Director Logan Sandler tells us about creating a "Caribbean Daydream Turned Nightmare"

by Sid Feddema

"Live Cargo" is a movie whose tension builds in slow motion, through loaded glances and fraught exchanges. The setting is a tiny Caribbean island, captured in starkly beautiful black and white that forgoes the jewel-like colors of the sea and sky to focus on texture and shadow, where a young couple reeling from a recent tragedy hope to recover and repair their relationship. However, they soon find themselves entangled in the taut social fabric of the island, finding that there is something dark beneath the surface of their idyllic surroundings. Director Logan Sandler emphasizes both the beauty and the claustrophobic insularity of island life, imbuing the surroundings with a ominous sun-beaten lassitude that sets the stage for the simmering violence lying in wait. We spoke with Sandler on the eve of the film's wide release to talk about the process of directing his debut feature, which has already swept up accolades on the festival circuit:

As your first feature film, was the process of bringing “Live Cargo” to fruition more or less challenging than you expected? Were there any surprises along the way?

Every film has it’s own unique set of challenges. Some of these challenges can be identified during pre-production and other challenges won’t present themselves until you are on location and you begin creating. It’s integral to transform these challenges into creative opportunities. Given the logistical difficulties of our location, this type of thinking became almost second nature. I can most definitely say that I learned more making this first feature than I could have ever imagined. There were a lot of surprises over the course of the shoot. With this, the crew and I became open to embracing a surprise or something unexpected. If something spontaneous happened that could potentially make sense for the film, we would try to incorporate it. For me, that’s the beauty of filmmaking - when something unexpected makes it’s way into the film and fits perfectly. A great example of this was after one of our night shoots - we were loading up our gear onto the production golf carts when a lightning storm started to break in the distance. Lakeith Stanfield and I instantly got excited, and knew that this backdrop could potentially lend itself to a powerful moment. Quickly we realized that we could collect a series of shots of Lakeith walking down a desolate road that could be placed in the film after he leaves Dree Hemingway’s character in the local bar. Sure enough, on the first take - CRACK, we captured a beautiful brooding moment of Lakeith with lightning striking and flaring up the whole sky. 

What is it about the Tropics that makes the region such an artistically fruitful setting for you? Why do you find yourself revisiting the region as a filmmaker?

There’s something incredibly life affirming about being in the Tropics. I’m inexplicably drawn to the landscape and the stories of that region. It feels right. I don’t believe all of my work will take place in this area of the world, but I will surely be back for another project. 

Can you tell us a bit about the development of “Live Cargo”, from idea to execution? 

I tend to collect a lot of details - both aural and visual. Different sounds, music, rhythms, and textures - anything that leaves an impression on me. Some images are inspired from photographs, others from my imagination. It all starts in a rather untraditional way. With Live Cargo I had been cultivating for sometime before the physical writing, I knew the tone and themes at play, but the story itself was not yet fully formed. I met my writing partner Thymaya Payne through the American Film Institute mentorship program. The head of the directing department had known Thymaya, and thought we shared a lot of similarities in taste. When we first met I told him about the feature I wanted to make when I graduated from AFI, and after after sharing some cinematic references with him we realized our minds did in fact align quite closely. Thymaya and I both had a shared admiration of Claire Denis’ White Material. Having that common ground in many ways was the clincher in us deciding to collaborate together on the script. We went down to the Bahamas and began constructing a story around what we had and what we felt in the location. The time spent there really helped transport the script into that world. Ultimately, a film should do that for its viewers. I love to have this sense of truly being transported to another place when I watch something. I want to feel like I am there. In order to make a film that transports you, you have to go to that physical place to write. The execution was exciting and exhausting. We shot during hurricane season, and experienced some incredible storms. Most of our gear had to be taken by seaplane and ship from Fort Lauderdale into Bimini. The casting director & I actually had a great deal of the island come into audition. We went door to door searching for potential actors. The island has a pretty small population, so it allowed us to audition the majority of the people living in Bimini. Making this film always felt like an adventure. 

There’s this sense of islands as being both places that offer escape, but also places where one can become trapped or that can be claustrophobic. You communicate that tension really effectively in “Live Cargo”. Can you talk about your personal intellectual or emotional relationship with island life? 

There is a great dualism of conflicting forces at work within the setting. I believe that’s one of the reasons why the location is so unique. The pace of life on the island is much more languid than it is here in the states, it allows for much more personal reflection. With this extreme amount of personal reflection, the island can become a very emotionally volatile space in which deep rooted issues will rise to the surface. For Hemingway and Stanfield’s characters, the island is first seen as a place to escape and ultimately rebuild, but quickly the island’s constricting energy brings their true disconnect to life. The “trapped” element of being on vacation in a such a small place showed the two characters how badly their love was struggling to resurface after the unthinkable pain they had gone through. Throughout the film, the fight to overcome their sadness and anger is a difficult ugly process - at many times unspeakable. 

Can you tell us a bit about your development as a filmmaker? When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? How have you found the transition from academia to the world of professional filmmaking?

