To film her directorial debut, Robin Wright got the hell out of dodge.
For her new movie “Land” (in theaters Feb. 12), Wright directs and stars as Edee, a woman who retreats to a remote Wyoming cabin for two years as she pieces herself together after loss. Wright was no stranger to directing, having helmed 10 episodes of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” but this was a vastly different challenge.
“I mean, you couldn’t have a more distant comparison between what it was like shooting ‘House of Cards’ to shooting and directing ‘Land,’” says Wright, 54, during a video chat with USA TODAY from her home in California, before she virtually debuted her new film at Sundance Film Festival. For “House of Cards,” “we were on a stage outside of Baltimore for six years on sets in an airplane hangar,” she adds. “This was a completely different beast because you’re dealing with nature.”
Production started in the city of Calgary, where a ramshackle cabin was assembled “like Lincoln Logs” to specific filming guidelines before the crew moved (along with the structure) up 8,000 feet into the Canadian Rockies, where the unpredictable elements sent random snow dumps and roving bears.
To portray a woman determined to stick it out on her own in the wild – no car, no running water, no electricity – Wright got schooled in shooting game, chopping wood and fishing. Her biggest challenge? “It was stomaching the skinning of the animal. And I eat meat. But I just – I don’t want to see that. You don’t think it’s going to shock you. And it does,” she says.
Wright’s character is alone onscreen during much of the film as she learns to adapt to bitter winters and dwindling canned goods, though her character slowly accepts the help and friendship of a local mountain man (Demián Bichir).
Bichir, she says, “had a great desire to play this part because he went through a similar situation in his life, the way Edee did, and it was therapy for him. He told me that he needed to do it for that reason.”
Directing herself during the 29-day shoot meant often trusting in her fellow female producers watching each take. “I could be in front of the camera, having done a take laying in the snow and they’re over there in the tent. I’d (go), was that good or bad? They’re like, ‘Bad! Do another take!’ I totally trusted them.”
Wright says the pain Edee is navigating in “Land” felt indicative of what the country was coping with when she read the script three years ago as mass shootings dominated the news. “And there was so much ugliness going on in the last four years and in our country, just mean-spirited. And I just wanted to make a movie about hope and resilience and the kindness of human beings,” she says.
Getting the film made meant making sales pitches at Cannes Film Festival, where films are often sold before production begins. Wright recalls sitting in a room day after day “and no one was biting. I was like, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think anybody wants to see this movie. And I was ready to throw in the towel.” Focus Features was her final meeting, and snapped up the movie.
Even moving up the ranks to direct at “House of Cards” was incremental, Wright recalled at a Sundance Film Festival panel on Saturday.
Support, she said, ultimately came in a groundswell from her male crew. She’d been proving herself for several seasons, she recalled, working with rotating episode directors while playing steely politico Claire Underwood. “You start rehearsing and then you start re-blocking the scene: ‘Well, maybe this would be better.’ And you ended up directing the scene with that director. And I think having to prove that for over two years was maybe the only reason that (the crew) said, ‘You can do it and you should.’ And as long as they were in support of it, I think that’s when the producers said, ‘OK, we’ll give you the baton.’ ”
Wright’s pandemic has included post-production on “Land” (“We got shut down about halfway through the editing process”) and the release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” in which she reappears in the opening scene. Next, she’ll return to a different Netflix series in the director’s chair, helming the last two episodes of Season 4 of “Ozark.”
The pandemic has “been a year and it feels like five,” she acknowledges.
What’s been keeping her sane? It’s not far from the premise of “Land.” “Being able to get out in nature … just the air, the beach, the trees. It’s very healing.”