Hope in Uncertainty: Filmmaker Doug Cunningham on Highway

Bad things happen to the characters in the film. But the engagement with those bad things has motivated the characters to start writing their own stories (metaphorically speaking) rather than having their stories written for them….

Highway, the new short film by writer-director Douglas Cunningham, employs noir motifs and those of the highway thriller for a feminist revision. After learning of her husband’s betrayal, former Army Ranger Amanda (Lindsey Hawkes) drives hours to meet up with a revenge lover. The journey on barren desert roads leads to a chase and confrontation that invoke a variety of woman-centered road movies, which Cunningham discusses below, along with his use of the noir tradition, treatment of fight scenes, and focus on actors to shape his script and direction.

Though rooted in film noir influences, and some Hitchcock, Highway is very much a character piece. Was character important in creating the script? 

In a way, character is what got the whole project started. The part of Amanda was written with actress Hawkes in mind, and the character was very much tailored to her look and confidence, as well as to her talent for conveying strength and vulnerability simultaneously. So, I created a character based on Lindsey’s look and then wrote a story around that. I did the same thing for the character of Sadie, played by the equally talented Cherie Julander, which is to say, I wrote the part of Sadie with Cherie in mind. I was lucky with this film to not have to conduct auditions. As far as the concept of character itself, yes, it was important to writing the script. I wanted both these women to undergo a transformation by finding solutions to their problems through bonding over their commonalities rather than through fighting over their differences. In retrospect, I’ve come to think about the story as an allegory for a very polarized America.

Was this focus also important in your directing style? 

I rely on the actors, for the most part, to bring their characters to life on screen. I know I’m dealing with professionals when working with folks like Lindsey and Cherie, so I leave the acting up to them. If I’ve done my job in casting effectively, I won’t need to give much direction to the actors. If they want direction, they’ll ask for it. Likewise, when I do give direction, they’ll know what I’m asking of them is important to me.

I sense that you aimed to rework the idea of women in film noir. How did you go about doing that?

Amanda is a woman who is wronged by both her husband and the unseen “femme fatale” with whom he has an affair. Initially, her impulse is to hurt her husband by attempting to have an impromptu, vengeful affair of her own. What she doesn’t realize, or take time to consider, is that in doing so, she herself is stepping into the role of the homewrecking femme fatale. She is in serious danger of becoming the very villain she despises. And yet, her better angels emerge after a violent roadside encounter awakens her to the fact that two wrongs do not make a right. I’ve tried to write women in this story who are human, filled with the same virtues and flaws as the rest of us and this in a genre that all too often (although not always) sees women merely as sexualized objects who exist only to lead morally conflicted men astray.

We are interested in your use of the very noir-inflected title, Highway, which invokes road noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Detour, and The Hitch-Hiker. Did your general concept lead to focusing on the road? 

I wanted a title for this film that was short and communicated a very general sense of its genre affiliations without being at all specific as to the nature of the story itself. I wanted a title that said everything one needed to know because it evoked an American association with the road as both frontier to be breached and a “straight down the line” (to quote Double Indemnity) encounter with transgression, transcendance, or both. The title of Highway also, at least phonically, implies a more righteous way of doing things, taking the high road, the “higher way,” which is what the character of Amanda ultimately does in the film.

The roadside attack has remained central to the noir tradition, from The Hitch-Hiker all the way to the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Would you discuss this scene’s importance in your film, and how you went about making it unique to Highway?

The Hitch-HikerDuelParis, TexasThelma and Louise, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Fury Road were all major influences on Highway. While not all of these are noirs, each of them is a road movie. With the exception of Paris, Texas (which served as an inspiration for Highway for somewhat different reasons most of them aesthetic), each of these films also involves road violence. In America, the car and the highway are linked to concepts of freedom and rugged individualism, of making one’s own way through open, abandoned spaces. In the cases of the films you’ve mentioned, the highway is also an isolated space, a remote space, associated with vulnerability and danger, and Highway features some aspects of that. But in Highway, the open road, and the car that’s designed to traverse it (like a modern-day horse for the lone driver, herself a modern-day western hero), also bring the promises of new opportunities and even personal redemption.

We’d love to hear about your experience choreographing the fight scene, and your overall experience with this type of content. 

I knew in general what kinds of moves I wanted in the fight scene. I wanted it to have the gritty, brutal feel of Indy’s fight with the German airplane mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Eastwood’s bare-knuckle fights in Every Which Way but Loose (1978). What I mean by that is that I wanted the impacts and punches to feel visceral and real – not elegant or ballet-like. I mean, I love elegant, highly choreographed fight scenes – John Woo gun battles, Jedi lightsaber duels, or extended martial-arts fights in Bruce Lee films or in The Matrix films. Here, though, I wanted the scene to be about Amanda being able to take the beating and then keep getting back up. In fact, initially, that’s how I pictured the scene: Amanda is so tough she doesn’t need to really fight back. She just keeps getting back up. Understandably, Lindsey said, “Hey, I think Amanda should have some moves, too,” and she was right. I knew I couldn’t effectively choreograph and rehearse the actors personally, so I hired a well-known, local stunt coordinator, Duy Beck, to handle that, and he did a wonderful job. Lindsey and Cherie were also incredibly patient and enthusiastic and really dedicated themselves to getting the scene right. On the night we shot it, they did it over and over, ultimately giving us about ten takes of the whole fight.

You offer an unresolved ending. Without giving too much away, how does it serve your characters and dialogue with the noir tradition? 

Many neo-noirs have unresolved endings, and in my experience, those endings are often filled with despair (think ChinatownNight Moves) or, at the very least, a feeling of desperate relief to have even survived the night (as in Oren Shai’s The Frontier or John Dahl’s Red Rock West – to my mind, two of the very best neo-noirs). In Highway, however, the unresolved ending offers reasons for hope rather than despair. Yes, bad things have happened to the characters in the film. But the engagement with those bad things has motivated the characters to start writing their own stories (metaphorically speaking) rather than having their stories written for them by the unfaithful men in their lives.

Doug Cunningham’s short film, Highway, is currently on the festival circuit. As of this writing, It has screened at the Zions Indie Film Festival. For requests to view Highway for screenings in festivals, at conferences, or in other venues, please contact Doug at douglas.cunningham2 AT gmail.com. Highway@Facebook

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