was just released this week on VOD and iTunes. The film is called A Country Called Home and it revolves around a young girl named Ellie (Imogen Poots) who is called back to her home in rural Texas for the funeral of her estranged father. Ellie has a hard time dealing with the tragic circumstance but finds solace in a young country singer (Mackenzie Davis), two grandparents she has never met before and a lonely cowboy (Ryan Bingham). Anna was kind enough to sit down with us at TheMovieNetwork.com and tell us all about this new film.

Nick Leyland from TMN: I enjoyed your new film A Country Called Home. It's set in Texas. Are you from there? Is this your vision of kind of what Texas is? [chuckle]

Anna Axster: I'm not from there, I've just spent a lot of time there. My husband is from Texas, and that is definitely not my vision of what Texas is because Texas is a lot of different things, but this is one little aspect of what Texas is, I think.

TMN: Now, was this story taken from any kind of real life experiences? I know, probably not the plot, but as the writer, you had to at least throw something in there, right? 

Anna Axster: Yeah. It's not autobiographical by any means, but it's inspired by a lot of different things and different people I've met in my life. Some of their personalities or characteristics definitely show up in some of these characters, and then the kind of bigger story of growing up and the loss of a parent was something that I experienced personally in a very different way than this character is, but the idea that the universal experience of losing a parent kind of yanks you into adulthood is something that definitely came from personal experience.

TMN: Now, one of the interesting things about this film is that you take a character from her home in LA, and then you throw her into a whole new world with all new characters that she's never met before. So, tell me about how you went balancing these characters because they're all meeting for the first time, and did you find it difficult to make the relationships believable? 

Anna Axster: Well, the first relationship we see is the one with her brother, which they are obviously very familiar with each other, and then she gets thrown into this other world. And the idea was that that character from, in her life in LA and in her life, in general, is kind of isolated and lonely. She's having a hard time making connections. She's with a boyfriend who's a total idiot, kind of and just the relationships she's chosen in her life are not meaningful because she has problems making connections, and so she's thrown into this new world and meets all these new people, and in the beginning, all she wants to do is leave, and she has preconceptions [chuckle] about what she feels about that place and wants to just get out of there. And then through spending more time there and spending more time with these different people, she has to open up to them and see that there's more to these people than just what's on the surface, and so that's part of her journey of growing up and understanding that the world isn't black and white and that there's stuff to find in places that you don't expect to find anything.

Alchemy

(Imogen Poots in A Country Called Home)

TMN: And that character is Ellie, who's played by Imogen Poots, and she's great here and I fell in love with her in this role. I don't know, this is one of those roles I think you fall in love with the actress. How did you handle directing her? 

Anna Axster: She was really, really great to work with. She had been attached to the project and the role for a while, and she was kind of waiting for us to get financing and then it all panned out that this worked out with her schedule and everything, and so she came to this little town called Smithville, an hour outside of Austin, where we were shooting a week before we starting shooting to kind of acclimate and to get a feel for this place, and she came incredibly prepared and had a very clear idea of who this character was. So, it was really easy to work with her because she was so good and she made it seem so effortless, you know.

Anna Axster: And every once in a while, we would talk about a scene or a word or whatever it was that she would question or that I would question, or choices we would throw out there and just make sure those are the right ones, and each time, we just came fairly easily to a good solution together, and it was important to me to kind of also stay open and not be attached and married to the words on the page or be attached and married to maybe ideas that I had of how a certain scene would play out and how the character would behave in that scene and be open to what she brought to it and her vision, but luckily, our ideas of Ellie were really in line with each other. So, it was actually a really easy process.

TMN: You also had Mackenzie Davis, and she had a very interesting character, right? 

Anna Axster: Yeah, her character is Reno, and again, her process was very different than images, and she did a lot of work and we had extensive conversations and email exchanges and all that stuff before, but again, she was also really great to work with, and I think brought a lot to that character.

TMN: Was she nervous about dressing up as a man at all? 

Anna Axster: No, she wasn't. She totally embraced that. She... Obviously, for her character, the physicality was really important and so she was really specific about certain things. She just embraced that Reno constantly touches his hair and makes sure it's in the right place and wardrobe was really important to Mackenzie for obvious reasons because it's such an important part of the character.

Alchemy

(Mackenzie Davis in A Country Called Home)

TMN: One of the major themes in the film I think, was the music. Your husband, Ryan, he co-starred in the film. Did he do the soundtrack as well? 

