Tribeca: A Crazy, Freezing Month in the Wild With John Slattery and Friends

Tribeca Film Festival

The "Mad Men" actor headed north with Broadway star Amy Morton to make the movie "Bluebird," and got lessons in directing from an unexpected source.

A low budget drama about economic malaise and families in crisis, shot on expensive 35 mm film, in a remote and blizzard-heavy location with no entertainment infrastructure, all under the command of a rookie director?

John Slattery and Amy Morton hardly bat an eye when asked how and why they agreed to star in Bluebird.

"The story was great," Slattery says simply.

The veteran actors -- he, an Emmy nominee of course best known for his role in Mad Men, and she a theater veteran with a Tony nomination under her belt -- take the lead in rookie filmmaker Lance Edmands' film, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Morton plays the earnest school bus driver who gets distracted one day and accidentally leaves a child on the bus after she drops it off at the depot; when she finds him the next day, he has dropped into a hypothermic coma, leading to her dismissal, a potential lawsuit and her family's breakdown.

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Slattery takes on the role of her husband, a beer drinking lumber mill facing his own unemployment crisis. It is as un-Roger Sterling a role as he's taken -- aside from his penchant for infidelity.

The film was made in rural Maine, where Edmands -- who later moved to New York City for film school -- grew up.

"It’s less distracting than pretending to be in a place like that and then coming home to all the real world issues to coming home in your own house in New York City or Chicago," Slattery says. You’re there. You’re not traveling very far to go to work, and the story of the people in the movie is very much like the story of the town you’re shooting in.

"You hear the same story from everybody," he continues. "How hard it is to hang on. And they’re still waiting for the second mill to open. You ask, 'How long have you been waiting?' 'Eight years.'"

Morton, whose character Amy descends into a nervous breakdown, says it wasn't all that hard to put herself in such a haunted, miserable mindset.

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"Where we were physically, geographically, helped a lot," she explains. "Because it was cold, it was a very depressing place to be. Lance was really good at leaving us alone, and then butting in when he needed to butt in. I never considered it difficult putting myself in this person’s shoes. We’ve all made mistakes; she just made one colossal mistake. So if you all your imagination to go there, and think, 'How would I feel if I’d done that,' it's not hard to imagine."

Both Slattery and Morton have high praise for Edmands, a 30-year old making his feature debut. He's no rookie, having edited several films (including Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture) and directed a number of commercials. The day-to-day management of the shoot was his biggest challenge, Edmands says, and while he was largely able to keep things on track, Mother Nature did throw him for one loop.

"One thing I did learn was do not write a blizzard into your movie," he says, as his two stars laugh, remembering some on-set consternation. "There were all these things that were total no-no’s that we did anyway. If you write a blizzard in your movie, you’re chasing snow. So you literally have to be willing to say, 'Is it going to snow tomorrow? F---.'"

Slattery himself is preparing to direct his first feature film; he's helmed several episodes of Mad Men, but movies are a whole different beast. Given the age difference between the two, it was too rich not to ask Edmands if he had any tips for his star, and while he first demurs, he then suggests that "making his day," or staying on schedule, was of the utmost importance.

Taking to the question with aplomb, Slattery begins asking Edmands about various aspects of production, including how he handled conception versus execution.

"What's it like seeing it?" Slattery asks. "You see it in your head for so long, and then you see it for better or worse, on film. You see it in dailies or whatever. Sometimes you watch scenes that you’re in, and you go, 'Oh.' And you have this idealized vision in your head, and then you're like, it’s not that it’s bad, there’s just this grounding of it, it's not perfect. It’s this thing and you go, 'Oh, okay,' and that’s what you have to work with."

"Sometimes I wonder, if I could take this film and show it to myself after my first draft and said this is what it became, like in a time machine, I’d be like, 'What the f---?'" Edmands ruminates. "Would I say, 'What did I do?' Or be like, 'Okay, cool.' I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter anymore. At this point, it's like a child and I love it for all its flaws and all the things that are great about it."

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