5 Things to Know About Thandiwe Newton’s Upcoming Film ‘God’s Country’!

Director Julian Higgins gave a sneak peek into the upcoming film God’s Country starring Thandiwe Newton and Kai Lennox. Here are 5 takeaways you should know before watching the film!

Julian Higgins’ directorial feature film debut God’s Country, starring Thandiwe “Thandie” Newton, is set for a limited theatrical release on Sept. 16. For the Emerson College Los Angeles campus, a screening came two weeks early, followed by a Q&A panel with Higgins, actor Kai Lennox, who plays the character Arthur in the movie, and visual effects artist Cooper Vacheron. 

The idea for the film came shortly after the 2016 election, a time when Higgins couldn’t justify being a filmmaker. But after a talk with co-writer Shaye Ogbonna, they both agreed that it was important to “double down” on being artists, which is what allows them to answer important questions about the world around them. 

“Art is actually what allows us to get through these kinds of times and understand what’s going on,” Higgins said. “Shaye and I had this conversation where we decided to basically make art our activism and really make it count.”

The script was worked on for a couple of years — though as Higgins says, the script is constantly in development until post-production. Filming began in February 2020 and was shut down after only three weeks due to the pandemic. It wasn’t until a full year later that the cast and crew returned to Montana — where the entire film was shot on location — and finished filming in early 2021. 

In preparation for its showing to the general public, here is what you should know ahead of the release date. 

The Film is Based on a Short Story

The movie is based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke, which Higgins initially made a short film about with the same title, at first thinking there wasn’t enough material for a feature-length. The original story follows an elderly white male professor living in Montana who is tested by a confrontation with two hunters trespassing on his property. 

Higgins turns this around with a contemporary approach, instead making the main character a middle-aged female Black professor. With Ogbonna and their artistic activism, they adjusted the subtext of the story that comes along with a revamped main character, allowing them to explore issues they wanted to cover more in-depth. 

“The people on our project would like the world and our society to work for everybody, so our desire to speak about the intersectionality of all these problems we are observing means that if we really want to talk about that, we can’t do it, we have to acknowledge who we are,” Higgins said. “The most powerful way of doing that is by taking on the point of view of someone who’s not privileged in that society, and really placing the audience with that character. That’s a huge responsibility.”

Burke’s response? He loved the character change, trusting the crew with why they were doing so. Having just seen the movie for the first time a few weeks ago, he’s a “huge champion” of it. Approaching the author directly with the ideas for the short and the feature made him much more open to the idea. This allowed Higgins to forge a personal relationship with Burke, making him much more confident in his films. 

Everything in the film is built out of the three-scene short story. He attests that the heart of this new story is what happens when one’s belief system is met with the reality of the world. 

Newton’s Character Was Created With Her in Mind for the Role

Alongside a catalog of other movie roles throughout the years, most people may recognize Newton from her featured role as Maeve in HBO’s hit original Westworld. She trades one Western-themed set for another with God’s Country, which is defined as a neo-Western thriller. 

Seeing what the character Sandra Guidry goes through, it’s easy to notice how demanding the role is. She’s someone who’s tough, with a past of wanting to become a police officer. At the same time, she’s an admired public speaking professor with a delicate way of speaking to her students. Then, on top of all this, she’s grieving due to a recent loss — which is the first scene the movie presents — dealing with a complex, very human experience. 

“You have to kind of buy things about the character that could potentially be contradictory,” Higgins said. “It’s a challenging role, and I didn’t really come up with anyone else I thought would be perfect for it.”

Newton handles these intricacies with ease and subtleties. Her expressions carry and fill scenes on their own, particularly during the first 10-15 minutes of the movie, when there’s no dialogue being had, hearing nothing more than her shaky breath in the first scene. She draws the viewer in, making you feel her suspicions, longing, and loneliness. 

Higgins approached her with a passionate letter making his case for why she was right for the role. He needed a level of commitment he knew she could provide. 

“It wasn’t just about her previous work, it’s also who she is as a person, what she does, the things she cares about,” Higgins said. “She’s just very committed to the things she cares about. She expressed to me that she just really deeply identified with the character, so we had a conversation about that.”

This film has so many great elements, but Newton truly makes the story what it is. 

Kai Lennox Was the First Person Cast

Though Newton was the one Higgins had in mind for the featured role, actor Kai Lennox — known for his roles in the movies Green Room, Beginners, and Netflix mini-series Unbelievable — was the first person cast, thanks to casting director Mark Bennett. Higgins recalled his first meeting with the actor, comparing it to a blind date. 

“Kai was one of our casting director Mark Bennett’s favorites, so he read the script and was like ‘You want Kai for this.’ I was like ‘Who?’” Higgins said. “He goes ‘Trust me, you’re gonna have lunch with Kai and you’re gonna want to work with him.’…At the end of that lunch, I was madly in love.” 

Lennox assumed the role of Arthur, the depicted chairman of the college faculty which includes Newton’s character. As the movie progresses, he becomes increasingly problematic, eventually posing as a threat to Sandra and her admiring student Gretchen, played by Tanaya Beatty. He convincingly transforms into a predator for both female characters in different ways. 

Without too many spoilers, there’s a scene of a heated argument between Arthur and Sandra, discussing the topic of racial stereotypes and inclusive hiring within the workplace. At first, shooting was challenging for both actors, and Lennox was hesitant due to the sensitive material, taking a lot out of him to give it his all. He credits Higgins for guiding him through the scene and making the set a safe space for the actors’ comfortability. 

