The new film from director Daniel Peddle is a quiet drama that shines a light on what it’s like to be an outsider living in small town America. Titled Moss, this quiet drama resounds with hefty questions and is filmed in a distinct and softly almost psychedelic style, with the lens focused upon a sensory immersion in nature and the longing of its characters, which offers a haunting, lyrical and lush look at life in Southern Gothic America and the people eternally connected to it, revealing the struggles and beauty of lives deeply connected to nature.
This intimate character study stars former Calvin Klein model Mitchell Slaggert, who offers a stunning performance saturated in deep reflection and breathtaking mystery as the lead character, Moss, whose mother died having him and is celebrating his 18th birthday as the film opens; only there is nothing to celebrate. His only good friend, Blaze, lives alone on a raft-house cobbled together from buckets and crates. A runaway from a meth-infected family, Blaze finds his peace living solo off the grid. And with a father trying to forget his past, the two disappear into the woods for solace.
But when Moss carries on down the river, he’s met with the surprise of his life – a mysterious, beautiful woman setting up camp on the riverbank. Their eyes meet across the lapping water and soon they are sharing a meal by her campfire. She’s a drifter ten-years older than Moss and an experienced free-spirit. Moss has never met a woman like this. When she learns it’s his birthday she offers a special treat – psychedelic mushrooms. Together they trip and make their way to the beach. Under the sway of the ‘shrooms, Moss’s barriers collapse and he starts to unravel his painful past. Mary is a good listener. She’s captivated by his naïveté and isolation. She knows what to say to help him, heal him, and teach him how to forgive himself.
When asked about his unique cinematic style and the genesis of his latest work, Peddle notes that throughout his entire life he has been an artist. “At an early age, I was particularly proud of my portrait works. I loved the thrill of studying someone’s face: understanding it as a landscape, how it pinched and dipped. What it told me when it was quiet. Every face has its own beauty if you know how to look.”
“As a filmmaker, casting is a chance to make art. To fully explore a character as one would in a portrait but then some. It’s also not just about the outcome for me; it’s about the people’s lives I am affecting by making the film. I want to truly collaborate and weave together our real selves into the fabric of the fiction.”
“When I saw Steven Soderbergh’s movie Bubble I had my filmmaking mind blown. The idea of working with a local community as the cast of the film dovetailed wonderfully with my own discovery of the “non-actor” while working on my student films as a grad film student at New York University. I moved to New York City from rural North Carolina, where I loved to go crayfish hunting. Turning over stones searching for crayfish in the cool creeks on hot summer days was one of my favorite childhood activities. When I first moved to Manhattan I was awestruck by the streaming streets and it wasn’t long before I was searching them for talent for my projects.”
“New and non-actors don’t put up a lot of walls and barriers in their performances. I like to say, “Do this the way you would do it.” This technique yielded the most fantastic results in Moss. Our young star, first-timer Mitchell Slaggert, started the film shaving his head in the first scene. It was a symbolic gesture for Mitch—now he was becoming this character, Moss. His instincts took over from that moment on and his performance was pure and raw and fascinating. He would do things that just floored me, such as making a PB&J sandwich in the most kooky, cinematic way. I could have never ever thought something like that up. I went into the scene just thinking we’d get a good insert and came out with gold.”
“The first time Mitchell ever held a script, he nailed a cold reading. I decided on the spot I wanted to make a film with him. Six months later Mitchell had just turned twenty-one and we were shooting Moss on Carolina Beach, an island very near where we met. I like to call the film “local and organic.” Everything about the process was drawn from the working-class community surrounding us and our shared roots in the country ways of the South. We both grew up playing in the woods and absorbing the brutality and isolation of nature. We wanted to explore how this informs identity, relationships, love, and loss.”
“Just like Moss’ Dad creates sculptures from driftwood, as a filmmaker, I see myself as a similar artist. I work with what I find. When the current brings you that special piece, you already know what it will be. You know when you read a book and fold the page over to mark your place? That’s how I felt after making my debut narrative Sunset Edge. That I didn't finish. I wanted to go back to that place in the book and carry on.”
“Moss shares a lot with my first film. They both deal with rural isolation, its impact on identity, protagonists who never knew a parent, who find their solace in the woods. They both are seemingly simple stories with minimal dialogue and storybook imagery, dreamy landscapes charged with symbolism. I think of these films as I do all my art - as things that “come to me”. I don’t really question them too much. I try to just listen and let them be what they want to be. If you let them, they will surprise you. So much of my own creative process makes no sense. I make choices based on hunches, superstitions, gut, whims, all those fleeting ways the universe tries to let you know its will.”
“My goals for Moss was just to make a modern fable. I wanted to tell a very simple story, like Little Red Riding Hood and play with all these classic elements of lore: the trickster, the poison, the witch, the snake, the boy lost in the woods, etc. Fairy-tales operate on a subconscious level and that is where their real power lies. I strive to imbue my work with this haunting quality.”
As for his biggest challenge in rendering this latest work, Peddle points to the enormous will-power that it required. “When you’re working with a small budget and local communities, you have to be incredibly nimble and innovative. You can never let lack of resources slow your momentum. You have to “will” things to happen, be tricky, get dirty, take risks. It’s a battle of sorts and the constraints you face end up defining the film to a degree. You learn how to work within your limits but you push as hard as you can against them. It is exhausting on every level - mentally, physically, spiritually and creatively. But that dynamic gives the film its soul. Nothing is easy about making a movie.”
In terms of his lush and distinctive cinematic style, who are some of the influences that have helped inspire and inform his work?
“Maurice Sendak, who was a friend and mentor of mine had a big influence,” reflects Peddle. “I also make picture books and they have many similarities to films. Though they are much easier and cheaper to make. I’ve been a painter my whole life and I am obsessed with the nature and quality of light. I love Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth...these extremely "American" artists that are sort of frowned on by the establishment as too illustrative, even cliché. In their own lives, they were always outsiders. But they had a way of creating these iconic enduring images that spoke to so many people not just the elite. They were storytellers and I appreciate the narrative quality of their work and a certain shared alchemy they used to capture light.”
“As far as filmmakers I love Terrence Malik and Zhang Yimou. The way they tackle these big themes of life by shifting the focus to small poetic moments. There is something quintessential about their films. You have the feeling “nothing is happening yet everything is happening.” You think about their films days later, years, your whole life.”
Finally, what does Peddle feel distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences?
“Well it’s a very curious film. I know I have never seen anything quite like it. I find it extremely immersive. You really feel the place, the breeze whispering through the live oaks, the electric hum of high-summer bugs, the lazy lap of the river and taste of salty air on the dunes. You feel it all. You are there. And then this incredible cast of such striking and engaging faces, beautiful to witness and just enjoy. This is just a little movie with a big heart. It doesn’t ask much of you, just that you sit back and drift with it.”
Moss is a quiet drama that resounds with hefty questions. With its sensory immersion in nature and its yearning characters, the gorgeously shot film is a memorable study of solitude and connection.
It will certainly be a stand-out experience at this year’s 12th annual Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival.