The Must-See Willie Nelson Film You Missed in 2019
Waiting for the Miracle to Come writer and director Lian Lunson talks about working with the country legend and the challenges of promoting spiritual movies.
Australian filmmaker Lian Lunson's resume is built upon the trust of musicians who allow her to get inside their heads. Few directors explore the sacred space in the mind where music and spirituality meet, yet that zone has become Lunson's signature: Her 2005 concert documentary I'm Your Man featured candid interviews with the singer Leonard Cohen and his acolytes; Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You followed siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright through a tribute to their late mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle in 2012. Lunson first worked with Willie Nelson in the late 1980s, filming him for a PBS documentary and masterminding a collaboration between the singer and U2. She then tapped Nelson for this year's Waiting for the Miracle to Come, her scripted feature-length fantasy drama about faith and maintaining spiritual connections in which he stars with Charlotte Rampling and Sophie Lowe. The movie was filmed on Nelson's Luck Ranch in Texas, premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 2018, and became available for home viewing earlier this year.
Where did you get the idea for Waiting for the Miracle to Come?
I first got the idea when I worked with Willie Nelson back in the mid-1990s. We were making the documentary Willie Nelson Down Home and shooting at Luck. It was so profound for me to be there amongst the wonderful sets that were originally were built for the 1986 Western Red Headed Stranger [starring Nelson as a gun-slinging preacher and based upon his 1975 album of the same name]. I was such a great fan of that film and the album and director Bill Witliff. I felt that Willie was an untapped treasure. Sure, he had already done many films, but I wanted to write something just for him. I remember looking down the road that runs through Luck and seeing a casino at one end of this street and a church at the other.
How did the film's pairing of Willie Nelson and Charlotte Rampling come about?
I have always been such a huge fan of Charlotte Rampling and I wanted a really respected actor to play opposite Willie. Charlotte has been a champion of filmmakers and has given herself over to films that excite and challenge her. She has never been one to make films to further her career. Charlotte is the best of her kind. There is no one like her. When Charlotte and Willie met, they had the most incredible chemistry instantly. It really was like their characters had been married for a long time. And Charlotte is so generous. She took in the whole experience of being on the ranch and she was really honored to play opposite Willie and Sophie. I loved working with her and so did all of us. I felt extremely lucky to have that opportunity.
You're a fan of classic films, what is your favorite Charlotte Rampling movie (other than your film)?
Georgy Girl (1966) was the first film I saw Charlotte in, and I was just a wee girl and I adored her. It left such an impression on me. I also loved her in The Verdict (1982). I know she has played bigger parts, but I love the chemistry between her and Paul Newman. They were like the most beautiful rugged thoroughbreds together.
There are very few spiritual films in the mainstream. Why is it important to have more spiritual storytelling in films?
I think it is extremely important that spiritual films get made and spiritual stories get told. I don’t think they get made that often or make it to the mainstream because they are quite difficult to make. Director Terrence Malick is the master of the beautiful subtlety of mystery, along with Wim Wenders. Their films are slow and languid, and they breathe. They ask you to contemplate as you watch. People don’t have the patience much these days for slow contemplation, nor do they have the attention span. So it is particularly challenging. I look back to the great films that they made in early Hollywood like Cecil B DeMille’s Ten Commandments that were so mainstream and had such power. We seem to have lost the moral code or compass between light and dark. Films that make us contemplate our own lives and make us spiritually richer by the experience are so rare. The impact of films like Manon des Sources, Jean De Florette and Ponette just to name a few, are so profound. We don’t have many foreign films in American cinemas anymore. I am deeply interested in God and mystery, I think a lot of people are. I think also the Christian faith market makes it quite difficult. "Christian" films have to follow a specific theme for [studios] to get behind you. And God and faith and mystery don’t really have a theme, they are an experience. We must experience the art and see how far it takes us.
