Tribeca 2023 Interview: Filmmaker Rod Blackhurst on Blood for Dust

This isn’t the first time that filmmaker Rod Blackhurst has attended the Tribeca Film Festival. Back in 2016, his feature film debut, Here Alone, made its premiere at the annual event and took home the Audience Award for that year. Since then, his filmography has seen him directing true crime documentaries such as Netflix’s Amanda Knox and Peacock’s John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, as well as episodes of Disney+’s Welcome to Earth and numerous short films.

With his return to the Tribeca Film Festival, Blackhurst is premiering another narrative piece called Blood for Dust. The film stars many well-known character actors such as Scoot McNairy, Kit Harington, Stephen Dorff, and Ethan Suplee – all of whom excel in their roles. One of the great things about Blood for Dust is that it allows McNairy to take on a rare lead role, and it also allows Harington to portray a character that is completely different from the one he played in HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones.

Taking place in the early ’90s in Montana, McNairy plays a traveling salesman named Cliff, who is struggling to make ends meet. Although his supportive wife (played by Nora Zehetner) is going to be there for him, Cliff wants to be able to be a better provider for her. He bumps into an old colleague from his checkered past, Ricky (Harington), who gives him the opportunity to start running guns and drugs across the state line. While it’s not legal, nor is it the first job to cross his mind, Cliff accepts the mission, despite the consequences he will face.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Blackhurst about his new film. We got to talk about the comparisons to other well-known projects that critics have made, the decision to cast Harington in a role out of his usual performances, and what brought him back to Tribeca for his second time. The full transcript of the interview is below.

One of the things I saw before I watched the movie was, there was an article that compared it to Fargo and Breaking Bad. Like, you know, the two meet, which I think is a good thing to compare it to. So, when you’re working on a film, do you aim for those comparisons to other works to be noticeable? Or do you try to keep the influences subtle?

People love things that are familiar, right? So, they want to be able to draw these are like comparisons or, in the film industry, we call it “comparables.” When you tell someone about the movie you want to make, you say, “Oh, it’s Terminator meets, I don’t know, Training Day.” Because it helps people wrap their head around it. If it’s familiar, it feels safe. But it can also be something unique. When I was telling people about this movie, I couldn’t come up with a strong comparable beyond maybe No Country for Old Men and Paris, Texas. And that’s because the film was originally set in Texas. I mean, it’s great that this Coen Brothers thing comes through. I mean, those men are masters at what they do, and never have I tried to make anything that would feel too Coen Brothers, because it’s just not my style. It’s not my approach to filmmaking. Also, nobody should try to do better than what the Coen Brothers already do at the highest level. But those comparisons are nice. I mean, sometimes I wonder if we fell into the Fargo category, or people talked about Fargo because we have snow. And there aren’t a lot of movies that take place in the cold. But Breaking Bad and Fargo have been such important works of film and television in my life and in my stories and my storytelling life and evolution, that it’s very kind to have read that about my movie.

I don’t know what I would exactly say at this point. I would talk about, maybe, Wim Wenders, for sure, and these portraits of Americana and this American existence. I would probably talk a little more about his film, The American Friend, which I’ve always loved, and I would still talk about Paris, Texas. I mean, maybe the other comparable I would come up with is Drive, the Nicolas Winding Refn film. It’s just something that, you know, tonally, from a sensibility and craft standpoint, I could see us being compared to. But, frankly, I’m just thrilled that people seem to like the movie; that means a great deal to me.

My wife actually made a comparison to Death of a Salesman as well. So, would you say, like, in a sense, that has some influence on this movie as well, because of the character of Cliff?

