“He’s the real thing,” says the female protagonist, whilst shaking her head. Shading the sun with her hand, she bites her lip and sits upright, the wide collar on her powder-blue shirt stretches across her chest. “You can just feel it. The air is different around him, like the world is holding its breath, waiting for his movements. Like there’s tiny lightnings around him.”
She is talking about a mysterious cowboy that she’s watching from a distance with her friends. Transfixed and voyeur-like, the girls feast on the lean and handsome body of the male protagonist as he brushes his horse, his denim vest unzipped revealing his torso. Her friends, dressed in chequered off-the-shoulder gypsy tops and curvaceous cowboy boots, stare hard and nod in agreement.
This is the opening scene of Burning Oceans Into Deserts, a film by Dutch director Emma Westenberg and fashion designer Sophie Hardeman. A contemporary take on the classic American Western, the film is the second collaboration between the duo who met at university.
“Sophie and I met at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where we both studied,” says Westenberg. “We were in different departments – Sophie in Fashion Design, me in Audio Visual – but we knew each other through friends and school parties. When I saw Sophie’s graduation show I was blown away and I wanted to capture the happy-go-lucky vibes of her collection in a film.”
This resulted in the making of their debut Blue & You, a short, which was awarded the “Best New Fashion Film” of 2016 by the Fashion Film Festival Milano and was premiered on Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio. The duo enlisted the help of Valerie Kamen for the script, a writer Westenberg befriended in New York. Karem also worked on Burning Oceans Into Deserts; the narrative of which follows a group of teenagers who stalk a lonesome cowboy, curious to know who he is and where he has come from.
The plot taps into the typical Western storyline of a nomadic gunslinging cowboy who moves into town and disrupts what would be an otherwise bleak and sleepy place. “I thought Rockaway Beach in New York would be the perfect backdrop,” says the director of the film’s location. “The desolate beach, the grimy streets and empty bars were perfect. We drove around looking for spots and got lost in the world we were trying to create.” With her clever direction, Westenburg transformed the beach located just southwest of JFK Airport in Queens into the archetypal and fabled American west.
For the director, the whimsical nature of the clothes inspired the atmosphere, colours and characters in the film. Hardeman deconstructs familiar silhouettes and reconfigures them into playful new forms, for example; a pair of jeans with detachable panels can be zipped apart until only a denim thong is left. The collection entitled Where the Grass is Greener is about the longing for “the other side” Hardeman explains. That longing, she says, is a carried out in the film through the clothes, the desert landscape and the cast. “The casting process was the most important aspect – and the most fun,” says the designer. “The models/actors were all street cast, making the characters more believable. They were based on the idea of everyday heroes. My muse is the handyman, along with the pregnant woman and sun-kissed kids kicking around in the hay.”
By “street cast” Hardeman means they took to the digital streets of social media to find their stars. “I’m always lurking for characters,” says Westenburg. “When we had the script, Sophie, Valerie and I were sending screenshots around and approaching people via DM creeping. We set up a casting at Datlook, who also helped us find people too. We had the actors read a scene from the script and try on the clothes. There are so many wonderful characters in New York and we chose the people that we fell in love with.”
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