Directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis discuss collaborating, using in-depth research to make fiction, and why they keep writing films about women. Read our TIFF review of White Lie.
From its first shot, White Lie plunges the viewer into moral turmoil. Seen through the bathroom doorway, Katie (Kacey Rohl) stands shaving her already bald head down to the scalp. One’s instinctive sympathy over what a woman’s bald scalp might infer — cancer, chemotherapy — is challenged by the scene’s very length, forcing the creeping realisation that Katie is up to something far more sinister.
Filmmaking team Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas exploit the duplicitous gap between what we see and what we believe throughout White Lie. As Katie shows up to college, poses with a “Fight For Katie” campaign poster, and attends a dance class where she’s clearly the star pupil, Lewis and Thomas shoot Katie from a distance with a limber camera that pans left and right to follow her movements. The eyes of every pupil are on her, this brave student fighting cancer. But Katie is faking her illness, scamming everyone around her for money, status, and affection.
Lewis and Thomas start the film months into Katie’s scam at a new turning point: she needs medical proof of her illness to apply for grant funding. Her scheme is in danger of falling apart. Heavy shadows line the clinical hallways of Katie’s college and the hospital where she meets a med student willing to help her forge medical documents. Katie’s bald head makes her stick out in each space, and Kacey Rohl’s eyes dart about the frame as though scanning each scene for the opportunity to further her scam, or the danger of being uncovered. A clanking industrial score from Lev Lewis that makes all four walls feel like they are closing in on Katie, as though her bald head is sprouting a target.
Katie lives in constant suspense, waiting for the penny to drop. She wears a facade of goodness while trapped in the rules of her own lies, recalling a Film Noir protagonist in the Langian style, where law, justice, and morality are structures the characters must negotiate, and the viewer navigate. Wisely, Lewis and Thomas let these ideas, and gestures to class and social virality, take a back seat to tightly written thrills. With such economic filmmaking, White Lie makes it easy to see the purpose of every object and action in the film: if money changes hands, the viewer sees where it ends up. The clear forward momentum of each scene gives the viewer the opportunity to make their own minds up about Katie, and the system she is trying to play.
Unshowy supporting performances from the likes of Martin Donovan and Amber Anderson as, respectively, a pleading father and worried girlfriend, propel the viewer along Katie’s journey, with Rohl’s commanding performance the central force of the film.
I spoke to Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas about their collaborative process, how they use in-depth research to make fiction, and why they keep writing films about women.
Seventh Row (7R): I’ve seen the film twice now. At TIFF the film felt very cold, but this time I found myself getting really invested in the spiral of Katie’s journey. Why did you embark on such a morally dubious story?
Yonah Lewis: We heard about people doing this in real life. About a decade ago, Calvin heard of one or two people doing this and brought that to me. We were both repelled and fascinated by what sort of person would scam someone like this, use something so sensitive and touchy [as a cancer diagnosis] and exploit it in this way. We were aghast at these people and wanted to delve into what would make someone do this.
Calvin Thomas: I don’t think we ever go into a movie hoping for a certain reaction. I think conflicted [reactions] and having different reactions are good. It’s interesting that you’ve seen it twice now and have had different takes on Katie or the movie, in general. It’s certainly our hope that you felt something alongside Katie and didn’t just find her despicable and inhuman, and just on this path of destruction — that there was something more going on there. Feedback from a lot of audiences is that they do feel for her, and they do feel sorry for her.
7R: Even the first shot, as a viewer, you turn from feeling sympathetic toward Katie into asking more and more questions. How did you set up scenes to morally complicate the viewer?
Yonah Lewis: We wanted to make the viewer forget that she’s doing something wrong. We wanted you to start sympathising with her, identifying with her, or wanting her to get away with things. And once in a while, realise that’s not what you should be feeling.
By spending the whole film at her side, it forces you to want her to succeed at points and be there with her. Somehow, we managed to succeed. There’s many things in our films that we try and are not always successful.
7R: So is it a case of experimenting in the collaboration?
Calvin Thomas: We met very early in our filmmaking career, in film school, and basically made every project together and have ever since. We learned how to watch and make films together, and I think we are still developing our taste and style 14 years later. The collaboration has been so close over the years that there are no lines in terms of Yonah does this or I do that. We certainly have different strengths and weaknesses, and we balance each other out, but it’s such a close collaboration that we’re writing on the same page at the same time; we’re looking at the same monitor and doing very similar things, very much in line with each other.
Yonah Lewis: It’s a very codependent filmmaking relationship. Experimentation is always important, but because there’s two of us, we spend a lot of time preparing in advance, because it would be very embarrassing if we went on set with two different perspectives, or if I told an actor something, and then unknowingly, Calvin had already told them something completely different.
