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“On Our First day It Was 100°, and It Basically Went Up From There”: Writer/Director Shannon Triplett On Her SXSW-Premiering Psychological Thriller, Desert Road

Mar 12, 2024

Desert Road

A woman, a car, a gas station and a factory — from this minimalist set of locations Shannon Triplett has crafted a surprising work of supernatural suspense in her writing and directing debut, Desert Road, which premiered this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival. Kristine Froseth is the woman, a 20-something would-be professional photographer on a solo trip. When her car’s tire blows out on the ribbon-like highway, she’s momentarily dazed before coming to and walking back to that gas station to call for help. In a chilling and quickly rendered series of events, she realizes that help is not forthcoming and she herself may be prey to the gas station’s criminal attendant and his off-screen accomplice. And just as Desert Road sets itself up as a taut, woman-in-jeopardy thriller, it quickly folds in upon itself, setting up a series of time loops that find Froseth in search of not only a way out of her predicament but an answer to the riddle of her identity itself. Desert Road‘s antecedents range from Groundhog’s Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs and any number of other pictures which productively play with a sort of screenwriting riddle: how to advance a character arc while engaging in narrative repetition. (There’s also a bit of a classic Ambrose Bierce story in here as well.) Most of these other pictures set their protagonist against modulated encounters with a series of supporting characters. But while Desert Road has an excellent supporting cast (Frances Fisher, Beau Bridges and Max Maltern, among them), it’s by keeping the focus on Froseth and her own internal journey of realization that it reaches a lovely and unexpectedly moving conclusion.
Prior to Desert Road, Triplett worked in Hollywood as a VFX supervisor and as an associate producer on Gareth Edward’s 2014 Godzilla. Below, we talk about how she, without a short film to her credit, made it to the directors chair with Desert Road; working with Froseth; and how she self-developed the screenplay, figuring out the film’s intricate plotting before landing on the backstory of her protagonist.
Filmmaker: Have you gone on a long solo desert car ride?
Triplett: I have. This idea first started when I drove from California to Minnesota for my brother’s wedding and then drove back. You drive through such unique little towns and, and places, and they all feel like they have their story. I had this idea in the back of my mind for a few years [after] and I couldn’t quite crack it — this idea of a woman crashing crashing her car, walking down the road to a hospital and something being weird with the town. But there were so many people and locations; it was just too much. I go out to Joshua Tree and Death Valley a lot, and it was on a trip out to the desert that I [thought], if we put this woman in isolation that would be a really compelling story. I would like to say the story just wrote itself from there, but I’ve never taken so long to write a screenplay because there are just so many little details and they all matter.
Filmmaker: This wasn’t your first screenplay?
Triplett: It wasn’t my first screenplay. It’s the first one that got made. After visual effects I’ve mainly worked as a writer in Hollywood but none of [my scripts] were made. I mainly wrote bigger studio films, and your batting average is going to be a little lower because they just don’t make as many of them per year.
Filmmaker: Did you make shorts before this?

Triplett: I hadn’t really done shorts. I went to USC, their masters program for screenwriting, and you develop shorts there, but that was a long time ago.
Filmmaker: What was the process like selling yourself to producers and financiers as a first-time director without a short?
Triplett: Most producers aren’t very interested in you if you haven’t a short to show them. But I didn’t write this to go to financiers and producers. I wrote it to go out to the desert to make myself. Early on my career, I line produced some ultra-low budget [films], and I felt that at the right budget level I could just go out and make this myself. When my boyfriend read the script, he said, “At least send it to your agents. You might find somebody who’s interested.” My agent, Keya [Khayatian at United Talent Agency], was like, “This is great. Would you consider directing?” I met with a lot of producers who liked the story but didn’t necessarily have confidence in me. Our incredible producer, Steven Schneider, was really kind. He asked me a lot of questions, and I felt like he was the first person who saw the accumulation of all of my experience in post-production and in physical production, of all the years that I’ve been working. He looked at all of the visual references I had put together and was like, “I believe you can direct this.” Everybody else looked at my resume and saw what was missing; Steven saw what was there.
Filmmaker: You said you wrote this ultra-low-budget and informed by your work as a line producer — what was that budget?
Triplett: That was probably going to be $100,000. I went out to Death Valley several times to try and piece together how I could do it in that budget range. It was going to be a completely different process. I feel like we made a much better version of the movie because we found producers and financiers.
Filmmaker: Who were the financiers?
Triplett: They’re called Firebrand [Media Group]. They’re sort of entrepreneurs — finance guys who have kind of moved into Hollywood for a few films. They were great.

