Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette, Angela Bettis, Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris and Tara Perry star in this exciting new take on the southern ghost story. In post-Civil War Arkansas, a young doctor is mysteriously summoned to a remote town in the Ozarks only to discover that the utopian paradise is filled with secrets and surrounded by a menacing, supernatural presence.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is one of those films that immediately aesthetically hooks you from the first scene to fade out. I had the great pleasure of speaking with multi-hat wearing filmmaking collaborators Jordan Wayne Long (co-writer/co-director) and Matt Glass (co-director/cinematographer) about their proof of concept short film, of the same name, casting, collaboration on set, the importance of production design and framing, and so much more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: This originally started out as a short film. Was that intentionally used as a proof of concept to then make this feature?
Jordan Wayne Long: We did use the short film as a proof of concept to really prove to people our shooting style and that we could pull off difficult stuff. And it really did work well in that regard. It was a great calling card for us.
Matt Glass: It's also a good way to test out ideas on your own and be like, ‘Oh, that didn't work. This did work,’ before you get to the big show. You're practicing things and ruling out ideas that you think work and that don't work so that you don't go into the feature film, uncertain about ideas.
Sadie: In terms of fleshing it out to the feature, did you already have this feature in place, or was that a work in progress while making the short film?
Jordan: The short film version, as soon as we got done, we really felt like it could be a feature. And since I had kind of initiated this idea, I started writing the feature brought Tara Perry on to write it with me later, and Sean Anthony Davis, and then Matt actually went on to write another feature that we're working on right now.
Matt: I think the basis of the script wasn't there. I mean, there was a whole different set of ideas, when we did the proof of concept, and one of the things that changed once we did it was, we liked these actors. And we liked what they're doing but then Jordan was like, ‘I have a whole other story.’
Jordan: Yeah, once Tara and Thomas came aboard, you're right, it changed the whole trajectory of it because we really wanted to see the story through their characters.
Sadie: Casting the leads, getting Tim Blake Nelson on board, and David Arquette to come on as a producer as well, what was that process like getting them involved and shaping their characters too once they were involved?
Jordan: Something that we did nine months before we ended up shooting Ghosts is I built the town of Norfork that you see in the movie. And we used that as a calling card to bring on bigger people and once they saw how big the set was and how much time we were putting into it, that was really our way of showing like, ‘give us a chance.’ We're really serious about this and they did.
Matt: And we have previously worked with David Arquette on a few smaller projects and 12 Hour Shift, a film we produced and starred in, so we have a history with him and he was familiar with the script pretty early on.
Jordan: Yeah, he was. We considered him playing another character as well, but he landed on wanting to go into Douglas and did a great job of really bringing that character to life. Tim also came on early and went to learn to butcher and really get a feel of the bar that we had built because it was his character's bar. He was prepared, which really helped.
Matt: And he plays a character who can't see and he took that to heart. And we had a contact and a prosthetic arm; he couldn't see so he had to learn the landscape of the bar and learn where things were until he grabbed them, it would feel natural for his character.
Jordan: Which is really interesting in the editing process. It was incredible to watch him walk all the way across the bar and miss everything that he needed to. [laughs] It was great.
Sadie: Speaking of just the production design, Jordan, you did a phenomenal job on this. There are a lot of very distinct color choices and palettes that you're implementing in here - how much were you bringing over from the short to the feature version?
Jordan: Thanks a lot. Matt and I come from grad school for photography, where you kind of really paint everything in the frame, and everything has a meaning. And so, for us, production, design-wise and movie-wise, we kind of really look at everything in the frame. So, we definitely took those ideas from the short film, built on them, really created a color scheme that we wanted to signify the south. We really wanted it to feel like a modern-day fable with an allegory I guess.
Sadie: The red is such a very harsh and brutal color too, it definitely lingers and sits with you. And for you Matt, since you shot this, the importance behind framing and capturing that essence of Jordan’s production design. Were you two sitting down going over every shot?
Matt: Definitely. I came to the set while he was building the town, and we've talked about different shots and different angles, and he would adjust the town or move buildings or things based on what we've discussed. It's really nice to be both the director and both in charge of different aspects of the visual; it's a really interesting dynamic where he builds the place and designs the look and then I come in and sculpt what it looks like on camera.
Jordan: We tweaked a lot. I really enjoy that push and pull of having a collaborator that you trust and when they tell you, ‘Hey, this isn't working,’ that they're not doing it to make you have more work. They're doing it to make the film better, and that's always so helpful.
Matt: It's a very good dynamic, but it's definitely very easy to shoot when you're in a place that looks amazing.
Sadie: In terms of the collaboration for the two of you approaching both as directors, did you have two very distinct roles on set?
Matt: It wasn't too clearly defined. There were certain times where if I was doing handheld, I was usually also pulling focus, so I couldn't focus on actors and then Jordan would be more in charge of that. But most of the time we would be doing both. I would set up the camera and make sure he was OK with what the angle looks like. In general, I'm quieter, and I can't really talk as loud as I need to in certain situations. So, if I do have something to say I would tell it to Jordan, and then he would be the one to deliver it to the actors. The lines aren't clearly defined during production. I think in that way we did what we needed to do to get the shots.
Jordan: I agree with that. We've worked together for so long that line does get blurred in a good way and we're just very comfortable with it. I always know I can look at him and be like, ‘Hey, what do we do here?’ And he'll have that idea and vice versa. So, it's a very comforting thing.
