While end-of-days films abound in modern cinema, First Winter achieves its power without an arsenal of computer-generated effects. We are brought to our knees with understatement: a naturalistic narrative that emphasizes human behavior in its unadorned complexity.
The brilliance of this feature debut by writer-director Ben Dickinson stems from letting the cast play variations of themselves. Like the best of Cassavetes—yet at a lower incendiary level—First Winter draws strength from improvisation and raw characterizations.
Paul Manza, who plays a yoga teacher named Paul, is an actual yoga teacher. The setting of the film is his 19th-century weekend home in Campbell Hall, an Orange County retreat called Heartland. Dickinson began visiting in 2009 as a student. By 2011, he was working on a script inspired by his surroundings.
When Dickinson unveiled his screenplay, and invited Manza to be the lead, the 35-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn, readily agreed, enthused by the film’s message about the role of spiritual faith during a crisis. “I just really trusted him that he was going to write a story that was really useful and beautiful,” Manza says.
For his part, Dickinson cast the non-actor because he saw in Manza “an aura about him that is attractive and magnetic in real life so I thought that would translate onto film well.”
The gamble paid off; as the character Paul, Manza suggests a shaggily handsome New-Age Rasputin, eerily captivating but emotionally distant. Paul emerges as an amoral narcissist, intent on maintaining his hold over his followers even as imminent doom becomes apparent. It is a brave, disturbing performance and Manza’s eyes, alternately placid and vacant, convey volumes. He is surrounded by an ensemble of actors (the females) and nonprofessionals (the males) whose unpolished performances deepen the urgency of their predicament. Missing are the conventional rhythms and tics of mainstream acting. “[E]veryone was just playing themselves,” Manza said, “not to say we weren’t playing different versions of ourselves. But there was very little transition between ‘this is who you are’ and ‘this is the character.’”
During a 21-day shoot in 2011, Dickinson worked with his cast from a script outline, rehearsing dialogue and then encouraging improvisation. The immediacy of the scenes suggests a cinéma vérité work. (The cast and crew lived in the house throughout the shoot, sharing the cooking and cleaning.)
First Winter delves into a host of moral issues: the responsibility of a spiritual leader to his flock, and the compromises required for survival. But one moral conflict sparked by First Winter was unforeseen. In the script, the Heartland residents are starving, the canned foods having spoiled. The only recourse is to hunt. Paul shoots a deer and the group skins, cooks, and devours it. (Their collective relief while eating was unfeigned; Dickinson required his actors to fast for three days before the feast.)
Early viewers of the film were outraged that an animal had been killed for art and the controversy threatened to overshadow the work. Dickinson refuses to discuss the matter. Manza, however, explains that he attempted to get a nuisance permit to legally hunt animals on his property. When he was turned down, he hunted anyway, a decision that weighed so heavily that Manza later turned himself in to the Department of Environmental Conservation. The officers “thought I was kidding,” he says. “They were wondering if they were on some funny TV show.” No charges were filed.
Whether First Winter ends on a note of hope or tragedy is unclear. Dickinson, however, wants viewers to consider a more provocative topic: hypocrisy in New Age thought. “It’s a very subtle thing to get across and that’s why I was trying to make a film about it, rather than go on a lecture circuit.”
Asked if his troubling portrayal might rankle fellow yoga instructors, Manza has a defiant reply. “It’s the ugliest scene in the world, ” he says. “Yoga is life, and whoever wants it to be clean or who[ever] wants it to be not complicated is a better liar than me.”
Since First Winter, Manza has been in two other indie films, one with cast members from Dickinson’s film. But he maintains guidelines for taking projects. “With how short life is… it has to be a film that I feel [is] important and transformative to the viewer; I’m not so interested in entertainment.”
Dickinson has just completed the screenplay for his next film, “a bourgeois comedy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn about yuppies.“ While this sounds light years away from First Winter, Dickinson believes otherwise, explaining that one storyline exposes “the cult of yoga” while the other will dissect “the cult of consumerism.”