Director Kazik Radwanski discusses the two year journey of making Anne at 13,000 ft, which premiered in the Platform competition at TIFF. Read more about our favourite acquisition titles of TIFF.
Kazik Radwanski spent two years shooting Anne at 13,000 ft, and he ended up with a 75-minute film. His methods for Anne, and indeed all of his previous features, are comparable to a documentary shoot, as they are made gradually over two years. Each week, he gathers his actors for about a day to film both scripted and improvised footage, and then he edits down to the essentials.
In Anne at 13,000 ft, Anne (Deragh Campbell) suffers from an unspecified mental illness (likely along the lines of bipolar disorder), and she’s reassimilating into everyday Toronto life after being institutionalised. Work, responsibilities, and socialising can be quite overwhelming for Anne. The choppiness of the cutting and the speed at which we whirl through the eponymous Anne’s life is fitting for such an unstable character.
Radwanski shoots most of the film in handheld closeup, so we’re trapped in painfully close proximity to Anne as she enters uncomfortable situation after uncomfortable situation. Sometimes, we watch Anne putting others on edge, like the intense speech she gives at her best friend’s wedding reception, or her forwardness with a potential boyfriend (Matt Johnson). Sometimes, we watch others making Anne nervous, like several of the men she encounters in the film. Often, it’s less easy to place blame on either side of the clashes this volatile young woman has with those around her: is it her instability, or their insensitivity, or both? It’s this uncertainty that makes Anne at 13,000 ft so anxiety-inducing.
At TIFF, I sat down with director Radwanski, who discussed his innovative process, how he ensured his film was an “ally” to people with mental illnesses, and what it means to capture Toronto on screen.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Anne at 13,000 Feet?
Kazik Radwanski: A couple of things. When I heard your accent I was so keen to say: my mom’s British, and she’s in the film. She plays the daycare supervisor. That’s part of the genesis. She’s worked at the daycare for 40 years. She retired this year. I wanted to make something there. I went to this daycare as a child.
I also wanted to make something with Deragh [Last Name]. She’d moved back to Toronto from New York. I’d never worked with an actress like her before. Most actors in my other films are non-actors. I wanted to write something with her [Deragh] in mind.
And of course, beyond that, various introspective, personal things. All my films start that way. It then becomes a process of researching and rethinking it. There were lots of conversations with Deragh, and because she’s a professional actor, we developed this a lot more than other projects. She actually makes a cameo in my last film, [How Heavy This Hammer,] back in 2015, where she plays a daycare teacher. It was her first camera test. It’s evolved a lot since then.
7R: The film feels very improvised. Is that true?
Kaz: Absolutely, especially with dialogue. I love finding dialogue on set. I love working with kids, too, injecting chaos or chance to find things.
There’s a script, and there’s a plan for the film. Typically, the plan is centred around a conflict. And then we’ll shoot a lot of it. Sometimes, I’ll feed a line from the script. But I hope we find something a little better on set. In previous work, I’d hone in more and more, but with Deragh, we were both trying to find something. Sometimes, Deragh would find it, and I would take her lead. I might think it’s a subtle scene, but then she’d explode, and I’d take a step back and try to readjust my take on it.
7R: All your films are shot almost entirely in closeup with a handheld camera. What draws you to that style?
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, all my films look like this, all the way back to my shorts in 2007. I also work with the same crew, so it’s very much this evolving process. This documentary-like texture, this realism, this intimacy was something that inspired me as a young filmmaker. And then, as I made more and more films, and they started to get screened, I started thinking more about the implications of that and conceptualising how we empathise with people.
I love this feeling of being close to someone while also being mysterious. It’s subjective and objective. We’re close to them, but it’s also alienating. I don’t want the viewer, the audience, the director to be too comfortable watching this person. I don’t want us to be too privileged. I want us to be a little uncomfortable and a little disoriented. The style helps us experience the person and not prejudge them too much or stereotype them. I want them to be constantly evolving, and I want us to be constantly adjusting.
7R: It’s true. I felt very anxious and uncomfortable watching the film, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who felt the same.
Kazik Radwanski: It’s partially to empathise with the character. Last night, I was at the hometown [Toronto] premiere, and there were a lot of moms in the theatre, so I talked to a lot of mothers. Part of me empathises most with her [Anne’s] mom, that tension of not knowing what to do. I think that’s a common feeling, of not knowing what to do.
The problem would be if we were comfortable and like, “That’s what’s wrong: she didn’t take her medication.” I wanted helping her to feel uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable with her in a classroom with children, I think. That was always the intention, the added weight of pressure of young children being around.
