In a corner of the Marriot Hotel that is part of the bustling LA Live and home to the increasingly popular Los Angeles Film Festival, young, first time writer/director Jared Moshe is trying to soak in the success that he is attaining. His directorial début, the Western drama Dead Man’s Burden has proven so popular at this festival, that a third and final screening has been added to the schedule. Moshe is glad to be part of the buzz. “I’m just eternally grateful”, he says, offering a half smile. In an industry still afraid of dabbling in a genre associated with the greats of Hollywood cinema, Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden offers a respite from the Hollywood norm, and the writer/director has been clearly influenced by western masters of the past. “There are basically four films that influenced me,” Moshe explains. “The Searchers and its isolation, Winchester 73 with the personal struggles and dynamics of that movie, the mythology of Once upon a Time in the West and the structure and tensions of Unforgiven.” Western devotees would be able to see elements of these classic westerns inherent in Moshe’s post-civil war film.
Set in 1870 New Mexico, immediately after the end of the Civil War, a young woman named Martha (Claire Bowen) blasts a man in the face with a rifle, who had been in the midst of fleeing on horseback. We eventually learn that this man was her father when her prodigal brother, Wade (Barlow Jacobs), returns home, wary of facing the parent that vowed to shoot him if he ever were to return. Forced to kill several men thinking him to be a deserter and then traitor, Wade comes into possession of a strange letter from his father begging him to return home. Tense family history and strange circumstances surrounding his father’s close-casket funeral cause Wade a former Wyoming sheriff for the past several years, to question his sister and her suspicious, tough minded husband, Heck (David Call), both determined and desperate to sell their spacious land in order to run off to San Francisco and open a hotel. Turns out sister Martha and brother Wade are quite close, and she’s overjoyed to learn that he hasn’t been dead all these years, after all. But her fierce loyalty ends up having dire consequences.
Moshe’s challenge, in writing Dead Man’s Burden, was to make a western that played homage to the classics of the past but was itself somewhat original. “A great western has to follow certain ideas and you have to know what they are going in. Your characters have to be defined by action, you have to have wide open landscapes and there are certain aesthetic looks that people expect and certain dynamics. Once you have that, you can then play with the story and find stories that are interesting and inspiring in the genre.” Moshe has been a long time fan of the genre and its historical milieu. “I fell in love with the civil war through college and saw westerns as a child, and it’s what I love and read, so when I was putting it together, I would read a lot of western scripts, watch a lot of western movies and look at a lot of references and find ideas. I would think about a scene, for example, and think about how other filmmakers would deal with a similar scene and then give my own take on it.” Asked how he balances the mythological facets of the genre with the more contemporary realism that today’s audiences expect, Moshe explains that “it’s a matter of staying true to the tropes of the western mythology, the things that people expect from a western and giving really fully formed characters. What people really expect from a story is characters and motivations and what they can relate to. The idea of somebody being purely good or purely evil works on The Avengers, but a modern audience is more sophisticated in their storytellings and of what they expect in terms of motivation.” And in staying true to the genre, Moshe resisted shooting his film digitally, which is now the norm, and insisted on using film as a means of visually expressing the film’s expansive landscape. “There was no question we wouldn’t shoot on digital and we were going to have to figure out how to shoot this on film. And it wasn’t that much more expensive and so much more gratifying.”
While so many directors study film specifically at a film school, the Midwestern born Moshe went to a Amherst College in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college. “I didn’t really study film even though I knew I wanted to be in film in some way in college. So I started interning in New York.” Moshe began life in the film industry as a sales agent, learning the business side of film, and started producing such films as Kurt Cobain About a Son and last year’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, amongst others.
With his directorial first feature under his belt and its having garnered positive reviews from the festival, Moshe is hoping the film will get a commercial release. In the meantime, he says if given the opportunity, he is not letting the west die in the cinematic sunset. “I’ve written another western that I’m hoping to shoot if I can get the financing, and I have a television project in the works: a kind of modern western”, he concludes laughingly.