During a business retreat, an epic earthquake hits Astoria Oregon, forcing Aaron (Sean McCarty) to set out on foot to reach home, unsure if he’ll survive the 725 mile journey and what he’ll find at the end.This year I’m releasing the most controversial feature film I’ve ever made, a movie that will probably make my broad-minded friends and family cringe because it refutes everything we believe about how to help less-educated, economically-challenged rural Americans. My intention with the film isn’t to anger the audience; it’s to help people from my cultural background understand why people vote against their best interests.
Last spring we shot a feature film in Portland and the surrounding area based on real people; the actors in the film are telling true stories told to me by people living in rural Oregon. Their beliefs and understanding of the world was incomprehensible to my urban perspective. Through this fictional docu-drama my goal is to illustrate why they believe in ‘self-reliance’ while depending heavily on government services.
My original concept for the film was a non-fiction documentary. But asking people to retell their stories to a camera would fail because they would change their story to protect their self-image – if they would even agree to an interview. When they told me about their lives they didn’t know I’m a filmmaker. None of them know their stories are being retold in this fictional film, and their identities will never be revealed.
Using the framework of a corporate trainer from San Francisco depending on rural strangers to survive the earthquake aftermath we were able to weave true stories into the fictional film.
Jonas D. Israel, Maria Mogavero, Eleanor O’Brien, Jonah Kersey and twenty more actors portray rural Oregonians. Instead of giving them scripted dialogue the actors created their characters using pages of backstory I wrote about the real individual, including specific phrases the person used when talking about their lives. We filmed entirely in sequence between Astoria and Portland with actors improvising dialogue. When the actors’ instincts changed my original story I rewrote subsequent scenes to maintain continuity.
Some improvised films are brilliant and some aren’t. Talented actors improvising dialogue results in every take being unique and more difficult to edit together. Sometimes actors were inclined to talk effusively when little dialogue was necessary. Scripted films often have witty rejoinders or polished scene conclusions, which happens less often with improvisation. Despite the challenges, the actors created fully dimensional characters with nuances rarely seen in scripted film. This project gave the actors freedom to invent without interference. They created lives that I tried to capture. And in the structure of a road movie, the plot is less important than the characters. Since the performances feel so honest, CROSSING SHAKY GROUND successfully connecting with the audience depends entirely on the film’s edit.
The original distribution plan would have started with a festival run in 2021. Now that our world has an actual natural disaster upending everything, the film will probably go direct to streaming this fall.
Paul Bright directed cult favorite films ANGORA RANCH and ALTITUDE FALLING. His nine previous feature films are distributed internationally and translated in over 40 languages. He lives in the Portland, Oregon area.