Filmmaker: You described your original concept about a woman crashing her car in the desert, but when did that woman become the character Kristine plays in the movie? Kristine’s character is quite soulful. She’s in the middle of a life transition. She’s a young woman in the arts who has career aspirations to be a photographer, and without going into spoilers, her character’s arc is completed in the film.
Triplett: The first several drafts of this movie didn’t really have her character arc in it. I very much do not like to watch or read anything while I’m writing — I hate to be influenced accidentally by things — but my boyfriend [said] I had to watch [Spielberg’s] Duel. I’m really glad I did because I was trying to figure out the starting point of this movie. Do we need to see her leave a job or packing up? Watching that movie gave me the confidence to start when she is driving into the desert. I thought she [could be] very relatable because if we don’t know her background we could see ourselves in her. Her character arc really came later after a conversation with my agent, Keya — he wanted to know more about her. I went back to the drawing board because he wasn’t wrong. It was about trying to find that balance of what to reveal about her and what to keep subtle. In trying to come up with her backstory, making her a photographer was just such a useful addition to the film — her being able to take photos and look back through the photos she’s taken. I’m in the arts, so I thought this would be a story that’d be relatable to a lot of people in creative fields. When do you pursue a dream, and when do you go, “This dream isn’t going to happen and I need to face reality?” What I wasn’t prepared for was the people who don’t work in creative fields who have said to me that they related to this, so I think this taps into something we have all struggled with. Surely [in terms of] myself and my career, I worked in visual effects, and at what point do I try to become a writer again? And, as a writer, at what point do I try to do something else? I’ve probably had a dozen times in my life where I’ve been at that fork in the road. So, yeah, this character came through very, very organically, just bits and pieces at a time.
Filmmaker: How did you learn the process of going out to pitch a director’s vision as opposed to a screenplay pitch?
Triplett: I am naturally very visual when I pitch stories. I have look books, I cut together mood reels or trailers, so [directing] happened naturally through that. I thought I had it in me. And when I worked on Godzilla, the director [Gareth Edwards] saw that I had great access to all these [departments] and gave me a Canon 5D and taught me the basics of photography. I started taking a lot of photos and then just got the bug.
Filmmaker: What were some of the photos or clips in the look book or mood reels for this film?
Triplett: For this film, I really wanted to just highlight the simplicity of it — how few characters, how few locations. The desert is a way you can make a lower-budget film but have the big visuals that you would otherwise not be able to afford. My lookbook tried to focus on that – films like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. So, yeah, it was very simple: here’s the characters and the locations.
Filmmaker: When I started producing, it was inconceivable to afford fancy VFX on a lower-budget film. And now every film has VFX, even if the majority of the effects are maybe invisible and not noticed by the audience. There’s not much obvious VFX in Desert Road, maybe a couple of things I noticed, but I’m sure there is much more that I didn’t. What was your approach towards VFX in this film given that that’s your background?

Triplett: My background in VFX heavily influenced this [because] I know how hard, expensive and unrealistic it is to have a VFX-heavy independent film. It is more and more possible [today], there are some great resources now, but when I wrote this, I wanted to have something that was very makable — something I could go out and make myself. Steven asked me how my background in VFX could help. And I [said], “What I know about VFX means that we should avoid it at all opportunities.” But I also have a lot of friends who work in visual effects. A good friend of mine, Jeff Kalmus is an incredible VFX supervisor. Before we went out to the desert to shoot, I called him and I was like, “How do we avoid accidental VFX?” Because I had seen as a coordinator accidental [instances] — reflection removals and things like that. We talked about avoiding reflections and simple things like checking set to make sure things are clear. The other way my background in VFX influenced me was in finding the artists [who were] actually going to accomplish any visual effects. We were a small indie, and we didn’t have a big VFX budget. I knew going to a company that had overhead and lots of employees would possibly be out of our budget range. So again, I went back to my friend Jeff and [asked], “who are good artists you feel confident could work independently of a supervisor?” He recommended Eric Reinhard, which is funny because he was an artist on my very first job as a VFX coordinator ten years ago. It was really fun to have Eric on the film. Like you said, we don’t have a lot of visual effects in the film —I think we ended up around 100 shots. There are a few invisible shots, like removing lights in the distance — the desert, you can see lights 35 miles away! We had three different locations, and we relied on visual effects to make it look like one location. In the film, there’s a factory up the road from a gas station, and those were hundreds of miles apart. So we had some stitching.
Filmmaker: The film is so geographically confident. The audience has to remember what side of the road the car is parked on, and which way the gas station is, and I never had a problem with that. You handled the geography very well.
Triplett: Thank you, I think that’s the biggest compliment you could give me because it is really important. We don’t want the audience to be ahead of our main character and, and we don’t want our main character to seem stupid for not figuring things out. So having the audience with her and the geography of this world was pretty crucial. There was a lot of trial and error in the edit: what do you need to see, and when do you need to, to see it? It was very much a jigsaw puzzle, and our editor, Joseph Kirkland, was just amazing and also really fast, which gave us a lot of opportunity to try things, and if they didn’t work, to try something else.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Kristine Froseth. I’ve never seen her as a solo lead before, and this is quite different from anything else she’s done.
Triplett: She’s so talented. I was nervous because we don’t have a movie if this character isn’t compelling. The first day on set, it was a just a scene with her in her car, and she was amazing. You could just see everybody on looking at each other like, “Oh, she’s special. This is going to be fun.” So yeah, she’s so good, and she just went above and beyond in this movie.
Filmmaker: What led you to cast her?
Triplett: I had a Zoom with her. We had a casting director, Susanne Scheer, New York-based, who was great. The very first meeting I had with her, I [said], “If this movie could only win one award, I want it to win best ensemble” and she found great people. And, you know, you just have your gut. I had seen Kristine in several different roles and saw how different she was from film to film. She has incredible range, and I liked her. You want someone who can bring emotional intelligence to the role. And I thought she was really nice. I think that’s underrated in a lot of jobs. You want someone who’s capable, but are they going to be nice to hang out with 12 hours a day on a film set? And she was both.

