(Main photo by Melodie Jeng; courtesy of The Secret Gallery and CAVU Pictures)
Four suburban teenagers — one girl and three boys — discover an empty trailer park during a road trip through the rural South. Hidden by the embrace of the murky woods, this desolate neighbourhood has not been a home for a very long time.
With their cameras, longboards, and paintball guns at hand, the teens claim the ghost town as their own secret playground, where they are free to roam and do as they please without the lingering, judgemental eyes of an adult.
But what the teens don’t know is that the walls of the trailer park tell a dark tale, one that haunts a mysterious spectator who is following their every move.
It sounds like a typical teen thriller, doesn’t it? But that’s where the similarities end.
Marking the narrative feature debut of casting director/documentary filmmaker Daniel Peddle, Sunset Edge subverts the teen thriller genre, abandoning cheap thrills for eerie silence, telling a coming-of-age tale that blurs the line between fiction and documentary.
Set in Peddle’s home state of North Carolina, Sunset Edge follows four teens — Jacob (Jacob Kristian Ingle), Haley (Haley Ann McKnight), Blaine (Blaine Edward Pugh), and Will (William Dickerson) — who arrive at the abandoned trailer park known as Sunset Edge, the mysteries of which soon unfold in a non-linear narrative that shifts from the present time to dreamlike flashbacks.
Peddle, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, set out to create a teen thriller that had “no sex, no drugs, no alcohol” — a rule that he admits was a challenge. “Just having those kinds of restrictions really helped me in terms of figuring out how to avoid the clichés that we associate with teenage thrillers,” he reveals. “There’s a lot of things that you go into it expecting. To try and do a movie that doesn’t do any of those things, in a strange way, it kinda created itself.”
Instead, Peddle, along with the film’s cinematographer, Karim López, relied on natural lighting to capture haunting, poetic images that helped bring the film’s themes — such as loneliness and identity — on screen.
Dilalogue was kept sparse and limited; and for the scenes that did include discourse, a lot of it was ad-libbed. The most notable is arguably a monologue earlier in the story by Will, who tells his friends about their insignificance in the universe.
“I’m obsessed with non-dialogue films, and I also love graphic novels, especially the ones that have no texts,” Peddle says. “It’s just something I’ve been exploring my whole life. I have a series of wordless children’s books as well. This is something I’ve been into for a really long time.”
Peddle also applied his background in painting. He explains: “A lot of the social issues, if you will, that we tackle in the film, I wanted to come up with ways of dealing with them in a visual sense, so they percolate over the course of the film rather than being pushed upfront throughout. That’s how we came to the sort of loaded symbolic visuals. I mean, I’m also a painter, so I’m really sensitive to context and just the way to manipulate composition, to get into people’s subconscious.”
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Peddle calls Terrence Malick, a director known for defying storytelling conventions, one of his main influences as a filmmaker.
One film that influenced Sunset Edge, in particular, was Steven Soderbergh’s 2006 film Bubble, a Midwestern-set murder mystery. “In that film, he basically works with a local community to collaborate, to create this narrative,” he recalls. “The local people are all in the film as well. When I saw that film, it really just opened up for me this terrain [that] you don’t really see explored very often, which is a realm between fiction and documentary.”
However, it was really during Peddle’s first visit to the abandoned trailer park with his then 14-year-old nephew, Jacob, that was the root of the film’s inception. The park’s ominous environment had cinematic potential that he knew was the perfect backdrop for a mystery thriller.
“When we went out to that location, the first few times I went there, it had its own inherent creepy quality,” Peddle recounts. “It was just really symbolically rich left as it was. I often describe those trailers as being raw souls with their blown-out windows and their missing doors. It was like so many hollow eyes and gaping mouths. A lot of my goal going in was to just capture what actually exists out there, and not to tamper with it too much.”
Jacob, who brought his friends Will and Blaine during location scouting, became a muse for Peddle, who was captivated by his nephew’s behaviour upon arriving at this foreign setting. “Being a millennial, he’s easily distracted and in general can sometimes pass this kind of disaffected quality,” he says about his nephew, who, along with his two friends, would eventually be cast in the film.
“Those kids, they’ve experienced so much through social media and the news at such an early age, they’re almost immune to a lot of the things that would probably stimulate you and I. When he got there and saw how quickly he got engrossed with this strange little world, I realized that was an interesting thing in and of itself, just being a kid from that generation, at that age, experiencing this place that was from another time.”
In Peddle’s observations, he was most fascinated by the boys’ dependence on technology and how it affected their way of communicating with each other. These interactions, or lack thereof, through the use of technology would be adopted into the script, serving as a dominant theme that permeates throughout the film.
He explains: “They would split up, and they were all in different trailers. They would all be texting each other; or they would be together in a trailer, but not communicating with each other. To me, it was almost alarming to see people together, but not interacting together against the context of this weird background. It had its own beauty. It’s almost like they were isolated in these abandoned trailers.”
Overlapping the story of the four friends is Malachi, played by Gilberto Padilla, a 16-year-old boy who goes to Sunset Edge in search of the answers behind his family’s troubled past. Through Malachi, says Peddle, the viewer sees “why an artist becomes an artist.”
In the film, Malachi finds comfort in being alone with the trees, which he painted with faces when he was a little boy. “I don’t know if it’s something that all artists share, but I would imagine many of them do, especially all my artists friends, they all experienced it,” says Peddle. “You don’t fit in; you have to find yourself. So it is, in a lot of ways, I think the film should operate from that kind of level of portrait of an artist finding their voice.”
Initially planned as a white-haired, blue-eyed Children of the Corn-inspired character, Malachi was rewritten after Gilberto read for the role. Along with Haley, Gilberto was cast after Peddle visited their high school drama class. This method of “street scouting” for inexperienced talent is what Peddle specializes in for The Secret Gallery, his New York-based agency, which serves top fashion clients from Vogue to Elle.
“The main thing they [inexperienced actors] bring is a certain naivety,” says Peddle, whose most famous discovery was a then 14-year-old Jennifer Lawrence. “Actors often, they have some — it’s almost like baggage they bring to the roles, and their expectations that they presume you have about the roles. I knew that that sort of quality from a professional actor would undo some of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Discovering fresh talent, Peddle says, is life-changing. “I just love the experience of having a sense about someone. Like, ‘Hey, I think this person has some really amazing performance abilities that they don’t really know.’ It’s really fascinating to get to witness that flower blossom; it’s part of the reason why I like making movies.”
Working with newcomers, however, wasn’t any different from working with professionals. “We weren’t dealing with them as if they were somehow less talented or less experienced. We just went into it, like, okay, we’re gonna treat these kids just as we would anyone that we would hire from a union or discover at an acting agency. And they ended up being, in some ways, more professional than professional actors.”
Sunset Edge, which debuted at last year’s Rural Route Film Festival, opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 29. It’s been a longtime coming for a director who already has two documentaries to his name — The Aggressives and Trail Angels.
However, Peddle has no plans to take a break from filmmaking. He is already busy in pre-production for his next feature, a cautionary tale. “It’s about a young girl who works the door at a club,” he teases. “It sort of follows how she navigates the hype machine of downtown New York City, and her quick ascent into notoriety, and then her fall from grace.” The premise is a far cry from his Southern gothic debut; and if Sunset Edge is any indication, don’t expect Peddle to be playing by the rules, either.
Sunset Edge opens in New York (at Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (Laemmie Playhouse) on May 29. Check out the trailer below.
(All photos courtesy of The Secret Gallery and CAVU Pictures)