I’ve always loved movies and writing. When I finished high school, I had zero experience in the field. Growing up in Miami, the industry was kind of a mystery for me. So, I felt I needed a formal education in order to discover what precisely I loved about movies and ultimately figure out what job within film I want to pursue. I got into the undergraduate film school at Loyola Marymount University, and made a couple of shorts there. I got my feet wet in the professional world with internships at DC Comics’ Film Division and Wendy Finerman’s production company. My senior thesis went to a few festivals. The process of making my senior thesis, “All It Will Ever Be,” really made it clear to me that I loved directing far more than any other position in film. From there, I studied at the American Film Institute where I was a directing fellow. Heading to AFI made a lot of sense for me, because it gave me the opportunity to strictly focus on the discipline of directing. Those two and a half years were a great period of rigorous learning and creative incubation. I received an M.F.A. from there in 2014. Lakeith Stanfield who starred in “Live Cargo,” also starred in my AFI thesis film, “Tracks.”  That film made the festival rounds, while I was finishing “Live Cargo.” The script for the feature was developed during my second year at AFI with the late Seth Winston and my co-writer Thymaya Payne. We finished the script by the time I graduated. I did not want there to be too much lag time between finishing AFI and beginning work on my first film. It was my goal from day one at AFI to have a film off the ground by the time I graduated. The transition from academia to the professional world has been transformative. In film school, there’s a lot of other people involved who have equal weight in finishing the film in order to graduate or what have you. No one is going to hold your hand and finish the film for you in the professional world. I believe that first feature film is much more rigorous than any project in film school could ever be. There’s many more issues at play here. It takes a lot of determination to get that first feature film out the door. It’s much easier to shoot a film, than it is to finish it. We were blessed to have been selected to IFP’s year long program. IFP’s program really opened a lot of doors for the project and helped guide us in finishing the film, not to mention the fact that they helped facilitate a lot of the initial industry exposure.

What directors or films would you cite as your greatest influences? What lessons have you taken from those influences?

I’ve got a lot of influences and inspirations. If anything moves me emotionally, I’m in a way influenced by it. I watch a lot of French and Italian cinema. The first film that really made me want to be a filmmaker was Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. My inspiration is constantly evolving from project to project, and with Live Cargo I was really drawn to film’s that exuded a sensual and ominous tone. Evocative cinema. I love bold risk-taking filmmakers like Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and Michelangelo Antonioni. During the shoot of the film, I found myself reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, along with the poetry of Aime Cesaire. All of these influences and inspirations have been great examples of individuals creating singular work that is unmistakably their’s. You have to strive to make your work unequivocally yours. 

The social dynamics of the tiny island and the ominous torpor that pervades the tropical atmosphere make for a fascinating dramatic setting. The tense insularity reminded me a bit of Polanski’s "Knife In The Water”. Can you expand on those dynamics?

I love Polanski’s “Knife In The Water.” That maybe my favorite film of his. Either that or Rosemary’s Baby. I showed “Knife In The Water,” to my cinematographer in pre-production. The way Polanski sets up the geography of the characters on the sailboat is masterful. The island in my mind was filled with tension on the verge of violence.  The tension builds throughout the film to a breaking point for all of the characters. Each character responds differently to the tension and how they react gives light to who they were at that specific time. The characters seem to find themselves during these breaking points. “Live Cargo” is a film that is imbued with a certain heightened verisimilitude. Integral to this film was a desire to capture the timeless almost surreal atmosphere of the Bahamas. I knew I had to explore the island culture on a dreamy, almost hypnotic level in order to create a Caribbean daydream turned nightmare. The goal was to deliver a strikingly intimate film whose camera never shied away. We’ve had a few screenings down in the Bahamas, in which the local audience responded well. I do believe the film is in tune with the subtle distinctions and particular machinations that make the islands hum and come to life. 

Do you have a favorite memory from the shoot? What about a particularly challenging moment? 

There’s so many it’s truly hard to pinpoint one. But I think some of the most thrilling sequences took place out on the water. Shooting on boats is very difficult but also very exciting. The same can be said for shooting underwater. Your senses are really heightened when you get out there. It generally took us about twenty to thirty minutes to get to our ocean base camp area. The initial ride out gets you into your creative zone. It’s a beautiful thing to see everyone getting in tune with the ocean. Our last day out on the water turned out to be the most exciting. Towards the end of our day, a storm appeared almost out of nowhere, moving very quickly towards us. We were pretty much surrounded by storm clouds within a matter of minutes. I recall being in the water and not having really looked up at the sky in some time, then finally taking a moment to check my surroundings and bam - nothing but dark grey clouds overhead. It takes a while to get all of the gear from the ocean into the boat to be properly packed up. Everyone hustled to get everything situated, but we still got rained on a bit before leaving. Then we were off to the races, literally speeding back to home base neck and neck with this huge tropical disturbance. We had three boats jetting to the docks. We barely out ran the storm. It was a rocky high speed ride. Our motors were at full throttle. Everyone was soaked by the time we got back. The whole team made it back safely, but it was definitely something that felt like it was out of the film “Twister.”

Much of the drama in the film happens “beneath the surface”, so to speak. What went into the decisions about what to hide and what to reveal?

I believe in gathering as much footage as possible. The film’s screenplay is truly re-written during the editing phase. In the editing suite, we had a rule that no moment in the film could feel contrived. Each moment had to be alive, breathing. Much of the film is built upon the looks and gestures of the characters. In cinema, I gravitate toward the powerful moments where nothing is said. I believe we can gather a lot from an actor’s expression, and that’s something I don’t want to shy away from. I thought of the film as this ballet of images, where the gestures and actions would give the audience the information and emotion they needed.

What advice would you offer a young filmmaker hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Be confident in what you do and be true to yourself. Don’t ever give up. 

What’s next on the horizon for you? What are your hopes for your future as a filmmaker?

Keep creating more work! I have a couple of cool projects in different stages of development in television and film. It’s a very exciting time. Stay tuned! 

"Live Cargo" will be in wide release on March 31st.