1869 - IRONTOWN, MISSOURI
Alexandra Brown grew up in her father’s portrait studio in rural Ironton, Missouri, a frontier town of 1000 people. The studio was really an old barn with windows cut through the roof for the sunlight to stream in, but people from all over the Midwest knew of her father’s skill behind the camera. When she was nine, a family stopped by for a portrait, the young son holding a piglet. It jumped free, knocked over a lantern and nearly burned down the studio. Her mother stomped out the fire, gasping triumphantly in a beam of light, dust and smoke swirling. Alexandra captured the image; a portrait more amazing than anything her father had ever done. Photography was in her blood.
After her mother died, years of mercury fumes from the daguerreotypes wreaked havoc on her father’s mind, convincing him he had a son instead of a daughter and sending the business into a downward spiral. When Alexandra took over the studio twenty years later they were nearly bankrupt, so she introduced a new, cheaper photographic process, the Albumen print, that used eggs instead of mercury.
One night, alone in the studio, Alexandra sees glowing shapes moving across the floor of the studio. Her father’s telescope sat in a corner – pointed at the moon. Alexandra realizes she could make a portrait of the moon itself, and the Albumen process made it possible. She is electrified by her discovery --- so much so that she ignores the attentions of Jacob, the pig boy now grown up, who finds himself wanting next to the light of the moon.
Customers file through the barn in a steady stream in the hot summer, including Sterling, an ex-slave traveling north to find a piece of land and a strange couple that will change Alexandra’s life forever. He’s John Powell, a scientist and a civil war veteran whose right arm was blown off on the battlefield, but Alexandra is more fascinated by his wife, Emma. Fearless, she’s climbed Pike’s Peak, helped her husband navigate the battlefield, and talks about an expedition to explore the Colorado River. Alexandra has never left the county.
They are fascinated by her moon portraits and ask her to take part in an expedition to photograph an upcoming solar eclipse --- in the wild Dakota Territory, 500 miles across the frontier. They offer her one thousand dollars for her expenses and trouble. It would save the business. It would change everything.
In a moment of lucidity, her father remembers who she is and makes her promise to go. Tearfully, she agrees --- knowing she might never see him again. Three months later she is at the rendezvous point with a wagon full of astronomical equipment. But the caravan never arrives.
Determined to push on, Alexandra finds Sterling, the ex-slave, sitting beside a burning wagon. Local thugs, bitter that a black man could be free, set it ablaze. Alexandra considers. He wants to go north but has no transportation. She wants to go north but doesn’t even know how to light a fire on the open plain. Fearful, she asks him to be her “traveling companion”. They come to an uneasy agreement: he’ll accompany her to the location for the photograph for one-hundred dollars, and she’ll carry his supplies and help him find his homestead. They set out for Dakota --- Indian territory --- Alexandra checking the progress on the map and ticking off the days on a calendar.
But traveling together is difficult. After a prairie thunderstorm ruins their food and nearly ends the trip, Sterling sets off on his own, leaving her to fend for herself. After three days he returns, but not after Alexandra nearly drowns in a swollen stream, fixes a broken wagon wheel, encounters a mysterious rider on an appaloosa horse, and grows faint with hunger. The uneasy partnership resumed, they strain to meet Alexandra’s deadline, encountering friendly and not-so-friendly native Americans, a bitter woman in a rotting sod house, and a cattle drive that stretches for ten miles.
They settle into a routine. Sterling shows her how to fire a rifle, drive a team, and carve a deer for food. Alexandra shows him how to use the camera and look at the moon through the telescope. “I just want to live someplace where everyone leaves me and mine alone,” he says. “Maybe I’ll live in a hole on the moon.”
Disaster strikes when they come across a half-crazed woman living alone in a sod house, her husband killed by Indians, her cattle and crops dying. In her rage and desperation she shoots Sterling with her dead husband's Civil War rifle. The would is infected; Sterling descends into feverish hallucinations. Alexandra nurses him, but grows wild in the wilderness, lost in the remote high plains. Drifters wander into camp and attack her. She fights back and kills one of them. Native Americans kill the others.
