In anticipation of the opening of TIFF and festival circuit hit Small Town Murder Songs opening Friday, February 18 at The Royal, TFS writer Katarina Gligorijevic sat down to chat with writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly.
KG: The first thing I have to ask, because I’m such a huge fan of of his, is how did you cast Peter Stormare in the lead role of Walter? Did you have him in mind, or anyone in mind, when you were writing the script?
EG-D: Well yeah, it’s kind of funny. I was writing around something very specific. What I imagined was an ex girlfriend’s dad from Nipawin, Saskatchewan. His name was Walter Rudy, so I called the character that. In the end though, the person who inspired it isn’t like the character in the film at all.
We were working with a really great casting director in New York. We started with a very long list of 50 or 60 names, people who might be interested in doing a project of this scale. She named Peter, and I didn’t realise he was on Prison Break , which is a series i was watching at the time. And then I happened to see Armageddon and was like “oh, it’s the guy from Prison Break “, and then I watched Dancer in the Dark and really liked him in that. He’s kind of a classic character actor, so different in every role. There’s a simple sincerity about him. He always plays villains, like in Bad Boys 2, or he’s very funny in like in Armageddon or The Big Lebowski . I was very intrgiued because here was someone playing either villains or comic roles, and I like playing against tpe.
We started talking, he read the script was eager to talk about it. After one night of hanging out, we shook hands and agreed on it. It can be tricky when you’re trying to cast somebody, this was my first foray into casting more famous actors. It’s not like you can ask people like that to audition, and if you’re asking them to do something diffeernt from what they’ve already done, you take some risks.
KG: He was great in the role, but I almost didn’t recognize him when he first came on screen with the big moustache and the glasses.
EG-D: It’s funny, because the characher, I wanted him to be hidden behind them. I was writing it to be someone with a moustache and big glasses. And here I’ve gone and cast someone people might actually recognize, and made him unrecognizable.
KG: The music (by Bruce Peninsula) in the film was incredible. I heard that it wasn’t what you were originally planning to use. How did that change come about?
EG-D: I wrote the film around an album called Small Town Murder Scene (by the FemBots), which I loved, but in the end, it didn’t contrast the film as well. I wrote it around that album and the pace and the style of the cinematogrphay was designed around that influence, so when you put the images against that, there’s no conflict, it’s too much in harmony, and with Bruce Peninsula there was a dissonance.
KG: The songs really imbue the film with this, like, spiritual heaviness.
EG-D: For me, editing is a form of rewriting. When I was cutting together the narrative, the title cards and the music, it allowed me to track and maitain this religious arc of Walter’s character without really talking about religion. The scenes come with that energy but the characters don’t have to talk about religion at all. But for me there is really the weight of religion throughout the film. And it’s funny, because not all of those songs are actually religious but it’s infused with the texture of gospel. It helps cement the spiritual journey.
KG: This film is very different from This Beautiful City, both in terms of the story, the setting, the tone and pacing, everything. Was that a conscious decision, to do something really different? Do you have an intention to change it up every time, or did it just sort of happen that way?
EG-D: It’s an interesting question, because it’s something I’ve been talking about my agent and manager as I’ve been developing a lot of different movies that I want to follow up with. People tend to tell similar stories because there are ideas or themes they become osessed with, but I don’t want to do something twice, so I wanted to do something that was not a gritty urban drama again. I wasn’t trying to write the antithesis of that but I didn’t want to cover that terrain again. Subconsciously I was influenced by a double murder that happened on my street. I wasn’t writing about it being in my neighbourhood or anything like that, but I liked the idea of how a neighbourhood can have a loss of innocence, and to use a small town as a kind of petri dish.
KG: What was it like shooting in Listwell? How much of the town’s atmosphere did you have to construct, and how much was it actually like that?
EG-D: Making a film, you’re definitely an illusionist. We were taking a bunch of the natural elements and manipulating them to our advantage. Listwell itself is not a Mennonite town. It was like a town where there were enough hotels to put up the crew, surrounded by several Mennonite communities. But certainly the landscape is very much of that region. We were aiming for a very particular time of year when you get those big, heavy skies. That’s a temporally limited time, when you stay in those wide shots and convey that ominous sense of dread.
KG: What are you working on now?
EG-D: I’ve got eight projects in devlopment, two in the US. One is like a supernatural thriller, Lavender , and one’s an eco-horror called Permafrost that I’m shooting here next winter. I’m interested in exloring genre, but defeintely elevated genre, you know, using the elements of genre films to tell these interesting stories. For me the essence is stuff that has strong storytelling, and finding interesting ways to explore narrative, but if i’m going to do a horror movie, then it’ll definitely be my take on horror, rather than trying to do copy an established style. There’s also a great play by Jason Sherman called Three in the Back, Two in the Head , that I’m adapting, and a rock gospel musical called The Feast .
KG: No shortage of projects.
EG-D: It seems like this is an interesting time to make the films you want to make, even if they won’t necessarily become commercially viable. There’s a strong interest in finding auteurs who are interestied in exploring genre. And with this film, my producer brain was like “this movie isn’t going to sell well”. It was never going to be a Black Swan , we didn’t cast superstars and it wasn’t clearly like a genre film.
KG: You mentioned that you’re working on a couple of projects in the States. What’s the difference for you, working there as opposed to in Canada?
EG-D: The US is definitely more feasible for making movies for 20 million dollars or above. Last year, the news was “don’t do drama, drama can’t sell”, and now after a few successes like Black Swan and Winter’s Bone , they’re chasing dramas trying to find the next Winter’s Bone . Here though, Telefilm Canada does a lot of development support, which I think is really needed and important. You can write a lot of scripts on spec and maybe sell them, but to get money to develop your own material is a bit of a pipe dream for some people.
To make a film for one to five million in the US can be more tricky, because they really need to make that money back. You can definitely make a low budget horror movie there, because they do a lot of genre, but if you want a low budget drama, you need an A-list cast. It’s more of an investor driven market. In Canada I think you can still make films in that one to five million range. I’ve never made a movie yet in the States so it’s new terrain for me. We’ll see how the two projects I have will shape up. I have no intention of leaving Canada, though. As pretty as it is, I couldn’t grow to love driving that much.
Ed Gass-Donnelly’s modern gothic, Small Town Murder Songs , opens in Toronto on February 18th.