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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Willem Dafoe tells the story of the world’s rivers in this stunning new Australian documentary.

Willem Dafoe was filming Spider-Man: No Home in Atlanta in 2021 when he used the day off to record narration for an independent Australian documentary called The River.

River (co-produced by ABC) is the sequel to 2017’s The Mountain, which broke Australian box office records as the highest-grossing non-IMAX documentary and was also narrated by Dafoe.

Like The Mountain, it combines a film essay with a documentary to tell the story of one of the earth’s formative features: how they shaped first the planet and then human civilization—before humans learned how to shape them in turn.

It was filmed in 39 locations and includes NASA time-lapse footage and aerial footage taken by an unofficial global network of drone filmmakers.

Aerial Photography Of A Frozen Body Of Water In Iceland.  The Patterns Look Like Sprawling Tentacles In Cool White, Blue And Soft Pink.
As part of the growing global “rights of nature” movement, several rivers have been given legal personality, including the Ganges.(Attached: Madman)

Like The Mountain, it features music performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (in fact, The Mountain was initiated as a concert film by ACO Artistic Director Richard Tonetti) and a poetic text by British naturalist writer Robert MacFarlane.

“The river somehow seems more political [than Mountain]’ Dafoe says.

He liked the environmental message, although he did not want the film to be taken as a lecture.

“I think I feel like this movie is raising awareness. And then as people get more information and think about how they need to change their behavior, they will hopefully get more positive results,” he says.

Aerial View Of A Deep Turquoise River That Carves Out Looping Shapes In A Rugged Orange Landscape.
Dafoe says: “The musical elements, the fantastic photography, the lyrics are all very high level people… I’m just adding a little spice.”(Attached: Madman)

Go with the flow

For Dafoe, narrating Mountain and River is a relatively small job in a career that spans both Marvel films and art-house films like The Lighthouse. (His narration for River is just under 1,400 words.)

He signed with Mountain after documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom approached him.

“I checked on her, I looked at her films that she made – in particular, “Solo”, which she made with David Michaud, and also Sherpa. And then, I think, she sent me a link to the film and the text, ”says Defoe. , on Zoom from Italy, where he lives outside of Rome.

“I liked the way she approached me, I liked the material, and I liked the idea that it would be touring with an orchestra; it’s a welcome change for the film. So I signed up for it.”

He enjoyed the project so much that when Pidom asked him to talk about River, it was easy – despite the fact that this time he was her “backup” choice.

A White Man With A Weather-Beaten Face, Soft Brown Hair And Glasses Wears A Black Shirt And Reads A Script In An Audio Booth.
Defoe lives outside of Rome: “I grow vegetables, raise animals and plant trees … I think a lot about nature.”(Attached: Madman)

“She said, ‘I’m thinking of a female voice for him. But if I can’t find the right voice, will you bide your time?” And I said, of course, – he smiles.

“She was so clear about it that I was happy to say, ‘Yes, find what you need.’ And if you need me to voice it, I will.”

Dafoe describes the process of making both films as a sort of “challenge and response” between him and Pidom as they tried to weave storytelling with stunning imagery and a soundtrack (which ranges from Vivaldi to Radiohead to Aboriginal improvisation). Australian composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist William Barton).

“She kind of directs things, you know – directs me to go against things, go with it, explore different ways to do it. Sometimes very objectively, sometimes more subjectively. It’s a fun game between actor and director,” Dafoe says.

A Black And White Image From The Movie The Lighthouse Featuring Willem Dafoe And Robert Pattinson As Two Grizzly Lighthouse Keepers.
Dafoe played an alcoholic lighthouse keeper in the horror thriller The Lighthouse alongside Robert Pattinson.(Included: universal)

Thinking downstream

The mountainous terrain was close to Jennifer Peedom’s heart: she was a longtime mountaineer herself and later in life discovered that she had a natural affinity for high altitudes, making her ideal for expedition filming.

A White Woman With Long Honey-Blonde Hair, Wearing A Black Leather Jacket And Pale Glasses, Sits At The Screen And Smiles.
“I’m a big fan of film testing… I always choose a small group of people to test a film,” Pidom says.(Attached: Madman)

When the Australian Chamber Orchestra approached her with the concept of The Mountain (conceived as a sequel to an ACO concert film called The Reef), she was already working on the 2016 documentary Sherpa, filmed on Everest with cinematographer Renan Ozturk. In their free time, they discussed what the Mountain could be.

The mountain has also been largely shaped by the work of Robert MacFarlane, in particular his 2003 book Mountains of the Mind about the powerful lure of these landscapes. He ended up joining the team, writing poetry for the film.

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Play Audio.  Duration: 17 Minutes 40 Seconds

Both Sherpa and The Mountain were hits at the Australian box office (grossing an estimated $1.27 million and $2 million respectively), making the sequel feel less like a dream and more like a smart move.

“[Rivers] was the next logical step when we started talking about what we want to do next,” Pidom says.

The “Rivers” story arc tells of the formation of the planet and the rise of civilization at the water’s edge, as well as the transition to humans who see rivers as less gods than resources to be harnessed.

A significant portion of the 75-minute film is devoted to blocking and diverting rivers, a path paved with good intentions (and many positive results) but with catastrophic environmental consequences that flow downstream in place and time. (Scenes of environmental horror—including the Darling Barka River, teeming with blue-green algae and dead fish.)

The film clearly states: the fate of people and rivers are inextricably linked.

A Scorched, Dry Landscape, Darkened Where The River Once Flowed.
“The grandest dams have collected so much water that they have slowed the rotation of the Earth,” MacFarlane writes in the narration.(Attached: Madman)

Pidom carefully considered the film’s tone and storyline – “the balance between hope, desperation and urgency” – and went even further: she tested it on the audience.

“The first test we did was with a group of film students who were close to where we were editing, at film school. [edit of the film] was a little heavy – definitely one of our producers felt it, ”she recalls.

“And then we go to film school and all these young people are like, ‘No, you’re not working hard enough, you need to work harder.’ And so the tone changed in the editing process.”

Shooting around the world during COVID

Coincidentally, the first day of pre-production for River coincided with the first day of quarantine in Australia on March 16, 2020.

For a global film, this was bad news.

“Needless to say, we were going to travel and film more,” Pidom says.

“[But] we were never going to shoot absolutely everything, because it’s just impossible – this film was shot in 39 countries. And so we were always going to lean on cinematography [other] people like we have on the Mountain.”

Some of the most incredible footage in the film was captured by drone operators from around the world.

A Bird'S Eye View Of A Glassy Blue Lagoon In Italy Spiraling Across A Dark Green Landscape In Ribbon Shapes.
“You never want images to be wallpaper, but you [also] I never want the music to be emphasized,” Peedom says.(Attached: Madman)

“We had to connect to all the networks that we set up with Mountain and expand them,” Peedom says.

She and her co-director Joseph Nizeti (who was tasked with developing and connecting to this network) were pleasantly surprised to find that drone cinematography technology and quality had grown in the years between films.

“So there was such a surprising amount of young drone filmmakers,” says Pidom — Dutch drone pilot Ralph Hogenbirk (whose close-up shot of the Norwegian glacier appears at the beginning of the film) and Australian director Rory McLeod (whose Murray-Darling footage was filmed during while filming his own documentary).

“It was also a happy discovery that a lot of them saw and loved Mountain, so they really wanted to get involved,” Pidom says.

“I think that’s part of the reason the film is the way it is. And it’s really a global perspective of like-minded people who care about the planet, but also care specifically about the rivers.”

River is in theaters March 24.


World Nation News Desk
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