The phone rings.
A man in a low voice on the other end simply says: “We have to move it.”
The intense moments that follow drive the thriller “Into the Wake,” revealing a deep-rooted and violent feud between two families.
And a secret buried long ago comes to the surface.
In the green, wooded bluffs of Sauk County is where director John Mossman found an integral character for his first feature film, which won a Golden Badger Award at the Wisconsin Film Festival last weekend.
From high upon Ferry Bluff to the rapid waters of the Wisconsin River, the showdown between the feuding families plays out.
To create a realistic sense for “Into the Wake,” Mossman headed back to the place he grew up to capture a landscape that plays a big role in the film.
“I really kind of got my filmmaking start as a kid up in the bluffs,” he said in a phone interview from Chicago, where he is currently in a play at Steppenwolf Theatre.
During his time in Los Angeles pursuing an acting career, Mossman found himself intrigued by the desert landscape he was catching on film.
When he returned to his hometown of Baraboo, he had a different perspective on where he had lived.
“Suddenly, I looked at the films that could be made here,” he said.
“And the most startling thing about the landscape in Baraboo is how green everything is.”
Unlike the desert, the lush Wisconsin landscape reclaims what has been left there over time, he said.
And in the film, the landscape pulls one man back to where things went wrong in his life.
The great outdoors
Each morning when Tim Miller awoke, he put on the same soggy shoes to start filming for the day.
He bolted into the river, running for his life, as boats circled.
Then he did the scene again and again.
But the hard work paid off with incredible shots from the bluffs of a chase scene that looks like it was filmed from a helicopter.
“We just hunkered down by the edge of (Ferry Bluff near Sauk City) and shot down toward the water,” Mossman said.
“I said, ‘Everybody get away from the edge.’ Of course no one did. They sat there and watched us.”
Miller knew filming outdoor scenes for the movie he helped write with Mossman would be challenging.
“I started training, not in the sense like some action hero, but I was trying not to get killed,” he said.
Having taken the lead role of Kyle, Miller finds himself in most of the shots once the journey to Wisconsin begins.
In the film, Kyle receives a phone call and is suddenly pulled from his life in Chicago back into a murder he witnessed as a child.
He leaves behind his girlfriend (played by Kristin Anderson) to meet up with Angus (played by John Gray ), who called for assistance on moving the body.
Kyle heads to the hills surrounding the Wisconsin River to resolve an old blood feud and to atone for the sins of his family.
“The seed for (‘Into the Wake’) was a short film I did years ago about a man running from his past,” Mossman said. “And it involves burying a body that he’s not directly responsible for, but he’s going to hide.”
The short film was called “Draggage.” Mossman and Miller worked on it in the late 1990s.
Once he returns to the area he grew up, Kyle is captured and placed in a barn by the rival family.
He’s asked for the location of the body so an aging grandpa can be at peace. But the rest of the family is more interested in revenge.
While Kyle and Angus are not directly responsible for the murder of the teen, they carry the guilt.
The film has the feel of “Winter’s Bone” — an Oscar nominated film in 2011 — but is more forward with the action.
The film also uses area actors, including students from the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County.
The river shoot
Along the Wisconsin River where the final scene would be shot, John and his brother Mike Mossman decided to test the water.
They were not looking at the current or temperature of the water, but the ability of one man being able to pull another across.
“He and I just stripped down and jumped into the water to see if it was too dangerous for anyone else to do,” John said.
“We swam the areas someone would have to swim and he showed me the areas where people tend to drown.”
Mike works for the Department of Natural Resources and scouted out all the locations for the project, which was filmed near the end of summer in 2010.
The elaborate scouting process took the brothers around the county.
“Fortunately I have a brother who knows every inch of Sauk County and the lower Wisconsin riverway,” John said. “So when I need a cave ... he came up with a couple of options.”
In the final river scene, Kyle and Angus must make the journey across to safety.
“It’s pretty amazing, for someone not from the area, how swift that river is,” Miller said.
“Being fully-clothed, with wing tips and pants and being in the moment floating away down there and drifting along the bottom was, as an actor, a pretty surreal moment.”
The director of photography, who also worked on “American Loggers” for the Discovery Channel, was in the river holding the camera over his head and treading water for the final scenes.
“I was really worried. It was the end of the shoot,” Mossman said. “By the time we got there, a lot of this stuff we had done was so crazy — going underwater in a beaver pond, running through these marshes — that when we got to the river segments I was surprised with how well people coped with it.”
When he’s not hanging over a cliff to get a shot, Mossman teaches directing to young filmmakers at Columbia College in Illinois.
He also finds time to continue acting in at least one play a year and directing one for his own theater company.
But his love of movies and theater began at the Al. Ringling Theatre where he took on roles with the Baraboo Theatre Guild and saw his first movie there — “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Mossman will bring “Into the Wake” to Baraboo June 29 through July 1, showing his work in the theater he ran around in as a young actor in the 1970s.
The experience, he said, will be a bucket-list moment. “This is going to be a big deal for me, personally,” he said. “Being able to step into (the theater) with some of my own work is hard to describe.”
Mossman also has a summer mentor program on the south side of Chicago where he teaches students to write, produce and direct their own films, something the program has won national Emmys for.
Since “Into the Wake” is shot around the bluffs, Mossman wanted to capture Wisconsin in a true way — right down to the type of bird that would be heard.
“A lot of times issues came up in the sound mix,” he said.
The questions was: Does he reflect the truth, or does he reflect what an audience may expect?
“We try to reflect (truth), all the way down to the sound of the bluffs,” he said. “It’s sound from the location and not from a sound library.”
“Into the Wake” is now making the rounds in the film festival circuit. The next stop is a theater in Tupelo, Miss., where Elvis used to play.
There are also a few new projects Mossman and Miller are working on. But they are leaving the dark action thriller genre behind for now.
They are focusing on a Coen brothers-type comedy.
“Just the right amount of stupid. It’s a fishing revenge movie,” Mossman said with a laugh. “Two losers try to work their way up the northern Wisconsin food chain with a stolen fish.”