'Visual poetry': Jason Neulander's first feature film, 'Fugitive Dreams,' is released digitally
Director Jason Neulander spent years as a theater director; he founded Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater in 1994 and later created the ‘live action graphic novel’ The Intergalactic Nemesis. These days he’s concentrating on filmmaking, and his first feature film, Fugitive Dreams, is newly available to stream wherever you rent or buy digital movies.
But while Fugitive Dreams will be new to most audience members, it’s been a part of Neulander’s life for more than two decades. “The film Fugitive Dreams is based on a play called Fugitive Pieces that I directed with Salvage Vanguard Theater back in 2002,” Neulander says. “Honestly, I think it's one of the best plays I've ever directed. The play was by Caridad Svich. And when the play was up in front of an audience, I started thinking this has a potential to make a good movie.”
It makes sense that Fugitive Pieces would evoke that thought – the play itself was inspired by cinema. “Caridad had written the play and subtitled it a road movie for the stage,” Neulander explains, “and it was inspired by a bunch of old road movies, including classic Hollywood road movies like The Grapes of Wrath and The Wizard of Oz and Sullivan's Travels, but also by indie cinema road movies of the late 70s and early 80s, such as Down by Law [and] Alice in the Cities.”
Years after directing Fugitive Pieces for the stage, Neulander started thinking more seriously about making a feature-length movie. “I knew that I wanted to direct film probably starting when I was a lot younger, really,” he says. “But I started thinking hard about it and around 2015 or so. And I thought that The Intergalactic Nemesis was going to be the thing that would organically lead to [filmmaking] because the live action graphic novel version of The Intergalactic Nemesis is so visual. But it didn't lead to that. And I realized that if I was going to make a feature film, I would have to do that the same way I've done with every other project that I've ever made in my entire life, which is just kind of bootstrap it and figure out how to do it myself. So I started going back to plays that I had directed back at Salvage Vanguard Theater and thinking them through and Fugitive Pieces came up very quickly as something I thought I might be interested in. I reread the script and found myself in tears at the end of it. And I realized this was the movie that I needed to make because at that time – and this was in the fall of 2016 – it felt like our world was devolving into a place of anger, stress, vitriol, [and] hatred, particularly online. And I really wanted to make a movie that was about grace, compassion, forgiveness, and love. And even more so now it feels like that is a message that all of us can use. And I feel like we were actually able to achieve that in the making of Fugitive Dreams.
“It's about these two lost souls, John and Mary [played by Robbie Tann and April Matthis], who find themselves to be unlikely travel companions across what becomes a very lonely dreamscape America,” Neulander says. “And over the course of the story, they encounter these people whose malignance is intended to end them. But with the help of each other, they find their way home and what they find is that home is not a place, it's each other.”
Neulander says there were some real benefits to making the film when he did. “One of the things that was really great about waiting so long to make a film of the play was that my understanding of the difference between a theatrical experience and a cinematic experience evolved a lot from the time that I directed the play to the time I directed the movie,” he says. “And I think if I directed a film version of the play earlier, it would have been too theater. Just too much dialogue, you know? One of the really fun things about adapting the stage play for the screen was trying to figure out how to take Caridad's exceptionally poetic language – that worked so well in the theater – and turn that into visual poetry that would work well in a film. And I think that it was through making short films that I started to really understand the difference between theater and film in terms of how to tell a story, but also studying screenplays and realizing and looking at the movies that were some of my favorite films and the amount of dialogue that's in those films. And I probably jettisoned… 75% of the dialogue. There's still a fair amount of talking in the movie. But but it's nothing compared to the way this stage play was. And the stage play worked beautifully as a stage play. And I think the film works beautifully as a film.”
Fugitive Dreams was completed right at the end of 2019 and would’ve likely been seen at film festivals throughout 2020 if Covid hadn’t affectively shut down most movie theaters and changed the way smaller films like this get distributed. “At that time, I think movies that were being picked up were all just escapist – for good reason,” Neulander says. “We needed to escape at that time. But the result of that is my movie ended up being stuck in pandemic limbo.”
After a few years in limbo, Fugitive Dreams has just been released to streaming platforms, so audiences can buy or rent the movie wherever they usually buy or rent digital movies (or they can check it out from the library via the Hoopla app). Director Neulander offers a bit of advice for home viewers: “Well, I would recommend for the viewer to watch it on the biggest television that they can get access to,” he says. “Please do not watch this film on your phone. It was shot to be seen in a theater. And if you have a decent sound system, take advantage of that too. If you have a surround sound system, that is when the movie really shines because the sound design on the film is just… I think it's just beautiful.”