Jason Butler Harner: 'Big Bend' approaches conflict in 'gentle, human way'

Jason Butler Harner stars in "The Big Bend." Photo courtesy of Eammon Films
1 of 5 | Jason Butler Harner stars in "The Big Bend." Photo courtesy of Eammon Films

LOS ANGELES, April 25 (UPI) -- Actor Jason Butler Harner said his independent film, The Big Bend, in theaters Friday, is an example of how movies can deal gently with crises. Harner, 53, plays a father searching for a missing child during a desert vacation.

"It's so rare to tell stories that have humanity and conflict in a gentle, human way nowadays," Harner told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.


In the movie, Cory (Harner) and Melanie Price (Virginia Kull) bring their kids for a weekend with Mac (David Sullivan) and Georgia Talbott (Erica Ash).

Before they arrive, Cory asks Melanie not to tell Mac and Georgia about a major issue, though the film only reveals that secret later.

"It was very enjoyable to have a shared secret with my wife that we're each processing," Harner said. "There are enough moments where Cory is in another world where you know he's weighing something heavier."


Harner said he related to Cory's tendency to get lost in his own thoughts.

"I'm a thinker," Harner said. "I'm a Libra. So, it was fun to get to be that element of myself, which is very easy."

Over the weekend, Cory and Virginia deal with their secret, their missing child, Mac's outdoorsman plans and more problems from the outside world that intrude on their vacation.

Harner said he and Kull improvised a moment to convey that their characters still support each other.

"There's a scene with no words on the hill with Virginia and I just hugging each other," Harner said. "It was really important to us that there was love there between everybody, but definitely between us."

Writer-director Brett Wagner based The Big Bend on a real couples vacation he took. Harner said he was cast first and helped assemble the ensemble.

It was important, Harner said, that the cast be diverse and that every character had something worthwhile to do.

"I come from the theater so I'm a company guy," he said. "I like to spread the wealth. It's just a better story."

Harner has joined many television ensembles, including playing FBI Agent Petty on Ozark, a commander in The Handmaid's Tale and a member of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on This Is Us.


Compared to network productions, filming in Big Bend, Texas, was roughing it, Harner said, adding that the environment added further complications to a film that did not have the resources of a Hollywood studio.

"It's really hard for people to understand how far it is," Harner said. "It's beautiful, but you are out there."

Harner said basic production elements like catering proved challenging that far into the desert. Environmental challenges were inherent to the location too, including temperatures above 120 degrees.

"I had never learned that when it rains in the desert, it floods and you can't get anywhere," Harner said. "I had a scorpion in my bed one night."

On location in Big Bend, Harner had a scene by himself atop a cliff, but it was only 8 feet off the ground. For the long shots in which the camera can see the height, Harner wore a thin safety wire around his waist.

"I've done a lot of stunts and I like doing stunts," Harner said. "That was a full-trust exercise. Thank God I'm not afraid of heights."

Harner said he and cinematographer Paul Atkins were alone together on the cliff, with a crew member holding his safety line from 14 feet away. Such intimate and emotional moments are what draw Harner to independent films, he said.


"That was one of the biggest highlights and gifts, especially for someone going through emotionally what he's going through," Harner said. "You do those films to be standing on a cliff having an emotional experience."

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