Down River is a story of a women Pearl, played magnificently by icon Helen Shaver and the friendship that she shares with three women who are all at the creative crossroads of their respective artistic development, while at the same time dealing with her own health struggles. Toronto Film Scene had the opportunity recently to sit down and speak with Helen Shaver and Gabrielle Miller to discuss their moving new film Down River about friendship, learning about letting go and ultimately appreciating the gift of loving yourself.
Gabrielle Miller, known widely to most Canadian as Lacey Burrows on the hit-comedy Corner Gas, takes up the role of the actress Fawn. Rounding out a trio of ladies who look to Pearl for guidance is the abstract visual artist Aki, played by writer/director Ben Ratner’s real-life wife Jennifer Spence. Lastly, Harper, a deeply gifted vocalist who is too self destructive for her own potential brought intensely to life by Colleen Rennison. These four amazing performances credit Ratner’s screenplay due in part because the characters were tailored for each actress. As Miller explains, “He wrote those characters with each of the actresses in mind. This doesn’t really happen often.”
Helen Shaver, an accomplished actress working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Newman, Sam Peckinpah, and Brian De Palma, has in recent years expanded her career as a prolific television director and producer working on fierce and exciting series such as The Firm, Revolution, Person of Interest and upcoming episodes of the new season of Orphan Black to name a few. She was courted by Ratner early, before there was even a script. They had mutual friends in common, and he pitched to her what was to become Down River. Shaver explains, “I was attracted to the project because of Ben’s passion as a filmmaker.” The complexity depicting female-fellowship had significant appeal to Shaver as a storyteller, “… seeing a film where we see women relate to each other, we don’t get to see that on the screen too much.”
Miller couldn’t agree more about how rare this is, adding, “They are really full, flawed characters. That’s very exciting for me to see and be apart of – you know, because sometimes that is not the case.” She recalls seeing Down River for the first time on the big screen, “It was so incredibly moving, and I said [to Ben] all those women are loved.”
What truly pulled Shaver back into acting was the opportunity to explore some profound questions about life. She acknowledges, “What attracted me to Pearl was the opportunity to examine my own mortality through the lens of this character… You know we are always living in our heads mostly worrying [about day to day issues] ….but eventually we all have to die, but live as though we are immortal, thinking we have the opportunity to do things again and again.”
Shaver recognized an opportunity in the character of Pearl to reengage with the craft of acting as a performer, and to see if she could rise to the high bar she sets for her own performers when wearing the director’s hat. “I decided that I would try to come back to acting,” she reveals, “and find out if I could do what I ask my actors to do between clap and cut, which is to show up and be present – just surrender myself to a performance, and see if I could do that still.”
When Miller reflects on Fawn’s arc, she reveals an equally deep and complex route in conveying her performance. Which is understandable, Fawn negotiates many tensions: within her relationship, within herself as an actress, while all being reconciled within her deeply religious faithfulness. Miller describes Fawn as, “…[being] really passionate about what she does and who she loves. But she is also very, very connected to her space, and carries guilt and confusion about what the right path is for her.”
“The decision she makes about the way she lives her life contrasts to mine,” she says, which challenged Miller to get out of her head and away from judging Fawn on certain levels. “I felt quite vulnerable.” Her process she discovered, “[was that] I really needed to be as present as possible, and allow myself to just connect with her on an inner level, so that was being truthful. Because when I started intellectualizing her or her choices I felt that I could possibly get myself in trouble.”
Gabrielle Miller speaks about having huge levels of trust working under the watchful eye of Ratner whom she has known for a long time. She explains, “I was in incredibly competent hands with Ben. I feel very, very comfortable working with him, and I feel incredibly safe with him. So I knew he guided the story in the way that it needed to go. I was in good hands, so if I went off, I felt that I would’ve been guided properly back to where we needed to be.”
Inquiring about rehearsals or poking around for stories about exercises in bonding amongst the actresses, seems like a natural question based on their well-developed chemistry in the film together. All actresses knew each other peripherally as acquaintances in one form or another. But the demands of a small budget and demands of efficient shooting schedule – there really wasn’t latitude for such luxuries. Shaver explains, “No, we didn’t rehearse. This film wasn’t produced for much money, about $65,000. It had a very small crew, but we all showed up to be present – to play with each other. And tell the truth.”
Miller agrees with Shaver, “… everybody who was on the film, they were really committed to the work and they were there because of the work. It definitely wasn’t the case that we had more people and money that was necessary.
The story’s premise is bred from Ratner’s relationship with the late Canadian artist and actress Babz Chula. Ratner credits Chula as being his ‘Pearl’. Gabrielle Miller belongs to the close-knit Vancouver artistic community Chula was at the centre of as guide, friend and mentor. She explains, “You know Babz – she is just the most incredible artist and friend, and lived really loudly – in the most beautiful way. This was not a biography of Babz in any way, but it definitely was inspired by her. And Ben was moved by Babz to create this beautiful film and I do feel that it is incredible the way that it honours her.”
The character of Pearl is the beacon that guides the women of this film in times where they can’t grasp what they need. In the third act, Pearl leaves to attend a retreat in India to take care of herself. But what happens to Pearl; what of her journey? The narrative alludes to an estranged daughter and regrets, leaving the audience to wonder where peace will come for Pearl. Shaver provides an answer: “I think she would say that ‘the now’ is the only thing that is important; anything else is folly. … Wherever she is crosses that threshold, when she steps over she would have loved herself.”
Down River is a wonderful film of precise storytelling, complex characters, and unsentimental performances. Go and see a fantastic voice in Canadian writing and filmmaking, anchored with great truth and impact in this poignant tale of friendship, love and hope.
To see this film with Helen Shaver and Gabrielle Miller as Pearl and Fawn be sure to check out a screening of Down River, opening at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas on Friday, March 21, 2014.