Inversely, we’re uncomfortable for Deragh sometimes when there’s certain men in the room. We’re not sure what to make of Matt [Johnson], or the Tinder date, or even the dad at the end, when he pours himself a glass of wine. Just these social barriers and social things: I’m hoping it feels uncomfortable, but we’re not sure why.
7R: How did you work with Deragh before shooting to develop the character of Anne?
Kazik Radwanski: I really respect Deragh. We talked about it a lot. We maybe talked about it too much. I think we over-conceptualised it. We built up multiple backstories, researched a lot, read a lot of memoirs of different people who have survived psychiatric institutions or mental health diagnoses. The film was funded through the Arts Council, which always encourages a structure of hiring consultants, so there were a number of mental health practitioners and people who guided us through the process. Initially, we overburdened ourselves and didn’t know where to start.
We shot this film over two years. It was a lot of learning from places, learning from experience. Deragh volunteered at the daycare. We ended up incorporating a lot of teachers in the scenes. Deragh jumped out of a plane, and that informed the character in different ways.
As we worked on it, we cut it down more and more, and ended up with quite a short runtime. We screened it for doctors, and they were like, “This is more useful if we know less.” That reaffirmed my own views that if it’s too prescriptive, it’s less usable, and it becomes limited. That became a discussion with my editor, Ajla Odobasic, and I about how we can cut exposition and just plunge into moments.
7R: It’s interesting that even though you shot over two years, the film is only just over 70 minutes long. You must have had a lot of footage.
Kazik Radwanski: A lot of footage, yeah. I’ve made all my films like this. I suppose I thought this might be different because I’m working with Deragh. My other films involved slightly less professional actors, people I just kind of find. I thought Deragh, as a pro, wasn’t going to do it. But it was the opposite: because she can do so much, there’s so many options. It made it difficult for us to make decisions!
Some things just came out of practical limitations. We had a small budget. We work working around people’s schedules and their jobs. But it’s made me really reliant on shooting something, and then thinking about it, and then shooting a little bit more, showing it to my editor, and then talking about it… My main method or tactic now is duration. It’s a very long, drawn-out process to try to come up with something short, or something that feels found or caught or a sketch of a person, even though it’s such a long process.
7R: When you started shooting, did you know that the process would last two years?
Kazik Radwanski: It was in the back of my head. My other two features had a similar approach. Deragh was very invested in the project so we knew that she believed in it. Matt Johnson, too, who played a supporting character. Matt’s also a local filmmaker, and he also happens to shoot over a long period of time, so he also got it. It’s a conversation we have with everyone, the parents [of the kids in the film] in particular.
We set it up like an acting camp where they’d come in every Saturday, and we’d try something different. Certain scenes are sometimes compiled of six weekends of shooting. When I first meet an actor or a collaborator, I try to be as honest as possible, that it’ll be relaxed, but this might go on for a while. “Just imagine, four months from now, you might be a little annoyed that we’re calling you again.” But we’re very flexible. We try to be as accommodating as possible and work around people’s schedules. The whole method is more like a documentary shoot.
It’s a very intimate crew, a crew of four or five people on set most days, and it’s all people I’ve already worked with. That helps with creating the right environment and intimacy and finding the performance with Deragh, too.
7R: So you don’t have a conventional script? What do you have written down before shooting?
Kazik Radwanski: No, [we do]! We have a 90-page conventional script. I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with writing. But it’s writing it and then knowing we’ll change it — writing it as a blueprint, writing it as something to plan.
And, perhaps, writing scripts for different people, too. Writing one script for Telefilm Canada [who funded the film], and then maybe having notes and research for Deragh, but then still have a 90-page script and a semblance of a structure, just for us to be able to plan some of these things.
7R: What is it about the character of Anne that you think is so cinematic?
Kazik Radwanski: It’s hard for me to verbalise. This is my third feature, and the first two are about men. That was a whole other arc of wanting to find almost the most everyday or unlikeable characters. I got really obsessed with quotidian banality. And this is almost a loop back to some of my earlier shorts, which is also why it’s a female protagonist, like films I made earlier.
I think it’s the mixture of emotions. A lot of it is very internal. It’s this whole thing of being around children, being good with kids, and then another mode is being an adult, negotiating all of that, [and] then also family relationships.
With this character, the backstory changed, but it was always a feeling of trauma, that she had perhaps had an episode before, and she was struggling with trusting herself, being brave, and branching out again. I found that very heartbreaking. There were questions of: Do you know yourself? Do you listen to your friends? Half of it’s me, half of it’s people in my life that I love.
7R: At what point did the skydiving element come in?
Kazik Radwanski: Early. It was the first scene we shot. This jumping out of the plane was kind of a metaphor for, “We’re gonna do this!” It was always tied to, “OK we’re actually making a film now!”
