Directed and co-written by Aaron Keshales, South of paradise offers a familiar blend of small town crime with an unfortunate romance. Ted lassoJason Sudeikis plays Jimmy, a former parole robber looking to spend his first year out of prison with his longtime sweetheart Annie (Evangeline Lilly).
Corn South of paradise doesn’t just keep it easy for Jimmy. The public learns almost immediately that Annie has progressive cancer and has about a year to live. Reunited after 12 years of separation, Annie and Jimmy decide to live together for the time the duo have left together. After Jimmy accidentally gets in the way of local crime boss Price’s plans, things go wrong, with a lot of shotguns.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Keshales shared what South of paradise adds to the crime thriller genre and sang the praises of Lilly for helping her find a feminist approach to the subject.
Note: This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
CBR: What was it like working with the other two writers – Kai Mark and Navot Papushado – on this project? How did you get involved?
Aaron Keshales: The idea came to me during my honeymoon – that’s when King of death, now called South of paradise — begin.
I got married very late to an Israeli. I got married at the age of 37. She was 39. We went on our honeymoon for six months. When you go on your honeymoon, you try to make up for 20 years away – by doing everything you would have done at 20 in just a few months. That’s what we did. We went around the world to make up for the lost time and then I realized I wanted to make a movie about a guy who wasted 12 years of his life with a loved one and then tries to make up for everything in one year. that was lost.
I knew it would end with this car accident – this turning point. I had everything organized in my head. I came back from the honeymoon and met my co-writers and we started spitting right away, like, “What if he kills the biker and that biker is a boss and then he kidnaps his wife? ” And then the other guy comes up and says, “Well, what if Kingpin has his own son?”
And then you have all this wisdom in terms of the second act that brings you to the third act so that was the process. I came with the main characters and then we [discussed] whatever was going to happen. We had a plan and a plan and then we wrote it and rewrote it. I’m usually from Coming from above and sorting out to make sure there aren’t too many voices and just trying to do something that makes sense as a narrative.
South of paradise looks like a movie that could really take place anywhere there is a working class. What prompted you to locate it in southern America?
I think as an Israeli [that setting] is always exotic. For me, my favorite genre growing up was westerns. When I was growing up, at 20, my favorite movies were These Black Texas, some from the 70s and later 90s – The Coen Brothers, Red Rock West. The reason I like these tails is that they mix two things that I like to see: first, the western world where you have cowboys and Indians with cowboys, and second, a gray morality. So for me it was a no-brainer because I grew up with these movies and loved the world – movies like Raising Arizona – yet I tend to look at them and see a moral tale.
I did Rage and Big bad wolf before this movie and my movies – one is a slasher movie and the other is a crime thriller – are always looking for gray areas all the time. In my writing I like [to ask], “Who is good? Who is bad?” … In film noir, Texas noir, we have it all. You come to the place where I feel most attached. I think a movie like Some blood Simple, one of my favorite Coen brothers movies, I relate to it so much because I love movies about people who try to be a good guy but end up doing the worst things in their lives in the name of of love.
I think it just got me into this area. I also like to play with coding and deconstructing things. I was a film critic and theorist before I became a filmmaker, so for me it’s like, “How can I deconstruct the Western genre, or film noir, as an Israeli foreigner, and make it happen in United States ? When you play around with that kind of genre, you have a lot of room to deconstruct and reconstruct and rearrange rather than making a drama, which, you know, is a bigger field, and it’s endless. When you work on the sets you know and love, it’s easier to see how American cinema has treated black Texas or just that kind of story because you see it as an outsider.
Based on what you said about gender subversion, I really liked the role of Annie. At first I admit it I was suspicious because the story revolves around Jimmy’s love for her and she is dying and it doesn’t look like she will have much power, but she ends by having a lot of agency in the movie. She shoots a gun and has only as many action scenes as Jimmy. What was it like working with Evangeline Lilly on her character development? What was important for you to portray about Annie?
An incredible ride with Evangeline, I’ll start with that.
As for Annie … When I write, I like to watch what other films are doing in this area. So most movies will probably have [the woman] killed or – sorry for the word – raped, at the start of the movie, so it turns into a “revenge” movie. This is not the film I wanted to make. I don’t like this kind of movies. I don’t like this kind of representation. So what I wanted to do is have a movie that goes against all of these types of female characters.
When I spoke to Evangeline, that was the selling point for her. When she asked me about the movie, I thought, “We’re going to go against the grain. We’re going to go against movies where she just plays the captive and you die.” And then I thought I wanted to make a real honest description of a woman on the verge of death and allow her to be whatever she needs to be in the writing.
I knew she was gonna have these beautiful scenes with Michael [Colter] in the house, where suddenly there is an alchemy between a woman and her captors. I wanted to have as much power as she could for [that conversation]. So she doesn’t say, “Oh, don’t kill me.” She’s not a damsel in distress. She said, “I’m dying and I’m really scared.”
So we started talking – Evangeline and I – and then something amazing happened for a filmmaker and a screenwriter, she challenged me. The first scene she challenged me on – they walk into the bedroom and in the original script, it was more cheesy, more cheesy. He’s like in the bathtub pulling her over with a beer. It’s a bit cheesy from lovey-dovey. I told her to look at the years 1972 The Getaway directed by Sam Peckinpah. She came back to me and said: “I like The Getaway. Can you write something so honest and beautiful for our reunion scene? “And I say to myself:” You know what? You are right. We started talking about how they haven’t met for 12 years. It would be embarrassment, shyness, remorse and regret when they first met.
I went a bit before pre-production, and rewrote the whole opening scene in the house. It started the whole journey with Evangeline’s character, Annie. You have to do it. As a male writer, there is a limit to how deep you can tap into the female psyche. So what I said to Evangeline right off the bat, give me all of your contributions and then let’s dance for the whole movie. So whenever you feel like you want to do something else come see me and let’s write it down. Let’s create something together. That’s the whole trip for us.
I think the point where we knew what Annie should be is the scene Evangeline loves the most – the Beach Boys song – where she said, “Dying is kind of a bipolar experience.” Evangeline’s favorite movie is Annie hall, so she wanted to play something different than anything she used to play. She feels she must always be like that hard cookie. In The Hobbit, she’s a warrior. In The ant Man, she’s a warrior. She wanted to tap into both poles of femininity – to be strong, yet fragile, loving and with nerves of steel. She felt that this character could be that for her, because she plays [like she has] bipolar [disorder] because she is dying. There are ups and downs. Sometimes she smiles. Sometimes she wants to cry.
She said, “Aaron, you male writers, you think all women should be mother and nurse. You have this conception of women in the cinema. I want to help you understand that we are different entities than what you think we are. We want to be able to be crazy on screen, to cry, then to laugh, to be erotic, fragile and strong. I want this. I want this film to be a representation of femininity. So that was the trip. It was an incredible trip. I learned so much about writing female characters, their motivations and their journey.
South of Heaven is now playing in theaters and is available digitally and on VOD.
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