5 Questions: ‘Round River’s’ Xia Magnus

“I talked a lot… about making the whole thing feel like you slipped into a painting. I wanted it to be its own little world that exists only for the twenty-odd minutes you’re watching it.”

Xia Magnus hasn’t lived in Wisconsin since he was 16, but the director tries to make it back as often as he can. In the case of Round River, Magnus would end up bringing his entire Golden Badger-winning production with him to Mazomanie. No big deal.

With the gorgeous Driftless Region as its backdrop, Round River sticks with the disaffected Gia (Annie Hamilton) and her stern mother (June Scherwinski) as they navigate through a strained weekend with her excitable aunt (Kelley Rae O’Donnell) following a messy breakup. Through gauzy cinematography and a sparing, prickly soundtrack, Round River subtly explores its trio of complex relationships through its titular metaphor, grafting Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold’s theory of cycles in nature onto a circular look at the baggage we carry.

Magnus, who now produces projects in New York through 1126 Films, talked to us about his award-winning drama for our “5 Questions” series:

1. What about Mazomanie attracted you enough to bring production there?

It was an obvious choice for me. I think the Driftless Region is beautiful. It has storybook feel, like Sherwood Forest or something. I’ve always thought of Round River as almost a fable.

On a more personal level, I spent many summers on the Wisconsin river. I have so many childhood memories of wading in the rusty water; trapping minnows; hanging out on the sand bars. My parents and their friends would take me to the nude beach with them, much of Round River is based on memories I have of being out there.

2. I’m curious about your use of red. Obviously, the car you come back to is red but you also begin and end the picture with those very striking red bookends. Is there any connection there, with this idea of cycles that you’re playing with?

Mostly I just like it. I think red is a very cinematic color and I suppose it’s also a nod to some of my influences, particularly Cries & Whispers. Bergman uses red very centrally in that film. A film which is also about three women from the same family.

3. You include snippets from Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx” which has this fluttery, delicate quality to it and I think, an aesthetic that doesn’t seem like an obvious fit with the music you close out on. What was your inspiration behind choosing that piece?

For me, the closing music [by Invisible Circle] is more of a release and is in sync with something that maybe Gia herself would listen to. The Debussy piece holds such tension and suspense and I wanted the audience to let go of that at the end. I picked “Syrinx” because it has such a mysterious character, you can’t ever put your finger on an exact emotion that it makes you feel. It’s melancholy but also wonderful, like a bittersweet memory or something. I wanted the whole film to feel a bit like a memory. Syrinx is Pan’s flute, and in the myth she seeks help from river nymphs who turn her into hollow reeds. So of course I love the way the mythology lines up with our story. We tried a bunch of things for that opening sequence but at the end of the day the Debussy fit best. A lot of people think it’s creepy, like there’s going to be a murder or something, but that’s not the way I hear it at all.

4. The press kit describes June Sherwinski’s character as “uncompromising” but I found myself siding with her quite often over this uncomfortable weekend in the sticks. Then again, you also humanize the aunt’s conflict, her fragile emotional state. And both of these play off one another through Gia, who’s this kind of fulcrum throughout. As you were developing the story and then working with your actors, did you make it a point to not induce any kind of bias toward or against your characters?

I definitely always take every character I write seriously as a person with their own valid needs, wants, and perspectives. And though maybe not equally, all my characters are going to have some of me and my experiences in them. That being said, I think most people experience the story through Gia, and that was intentional. I do think Marianne is uncompromising, but maybe compromise isn’t necessarily the best course of action in every situation? June and I worked together to craft Marianne’s worldview and I don’t think she is ever negative without reason. However her dissatisfaction often drives the conflict forward, therefore she may be the closest thing we have to an antagonist.

5. Your photography is, for lack of a better term, “fuzzy” in some sequences, where hard edges are softened with your lighting choices. It gives Round River this wonderful, dream-like quality. Did your attitude, either toward this story or toward your memories of Wisconsin broadly, influence your visual approach?

The fuzziness comes from the back-netting we used behind the lenses. We wanted that soft look for various reasons. Mainly I liked the idea of the whole thing feeling sort of hot and boggy. Like a humid summer night. Plenty of people use that effect to make an image look almost steamy. But it does slightly obscure the image too which brings that otherworldliness. In an idealized way, my memories of Wisconsin summers did influence this aesthetic choice. But maybe more broadly it’s the pastoral setting that brought it about. I talked a lot with Mark Khalife [the DP] about making the whole thing feel like you slipped into a painting. I wanted it to be its own little world that exists only for the twenty-odd minutes you’re watching it.