“I was literally having a moment of paralysis around that moment,” Lennox said. “As much as we invest as actors in the character we’re playing, you get to a certain point where there’s a visceral response. There could be a reaction or a trigger to some stuff.”

Unlike his character, in reality, Lennox’s resistance came from the pure evil his character spewed. From an actor’s perspective, he thinks it’s important to take on roles such as Arthur in order to make commentary on real-life societal problems. 

“If my part in helping to illuminate the insidiousness of systems that are failing people, if that means I can show up and be a face of the troubling white patriarchy that is the root of these issues, then that’s the fuel for me to push forward, past those things because it’s incredibly challenging,” Lennox said. 

Acknowledging how loathsome the character is, Higgins said that the only way to make the on-screen dynamic more interesting was to cast an “incredibly nice person.” 

Higgins Implements His Teaching Experience into the Film

A main element of the movie is Newton’s characterization as a professor and the surrounding faculty at the college, with scenes filmed at the University of Montana Western. In fact, a bunch of the people included in boardroom scenes were real staff. 

Following in the footsteps of his parents, Higgins became a college professor himself at his alma mater Emerson College. Everything is drawn from personal experience. He wanted to flesh out the college storyline, depicting a holiday party at one point, something all too familiar to him. 

“What emotional landscape do we have to draw on as creative people, but our own?” Higgins said. 

A deleted scene that didn’t flow with the movie depicts a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop, something the crew thought would be engrossing to place Sandra in. As a professor, he knew firsthand the type of environment it creates. 

“It would come of no surprise to you, there are mixed reactions to those workshops,” Higgins said. “I really wanted to represent the understanding of the person giving the workshop and this one faculty member, they see each other, it was like a look in the scene.”

Over the years, he has consistently been inspired by his students — active and future filmmakers — as he watches their support for one another. Teaching provides a setting for new and challenging ideas to develop, discovering and adjusting how things work on a regular basis. 

“The teaching for me, I don’t think I would have made this film at all if I hadn’t done the teaching honestly,” Higgins said. “I’m the teacher that puts the chairs in a circle, I want it to be to everyone like we’re having a conversation. I learn a lot about what I think through teaching.”

Yes, There Are in Fact Visual Effects 

When watching the film, the stunning cinematography — shot by Andrew Wheeler — depicting the natural Montana landscapes really places the viewer into the setting. At first glance, one may not even catch onto the addition of VFX, made to be perfectly subtle. 

Previously a student in Higgins’ 2016 class, he hired Vacheron directly instead of going through a VFX company. Along with the film’s editor, Higgins had pieced together everything they wanted before Vacheron came on. Eventually joining the team was Ethan Feldbau, lead visual effects artist for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

“A lot of it was me and Julian talking about how the VFX we’re trying to do is obviously not flashy, it’s not crazy, but it’s all just in service of helping the movie, making the story better, making the performances better, all that stuff,” Vacheron said. “There’s a lot of shots [spliced together].” 

Much of the work surrounds the rhythmic timing and layered scenes on top of one another. A stand-out challenging effect includes a pair of recurring deer, which were real and shot against a green screen. They were then placed into empty frames with added textures and color-corrected lighting, which was laborious to get just right. 

“Yeah, [we added] atmospheric stuff to make it feel more real. Recreated lens distortion and shadows,” Vacheron said. “While Julian was still editing the movie, he hit me up to temp in some deer, so for a little bit there was a cut that was just JPEGS of deer, I was like ‘How is this ever going to work?’”

And it certainly did work. Additionally, effects such as snow had to be added for continuity, as shots within the same scenes were often filmed a year apart due to the halt in production. 

The Film’s Opening Slideshow Foreshadows its Events

Perhaps puzzling as a slow opening, the beginning slideshow — set in an abandoned high school classroom — gets the gears turning in the viewer’s head. The historical images show America’s westward expansion as the camera, set up perfectly symmetrical, gradually pans in. Initially, not in the script, this started out as only one line but grew into a cohesive, thoughtful moment over time meant to draw the viewer in. 

“Shaye and I had this idea that we would basically put the movie you’re about to see in a historical context,” Higgins said. “Not in a way that’s too on the nose, but makes you think as you begin the movie. You’re not sure yet what you’re here for, what this means. It’s just kind of an intriguing thing.’

With a second watch, the ideas can start to intersect with the themes presented in the movie. The writing duo wanted to show American history playing on loop as no one pays attention to it. The cyclical nature occurs in a national and personal context when people refuse to be honest about what has happened in the past. 

“I wanted to put that in the movie, very explicitly but it’s too early to understand, just to prime you to watch the story with some historical idea in mind,” Higgins said. “All those characters you see there are in the movie. It’s the long push-in that ends on the woman, which is how we end the film as well. All that stuff slowly comes out of it over time.”

Even with all the curveballs thrown his way — *cough* the pandemic — Higgins didn’t give up because of how deeply he cared for this film, which seemingly made the production time fly by.

You can catch God’s Country in select theaters on September 16th, 2022!

About the Author

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Karissa Schaefer

Karissa Schaefer is a senior Journalism major with minors in Publishing and Psychology at Emerson College, focusing on all things entertainment. As she navigates the city of LA, she is a fall '22 intern at AfterBuzz TV and Better Together with Maria Menounos.