Fresh off screenings at Toronto and San Sebastian, U.S. director Marian Mathias is still surprised her feature debut “Runner” connected with audiences and programmers alike.
Produced by Joy Jorgensen, the intimate drama is a Killjoy Films production made in association with Pigasus Pictures. Easy Riders Films and Man Alive co-produce. Heretic, which is handling international sales, shared the films trailer in exclusivity with Variety.
“I was thinking about it the other night. As a young filmmaker – and I am very fresh-faced to the scene – how do I navigate these waters? Do I stay true to my voice or shift to satisfy others?” wonders the director.
“I decided to be more authentic to what I find interesting. I am so happy there is a space for it at these festivals.”
Following a girl named Haas (German-born Hannah Schiller), raised by a single father somewhere in Missouri and burdened by his manic behavior, Mathias wanted to focus on brief encounters that can change everything, she notes. After her father’s death, Haas needs to bury him in his hometown. That’s where she meets Will.
“That’s the core of the film: it’s about two strangers who find, change, and leave one another,” she points out.
“It’s just a boy, offering Haas a ride on his bike. But to her, it’s a small act of kindness. You can really make an impact on someone’s life if you make space for others.”
Lensed by Jomo Fray, at times “Runner” feels like Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting “Christina’s World” suddenly coming to life.
“I love a straight line or clean horizon. It’s where the earth meets the sky and the dead meet the living. There was this house on a lonely plain in rural Indiana and it really reminded me of that painting. It’s one of these happy accidents that end up being a wonderful nod.”
But while her film seems to be taking place after World War II, with her characters humming “I Saw the Light,” she wanted it to feel “atemporal,” says Mathias.
“It could be a contemporary story, it could be a period story. My family is from the Midwest as well and a lot of these places feel a bit suspended in time. Maybe that’s where it comes from.”
Forced to stay in a small inn while waiting for her father’s burial, Haas also encounters Baggy: a “lonely cinephile” who lives through the characters populating his tiny TV set.
“He is one of my favorite characters,” admits the helmer. Baggy is played by “The Hateful Eight” actor Gene Jones, soon to be seen in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“He wants to reach out [to Haas] but he doesn’t know how. To me, that’s the most heartbreaking thing about the modern age. People want to connect but it becomes so much harder.”
Still, her characters do connect in her film. And it allows them to ultimately move forward.
“Haas is hanging onto the promise that her father was a good man. What would he be like as a young man? Maybe by getting to know Will she is getting to know her father? I wanted to show the cyclical nature of life, how things go on with or without you.”
Their relationship, based on silences and small gestures (“the devil is in the details,” laughs Mathias) stays ambiguous until the end, in between love and friendship.
“There is one shot when after meeting Will the sun shines on her face and she smiles. And then it’s dark again. I have always been fascinated by the push and pull of sorrow and joy,” adds Mathias.
“It’s the question of being an active character versus a passive one. It’s easier to have your life just happen to you, but you can also change it. Haas was named after my grandmother, who had Swiss-German roots. She roughly translates it as ‘rabbit’ or ‘runner.’ In the end, she chooses her own destiny.”
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