For April Mullen, Wander was a passion project five years in the making. Filmed in the small town of Carrizozo, New Mexico, I spoke to the director about what it took to get her film finally made. The film follows a private investigator Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart), who co-hosts a conspiracy podcast with his partner Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). Arthur is in an uphill battle with reality and his paranoid delusions following a string of deaths that end up tied to his daughter's death. Mullen spoke about the process of getting into his head and world.
"My longtime writing partner (Tim Doiron) and I came up with the concept and we built the script from the ground up," Mullen said. "I had five years of running shots in my head with the ideal settings, how the film would feel, and to incorporate the world of Arthur's head. Also, I wanted to grasp the vastness of the landscape of New Mexico. There was a lot of planning and development of the project. I'm coming from a first-person narrative where you only see through Arthur's perspective and opening the film up to have other characters to make it more commercial and viable for audiences."
Mullen attributes the film's delay in struggling to secure the financing. "It was a wild ride," she continued. "Five years is dreadfully long to finally come to the finish line, I feel so blessed to have the kind of material, the world that is Wander as dark as it was. It had a lot of hope and free spirit with the silent warrior finally being heard at the end of the film. It was something I really felt to have a gift material for so long." While the film at times evokes shades of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, it was Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) that played a part in inspiring her to create the film. "Film noir like Chinatown (1974) and those like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1974) played parts in the inspiration," Mullen said. "I try to draw from the truth when it comes to those characters and what's happening around us. The first time Aaron Eckhart read the script, he really resonated with the main character and had a lot of freedom on set. He had great ideas and brought a lot to the table."
When it came to picking locations, there was no question Carrizozo was the ideal stand-in for the town of Wander. "This is a little town that became a huge personality of the film," Mullen explained. "I never would have dreamt that we found a town so perfect. When we were writing Wander, we knew we needed to find a town ideally for New Mexico because of the history of (Project) MKUltra and conspiracy in general, but we never dreamt that we find something so perfect. The town of Carrizozo opened their homes, their high schools, motels, and their one restaurant. We lived there for four months."
Mullen said bringing stars like Eckhart, Jones, Katheryn Winnick, and Heather Graham became the personal motivations for each actor to play characters against type. "It was an amazing day when everybody sort of came together and I realize these were all big legendary Hollywood stars who had a lot to offer and prolific careers," she said. "What struck me and instantly inspired me was as an indie filmmaker as they were all there because they loved the work. They love what they do. They found these stories so original and the concept so new. They came with their indie pants on. They were so invested in the project. They're all playing opposite of what they normally play, which I think they found invigorating. They wanted to dive into those voices that come from within themselves. That was something really unique to Wander and I found that to be a huge blessing."
When it comes to the difference between shooting an indie film compared to studio television, Mullen said quite simply the ability to be innovative. "Diving into TV, it's always run and gun," she said. "One of the benefits of TV is the resources to help you deliver the episode at the end of the day. You have 7-14 days to shoot it whereas, for Wander, we had 20 days. We got to experiment with some unique shots along with my production designer become really innovative. The first shot of the film is a one-shot deal where we start at the back of a pickup truck where our steady cam is set up and secured via a safety rig. We unhooked him and he went around going up to a walk-on and walk-off crane he made himself. When doing an independent film, you have to be really innovative on how you achieve the new kinds of ideas and shots you want."
Wander is currently in theatres, on-demand, and digital from Saban Films.