After writing and directing two short films, Max Walker-Silverman makes the transition to feature length with his festival darling A Love Song (2022). His film centers on Faye (Dale Dickey), a widow waiting at a campsite for an old friend to come by. That friend is Lito (Wes Studi), who has also lost his spouse. The two have not seen each other in decades but shared a deep connection when they were teenagers.
A Love Song becomes a meditation on love, loss, and how we define who we are when everything we cared for seems to have gone away. The film opened in theaters nationwide on July 29th. I had the chance to sit down with Max for a wide-ranging conversation. We touch on the script, writing Dale a letter, and making art with his friends in his favorite places.
The following conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
[Devin] Going way back, can you tell me where the idea for A Love Song came from?
[Max] A big messy mix of things. I fell in love. When that hits you real hard, it makes it difficult to imagine wanting to tell stories about anything else. At the same time, I knew and cared for a lot of people who were falling out of it, or death and divorce were taking people away. All the many ways life can challenge us were very real for people whom I loved, and that contrast was sort of at the core of it.
Those questions about what it means to share love with someone? But also, what does it mean not to? Is a partner necessary for love? I didn’t, and don’t, think so. Love can be alive and run all through us, even just through the trees and through the air and through our memories and through our hopes. And then, I have this deep admiration for Dale Dickey, who I just could never get out of my head after Winter’s Bone (2010). I started picturing her in my world and these landscapes, and this is what bubbled out of it.
It’s wonderful that this movie is a channeling of the patchwork of emotions in and around you. I want to get back to Dale in a minute, but I want to stick to this idea for a second. Specifically, the array of tones you manage here. From funny to tender and with plenty of melancholy, were all of those aspects you wanted to make sure came through?
In the little bit of life I’ve experienced, tears and laughter tend to come pretty mixed up. And sometimes people tell the best jokes at their hardest moments. that’s the world the way it’s often appeared to me. Maybe one way to describe people’s ability to cry and smile at the same time is just dignity. You know, that’s maybe one of those mystifying, rare things that make us human. Or the better part of humanity, so to do anything else would have just felt mean-hearted. I would hope to never strip the humor away from a people or from a place.
All of that finds an incredible channel in Dale’s performance. How did you end up getting to work with her on A Love Song?
Well, I wrote the script for her, which is a dangerous thing to do for someone you don’t know. But eventually, I wrote her a letter asking if she would come to be a part of A Love Song. We got set up for a call together and I was terribly, terribly nervous. Moments before we began talking, I received a text that she had sent me overflowing with emojis and hearts and smiley faces, and misspellings and uncapitalized words. At that lovely moment, I was overwhelmed with the sensation that this would be great and fine. It was a beautiful stroke of luck. Of course, she’s a brilliant actor, but she’s also just as sweet and funny, and lovely a soul as I’ve ever met. With such a small rinky-dink production, this could not have worked with any other spirit.
How did you cast Wes to complete the central duo?
You know, once you start writing something, and picturing Dale on one side of the screen, you have to start asking yourself who the hell could share that screen with her. She’s so powerful, beautiful, and honest, so it’s not a very long list. I started thinking about the ways rural America has been portrayed and considering the performances that I would want in this movie.
That brought me to Wes Studi, who is a legend and one of my heroes. The image of him and Dale together became extremely appealing. The script has so little dialogue that I knew I needed actors whose presence could fill all that space and all that silence, who could give their characters a grounded past. Wes has done so much of that work, of giving honesty and humanity, to the characters who wouldn’t have it were he not playing them. I knew he could be so lovely in this role.
You frame both Dale and Wes through a lot of close-ups, a style that’s especially present during the more silent stretches you mentioned. Is that a shot choice you had in mind coming in, or something you found while working with them on set?
