Hanover High alumnus Julian Higgins on his upcoming film “God’s Country”
The neo-Western thriller will premiere this month at the Sundance Film Festival.
In his first feature film, “God’s Country,” Hanover High School alumnus Julian Higgins explores morality in an immoral world. Struggling against racism and sexism in daily life, a Black female professor has her strength of character put to the test when hunters trespass on her land. “God’s Country” will premiere in the 2022 Sundance Film Festival this month.
Over a decade ago, Higgins discovered a quintessential New Hampshire short story called “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke. The tale follows an aging professor’s confrontation with two hunters trespassing on his property. Higgins adapted the story in his 2015 short film by the same name, which was screened at The Nugget Theaters in Hanover. Now, he is reenvisioning this short story in “God’s Country,” a neo-Western thriller.
“I had a gut reaction to the short story,” Higgins said. “Growing up in New Hampshire, it was part of why I identified with it so strongly. I was so familiar with the winter landscape and the certain type of people who lived in the mountains and the trees and the snow.”
Higgins anticipated the 2015 film to be his final engagement with the short story. However, around the 2016 presidential election, Higgins and his screenwriting partner Shaye Ogbonna returned to the story’s themes, drawing creative inspiration from the political moment.
“We were really motivated by the feelings we were having about America in the Trump era,” said Higgins. “We wanted to deal with those feelings through what we do, which is write scripts and make movies. The whole point is engaging with the world as it is and trying to figure out what we felt the truth of the situation was through the process.”
The filmmaker began “God’s Country” by changing the main character from “Winter Light” entirely.
“Thandiwe Newton plays a college professor, Sandra, who lives and teaches in this small Western town, and she’s the only Black woman for miles around,” Higgins said in a “Meet the Artist” video on the Sundance Institute YouTube channel. “In changing the main character from an older white man to a 40-something Black woman, we were able to really engage with the issues and the questions and the anger that we feel about America today.”
In “God’s Country,” Sandra faces a moral dilemma when she encounters two white hunters trespassing on her property.
“The film is quite a departure from the source material,” said Higgins. “The 2015 short film was very close to it, and this is a whole other take on it.”
At Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover, Higgins took classes with drama teacher Kate Schaefer, who inspired him artistically.
“Julian was always so imaginative and creative,” Schaefer said. “I loved having him in class, and it was so wonderful to see him grow as an artist.”
Higgins acknowledges the impact Schaefer had on him.
“I took something with Kate every chance I could possibly get,” Higgins said. “She was an incredibly important teacher for me.”
The director also took classes at Dartmouth while he was in high school.
“[I took] a screenwriting class with [film and media studies professor] Bill Phillips when I got interested in filmmaking, and I took an acting class with [theater professor] James Rice — both phenomenal teachers that were formative for me,” said Higgins. “I will say the Hanover school system really made it possible for me to be an independent-minded, filmmaking teenager.”
Higgins is not the only Hanover native involved with the project. He collaborated with fellow Hanover High alumnus, Anthony Ciardelli, the film’s executive producer.
“This is my first experience being in this role as an executive producer — I’m a freelance journalist — and it has been so rewarding seeing how things developed from when I first read the script, which I loved so much because it was so timely,” Ciardelli said.
Higgins also expressed satisfaction in the production process.
“It was the first day driving to set when I realized that the idea for this movie we had months, maybe years ago, is actually coming into fruition,” said Higgins. “And now there are 40 to 50 people on location in Montana, all working really hard to make it as real and believable as it can be, you know? That is a very moving experience.”
As with many other films, the pandemic temporarily halted the making of “God’s Country.” Production started in early 2020, during which about half the movie was shot. After a break, the latter half was captured a year later in 2021.
Ciardelli and Higgins said that the break actually served as an advantage.
“It was hugely valuable, creatively, to take a break and think about what we are doing,” said Higgins.
As they anticipate the debut of the film in less than three weeks, Higgins and Ciardelli look forward to the conversations that will arise from the film.
“The movie raises more questions for the audience,” Higgins said. “The point of it is to challenge the audience, to think about what it means to be in America and what it means to participate in the society that we’ve set up.”
Ciardelli also commented on the thought-provoking nature of the film.
“The whole idea is to make the audience think differently,” Ciardelli said. “But not necessarily in any particular direction, just to make people question the things they might’ve taken for granted.”
“God’s Country” will premiere online on January 23 at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Correction appended (5:10 p.m., Jan. 8, 2022): A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that "God's Country" will premiere in-person on January 23 and online on January 24 at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Due to a COVID-19 protocol update from the Sundance Institute, all in-person elements of the Festival will be moved online. "God's Country" will premiere online on January 23.