We spend a lot of time making sure we’re on the same page from the beginning so that we don’t make fools of ourselves on set. A solo director just needs one idea. They talk to somebody, and that’s that. Maybe you even change your mind later and tell them something new. We would be very embarrassed with ourselves if it was anything like that.
7R: The performances are very natural and alive within this clinical setting. How did you work with the actors to achieve that?
Calvin Thomas: That’s casting, I think. We went into this knowing that we had a pretty strong script, and we felt good about it. The really daunting part is I think there are about 31 speaking parts in the film. It didn’t seem like a lot on the page, but when you break it down, it’s a lot, so there were a lot of people to fill out.
We went into it knowing if we cast well, we wouldn’t have to do very much on set. That was important, as the shoot was very short. There wasn’t actually a lot of time to direct or shape a scene. Thankfully, we didn’t need that time because we felt so strongly about the casting. The rhythm was built into the script, as was some of that realism. Then it was brought to life by Casey and everyone around her, as well. I think a lot of our direction comes down to “cut this line” or “speed up” or “slow down”— very minimal notes on set.
7R: It sounds very systematic.
Yonah Lewis: Yeah, and we were shooting on film. Which creates certain time constraints. There’s only so many takes you can do because you’re wasting celluloid. That being said, we pretty quickly learned that on a film as small as ours, with as few days as ours, no matter what format we were shooting on, we wouldn’t have all the time in the world to do a million takes. So it was really important that the cast knock it out of the park on the first or second or third take. We did manage to get a lot of rehearsal time with Casey and the vast majority of the major players around her. That was something that we and the cast really benefited from.
7R: How did you come across Casey Rohl? I recognised her from NBC’s Hannibal, and in some respects, this is an even more extreme version of that character.
Calvin Thomas: She sent an unrecognisable casting tape. Our editor [Lev Lewis, who also composed the score] noticed her. She’s based in Vancouver so she sent a tape along with everyone else. When you get those tapes, they come in a huge spreadsheet with just a bunch of thumbnails. And Lev noticed her and said, “She’s been in Hannibal. We should look at her!”
I make the joke that her audition tape looked like The Blair Witch Project. She was really close to the camera, wearing a tube to hide her hair. She looked ill and gave this very strong audition. It was too extreme. It wasn’t how we’d envisioned the character, but it stood out because she went for it. It was really quite striking. We recognised her instincts and the bold choice to do what she did. We had a conversation with her, and she sent another tape done in a very different way. It was a no-brainer after that. She was leagues above the other people we were looking at.
Yonah Lewis: That’s the tricky thing when you’re auditioning someone, or even in a room with them. Maybe they knock your socks off doing it one way, but can they do it in other ways? Being aware of their ability to do it in different ways and not just be stuck in a single way of doing it is super important to us. Casey showed she could [perform the role] in a million fascinating, exciting ways. Some of them were more what we envisioned and some less, but they were all really strong.
7R: All of your films since your debut, Amy George (2011), centre female protagonists. What draws you to those stories?
Yonah Lewis: Maybe five films from now, if we’ve only ended up writing about women, this answer will be different, but our choices are story dependent. In this one, we knew from the beginning a woman would be more interesting, because a woman is more striking with a shaved head. It’s as simple as that. It could be a man or woman, but you see men walking around with a shaved head all the time, and you don’t see women that much.
That visible marker of cancer was so important: the way that she moves through the world and people watch her. Her wanting that attention. The head shaving thing led to being a woman, and after that, there was really no other way of doing it. Our last film, Spice It Up (2013), which is about a group of seven young women who fail high school and want to join the Canadian army, was written that way because it was more interesting to have seven women join the army than seven men join the army. In a lot of these cases, it comes from the story rather than a need to write about women. There’s doubtlessly more films about men than women, but at the end of the day, we just want to tell stories about people. It’s somewhat coincidental that we’ve mostly made films about women.
Calvin Thomas: Our friend Dan Sallit [director of Fourteen (2020)] was asked this question recently, and we talked to him about it. He doesn’t have a great answer either. He said it’s his “script orientation,” and he said that’s just what happens. The ideas come and that’s just what he sees. Ultimately, we follow the ideas that come and try not to analyse it too much.
7R: The relationship between Katie and her girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson) has a really interesting dynamic. You don’t make a plot point out of their relationship, which allows you to get into the more subtle power play between the couple. It’s underplayed and doesn’t end in a cliched Gay Tragedy. What was behind that?
Calvin Thomas: In the first draft, she wasn’t queer. Somewhere in the second or third draft, the boyfriend became a girlfriend.
