Working as a real estate appraiser in the early 90s, New York-born David Von Ancken felt like there was something else out there he wanted to do. With no prior experience in the entertainment industry, Von Ancken picked up a video camera and began making short films. With a dream to one day direct his own feature film, he soon found himself on the set of HBO’s “Oz,” in 2003 directing one of the episodes.
His TV resume quickly began to grow with work on a number of shows in the following three years including “Without a Trace,” “Numb3ers,” “The Shield,” “Cold Case” and “CSI: NY.”
He now takes the reigns as director and co-screenwriter of the first feature of his young career with “Seraphim Falls.” The film stars Pierce Brosnan (“The Matador”), a banished Civil War soldier who is tracked by a vengeful colonel played by Liam Neeson (“Kinsey”).
“I’ve just always felt filmmaking was a great way to tell stories,” Von Ancken said. “The more I get to know about the filmmaking process, the more it appeals to me.” From his home in Los Angeles, Von Anken, 40, talked me about his new film and why Hollywood is against making Western films.
Talk to me about the Western genre and how you shopped this script around Hollywood.
[Westerns] are hard movie to get made in L.A. The system here is just very against Westerns. It was a period piece, it was my first movie and it had little dialogue so it was an uphill battle. Then I met Bruce Davey (at Icon Productions). He read the script, we got a lot of good response and he said, ‘Let’s go make this.’ I actually had been offered a considerable sum for the script by [another] studio but they wanted me to rewrite it and not to direct it.
Was that ever an option for you?
The first offer, the studio said, ‘Well, you’ve never made a movie so we want to give it to someone else but we want you to rewrite it.’ I thought, ‘OK, I could use the money.’ Then I thought about it again and decided to keep it and try to make it myself.
When you made the decision to not sell, did anything in your mind scream that this could be the only chance to get this movie made?
There were a few moments where I thought I made a mistake.
Why is Hollywood so against the Western?
I think that the system periodically makes a Western but Westerns are a hard sell. They think only men would be interested or that you can’t sell it to foreign countries. But, actually, this film did well in other countries. I think this will be a resurgence of the Western.
The minimalist filmmaking in “Seraphim Falls,” reminded me a lot of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” How much of the film’s style did you take from other Westerns you might have seen?
It was like early Clint Eastwood or late Sergio Leone. This one is more of a quiet picture. Pierce [Brosnan] doesn’t say his first word for 26 minutes and Liam says about three or four words in that period of time. So it was more about telling the story without dialogue.
I really enjoyed the combination of Neeson and Brosnan in the film. What were you looking for when casting for your two leads?
I was just trying to find a chemistry that felt real. It was just ironic that we ended up with two Irish guys. Both these guys are very behavioral in their style of acting and that’s what I was looking for. Plus, you had never really seen Pierce play a role like this before so it was an opportunity for him and I thought he had it in him.
Yeah, it seems like he is already rid himself of his James Bond shadow, first with “The Matador” and now with this.
People were saying that [“The Matador”] was the start and now we blew the door of its hinges by taking him to a place where he doesn’t even talk.
What were the conditions out there in the deserts and wilderness of New Mexico and Oregon?
They were pretty tough. We were filming for 47 days and 46 of those days were entirely outside. We only spent one day in a studio. It was very cold in the mountains and very hot in the desert and it was always either raining or snowing. But we wanted to capture those elements.
What was the biggest challenge for you as a director going from TV to film?
In film you wind up answering all the questions as a director. [In “Seraphim”], we were really out here by ourselves making this one.