Anna Axster: Yeah, he did. He wrote the title song that plays over the credits at the end, and he wrote that really, really early. He wrote that immediately after he read the script for the first time. I didn't show anybody the script until it was kind of finished, [chuckle] and then I gave it to him to read and he read it and pretty much immediately went into a room and wrote that song. So, that song had existed for a long time before we actually shot the movie or edited the movie. Then, once we got into... Throughout this whole process, he came up with little ideas for a score here and there, but then when we really were in the editing room and he started really working on the score in a focused way, yeah, he scored it, and brought a couple of friends on to help him and they were just sitting in the studio and kinda coming up with different... I identified where I thought music should go and we had talked a lot about what kind of feel it should be and then he would come up with different options for each kind of moment where there was music, and then it was actually a really organic process because we would just sit and listen to the different options while we were watching the scenes. It was really clear to us which one was the one that we should go with. So, it wasn't a hard process at all.

Alchemy

(Ryan Bingham in A Country Called Home)

TMN: So far, it sounds like you had a really good time making this film, huh? 

Anna Axster: I did have a great time making this film. The biggest challenge was getting it financed, but the actual making of it was a blast for sure.

TMN: And I'm also glad that you threw June (Squibb) in there because I think she's hilarious.

Anna Axster: Yeah, she's awesome. [chuckle]

TMN: [chuckle] I saw her in Nebraska and I really liked her stuff. When I saw her, I was like, "Oh, that's great."

Anna Axster: Yeah, she is amazing and she's just really, really funny too, so... Brought a lot of fun to the set. [chuckle]

TMN: Now, since this is your first feature, I wanted to learn a little bit about you for our audience. Where did you learn film-making and what finally made you take this big step you took? 

Anna Axster: Well, I went to film school in London, and I lived there and worked there for a little while after I graduated, and then I worked in production and in kind of different aspects and started making short films and then eventually moved to LA and started doing music videos and some commercial work and so many different little things, and I knew at some point I wanted to do a feature and so I had kind of felt this story brewing in me, but it wasn't really coming out yet. And so, I went up to Lake Tahoe at some point and locked myself in a little cabin up there for a week without phone or internet, and just wrote the story, and then I collaborated with a writer from New York. His name is Jim Beggarly and he took it and kind of fleshed out the scenes and a lot of the dialogue and just brought it into script form. And so then, we would send scenes back and forth and collaborate and that was a really good experience as well. So, yeah, I've been interested in film ever since I was like a teenager and I've always been interested in the more subtler moments that a camera can capture that maybe are difficult to get across in theater, for example. It's been a dream come true to make a movie and hopefully I can continue telling stories on film.

TMN: I know the whole film is obviously important to get right, but what point in the film do you think is the most critical to get right? 

Anna Axster: I would probably say there's so many points that are important, but it all starts with a script, and if you don't have a good script that feels like the characters are communicating in a real way or are inhabiting real places, then I think everything would be difficult after that, if the script is not in a good place.

TMN: Has your attitude changed as a director since finishing this project? 

Anna Axster: I mean, I guess it has, I'm sure it has because I have a much bigger experience under my belt after finishing this. I think I've learned about myself, but I... While I don't have a problem with calling the shots on set, it's really important to me that there's a positive atmosphere and that both crew and actors and everybody treats each other with respect and I feel like that was a challenge sometimes because some of the crew were more used to people maybe using loud voices and...

[chuckle]

Anna Axster: You've got the language and just flipping out on their crew a lot, and so I think it was kind of a learning for some of the crew and for myself as well to find a mode of communication that was maybe a little bit more quiet and respectful in a way and that that's okay and that that's... Yeah, I don't know. That was a challenge in the beginning, but I think we kinda got around to figuring each other out and then it worked out great.

TMN: How are you going to move on to your next project? 

Anna Axster: Well, I'm writing at the moment. So, I'm writing a new story that I would love to make into a film and hopefully that will be something that I get to realize at some point, and then I don't know. I mean I'm kind of open to whatever comes my way. I'm really interested in directing something as well that somebody else has written just because I think it's a very different experience and probably a really interesting one. So, I would love to do that at some point as well, and I'm just open and looking forward to what will come my way. And in the meantime, I'm... Like I said, I'm writing for a new story that hopefully I get to make.