“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Renascence

“Runner,” the feature debut directed by Marian Mathais is infused with poetry and art through every frame. The above quote from female poet Edna St. Vincent Millay encapsulates the essence of what she wanted her film to be, conveying the idea that the landscape can be isolating or freeing. In “Runner,” we follow the journey of an 18-year-old girl named Haas (Dutch for ‘runner’ or ‘hare’) whose father dies in a freak accident, and escorts the body from Missouri on a train to be buried in his home of Illinois.

The film is quiet and a thing of beauty that reminded me of Terrence Malick’ film’s work with the landscapes, but really unique in its level of intimacy and vulnerability that we feel through the main character. In our interview, we talked about Marian’s influences for this film, the team behind and in front of the camera, and her hopes for the audience. The feature had its North American premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival this month, and recently premiered at TIFF. “Runner” also recently won the Jury Prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.

Marian Mathias

How did you come to “Runner”?

When I was around the age of Haas (Hannah Schiller), the lead character of the film, I was in a tough spot. I asked my Grandmother for some advice because I was feeling sad. She said whenever you feel pain, go out and love. It was such a simple way at looking at things. The best way to go and heal is to go out and love somebody because there is someone out there that needs you. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the romantic love, it can be love between friends, or love between strangers. It’s about opening up your heart again to new people. 

That was origin of the film, and actually I decided to name the main character Haas after my Grandmother. Haas is her nickname. I looked into the origins of the meaning of the name Haas and she has Swiss German roots, and then I read up on that. I just went off with it, and that’s kind of how this film got started.

The landscapes are just gorgeous. And I love how you tell the story visually. You view the characters from a distance, and then closer to the main character, Haas. Can you talk about that?

I really wanted to go into the isolation of the characters, particularly in vast landscapes. In a certain way, it’s a way of alienating them. But at the same time, it’s also making it feel more intimate when you are close. You want to see what they are feeling. 

I’ve always been drawn to the midwest landscapes. My first short was shot in Michigan, which is where some of my family is from. I’ve just always been fascinated by how houses are so far apart from one another. I just ask the question, ‘how can you be close to each other when you are physically placed so far apart?’

That just became its own thing. How the house is set feels even more isolated. Visually it’s a bigger gesture to connect with people when you are so far apart. And then you go into characters like Baggy (Gene Jones), who is just sitting in his house, and he spends his days just watching these films. People come in and out of his inn. He is really longing to connect with them, but he does not have the language to connect or the bravery to do so. 

I loved his character because you could tell he was on the precipice to say something, but then he was like, ‘Nope.

It’s fun to play that character too. I feel he had a real good time. It’s a hard thing to act by not being able to communicate something you want to communicate. It’s kind of a challenge, but he did such a great job. And I feel midwestern audiences find him charming. People here get it. 

Darren Houle and Hannah Schiller in “Runner”

Let’s talk about casting. How did you find your Haas and the rest of the cast?

We did all sorts of casting. We worked with a casting director, Kate Antognini, who’s based in New York City. She does standard casting through agencies, along with Backstage and all of these professional portals, as well as street casting. For Hannah, she submitted through a portal. We saw her tape and immediately we were interested. It was a challenge because she didn’t have much dialogue, so she just had a couple of words. She was just super-striking to me, and had this power. So she got cast pretty quickly. 

Darren (Houle) is actually found talent. He lives in a Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. We had a talent scout out there and he saw a photograph of Darren and was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He went to go meet Darren who has been a film lover his whole life. He was just perfect. So I flew out to meet him and lucky for us he accepted the part. It was his first time acting, unlike Gene Jones, who is a seasoned actor. He was in “No Country for Old Men.” So our casting process was all over the gamut.

It was an interesting choice to be so distant from the girl’s father. I wanted to get close. I was like, ‘What does he look like?’ Can you talk about that?

I wanted to show a disconnect between the two of them. I was trying to show how Haas felt. She did want to get close to him, but at a certain point, you just don’t have the access. It was just bits of things he says, bits of cruelty, like, “Where did you put my case?” She wants to reach out to him and connect with him, but we are just not able to. We showed that visually through the camera and the lighting as well.

What about your crew?

I’m so proud of our crew because it was a very small crew. It was maybe 30 people maximum. I went to graduate school with some of them, so we had worked together before. The cinematographer, Jomo Fray, and I had worked on my short together, “Go to the Ghost” (2017). It was our production designer Sydney Buchan’s first time doing production design for a feature. But I just really liked her taste. We had worked together in graduate school, and she was just game. She’s super-smart.

There are a lot of NYU students on the crew. I got my MFA there. Then we got some funding from Indiana, so we ended up using local crew in Indiana too. They were just really excited to work on the film as well. I feel very lucky and fortunate that we all just spoke the same language and worked so well together. 

Did you have any influences? Looking at the landscapes, I couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick films.

There are a lot of influences, but to be honest, Terrence Malick, was not in the forefront for me. But I really like his films, though. When people make that parallel, I’m excited about it. So yes, there is Terrence Malick, but also Béla Tarr, Kelly Reichardt, Carlos Reygadas and Jane Campion. The list goes on and on. Sometimes when I look at the film, I’m kind of like, ‘That actually reminds me of a shot in a Campion film.’ It actually can occur to you after filming. It’s been kind of fun to hear. Even last night, people were raising their hands and talking about paintings and things like that.

So yes, I would say there are a lot of filmmakers that were among my influences, but more so than anything, it was painters and photographers and poets. I’ve been a student of that my whole life. My family, my mother in particular, would drive me to museums all over. I would look at Wyeth paintings and Hopper, and photography by Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Also, a lot of photographers and female poets. Edna St. Vincent Millay has a poem that I just really love (Renascence), and it’s all about a girl and the landscape and how a landscape can free you or suffocate you. That’s all about the power of will. 

Behind the Scenes of “Runner”

The film is so poetic, and each still could be its own painting.

That’s kind of an obsession of mine. We have such great access to technology today, but for me, I really do try to treat each frame as simply as possible, like a painting. I really try to strive for that. In the set design and the lighting. we take that really seriously, and in the location scouting too. I drove around for so many hours in Indiana just looking for the perfect graveyard with a center tree. We’re all there up for the task and it was just a really fun challenge.

What do you hope people see in your film?

There are a couple of things. I’m hoping everyone will take away their own interpretation of it. You never know what’s going on in the private lives of people. And my hope is to give the audience the benefit of the doubt, reach out to them and give them some room. There’s that quote in the film when Baggy is watching a film that says, “You can never tell what private tragedies people have had, can you? I mean, when you first meet them.” That’s one thing I’d really like people to take away from the film is just to take care of each other. 

Something I thought was fascinating was when the townspeople come to the corner of the screen and watch Haas from a distance. Can you talk about that?

I call that the Greek chorus. It’s a group of people from the town projecting their own fears upon this character. They say about this young girl, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be alone.” They are projecting their own insecurities and fears onto someone who didn’t really ask for it. When I see those shots, Hannah is on a stage that she didn’t ask to be put on. They are kind of interpreting her and analyzing her, but hey are not saying it to her face. It’s the thing that is said behind the curtain, and sometimes that can even be more hurtful and alienating. I also wanted to play a bit with the surreal, and that was one of those shots that was kind of surreal and out-of-body, in a way, through the choreography of it. 

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