The Splinters ensemble — Sofia Banzhaf, Callum Dunphy, and Shelley Thompson — discuss making the film, finding their characters, collaborating with each other and director Thom Fitzgerald, and what makes the story a uniquely Maritime one. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
Splinters is the kind of LGBTQ film that could only be made in 2018. The big secret that Belle (Sofia Banzhaf) is afraid to reveal to her mother (Shelley Thompson), during her return home for her father’s funeral, is not that she’s a lesbian — that news came out when she was just a teenager, with no small amount of trauma — but that she actually has a serious boyfriend, Rob (Callum Dunphy). Neither of her parents were particularly accepting of her sexuality, convinced that her interest in women was something she’d grow out of. Belle doesn’t want her family to totally erase her queer identity now that it would be convenient for them to do so.
If this premise sounds gimmicky, that’s because it actually describes what Belle thinks her return home is about — grieving her father and keeping a secret. Thom Fitzgerald’s film, based on the play by Canadian Lee-Anne Poole, is fortunately much more complex. The tensions in Belle’s relationship with her mother are not only due to this disagreement around her sexuality, but also to Belle’s disappointment in her mother: this woman had chosen to live with a man she wasn’t exactly in love with, in a relationship where she was overly dependent on him. The independent-minded Belle cannot understand that. Now that he is dead, these old questions boil up to the surface again.
Featuring an excellent ensemble, Fitzgerald’s film, Splinters, is about the family dynamic between Belle, her brother, and her mother, and all of the unresolved issues they’re still dealing with. Set in rural Nova Scotia at the beginning of fall, and shot by great Canadian cinematographer Luc Montpellier, this intimate family drama is a visual feast that will have you ready to book the next flight to Halifax — and to call your mom.
Back at TIFF, where Splinters had its world premiere, I sat down with three of the film’s stars — Sofia Banzhaf, Callum Dunphy, and Shelley Thompson — to talk about the process of making the film, finding their characters, collaborating with each other and director Thom Fitzgerald, and what makes the story a uniquely Maritime one.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get involved with the film?
Callum Dunphy (CD): I’m actually best friends with Thom [Fitzgerald, the director]. I’ve been working as a production assistant for him for a while. My first look at the script came when he said, “I need to make a movie. Here are two scripts. Which one is better?” I read both. Splinters was one of them, and it just immediately blew me away. “This one! You have to do this one!” I didn’t think I was ever actually going to be cast in it, though. When it came to audition time, I had to do a few of those. Second one was terrible.
Sofia Banzhaf: Mine was a bit more of a traditional process. I had known of Thom, but I didn’t know him personally. I auditioned; I sent in a tape, and then we got on a call. He’d seen me in a couple other things, but it was definitely pretty traditional. I read the script, and I loved it so much, I really wanted to do it right away. I became obsessed with it actually.
7R: Once you got on board, what was your process of preparing for the part?
Callum Dunphy: I think we had very different ones. I wasn’t allowed to prepare in any way. Thom thought I would over-prepare if I was given the chance, so he made me learn my lines every day when I got to set.
Sofia Banzhaf: He also didn’t want me to over-prepare. I was on a trip to Lebanon just before we shot and he was like, “Great, because I don’t want you to over-prepare.” And then I prepared, obviously, but I guess he wanted that from both of us. I knew all my lines, though. That would’ve been really hard if I had to show up to set and pull it out of my sleeve. I couldn’t do that.
We didn’t really have a lot of time. We had a table read a week into shooting. We didn’t really get a chance to hang out at all. We tried, but it’s an indie film, and the schedule was really tight. I think it ended up being 22 days for me, but 15 days of shooting together. It was tight, so there wasn’t a ton of time to get acquainted. A lot of things happened in the moment and on set.
I liked the way that Thom let us rehearse. Because it’s an ensemble piece, there’s a lot of moving parts and choreography. There was so much to figure out every day. We always carved out 45 minutes or so for us to just block it with camera. Often, you don’t have that luxury of rehearsing first, and then that determines where the camera goes. That’s not been my experience. Usually, it’s pretty set as to where and how we’re shooting, and you, as an actor, just have to fit into it. But this was way more intuitive. That’s a real blessing for an actor.'We always carved out 45 minutes to block it with camera. Often, you don't have that luxury of rehearsing first, and then *that* determines where the camera goes.' - Sofia BanzhafClick To Tweet
Callum Dunphy: We got to create our own blocking and have them work around that. When we were doing that, we would come up with little things and talk to each other about how the scene should be going.
Sofia Banzhaf: Yeah, that time was invaluable. Thom would get us together and say, “Do the scene.” Then he would watch us as we would intuitively do it. Then, we would work out the kinks, as actors. Then he would step in, and then the camera would come, and we would look at it together.
7R: Did you get to talk through your characters with Thom beforehand, or did it really just start once you got to set?
Sofia Banzhaf: I did talk with him a lot, but I feel like he really trusted us so much. His casting was very intuitive. He didn’t overthink things, because I only taped [an audition] once, which was also unusual. I talked with him in between but not as extensively as I have in the past.
Callum Dunphy: Yeah, Thom’s conversations acting-wise tend to be him asking you a pointed question, and he doesn’t even care what your response is. He’s just like, “You don’t need to tell me. I just wanted to ask you that. Go for it.”
Sofia Banzhaf: He plants a seed.
Callum Dunphy: He really wants everyone to enjoy themselves on set. He wants it to be a good experience. He wants all the actors to feel they are able to express themselves.
Sofia Banzhaf: And then, every once in a while, you will hear from the monitor: “Try it again, but don’t suck this time.” That’s always a good one. Lights a fire.
7R: What were you able to do as prep, with this limited time? How did you figure out who your character was, how they move?
Sofia Banzhaf: I read the script a lot of times. The way that I usually work is, I try to find the parallels between the character and me, and then I try to find all the things that are different between us and build bridges to those things. I felt I actually had a lot of things in common with Belle, and I really understand that tense family dynamic. That was, for me, the biggest draw: the mother-daughter relationship is so complex and real, and I rarely see that. Lady Bird was one of those movies where I felt I finally saw a relatable relationship like that, where I really saw myself in her. I think this is similar. So I already felt very connected with the character. It wasn’t really a big jump for me.'I try to find the parallels between the character and me, and then I try to find all the things that are different between us and build bridges to those things.' - Sofia BanzhafClick To Tweet
Callum Dunphy: For me, Thom told me before we started shooting that he wanted me to be myself most of the time and just not be too contrived about it. He prefers naturalism over anything else, at the end of the day.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.