Alum’s Cinematography Draws Praise

February 23, 2022

After years of touring the world as the guitarist for the Philadelphia punk band R.A.M.B.O., Andrew Wheeler BFA ’01 (Film) has traded dim, sweaty venues for the much brighter lights of Hollywood.

Now a firmly established and award-winning cinematographer, Wheeler’s most recent work, God’s Country, debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January to wide acclaim. Set in a stoic frozen Montana landscape, God’s Country follows the story of Sandra (played by Thandiwe Newton), a college professor grieving the death of her mother, who confronts a pair of white hunters who intrude on her rural property. Their interactions evolve into a battle of wills, which ultimately yields catastrophic consequences. The film is based on “Winter Light,” a short story by James Lee Burke.

Since its Sundance debut, God’s Country has been praised for its unflinching examination of grief and contemporary culture’s dominant social and political themes and hailed as a “psychologically charged neo-Western.” In the original story, the landowner is an aging white man, but the filmmakers opted to examine what would happen if a Black woman in her 40s were thrust into the same situation.

“It’s a very political movie, but it’s very indirect also,” Wheeler said. “Whatever your class, race or social strata is will affect how you view the film.”

God’s Country, which will be released widely by IFC Films in the fall, is an evolution of a short student film Wheeler made with colleagues he met during graduate school at AFI Conservatory. Since completing his MFA, Wheeler says he has enjoyed a long and fruitful collaborative partnership with writer and director Julian Higgins, writer Shaye Ogbonna and editor Justin LaForge.

“The bond was definitely formed in our first year of film at AFI,” Wheeler recalled. “We were like, ‘This is just too easy for all of us to work together. Let’s team up for our thesis film next year. And here we are, 12 years later, with a film that, I think, is going to be a big deal.”

While music is no longer Wheeler’s primary mode of creative and professional expression—R.A.M.B.O., however, is poised to release a new album soon—punk’s DIY mentality and attitude have served him well in show business. He is admittedly direct and not one to mince words, an uncommon trait in the entertainment scene, but that’s merely a byproduct of “growing up in Pittsburgh and getting into punk stuff when I was 12 years old,” he says. Much of his current success can also be directly attributed to his willingness to roll up his sleeves during the early days of his career.

That East Coast attitude is something Wheeler brings to every one of his projects, whether it’s filming God’s Country, a Hellmann’s Mayonnaise commercial that debuted during Super Bowl LVI or the pilot for Kill the Orange-Faced Bear, a new TBS comedy starring Damon Wayans Jr. and Sarah Silverman. Wheeler has also shot music videos for artists like Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, Jessie J and Jennifer Hudson.

His approach is something he also impresses on students through the occasional classes he leads at UArts, where he was initially exposed to the European and experimental films that continue to inform his vision. The technical know-how—things like lighting, grip and camera operation—will come, Wheeler says. What’s more important, he believes, is that students temporarily put aside any starry-eyed expectations that they might have for the early days of their careers and embrace what they’ve learned about form, function, critical thinking and the philosophy of art.

“If you’re doing the job, you’re expected to be able to execute the craft, but a million people can do that,” Wheeler said. “So what’s going to make you, you? What’s your process? UArts really laid that foundation for me.”

Pictured: Andrew Wheeler on the set of God's Country