As he built his filmmaking career on horror movies in his native Israel, Aharon Keshales dreamed of coming to Texas.
He credits Blood Simple and other gritty morality tales for instilling an affinity for Texas noir that led to his English-language debut, South of Heaven, a thriller starring Emmy winner Jason Sudeikis that was filmed entirely in the Dallas area.
“Even as an Israeli filmmaker, I was so obsessed with the early films of the Coen brothers. Those were my go-to movies when I started writing screenplays,” Keshales said. “Most of these movies deal with gray morality areas. They usually show you heroes who are not really heroes. The protagonist is lacking in moral fiber. Sometimes he gets sucked into a dark place.”
Such is the case with Jimmy (Sudeikis), a convicted bank robber allowed to leave prison in Texas to comfort his fiancée (Evangeline Lilly), who’s dying of cancer. His attempt to avoid trouble on the outside is tested when he inadvertently crosses paths with a corrupt parole officer (Shea Whigham) and a vengeful crime boss (Mike Colter).
“He wants to give her the best year of her life, but in doing that, he creates a disproportionate love fantasy that makes him almost into a villain,” Keshales said. “He starts with the best of intentions, but by the end of the movie, you will have lots of questions to ask yourself.”
Keshales (Big Bad Wolves) said the screenplay co-written with longtime writing partner Navot Papushado (Gunpowder Milkshake) concentrated on fleshing out the characters first — such as their families, their motivations, and their back stories — to avoid cliches and caricatures.
“In most movies in the action genre, you root for the good guy to kill the bad guy. You’re just rooting for somebody to die,” Keshales said. “But I wanted to make that place where you can let down your guard and decipher what we think when we watch.”
The London-based filmmaker originally planned to shoot near Los Angeles, but wound up in North Texas — at locations ranging from Flower Mound to Maypearl — during the winter of 2020, wrapping a few weeks prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The location gave him the backdrop he wanted, along with a seasonal chill that added texture.
“If we could shoot Texas for Texas, it was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “It was really cold, which was great. It became this awesome winter theme.”
Sudeikis agreed to star in the low-budget project before starting work on Ted Lasso, the award-winning series that has immensely bolstered his star power.
“He was looking into characters where he could show more sides and play something that’s so different from his usual roles,” Keshales said. “He wanted to play Jimmy as a guy who’s broken, not a guy who has wisecracks for everything with a wink in his eye. He didn’t make his life easy on this movie and committed totally.”
South of Heaven opens this weekend at select theaters and via on-demand platforms.