Next Level Spotlight: The Dowager

This spotlight series highlights some of our Next Level Grant recipients. In this spotlight, we asked Maxim and Lucy Nebeker to provide insight into the work on their latest project, ‘The Dowager’. 

photo by: Caty Gainer

Maxim and Lucy Nebeker are a twin brother and sister filmmaking duo. They are Salt Lake natives, who grew up in the shadow of Sundance Film Festival. The festival inspired their interest in filmmaking at a young age along with the bright-eyed belief that anyone could make a good movie, a viewpoint the twins find much more dubious these days. After finishing college, they rejoined forces to create their production company Castor & Pollux Studios, a riff off the famous Gemini twin myth. The two are full-time filmmakers who hope to create a new type of Western, one that is more focused on the region’s own folkloric identity, ethnography and geography. It’s time to shelve those worn Spaghetti Western boots and find a pair with a better fit!  

Tell us about your ‘Rocky Mountain Mythology Trilogy’ and the final installment, ‘The Dowager’.

The Dowager is the third and final film in our ‘Rocky Mountain Mythology Trilogy’, which is an anthology of folktales that explore different characters and themes of the Rocky Mountain West. The shorts are discrete tales but have overarching narrative themes and visual motifs. 

The film centers on Esther Hume, an agrarian woman living on a farm in Northern Utah. In order to stop her dead husband from abandoning her and their farm, Esther shoots his wing off as he ascends to the heavens in the form of an angel. Unable to come to terms with his death, she locks him in the chicken coop and attempts to restore his humanity. You’ll have to watch the film to get the ending.

What led you to create the trilogy?

The trilogy is meant to calibrate an aesthetic and tone that can be applied to our larger feature film projects. As artists, we are all about serving our community by articulating narratives and identities from the region. The American West has been such an iconic place in film history, so much so, that there is an entire genre that is based around our region (the Western). We are interested in reclaiming the Western as a genre that speaks more poignantly from a local’s perspective, something that engages with its history and culture in a bold new way.   

How did you prepare for this project?

This project is meant to be a proof of concept for a feature film that we have written, A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, which is an anthology of stories centered around a Depression-era rural family living on a farm in Idaho. After finalizing The Angler in February, we immediately began work on our final short, The Dowager, which is an abridged version of one of those stories. When we completed the script, we started the funding process. One of grants we applied for was the Next Level Grant offered by the Utah Film Commission and we were awarded the grant in March 2020. 

When COVID-19 struck, we had to put things on hold. Now are well into production with a full cast and crew and shooting in October 2020.

What was your day-to-day experience while filming the first two films?

The Pallbearer was our first professional film and we faced many challenges during production. We built a team of collaborators who were capable and willing to help us learn, and tried to mitigate any problems by extensively planning for the shoot. This preparation allowed us to run the production fairly smoothly. We learned a lot about what we needed to change to make our productions more efficient and kept that in mind as we prepared to write The Angler.

The Angler was interesting as it had no dialogue where The Pallbearer was almost entirely a single conversation. This made us focus a lot more on getting the right emotions out of our sole actor, Cory Dangerfield, who was very willing to do some pretty extreme things; like jump into a glacial river completely naked and covered in slime. 

We learned a lot from making The Pallbearer and applied what we learned to The Angler and even though the latter went much more smoothly, we think The Dowager will be our best yet.

What do you hope your audience takes away after seeing your work? 

We hope to show our audience something visually new and entertaining, but also something that holds a certain familiarity and relatability through the landscape. These are myths about our region made for locals. For our non-local audience, we hope to give them a taste of the magic and cultural uniqueness of the Rockies. 

Is this career path something you always wanted to pursue, and how did you initially get into the industry?

We have always had a lot of respect for film and were exposed to it for most of our childhood, as our mother worked at Sundance. We were both interested in film in high school but it was definitely more of a hobby. In college, Lucy studied visual arts and Maxim studied video game development. After that, we decided to join forces and use our skills and knowledge to begin making films and form Castor & Pollux Studios. We are best friends and have always shared a love for creating new and beautiful things, working as filmmakers together is basically the dream. 

How did the Next Level Grant help you in the process of creating this project?

The money from the grant was used to help secure equipment and pay cast and crew. It also helps legitimize our project with support from the Utah Film Commission.

What advice would you give to a local who is trying to get into the industry?

There are many resources for finding jobs as crew on any number of projects, every job on a set is a chance to network with many people while also gaining valuable experience. For your own projects, it’s important to have well-researched pitches and plans that will help you find people who are interested in supporting your work. Once you have a project that you’re ready to make, send it to anyone you know in the industry, and enter it into as many competitions that you can find and are eligible for. Once you gain support, it can snowball into something bigger. The best thing to do is to have a plan and to set manageable goals for yourself. Take criticism gracefully and pay attention to it even if it’s harsh. 

What’s next for you?

After completing The Dowager and submitting it through the 2021 festival circuit, we plan on packaging the trilogy and distributing it for local viewers through independent theatres in the Rocky Mountain States. 

From there, we are diving right into the funding phase for our first feature film, which we are hoping to shoot next fall. 

How can the audience support the upcoming filming of The Dowager?

We are fiscally sponsored by the Utah Film Center, so if you make a donation through them you will get a tax deduction. Otherwise, you can find info about us on our website, share our work, and spread the word about the Nebeker Twins. 

Watch The Angler from Castor and Pollux Studios on Vimeo.

You can learn more about Maxim and Lucy Nebeker on our Utah Film Directory.

The Next Level Grant Program provides funding for local directors and producers that are currently working on a project in the state of Utah. The Utah Film Commission seeks to cultivate original storytelling by providing the extra push for filmmakers to get their film to the “next level”. This program funds projects of all stages from development to production and distribution. More information on our next round of funding will be available soon. Read more about the Next Level Grant Program here.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Allie Russell is the Marketing Coordinator for the Utah Film Commission. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at film@utah.gov