You know, not personally, but I love that. I’m going to steal that. [laughs] I’m going to steal it from her. I mean, Cliff represents, I think, what a lot of people find themselves as or where a lot of people find themselves. And I’m not talking about, you know, having to run drugs for really bad men. But people, fathers, family men trying to figure out how to take care of their loved ones, trying to figure out how to navigate a crisis, trying to figure out also how to be better people. People that have made bad choices [or] wrong choices, who are at a crossroads, and trying to figure out who they are [and] what they’ll become, as they exist in an ecosystem that feels broken or is broken, or they see how it’s broken. And they wonder how they can get ahead, how they can change their stars, and what they’ll do to take care of their family or put their family back together. So, for me, Cliff was always just a relatable man, a stand-in, or a proxy for a lot of different people that struggle. Because I know that I’ve struggled in my life, and I know many other people that have struggled like me or far worse. I wanted to make a character that felt relatable to people that have been in situations like this or, you know, in situations that are different than the on-screen version of it.

Sure. Now, this is set in 1992. It starts off in that year. What attracted you to make it set in the ’90s as opposed to making it more modern day?

The film was originally set in Texas. And we set it in Texas, because, in the early ’90s, there was a federal law that was passed that businesses had to buy AED devices to be on site. And there was a strong objection to it. Texas had this [stance] like, well, “Who is Washington and who is America to tell us how to operate and what to do?” And I always found that detail compelling because I was just thinking, “Man, they’re just doing this because this is actually a good thing.” Having an AED device at your business or at your place and all your offices could actually save lives. And yet, people were objecting to it. And I thought, “Man, what would be a harder sell than that?” You have this outsider individual, who doesn’t look like a lot of the other people around him, having to convince them to buy something they don’t want to buy in the first place. And, so, the film was originally set in Texas.

But then, when we had to move the film to be set in Montana, we sort of realized that Montana in the early ’90s was one of these last lawless places in America. There was no speed limit until the 2000s. I mean, there were plenty of laws, don’t get me wrong, but it still had these whiffs of the American West. It was a place where people went to make a lot of money. There was a lot of oil exploitation and mineral rights exploitation happening at the time. Therefore, there was a great deal of money being pumped in the state and the drug flow through America in the ’90s was working its way up to Canada through Montana. So, even though the film was originally set in Texas, and it was about drugs coming into America that way, we found that Montana actually served as a much better landscape generally, because it also made our film not very similar to other movies that existed, and it could put us into this very unique space. So, we got lucky in a lot of ways. And I just decided to fully embrace it, to make it, like, “We’ve got to shoot in Montana in the winter. Let’s make it a film set in Montana in the winter, and let’s lean in.” And it really becomes a character in the movie, and I’m really excited by that – always have been.

Setting it in that period makes more sense with the plot and everything as well, as opposed to if it was a more modern-day setting, it may not work as well. So having that setting works perfectly for this movie.

Yeah, it always felt like it. I mean, again, it was like a portrait of change in America, too. The early ’90s was, sort of, the last time pre-internet, when people could be told something about how the world worked, and they wouldn’t have a way to refute it or know otherwise. Our information systems were such that, like, if the news reported it one way, that’s how it was. And I remember years after George [H.W.] Bush invaded Iraq in the early ’90s, that the reason for the invasion was not what anybody had ever reported on. And I remember thinking like, “Oh, right, average Americans believed what they were told about America, and why we did things and why our systems work the way that they did.” And I wanted to make a film about that moment, because in a lot of ways, you know, maybe conversely and also concurrently to that, it feels like things are working oddly parallel to that right now as well. But it was a changing time in America. And so, to me, it felt like the right thing to put onscreen.

We meet Cliff and Ricky in the beginning, during the opening scene, but then we see them again together in the bar. And I think that’s where we get more immersed in the characters together. And we get to really see how Kit Harington works as the character of Ricky. So, when you were casting the film, at what point did you realize this role was perfect for him, even though it’s against type and it’s not something that audiences are familiar with?

So, in my life as a filmmaker, I’ve been put in a box before. I made a fiction film back in 2015 [Here Alone] with the same screenwriter, David Ebeltoft, and the same producing partner, Noah Lang, that we made Blood for Dust with, and it went to the Tribeca Film Festival, it won the Audience Award, and it really kickstarted our careers. And then, in 2016, I directed a documentary called Amanda Knox that Netflix put out and I instantly got put into the “You’re a documentary filmmaker” box. No one cared anymore about this fiction film that I had made. And I really struggled to be seen as anything other than a documentary filmmaker. I love documentary films; I love fiction films; I love all sorts of things. There are all sorts of stories I would like to tell. And, having been put in a box myself, I’ve always felt like anybody else that feels like they’re stuck in a box probably wants to get out of it, too.