I think that might have been lodged in the back of my head. Harmony Korine was a really important filmmaker for me when I was in undergrad. Mister Lonely [(2007)] had that skydiving scene. Part of me wants that almost Herzogian moment of this larger than life thing that then becomes a metaphor.
7R: The film is shot in Toronto. What did you want to capture about the city or avoid?
Kazik Radwanski: What is Toronto as a cinematic city is something I think about a lot. What stories are appropriate to tell here? What can Toronto offer the rest of the world? I think of Toronto as being a fairly large city for a city that’s so safe. Definitely with my earlier projects, everyone means well, but people are still so alienated. [In Anne at 13,000 ft], everyone’s trying to help Deragh, but she still feels pressured by them. It’s this feeling of polite alienation, or parents being curt with her, or the staff meeting at her workplace, things bubbling up.
Then, also the landscape of Toronto. I wanted to feel the Toronto geography. So shooting at that daycare, I feel like that’s a real Toronto institution: 200 children go there, so it’s one of the largest in the city. All my films have also been shot in my mom’s house, so even just the architecture of a Toronto home. She [Anne] breaks into her mom’s house, and the windows aren’t locked: another Canadianism.
7R: How did you use sound design to get into Anne’s headspace?
Kazik Radwanski: We have an amazing sound designer, Matthew Chan, who was at the screening last night. Sound’s always crucial but naturalistic. Up until this film, Dan Montgomery, the producer of the film, held the boom. The camera and the boom are always just there, and it’s always kind of intimate. It becomes important because the camera’s so close.
When I chose locations, I was thinking of it somewhat rhythmically or abstractly. We’re in the middle of the daycare, and then we’re suddenly on a lake in this wedding ceremony. Then we’re in midair [during a skydive], having these aural fluctuations. Moments like the wedding speech, the silence of the crowd… These shifts, the audio juxtapositions.
Working with Matt [Chan] was great, too. With the midair stuff, we’re experimenting slightly with bass and trying to amp up emotions on a guttural level. What do we hear when she’s in midair? There is no real reference so how do we design this moment of freefalling.
7R: Have you ever been skydiving?
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, first time for this film! Deragh had no problem jumping the first time. We all agreed. But then Nicolay [Michaylov], the cinematographer, and I looked at the footage, and it wasn’t quite right. We didn’t have the heart to ask Deragh to go again, so I decided to be the stand-in, and we’d do some camera tests on me. I jumped out of the plane, and we tested a few cameras. We showed that footage to Deragh, and she jumped again.
7R: You’re dealing with a character with severe mental health problems. What trappings were you careful to avoid?
Kazik Radwanski: Stigma. We wanted this film to be an ally. I think it’s very dangerous to use mental illness in a manipulative way, as a stereotype of something. We grounded it in the character and the person and humanised it.
There were moments when we were asking what medication would she take, but when it came to designing a shot, it just felt wrong. We don’t need an insert to give this information. We would just talk about it.
We talked to doctors or people with their own personal stories. Deragh and I know people; everybody knows people like this. I’ve lived with people who take medication, and I don’t know what the pills are, but you know that sometimes, this happens. It’s not about pinpointing it. At the same time, we did want to be truthful.
7R: The film is programmed in the Platform competition in the festival, a fairly new and exclusive section. To what extent do you think that being in Platform has helped the film?
Kazik Radwanski: I think it’s helped. That’s always a thing in Canada: it’s great to premiere in your hometown, but there’s sometimes a fear that it’s charity by the festival. So them making the statement of putting it in the Platform section was meaningful. Just to premiere in a competition was meaningful. And we’re in such good company. I really admire a lot of the filmmakers in the programme.
Also, that TIFF trusted us with it. If you look at the landscape of Canadian films, we’re quite a low-budget film. I almost wonder if some people were kind of irked that we were in [Platform] instead of them, hat it wasn’t about budget means so much to us because we just made exactly the film we wanted to make. We weren’t making this holding our breath for Platform. Knowing that we made it on our own terms means so much. It does feel a little different this year!
7R: What are you working on next?
Kazik Radwanski: I’m working on a few projects. I’ve made a number of shorts because I always like to throw a wrench in my process and make something completely different. I made a short film called Scaffold [(2017)] in between this and my last feature:[a] short with no faces, all hands! I do things like that in between.
I’m hoping to work with Deragh and Matt [Johnson] again. I want to write something after working with them now. Some of the stuff I planned was good, but that stuff I didn’t plan on… I want to write something as a starting point, and then just plan on their two minds meeting again. They’re both filmmakers, too. I really like working with them. I was kind of afraid to do that, but now I’d love to do it again.