Cape Breton writer-director Ashley McKenzie discusses her feature debut, Werewolf, “lawnmower crackheads”, working with non-actors, and being part of the TIFF family.
In September, Cape Breton writer-director Ashley McKenzie debuted her first feature, Werewolf, in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film follows a pair of lovers, Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Bhreagh MacNeil), who are enrolled in the local methadone program and struggle to eke out a living by mowing people’s lawns. The film is a quietly-observed look at this marginalized group, shot with an impressive eye for detail. McKenzie has a knack for knowing where to put the camera and how to arrange actors in a frame. At TIFF, I talked to McKenzie about the genesis of the film, working with non-actors, and how TIFF has supported her career.
Seventh Row (7R): Why did you want to tell this story and make this film?
Ashley McKenzie (AM): The genesis of the idea happened five years ago. I was on my parents’ street in the small town where I live and grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. I saw a young couple pushing a lawn mower down the street, a guy and a girl. They cut through my neighbours’ yard. The guy went to the front door and started knocking. The girl went to the side door and started knocking. I was like, “Hmmm…what’s going on here?”
So I’m watching them, and I see they just walk in. There’s an altercation happening with the people inside. I thought, “OK, this is out of the ordinary.” It’s a small town. Everyone sort of knows everyone. There’s a sort of safety in that.
I wondered what the couple’s situation was. I assumed they were probably looking for money for drugs because there’s a drug problem where I’m from. I told a few people about it, and everyone was like, “Oh, yeah, they’re the lawnmower crackheads.” I was hearing all these outrageous, gossipy stories. For me, I really wanted to know who these two people were and what their life was like.
A few years later, when I was moving back home to start writing a new film, I decided this was the one I wanted to write. I thought that lawnmower movie would be a good fit for a friend of mine whom I wanted to work with as an actor. He’s not an actor, but I thought it would be interesting to work with him in a role. So I started writing it.
I was interested in looking at the side of addiction that you don’t often see in films, which is the recovery side where it’s not exciting. But it’s maybe equally horrific, the banality of that side of recovery. In my community, there was a methadone program that was introduced because of prescription drug abuse in my town, about 15 years ago. So there were a lot of people on methadone, more than I realized. From making the film and being in different communities and talking to people, I was surprised that every other person I talked to was on methadone or trying to get in the program.
7R: What was the collaboration like with your cinematographer for developing the aesthetic for the film?
AM: I feel like our collaboration was more like genetic. We actually had completely different cinematic interests. His favourite film is Fast and Furious 7. But we grew up in the same small town and we just know this landscape and these people that we were making this film about. There was something really intuitive that happened. He really wanted to get inside my head. He went in a direction that is different than what his interests are aesthetically.
Any time we were about to shoot a scene, we wouldn’t just set up shots in a conventional way. We would take our time and make sure we found the frame that was most interesting and seemed most evocative.
In the script stage, I was thinking that there have to be a lot of barriers and obstructions, visually, in this film. That’s what the characters face on a day-to-day level in their interactions. I knew I wanted partitions [everywhere], not just in the pharmacy [where we see the characters from the other side of the glass window], but also in the ice cream shop where Nessa works. Everywhere they go, there’s obstructions there.
7R: What was the process for figuring out performance? There are a lot of tics they have to have as symptoms of being drug addicts, but you’re largely working with non-actors.
AM: With the exception of Andrew Gillis, who plays Blaise in the film, who had been in a short film I made a year before making Werewolf, no one in the film had ever been in a film before. Most people had actually never acted before.
A lot of the film wasn’t really scripted. Most scenes in the film, we shot the scene that was scripted, and we just kept the camera running, and a new scene would organically emerge on the fly. We did that a bunch. A lot of what is in the finished film was discovered in that way.
With the supporting roles, who were mostly people we just cast on location the day of or we just met on location and then rewrote the script to add them in, I was just letting them be themselves. I was putting the two lead characters into their world and letting them respond to them the way they would, more or less. Or I would give a very simple direction, like “You need to give her this hair net and tell her she needs to come to work and be clean, to have better hygiene.” But I’d let them do it in their own way. I felt like if I prescribed things, I was probably going to shut down whatever natural behaviour might emerge.
With Nessa and Blaise, most of the film is focused on them, I think it was a lot of the actors’ work. They sort of knew the characters. We all grew up here. We’ve met these people. We’ve been friends with people like this. They really took a lot from just observing people in the community and working that into performance.
7R: How did you think about sound design? There are a lot of barriers in that, as well. If there is a wall or a door, we would hear what they’re saying from the other side as opposed to right next to them.
AM: I worked with a really great sound designer, Andreas Mendritzki. Usually, I’m really obsessed with having diegetic sound, just having real sound from the story world and maybe not using any score. I usually don’t.
But this time, we wanted to try to do something a little different, to make things a little unreal. The characters are taking a drug every day, and they are very marginalized. Their world is probably a bit more of a tunnel vision.
We wanted to alter things a bit, so we did more foley than I’d ever done before so we could hone in on certain textures or moments that if you’re watching the frame, you might not expect to hear that quite so loudly. Sometimes, we’d remove certain sounds or let certain sounds bleed from one scene to another.
I didn’t really have a set of rules. Often, I’m just emotionally doing what feels right and not really trying to box myself into having to do things in a super realistic way.
7R: How has TIFF been supportive?
AM: I feel like I owe so much to them. I’ve been making films on an island where there’s no community, in isolation. Their support of my short films, and now with Werewolf, has just meant everything to my career. I feel like I’m making films about characters that are invisible and that I could have been invisible, too, if they didn’t take me under their wing, nurture me, and put their stamp on my films, which gets eyes on it in a way you need when you’re making small indie films.
In 2012, I did the TIFF Talent lab. That was so excellent for me. It was me and 19 other emerging filmmakers from across the world. The peers that I met at the festival that year have remained some of my friends. That network of peers was facilitated by doing the talent lab.
I’m really grateful to TIFF for their support. My first film was on their top ten list. The programmers are amazing. They’ll recommend your film to other programmers. They’ll put you in touch with them. It goes beyond just programming your film in the festival. I’ve felt their support in my work. They take an interest in your work, and ask what you’re working on. When are you going to be done your feature? Can we see it? They’re just interested in nurturing talent in lots of different ways.
Werewolf had its world premiere in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has since screened at the Atlantic Film Festival, and will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Montreal’s Festival de Nouveau Cinema this month.