Working with my great friend and cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, we just tried to tell the story. We never tell ourselves we should get a close-up of this actor, it’ll be so dramatic and important. For the same reason, we don’t say we need to get a wide shot of this location because it’ll be so beautiful. We shoot what we think tells the story of each scene. And, of course, choose to work in a beautiful place and with beautiful people. So that’s what comes out of it. The goal on site is just to tell the story of the characters and to be with someone. The close-up, especially when they’re not talking, just ended up being the best way to do it.
Speaking of that beautiful place, it is so evocatively sparse. How did you end up shooting A Love Song where you did?
That’s where I grew up. Where I live now, so there was no location scout or anything. It’s just the lake I like being at. One I’ve gone and pulled crawdads out of my whole life. That mountain hanging over my favorite mountain. It’s so elegant and solitary, and that seemed to fit very much with the story. So I wrote the story for that campsite in the same way that I wrote it for Dale. It’s a beautiful place, but also harsh and vast, right where the mountains meet the desert. It’s also a place I like to be and I’m fortunate to have a job that allows me to choose where I want to be for a month or so. Might as well be a nice one.
Can’t think of a much better gig than making art in your favorite place.
I mean the only thing better is to do it with your friends, and I’ve been able to do that as well so I count myself extremely fortunate.
Following that line of thought, you were talking about A Love Song being such scrappy production. How did you pull together a crew of friends for it?
I worked with a group of friends from film school in New York. I’ve done a few shorts with a mixture of them and my friends in Colorado. This was was all the same people. Over those years with the shorts, we had figured out the way to shoot these small movies in the middle of nowhere but do so in a way to avoid too much chaos or stress. Now, my friends have developed into wonderful, successful artists, so I’m just lucky to still be able to hire them. As long as they’re willing to keep coming out and do it with me, I hope to keep making projects with them.
Sounds like a proper chosen family affair.
Oh, yeah. I mean, almost literally. My production designer [Juliana Baretto] is my partner. The composer [Ramzi Bashour] is my roommate. All the cow hands are my best friends from birth. I’ve known the producer Jesse Hope since I was born. He pushed me around as a kid. Course I’m the boss now.
I want to ask specifically about a sequence that has lingered in my mind. Near the end of the film, Faye climbs a mountain alone. She passes through this striking birch stand and then pushes to the summit. How did you manage to film such a long scene in such a grand and forbidding landscape?
That was one of the most special days of my life. It was actually our last day of filming. We shot our way up the mountain and then shot our way down. At the top, great Mother Nature blessed us with an incredible sunset. After, we all walked down together in the dark. We eventually lay on the earth. Look at the stars. Hug each other, and prepare to go back into this uncertain world we escaped from for a month.
It’s meant to be a beautiful moment in the film. So Alfonso and I allowed ourselves a little more indulgence while shooting it. The way we chose to use the light and the landscape. But, even that is coming out of the story. It’s a beautiful moment for Faye, so it could be a beautiful moment for the camera as well. Then Ramzi wrote this beautiful song to take us up the mountain, and another one to take us down.
It’s just I sort of feel like when you’re in nature you make this basic deal that sometimes things aren’t going to look the way you want them to, but in exchange, at some point, it will be far more beautiful than you could ever have planned or paid for, and the dice came out right for us on that one. I mean, we were out there for a month and watched the Aspen leaves up on the mountain turn from green to yellow. The very next day after we wrapped, there was a big windstorm and every single leaf was stripped off the trees. If we’d been up there 12 hours later, there would have been not a shred of yellow. Sometimes you just got to get blessed.
Knowing this was your first feature, are there any particular lessons or takeaways that you’re holding on to as you go into whatever comes next?
I really want to be able to hold on to the world and to the people who I’ve been able to build with. I want to keep growing together and keep these people around, and, you know, keep taking credit for their amazing work. The rhythms of making a movie can bring joy and stress and sorrow, but I’ve kind of started to feel that happiness has to come from something else in life. So looking for a way to just build a life that isn’t too vulnerable to being buffeted to and fro by the rhythms of this work. That’s the whole project.
A Long Song is currently playing in select theaters courtesy of Bleecker Street and Stage 6 Films.
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.