What is your advice to filmmakers who want to tell stories that don't fit the mainstream Christian narrative?
My advice would be to get very brave. When you make a film that has a strong sense of the unseen, there are lots of people that won’t like it. They have no connection to the unseen so they cannot feel or experience the layers. All of the films I have made have the same extreme responses. People either experience the unseen nature and contemplation and really love them or they have an extreme reaction the other way. As a filmmaker, you have to be prepared to deal with those reactions and you also have to find people who understand that in order to work with you. I always feel if I can give one person a moment of awakening and a deeper sense of meaning then that it is a job well done.
You have said that women filmmakers shouldn't be singled out based on gender but based upon the quality of their art. Can you elaborate?
Well, I am from Australia, and when I was at the age of becoming extremely interested in film, women were leading the game, not only the filmmakers, but we had really strong female characters. Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career made by Gillian Armstrong was one, and Jan Sharp was one of the biggest producers along with directors Jane Campion and Nadia Tass. I honestly felt back then that women were right up there. When I came here to America, of course, it was quite different. I think it is extremely reprehensible that women get looked over who are really good. I don’t agree with hiring a woman just because she is a woman. We should hire women because they are very good at what they do. And there are thousands and thousands of women like that, who are good and should be hired. But don’t hire them just because they are women. I think if you are neutral about gender you find the right people and a lot of those people will be women. When I made Miracle, most of my keys were women, my producing partner was a woman. I didn’t choose them to stand out and say, 'Look at me, I hired all these women!' I hired women because they were the best. And, to be honest, no women's groups got behind me or my film. I was out there on my own, always have been. Waiting for the Miracle to Come focused on women and starred one of the greatest contributors to women in cinema (Charlotte Rampling)—a woman with an incredible body of risk-taking work, who flew all the way from Paris to Texas whilst her partner was ill to support a woman filmmaker on her first feature. Yet, I got no specific support whatsoever from any female film groups.
You've made several documentaries about musicians. What captivates you about Willie Nelson?
Willie Nelson is like no other human being, he is a cowboy, a mystic, a sage, a rabble-rouser, and a deeply spiritual man. He makes incredible music, but to come across a man who embodies all of those qualities and who is so deeply intelligent and sensitive is so rare. There is nobody like Willie Nelson, I can say the same about Leonard Cohen. When you make films, they are such a big part of your life for years, and if you can’t grow in a spiritual sense during that period of time through the material and or the person, I would find it very tough.
German director Wim Wenders and U2's Bono served as Executive Producers on Waiting for the Miracle to Come. Expand upon Wim Wenders's influence on your work. Did you have actress Sophie Lowe in mind based upon Wenders' prior work with "trapeze chanteuse" types?
I am a huge Wim Wenders fan, always have been. I was fortunate enough to meet Wim many years ago, and in some form or other Wim has been a major influence on my work, either as my mentor or coming on board as a producer. Wim is an extremely generous man and having his name attached or his encouragement towards my work has really helped me internally as a filmmaker. And I hope externally as well. I didn’t really think about the influence of his film Wings of Desire, on Miracle because it was such a different type of theme. And I had seen Sophie Lowe when she was very young alongside Ben Mendelsohn in an incredible film made by Rachel Ward called Beautiful Kate. Rachel Ward is an amazing director. And I really fell in love with Sophie as an actress back then.
Bono wrote a song for Waiting for the Miracle to Come called "Where the Shadows Fall." It feels like a follow-up to U2's 1987 Willie Nelson collaboration "Slow Dancing," for which you filmed the music video. Are there any connections between those two songs and moments?
When I first worked with Willie, it was to film the music video and an EPK (electronic press kit). Willie was on tour in Europe so I chose Dublin to film him because I knew Bono had written "Slow Dancing" for Willie many years before. Turned out Willie had held onto the song hoping one day that they could do it together. So it was destiny for that song and for them. I was talking about writing this film for Willie way back then and it seemed right to include Bono. And I knew that he would write a really beautiful song, so yes, they are very connected.
