How Fugitive Pieces Became Fugitive Dreams

Jason Neulander takes the trip from stage to screen for his feature debut

Not every journey is straight as a railroad. In 2002, Jason Neulander was artistic director of Salvage Vanguard Theater, but used the intimate setting of the Hyde Park Theatre to mount the Austin premiere of Fugitive Pieces, a play by Caridad Svich about a pair of drifters riding the rails in a somewhere, somewhen America. However, that same year his biggest project to date – retro live-action radio drama The Intergalactic Nemesis – began to take over his career, leaping from the small stage of Little City coffee house to a radio version for KUT, and finally a globe-trotting multimedia production that would dominate his workload almost a decade and a half.

When that finally wrapped up in 2016, Neulander started looking for a new project – his feature directorial debut – by going back and reading plays that he'd directed years earlier. Immediately, Fugitive Pieces leapt out of the stack. He said, "I found myself in tears and was taken aback by how moved I was by it."

Yet, obvious as it seems, a film is not a play. So Neulander sat down with Svich to convert the script as Fugitive Pieces became Fugitive Dreams, which makes its U.S. debut at the Austin Film Festival. He said, "The plot points are ostensibly the same, but the way we get to those plot points is very, very different."

The first major change was in the dialogue. The original play was basically a two-hander, which by nature tend to balance the text between the two characters. Neulander and Svich first looked at the nature of the characters: holy fool John (Robbie Tann), and Mary (April Matthis), who has purposefully separated herself from humanity. He said, "John's this rambling, manic motormouth, and Mary wants to escape from the world in any way that she could." The first step was to strip out a lot of Mary's dialogue and let her presence and performance, rather than her words, explain the character. "She's not interested in him at all. Why would she interact with him if she didn't have too?"

The writing and fundraising process stretched over the next year, but he was finally ready to film in 2019. The main shoot took place in the windswept cold of January and February, on railroad tracks and in corn fields around Austin, "but then we came back in March and April for the ending scene, and some sequences where it needed to be warmer." Neulander deliberately gave himself more time than is normal for an indie feature, and not because he's a first-time director. The extended schedule gave him more time to consider reshoots, "and some of the scenes that didn't quite land, to really shape them."

But what's that old saying about films? There's the one you write, the one you film, and the one you find in the edit suite. That's where the film had some of its most dramatic restructuring – most especially, Neulander noted, in the first act. He explained, "We actually ended up creating two scenes in the edit that we didn't even shoot, cobbled together from other scenes, to give it breathing room, and now it's one of my favorite parts of the film."

As a self-described control freak (isn't every director, at some level?), Neulander said that he found the process of film editing extremely creatively satisfying. He explained, "When I'm doing theatre it would drive me a little batty that we would polish it for opening night, but across the run it would inevitably evolve, and that evolution would start to take it away from the super-ratcheted-down version of the play that I had in my head prior to the opening. The amazing thing in film is that, when it's done, it's never going to change."

Fugitive Dreams

Texas Independents, U.S. Premiere
Sat., Oct 24, 8:15pm

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Austin Film festival 2020, Austin Film Festival, AFF 2020, Jason Neulander, Fugitive Dreams, Fugitive Pieces, Robbie Tann, April Matthis

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