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At a yoga class they attended, the teacher mentioned a retreat he was doing at Heartland. Dickinson and Burdge decided to go, unsure of what awaited them. When I ask them what arriving there was like, Burdge tells me, "It was so magical. There was space and time and nature. You could walk for hours and not meet another person."
Dickinson was very much drawn to Paul Manza, the head yoga instructor at Heartland. Manza plays the lead in First Winter, though he had no previous experience as an actor. "We met Paul, and Paul's a very magnetic person—we were both immediately drawn to him, in a way," Burdge explains. "The staff was also awesome. The place was beautiful. We took some amazing yoga classes. We met Matt Chastain, who's in the movie. So we went up there the next weekend, and then we started going all the time, for longer periods of time, and eventually we kind of moved there. We'd been going there for two years by the time we made First Winter." "There was a group of people up there who wanted to be nice to each other," Dickinson explains with a purposefully direct delivery.
It may sound Edenic, but the retreat in First Winter is anything but. Jealousy and greed take over characters at dramatic moments. Self-destructive behavior abounds. The feral side of human nature is brought to the forefront without modern appliances to serve desires and needs. In one sequence, in which a deer is killed and prepared to be cooked and eaten, the viewer is brought face-to-face with the abyssal gap between how we live in the first world and how these characters are forced to live. The film doesn't shy away from the fact that the romanticism of the "back to the land" movement hides a darker lining inside itself; indeed, a live deer was actually shot on camera for a scene in the film. The fact that the crew did not have a hunting license—and that the shooting took place during the hunting off-season—has caused a mini-controversy.
"Evil is part of us, part of who we are," Dickinson tells me. "We have to have a serious reconciliation with that, and stop the hypocrisy of pretending to do one thing with the right hand and another with the left, which is the mainstay of politics and public discourse. If you want to subsist, it's easy to go get a cheeseburger on the corner, but at some point that was the flesh of a living creature that had sinews and organs, and someone had to cut it open and cut out its guts and let it bleed. I'm not saying that's wrong—I'm saying, let's have an encounter with that."
Ultimately, Dickinson's attitude toward technology is revealed to be neither pro nor con. For him, the way we use contemporary technology is a symptom of our problems, not its cause. "Technology itself doesn't have a moral charge," he says. "Humans use it one way or another. The problem is, how do we learn how to love each other and treat each other with respect as humans, learn how to take what we need but not more than we need, how do we stop being greedy and ambitious and self-involved to the extent that it destroys us? You can't design that out. The answer is not better iPhones. What we have to do is, there has to be a spiritual re-examination and a revolution, changing how we think about ourselves and the world. That will answer the question of how we interface with technology. Because how we interface with technology right now is no different from inventing a spear to kill things and then realizing we can kill each other with it."