Filmmaker: Could you tell me a little bit more about that balance between Kristine’s character’s expectations or, what she knows, and the audience’s knowledge? Was there a particularly tricky scene that illustrates that?
Triplett: There were a few. I told Kristine before we started to shoot that I was going to do a lot of takes, and I didn’t want her to think that it was because what she was doing wasn’t right. It was that I needed choices in the edit for this balance of what she knows and what the audience realizes. Kristine, thankfully, was up for this approach of having variations so we had options in the edit. Because, you know, we don’t have a lot of other things or people to cut to. Every scene in the first act of the movie [involves] a conversation of balance between what she’s realizing and what we want to show the audience. Nico Navia, our cinematographer, and I were constantly controlling where the camera is and what the camera is seeing. Conversations that we had with our sound designer were about what you reveal with sound, what you remind the audience of, and what you just let them forget. One [example] is at the very beginning, when Kristine pulls into the gas station. There’s a little bell that chimes that she’s arrived. There was a little conversation about whether to add that detail and then when and how to use it. And throughout the film, John tried to give each of our locations their own flavor to help remind [viewers] where they are in the movie. It’s definitely a movie of details, and you just hope they all add up.
Filmmaker: Does the movie track the screenplay pretty much? It seems like it would have to.
Triplett: It does. I’m sure you’ve heard all these horror stories about a movie that starts out one way and ends up completely different as people come on with different opinions. I don’t know what I did to get so lucky. It was like, “Here’s a screenplay, does anybody want to make it with me?” And Stephen Schneider, our producer, liked the story, and we just kept trying to find [other] people who liked the story. The movie is sort of like that Jenga game where you pull out a piece and the whole thing crumbles. So once we had it all kind of laid out, we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room without accidentally breaking something. I’m very lucky to have had a lot of creative freedom and support. I did want to give the actors freedom to improv, so there’s lines of dialogue that were altered a bit. Because we did so many takes, we weren’t precious about any one take, so there was freedom to try something. Sometimes it didn’t work, but as a result of that environment, you would sometimes get great stuff. Max Mattern who plays our gas station attendant is a really great example – there are times when he would catch me off guard because he used that freedom to try different things. He was a joy to work with, and feel I like we are all going to know who he is for the rest of his career.
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?
Triplett: Twenty-five days. I pushed for as many days as possible. I was willing to give up a lot of other stuff to get that because again, I wanted to have lots of takes and try different things.
Filmmaker: How was it actually shooting in the desert?

Triplett: We made it in June, and the environment was our biggest adversary. I want to make sure the crew gets a lot of credit for coming out and making this film because did a really incredible job.
Filmmaker: What were the temperatures like?
Triplett: On our first day it was a 100° and it basically went up from there. They say you acclimate, and after two weeks you kind of do, but it’s still hot. We had an actor whose first day was two weeks in, and by then it was 115°. We tried to do splits as much as possible so we were never in 12 hours of intense sunlight. Normally on a film set, you’re not excited to get to night shoots. And I think everybody just sensed the relief of, “Okay, night time’s here.”

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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