When Sterling wakes up, he finds Alexandra changed. Days have passed and she believes they can no longer make the location in time to photograph the eclipse. Sterling urges her on, and soon they’re in a mad dash to accomplish the goal. As the clouds part and the moon covers the sun, Alexandra captures photograph after photograph, and everyone they’ve encountered along the way is affected by the strange image in the sky, the darkening sun, rimmed by a ring of fire.
When it’s over, Sterling has found his homestead. He’s seen it as it will be, right there on the hillside. They part ways, each trying to process the experience.
When Alexandra returns, her father is dead and her assistant has fallen in love with Jacob, the pig boy. It’s not long before Alexandra understands that Ironton is no longer her home. Soon she is standing on the prow of a boat, crossing the ocean with John and Emma Powell, hunting the next total eclipse of the sun.
Visually, the film orbits two worlds. The first is the visceral, gritty, dirty and rugged frontier of the American West in 1869. The barn-studio is worn and old, the town of Ironton creaks and groans, and hot breezes drift through the mismatched doors as Alexandra waits for new customers. When she and Sterling set out towards Dakota in the bouncing wagon, dirt, grit, sweat, hunger, bruises, cuts, fevers and filth will permeate the story with close camerawork and gritty textures. Rifle lessons with Sterling leave big bruises on Alexandra’s shoulder. A relentless rainstorm leaves them covered in mud and a rushing river soaks Alexandra’s dress, pulling her in and washing her downstream. Rather than John Ford’s distancing, monumental landscapes, I envision the exteriors and textures of Malick's Days of Heaven, coupled with the interior spaces of Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, shot by my favorite cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The second world is one of knowledge, awe, and new ways of seeing, marked by telescopes, magnifying glasses, cameras, and light. The moon, something familiar yet completely distant and mysterious, becomes a visual metaphor for the frontier, the new world that Alexandra wants to experience and Sterling wants to claim. We see the moon as in the sky, as a sketch in a notepad, through a telescope, through the lens of a camera, projected onto Alexandra’s hand, and finally taking a bite out of the sun, rimmed by a ring of fire. After meeting Native Americans, both the friendly Pawnee and the dangerous Cheyenne, Sterling begins to question his right to claim a parcel of land. “I’ll show you a place nobody owns,” Alexandra tells him, and shows him the moon and its craters through her telescope. Sterling contemplates living in a hole on the moon instead of on a homestead, “where no one can bother me and mine, and we won’t bother nobody.” Like the West, the moon is alluring for all its wonder. Both can seem inhospitable, hostile, and beyond man’s claim – but as they see when they bump their wagon over the newly laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad, man will ultimately take everything he can.
With The Darkening Sun, I want to make a Western film that isn’t recognizable as such: a story of the American Frontier that doesn’t have a white man at its center. I want to tell the story of an intelligent woman who is motivated by the search for knowledge, not only by the search for love: a strong woman, out of her element, using her wits to accomplish her goal and becoming a different person along the way. I want to depict a black man’s success at getting what he wants, using his intelligence and courage, not simply supporting the goals of a white protagonist or sacrificing himself for the good of someone else. I want to tell the story of friendship, not desire, between a man and a woman. I’m attempting to show that there is inherent drama beyond the familiar urges to love, to conquer, and to kill; there can be great drama in the need to learn, to understand, and to experience. I want to tell and show these things because I believe they are aspects of humanity that are real and vibrant, but rarely explored in film.
I want to tell a story of the beauty of science and the compelling urge to do something never done before. I want to tell the story of the drive to explore, the strangeness of staking a claim in the wilderness, and the dangers of the unknown. I want the viewer to identify with two completely different people, coming to understand how motivations that appear totally unrelated can, with the time to see and the willingness to listen, become shared.