Sadie: How many production days for this?
Jordan: We had 30.
Sadie: That’s not bad. Were you able to get everything that you intended to, over that time period?
Jordan: It was really interesting because when we came back to screen the film to some people, the one thing they said was, we want to see this whole town, and obviously it was built around warehouses. So afterward, we ended up, Matt and I, went and made the drone shots in the film which are half miniature and half CGI, and that was such a fun experience and a neat thing that even though we didn't get it in production, we're so happy that we were able to do that later on.
Matt: That also reminds me because of COVID, we couldn't get that many townspeople at once at night. People just didn't want to go out. We have just fifteen people maybe for the wide shot. So, when we came back to LA, Jordan and Tara, and a couple of other friends got together, and we set up the green screen in Jordan’s backyard and just shot those five people being townsfolk over and over again wearing different outfits. And then I pasted like 40 of them in the back of the crowd scenes; six or seven Jordan’s just like partying in the back. [laughs]
Jordan: [laughs] Yeah, Matt handles all the VFX on the film and there were about 300 and we reshot about 10 out in our backyard because of COVID.
Sadie: That’s a fun Easter egg. It's it gives another meaning to the idea of ghosts haunting this town. [laughs] Jordan, the collaboration for writing with Tara and Shawn, what was that process like especially with Tara who has a very big role and in-depth character?
Jordan: It was a pretty amazing process and also Thomas Hobson, we would send our drafts to him as well and he was quite integral in helping us understand his perspective and really that push and pull of having both of them so near to the script really helped us. Tara was just a very honest collaborator, and it was like whatever's best for the story. And that helped me do the same as we got further along in the process, and when we wanted to put the script up against writers that we really love and see what they were saying, it really helped us understand how to edit constructively, and I think it shows in the final product. I'm really proud of it.
Sadie: People tend to write material that they want to see and usually has some kind of deep emotional connection to it. Was there something that really resonated for you within the story or a particular character?
Jordan: That's a really good question, Sadie. I think one answer that pops into mind is James McCune, who Thomas Hobson plays, I want to be like James. I want to go into a place that's built for me that has everything that I need. And yet when he realizes that it's not for everyone, he doesn't pick up a gun the whole time, he only tries to help and when he realizes that it's not best for everyone, he makes that tough decision to really break it down to try and start something that's more fair, and I just want to be like that. And so, it was really nice to write a character like that; he can be what you want to be.
Sadie: And he's such a strong character too, the messiness and internal fighting with himself, I think will resonate with a lot of people. What inspired you into wanting to become a filmmaker, Jordan?
Jordan: I've been thinking a lot about this lately, Sadie. So, it's probably going to come out half answered. But the longer Matt and I have done this, the more I've come to understand that I just want to tell stories and inspire people and that probably is what pushes me to a large degree. I just love watching people do what they do. And it's really fun that we have a production company and we make movies and we get to bring more artists along; watching everyone do their best and it show up on the screen is really exhilarating. So, I think a large part of it is that collaboration and I think that started with Matt, and now Tara, and I’m just really lucky.
Sadie: What a great feeling. And same for you, Matt, what inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Matt: I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a little kid. But I really didn't know what that meant most of the time. And I was always the person who wanted to be the filmmaker, one of these guys that did everything. And then you start making stuff and there's all these limitations, and you can't figure out why it's not turning out the way you want. And then you learn that filmmaking is a collaboration. And then suddenly, it's like, ‘Oh, I need to be able to trust other people.' And then you bring in people like Jordan, and we work together so well and somebody who I can trust. And then it's like, ‘Oh, that's not a thing you can do by yourself.’ It's like a weird Christmas carol type thing where you like [laughs] have all these ghosts of your filmmaking past and you realize you can't like do it alone.
Sadie: It's so true. And it’s pretty incredible that you both do a little bit of everything and wear a lot of hats and are able to pull it off. For those filmmakers that are wearing many hats because of budgetary reasons, location, logistics, and so forth, what is something you would advise them to really lean into or maybe not worry so much about during production?
Jordan: For us, it was a necessity to have to do every job ourselves. And as we've gotten to do more things, obviously, we've been able to step away from doing all of those jobs. I think that's the essential goal is to be able to not have to do everything but this was a labor of love. It was done on a million-dollar budget and that is a lot but for what we did, we really pushed the limits and we had to take on a lot of jobs to make it feasible and make sure that we were giving our costume designers and our makeup, and our lighting crew enough money to do what they need to do because they knocked it out of the park. And so, for us, it is still a necessity to a degree to pull off what we want to, but we love when we find people that are better at those jobs than us because that's what it's about and we will only get better with our filmmaking.
Sadie: What about you Matt?
Matt: Enjoy yourself. That's one thing we would have to remember. We’re making movies, even when we get stressed, we're doing the thing we want and it's an amazing thing to be able to do. But also, kind of on what Jordan was saying, keep your eyes open for people, like if you're doing a bunch of jobs, make sure you're not hoarding the jobs just because you can. If you see somebody who's as good or better than you at the job, give them that opportunity, take that stress off of your back so that you can concentrate on something else because I know sometimes it's hard to.
Jordan: That's a tough honesty to come by. And we have to work at that a lot. But I'm proud of us and I'm excited to see who we find next.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is in select Theaters, On Demand and Digital, February 3, 2022.