There's something definitively American about riding the rails. Even in the second century of the automobile, the image of pushing across the Great Plains, hopping from boxcar to boxcar, is a quintessentially American vision of freedom.
Jason Neulander is fulfilling that dream on camera with his debut feature as a director, Fugitive Dreams. It's a bitterly cold day at the Austin Steam Train Association shunting yards in Cedar Park, and Neulander and his cast and crew are breaking between setups as a winter front blasts through. Still, Neulander's smiling: After all, every kid grows up wanting to play with trains, and here he is, ordering a locomotive around the rail lines of Central Texas. It's an experience he describes as "jaw-dropping. The last three days, we've been shooting in this boxcar while it has been moving on actual train tracks, pulled by a locomotive. It has been amazing."
Neulander is probably best known as the driving force behind The Intergalactic Nemesis, a tale of Thirties pulp action that became a stage show, radio play, comic series, and finally a touring fusion of visuals and reading that he called "a live-action graphic novel." After 21 years of Nemesis, in 2017, he put the show on hiatus and started looking for his next project. He'd been experimenting with filming shorts but went back to his stage roots for inspiration. In 2002, he directed a production of Caridad Svich's play Fugitive Pieces at Hyde Park Theatre which he has now adapted with Svich for the screen. The story follows Mary (April Matthis) and John (Robbie Tann), who meet in the most despairing of circumstances and form "this very unlikely and beautiful partnership," said Neulander. "It's a road movie about two homeless people trying to survive in middle America."
While his shorts – dark mystery "Hit & Run" and Lovecraftian comedy "Buttercup" – were both fantastical, Fugitive Dreams is grounded in social realities; however, Neulander said, "It's not realism. It's magical realism, and the story is very strange and very dark and very funny, and you end up meeting these characters who are unlike anyone you have met before. But at the same time, you find yourself identifying with them."
Filming that story may seem far removed from the wild fantasies of The Intergalactic Nemesis, but both were Neulander's response to the political scene at the time. Nemesis' live-action iteration was conceived at the beginning of the 2008 recession "as a way to escape for two hours." In the 2016 election cycle, he began to fear the rising tide of vitriol in common life. As a response, Neulander explained, "I was looking for a story about grace, compassion, forgiveness, and love. That's the antidote. So my head went back to this play script, and I re-read it, and I was crying. This script was as beautiful as when I read it 15 years before."
For the stage play, his design ambitions had to be squeezed into the confines of the neighborhood theatre: The script was a four-hander, and he got around re-creating the feel of the rail lines by covering the stage floor with 13 tons of gravel. This time, he has a whole rail system (courtesy of Austin Steam Train Association and Capital Metro) to work with, but the story's heart remains the boxcar. As he was adapting the script, he saw it as "a liminal space" that cannot be replicated by a car or a truck or an airplane. "It represented this iconic, American hobo experience that is unmistakable and evocative of a whole other era."
Fugitive Dreams has just wrapped primary shooting. We’ll be keeping you up to date with developments at austinchronicle.com/screens.
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