We thought it was very important that the lesbian relationship was normalised and not “a thing.” From other people’s feedback they like how it exists and isn’t made more of than it is. It’s just a relationship between two people. Obviously there are different dynamics between men and women or women and women, and it’s not like you can just flick a switch and suddenly make that character a man. You would have to write them differently. But it made sense for this. The character of Jennifer already came with this power over Katie. She comes from a richer family with a warm family relationship. She’s more sure of herself. All of these things made her exist in a certain way that gives her power over Katie. Making her a man, as well, added another element of power over Katie. That’s not to say that women can’t have power over other women, but by taking one thing out of the equation, it helped put them on a more even keel.
7R: The film is very good at holding and imparting information in a way that’s natural and doesn’t feel expository, like Katie’s backstory which comes in drips throughout. There’s also a lot that doesn’t get explained, even if it’s clear there’s a world beyond what the viewer sees. Is there a fear of alienating or dissatisfying audiences by holding so much back?
Yonah Lewis: We definitely got notes about that early on. We knew we had a great idea with the character and her decision, but it took a while to structure the story and work out where to come in and out. We landed on a very short time frame — the film takes place over five days. There’s such a short window that you have to deal with the immediate: what is happening in the next five minutes, and how do we solve that problem?
That is much more thrilling than dwelling on the past, or trying to explain motives, or starting with a flashback or prologue to work out how we got there. It helps with the rhythm of the film that the audience is trying to play catch-up. There’s a lot of mystery, and it helps you understand how people can be duped by her, because they don’t know her full story either.
Calvin Thomas: In real life, you don’t know why people are doing something. There’s no Psycho ending where his mother touched him or was weird with him as a kid so he killed her and now he’s a transvestite. Not a slight against Psycho! But in real life, rarely are you given a simple answer to any question you might have about motivation, why people do something criminal. It’s not so black and white. The motivating factors are small.
It’s different if you’re making a three-hour Scorsese-like biopic of someone like this, but if you’re doing a small contained thriller in a compressed amount of time, it doesn’t really make sense to give all of those answers. If you give one answer for why they’re doing this, it kind of feels like bullshit. We chose to seed a lot of things to make someone leaving the movie have a sense of why she’s doing this. But one concrete answer would feel false.
7R: What research did you do? Were any elements, like the corrupt doctor who’s willing to sell Katie experimental treatment without a diagnosis, based on reality?
Calvin Thomas: That one wasn’t. A lot of the research had us going beyond the individual cases. There would be a news article about someone in Australia setting up an Indiegogo campaign and defrauding a bunch of people, and that would be the end of it. The articles wouldn’t really go into the family dynamic or how people were affected by it. There was no New Yorker essay about one of these cases, or we would have stolen from it!
We took the ideas of what people actually do, like shaving their head, losing weight, and in-person and online fundraisers using social media. We then needed to figure out the day to day: when crisis hits, how does she try to protect herself? We did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of doctors and lawyers just to say, “If you were to fake medical records, or do this or that, then what would be the process?” Luckily, a lot of the professionals seemed not to know how to do it. They were very ethical.
7R: Did you make them suspicious about yourselves?!
Calvin Thomas: We had to talk them into becoming criminals! Like the scene with the lawyer, about the legal consequences for doing something like this, which is ultimately a fairly petty con for the amount of money that is stolen in the grand scheme of things A lot of that was researched to be fairly accurate so that we could be as detailed and nitpicky as possible.
Yonah Lewis: At first, we looked at people who did this, but it was kind of a dead end. We were unable to find too much about these people. As Calvin said, most of the articles were just factual. We branched out by looking at other people who have been caught publicly. Rachel Dolezal, for example, was essentially outed by her parents. She said she was black, and her white parents said, “Yeah, she’s not so black.” We thought it would be interesting if the person who’s there and meant to protect you is the one doing you the most damage.
We thought she would probably find someone like Trump’s doctor — that insane looking guy, the least trustworthy-looking guy you’ve ever seen in your entire life — to help forge medical records. We took elements from other aspects of reality, not just people faking illnesses online, and wove it together to create a single character and a single story.
7R: Were you commenting on healthcare in Canada at all?
Yonah Lewis: In fact, the opposite. It was a lot harder to write because healthcare is so great here. There’s a joke that Breaking Bad would be one episode if it took place in Canada. We had to bring the United States into it. She goes to do “experimental treatment” in the States. We know people who have cancer and have gone for experimental treatment there, so it’s not a complete fabrication, but it wouldn’t have made sense for her to be trying to raise so much money in Canada, other than living expenses to make your life easier. In fact, the Canadian medical system complicated our lives!