The one thing I absolutely love about the Canadian film community is the nature of the relationships that you create, and their ability to come full circle no matter the gap. Back in 2013, I connected with the wonderful Ali Liebert to talk about her indie film Afterparty, directed and written by Michelle Ouellet. A few months later, in 2014, we wrote about the film at the Canadian Film Festival. After 4 years, at the Canadian Film Festival again no less, I’m introduced to yet another one of Michelle’s films: Prodigals, starring the David Alpay, Sara Canning, Kaniehtiio Horn, and many other wonderful Canadians.
I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss the making of Prodigals with Michelle, specifically the development of the film, the experiences filming in Northern Ontario, and what aspects of the film she really wanted to fine tune to bring out the message she wanted to convey with the production.
1. It is wonderful to see a very Canadian story, adapted originally for the stage, being brought to life for the big screen. How did you get involved with the project?
I was approached by two of the the actors (Jameson Parker who plays Greg, and David Kaye, who plays Benny) who had optioned a very early version of the adaptation. I loved the idea of someone coming home to assist with a trial (in the stage version, Wesley was a character witness at Benny’s trial as opposed to actually assisting with the trial as he does in the film) but there was a kernel of something there that intrigued me. I have always been enamoured with Northern Ontario, and I love a good legal thriller, so I basically signed on solely on the premise and location. A few months later, Sabrina Evertt who produced and developed the play signed on to EP the film version, and we were off to the races. At this point I’d say the film is inspired by the play and early adaption, but we’ve taken a major departure from the original under the sure hand of screenwriter Nicholas Carella.
2. A stage play is of course designed to work in a defined space, while a movie can stretch itself as far as the set allows it. What were some of the challenges that you had to address when working on this project?
One of the things that we concerned ourselves with very early on was the plausibility of the legal storyline. Because a film can potentially reach a wider audience, we needed to fact check all of the legal elements, because obviously we aren’t lawyers and I would hate for a viewer to be taken out of the story because something isn’t true. We found out very quickly, through a consulting criminal attorney, that character witness’ are almost never used in a murder trial because the case would quickly devolve into a he said/she said situation. For every person who says: “Oh so-and-so was a good guy” there would be dozens of others who could say differently. Once this central conceit became implausible then the new story flowed from there. We needed a new reason for Wesley to come home and we needed a new arc for the trial itself. This allowed the introduction of characters (like Benny, the guy on trial for murder) who was mentioned in previous versions but was never seen. For me, Benny is the most fascinating character in the film and his relationship with Wesley forms the core of the film’s overall theme of second chances. Who gets them? Who deserves them?
3. There is a common element in your films that I greatly appreciate: simple stories about life. Afterparty was a bunch of vastly different characters reflecting on life and what decisions they had made, and Prodigals explores that notion of second chances. What kind of stories do you want to be pushing to audiences, and what drives you to do so?
Thank you! I think for me filmmaking is a way for me to explore the human condition and to sort things out for myself. I’m always trying to understand why people behave the way they do and what drives a person. Most people shock the heck out me and I am always fascinated with the “why” of human behaviour. I think one of the reasons I love Wesley is that he is so imperfect and his arc isn’t clear-cut. He’s still a jerk well into the third act but somehow (hopefully) we root for him. That’s life, that’s people, “warts and all” and that’s what fascinates me.
4. It was wonderful to see that the location the original play was set in, Sault St. Marie, was an integral part of the film. The city itself is almost like another character in the film. How was it like filming in the city? How important was it to use the actual town when filming?
We talked about moving the film to BC where I was based at the time but for me Northern Ontario was an important character. I have friends who grew up in Sudbury (I know it’s not the same as The Soo!) and some of the things that the characters do in the film,like drinking beer in the hot tub in the dead of winter and the euchre games, were all things that were part of my experience growing up. In terms of the city itself, we shot only 4 days in SSM. The remaining principal photography took place in Vancouver. I wish we could have spent the entire time in The Soo, but we are a small film so we needed to really stretch our resources to get this done. Having said that, the time we spent there was amazing. I have one story that sums up our Soo experience: we were shooting one night during a snow squall and a couple came by with coffees for the entire cast and crew to keep us warm. That would never happen in Toronto or Vancouver! It is an amazing town, and I hope I can return there to make something else.
5. One comment I made when I watched Afterparty was the simplicity of the cinematography, which allowed the characters to shine. That is again seen here with Prodigals. What do you hope the simple nature of how the story is presented will be received by audiences?
I wanted to make something that was uncomplicated and I tried to convey that with the visual style. The most important thing for me was to create loose frames where the actors had a chance to breathe. I love two shots where character interactions are organic and where we, the audience, can experience both perspectives at the same time. I’m an editor as well and I try not to cut if I can. I love watching the action play out. For me, there is rarely anything as exciting in a film as an electrifying performance. I also love cross coverage, where you shoot both sides of a conversation simultaneously , and I was fortunate enough to work with a DP, Lindsay George, who was down to utilize that shooting style when it made sense.
My goal when making this film was to make a character driven film about second chances. I’ve been preoccupied with the notion of chance or luck for a very long time. I felt that keeping it simple would help to illuminate those themes.
6. Canadian cinema is like a small town. Everyone knows everybody in some capacity. Did you have individuals you wanted to collaborate with in mind when you were putting this film together?
I’m very happy I got a chance to work with Sara Canning. She’s the best. An amazing actress and her portrayal of Jen was very grounded. She’s also incredibly smart. I loved talking to her about Jen; she has so much insight. I hope we can work together again. I was a fan of David Alpay’s work but didn’t know him, so we got to know each-other over the course of filming. I think he’s a wonderful Wesley.
Everyone else was a friend or friend of a friend or was attached to the film when I signed on. I think that’s a great way to work. It felt like a family, which is really important when shooting a low budget film because you don’t have to time to rehearse, it’s off to the races almost immediately so having that familiarity helped to develop that shorthand that carried us through the shoot.
7. What would be your most memorable moment from the set?
There were lots! It was a crazy shoot. I think for me the most fun I had shooting was during the euchre montage. In the script it said something like: “They play cards into the night and Wesley remembers why they were all such good friends.” We only had an hour to shoot that section and it was complete chaos, the entire cast was there, we were running two cameras and I kept shouting (over the noise) to everyone: “it’s a free for all, go wild!”, “More free for all!”. We were all improvising. The celebration was authentic; they were laughing and yelling and I think it comes across. That was a scene that I had a plan for but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to capture it and everyone really went for it, including the camera teams. I love it when a scene works better than you think it will.
I also loved working with David Kaye (Benny) and Brian Markinson (Junior). They are both such physical actors and staging scenes with them was very exciting. They really know how to own a room.