And I’ve always loved Kit Harington’s choices and his inclinations and his ability to say things without saying them. [He’s] like somebody that I want to watch do things – like all of these actors in my movie. And so, I’ve been screaming [laughs] to find a way to work with him, and we got lucky. We, my producing partner, and I sent a note to our agents, I think in January or February of 2022. We had seen that Kit Harington had moved to the same talent agency. And I wrote a huge letter to Kit. And I wrote our agents and I said, “Man, I would do anything if you could pass this along to him about why I want him to be in this movie, and why I want to work with him.” And they did. And they truly get all that credit; they made it happen. And then I met Kit the day before my daughter was born on April 19, 2022, last year, my second daughter, and he confirmed for me that that was one of the first things that he responded to when reading the script. He’s like, “Man, no one’s going to see this coming. I don’t know; I can do something so different.” And that’s exciting to me. And so, again, I know what that’s like. So, I know the actors feel that way. I got lucky with Kit, truly. And that luck, obviously, translates into an incredible collaborator and now a dear friend in my life.

That performance he did was awesome. I’m glad that you were able to get that out of him to where others can now see it – that he can do something different than what he did in Game of Thrones or anything else he has done.

And I’m not going to speak for him, because he will do a lot of press for the movie at some point. But I will say this. He and I were texting today, and he was always interested in these varying portraits of men. He’d played an honorable man for so long, right? And yet, there are plenty of other men that lead a different existence and have a different path. And that was something he was very much drawn to as well in Ricky.

And then my last question for you. This is the second time that you’ve been to Tribeca; you went there for Here Alone as well. Compare this time to the first time that you got into Tribeca. What did you learn from the first time when getting Here Alone accepted that helped you in getting Blood for Dust accepted?

So, Here Alone was a $176,000 film. We willed it into existence. And a bunch of us friends made it in the woods of Upstate New York. We called it summer camp. We lived in a seedy motel, and we worked every day in the woods, and we and we made this thing. We came back, and we held it up above our heads and people saw it and gave us a chance. After Tribeca in 2016, what we realized is that we were going to have to do the same thing again, that we were going to have to call every member of our tribe up and go, “Hey, we’re going to have to make another movie together.” And really, what I mean by that, is that we realized that there was so much strength in our friendships and our relationships with each other and that no other creative relationship or professional relationship we could find added up to what we had as this weird family of misfits of people just dreaming and trying to make movies together, people who respected each other more after the stress and hardship of creating something. And we just doubled down, I guess, on ourselves and our belief in ourselves, and that’s why this film exists.

Also, when that film won the Audience Award at Tribeca in 2016, we were the only midnight film to have ever won the Audience Award and I still think we are. We just made this pledge, at the time, that because Tribeca saw us when nobody else would see us as artists, as filmmakers, as collaborators, and because they gave us an opportunity, we always said that with the next film that we made that we would bring it back to Tribeca no matter what film it was, no matter how big it was, no matter how much we had grown as filmmakers or whatever it might be because they saw us first, [and] we would see them at the same time. And it felt really good to honor that word – truly. It was important to us. I mean, the woman who programmed our film at Tribeca in 2016, is now running the festival – Cara Cusumano. She took a chance on this then, and we always just want to repay people who are kind and honest with us and believe in us and see us and it just feels like the right thing to do. And so that was very important to us with going back to Tribeca this time around.

Awesome. Well, congratulations on the film. I’m hoping that it does well at Tribeca, and I’m hoping that a lot of people will get to see it when it comes to theatres and wherever else it will go. But thank you for taking the time, and it was great talking to you.

Yeah. Likewise, David. Thank you so much. Thank you to you and your wife for watching it.

This concludes the interview. On behalf of Cinema Sentries, I would like to thank Rod Blackhurst for taking the time to speak about his new film, Blood for Dust.

David Wangberg

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