Do you / have you felt a spiritual connection with every musician/actor you have worked with on your projects (if yes, give example)? Is this connection part of your decision-making process when you decide whom to work with?
Yes, though it is more about the work. As you fall deeper into the work of an artist, particularly an artist who delves into the mysteries, you tend to follow that path in the work and really honor and trust a higher power. The only way "Slow Dancing" was captured in the studio and on film was just that. I think as an artist if you are spiritually connected these magical moments appear, with the only explanation that a higher force had lined it up. Bono first played me "Slow Dancing" on the piano at the Sunset Marquis in 1988. I was an actress at the time, with no idea whatsoever that I would move to the other side of the camera. Yet I took Willie Nelson to U2’s studio to record that very same song years later. That is a divine happening. And I think art is where God’s miracles really can express themselves—art that one hopes will lift people and inspire them no matter what they are going through. No matter how hard things are, if you can disappear into another world for a few hours your perspective can change. That is the beauty and miracle of art. That is why it is so important that films that have a deeper meaning of hope and inspiration are more needed than ever today.
What has been your greatest spiritual challenge in filmmaking?
With Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man, making the film was extremely difficult, it put me through enormous financial stress, but I wouldn’t let it go because that film was so important, particularly for Leonard Cohen, who at the time had just lost everything. He had lost all his money. This was a humble servant to the ache of humanity and he had been robbed of everything, and all Leonard cared about was how was he going to continue to support the people who relied on him. Goodness knows how many there were. His generosity knew no bounds. So getting the film made and finished came from a deeply authentic place. I had to make that film for him. And again, God lined things up in a way that was not something any person could have planned. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the edit of the film and it was glaring that he was not performing himself. Leonard and I were sitting having coffee and I just happened to mention it to him. Leonard responded that he could never do it, he had been in retirement for nearly fifteen years and he had no band. But I knew a band and they were a band who would know how to step up to the occasion and give him the support that he needed. So U2 rehearsed the song continually on the tour and I took Leonard and met them in New York. It was their only day off in a very hectic tour schedule. For their crew as well. I had found via a member of Bruce Springsteen’s team a little club called The Slipper Room. And we shot all of that part of the film including the interviews in about 3 hours. Every person in that room was so honored by Leonard’s presence. It was like a great master had entered a room and people could feel the years of devotion and the words radiate from him. Could I have planned that when setting out to make the film? No. It was a spiritual event that unfolded out of faith in making this film ( for very very little money) the best it could be for Leonard. I remember Leonard telling me that he was at his local supermarket and there was a young kid bagging his groceries. The kid says to Leonard, "You're cool, man." Leonard says, "How do you know about me?” and then the kid says, "I saw you in that movie, I'm Your Man." That really touched Leonard deeply; he said he never thought a kid like that would know anything about him ever. And all of the hardship of making that film, for me, just disappeared at that moment.
Did you feel a spiritual presence while making Waiting for the Miracle to Come?
I believe in energies. Every thought we think every action we take has its own energy and they accumulate. And say, when a good thought-forms re: love, kindness, authenticity, generosity, they become like a cluster or a cloud and they add to the realms, the clusters that are already there along with the thoughts of deep intelligent minds who have spent so much of their life contemplating the mysteries, or beautiful art or poetry. I believe these clusters form the angelic realms. Much like dark thoughts and actions form the dark realms. The likes of Blake and Milton explain it very well. So the more beauty you can create in a film, a beauty that comes from inspiration from these angelic realms, the more you have a chance of touching people and inspiring them to ask their own questions and become seekers. Many people have not tapped into any higher power in a conscious way, mostly by choice or sadly by their circumstances, so the movie-watching experience may not mean as much to them. In my films, I have always had these extreme reactions of either rapture or complete annihilation. There is no other choice for me except to be bold and move forward.