One of the most anticipated films of Fantastic Fest 2015 is “River.” The fugitive on-the-run thriller premiered at the festival on September 26, 2015, with director Jamie Dagg in attendance. Earlier that day, we spoke at Austin’s Driskill hotel, where Dag discussed his debut film, which is notable for being the first North American production ever shot in the Asian country of Laos.
The film stars actor Rossif Sutherland as John, a volunteer doctor at an NGO clinic who tries to stop a sexual assault and winds up killing the perpetrator by accident. When it’s revealed that he killed the son of an Australian senator, he’s vigorously pursued by the local authorities, and must make a break for the Thailand border in an attempt to avoid capture.
When asked if the plot inspired the locale, or vice versa, the Canadian filmmaker noted that: “They both sort of happened together. A number of years ago I was going through a pretty rough patch. My father had just died and I bunch of other personal stuff going on so I just decided to flee Canada for a little while to clear my head….and I went to Laos…I was really obsessed with the idea of unintended consequences: when you set out with the intention of doing something good and there’s this unexpected negative outcome…how one of those decisions can spiral out of control with dire consequences for your life.”
He also discussed the film’s most intense set-piece, the Mekong River, which borders Laos and Thailand: “It’s murky, hot and oppressive…it’s a different sort of paradise in comparison to an island with crystal clear waters and white sand beaches. And I think it lends itself to the story…I mean there’s like six-foot catfish in the Mekong, and you cant see the bottom.”
When questioned if the strict Communist regime placed any limitation upon the production , he admitted it was challenging: “We had to get permission for everything…but since we’re not openly critical of the government (it’s apolitical in that way), they were open to the idea of us shooting down there.” He recalled that government officials objected to a scene of women getting drunk, while also requesting that Dagg change the nationality of the murdered sexual predator: “They didn’t like the fact that the rapist was originally written as a Frenchmen because they have very close ties to the French government. They’re very sensitive and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.”
Dagg admitted working with an oppressive regime made him uneasy: “There’s a lot of moral ambiguity in the film and that translated behind the scenes as well. Like here we are making this film and we’re sort of in bed with the government…and that wasn’t lost upon us. That bothered me. But I didn’t feel that we were propaganda; if anything the only thing we did was make their police force look more competent than they actually are,” he says chuckling. “But not everyone involved with the government is a horrible person: just look at their department of cinema. They’re people like you and I who just love film and they want to work to help change things for the country.”
The director also mentioned that casting Rossiff Sutherland in the role of John helped differentiate “River” from other fugitive on-the-run thrillers: “He’s not a Jason Bourne sort of character. There are limitations to what this person can withstand. Like when you see him running…he’s not an athlete or anything: he looks like he’s dying half the time. That was important to keep him grounded in reality…and he had such an interesting likable demeanor. And you need someone like that for the audience to be on their side”
When questioned if the film had been screened in Laos, he noted that they were still working the logistics of an Asian premiere, before joking: “Eventually they’ll see it. We just hope they let us leave the country!”
“River” will have a Fantastic Fest encore showtime on Wednesday September 30, 2015 at The Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.