Interview: Ashley McKenzie
With an intimacy that at times approaches asphyxiation, Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf shows the life of a methadone-dependent (and interdependent) couple, Nessa and Blaise (Bhreagh MacNeil and Andrew Gillis), drifting around Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It’s a scaled-in, tough movie notably absent of lycanthropes and almost perversely unconcerned with issues of “likability,” and when I saw it in spring of 2017 at the Maryland International Film Festival I felt like I’d been thwacked between the eyes with the blunt end of an axe. The filmmaker, a Cape Breton native, was present, on what was only her second trip to the United States, and I have a rather vivid memory of sitting with her at a 35mm projection of another excellent film about life on the margins, Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, and exiting the theater in another axe blow daze.
Cape Breton Island has a privileged place in the history of Canadian cinema—it’s the dead end from whence Pete and Joey light out for Toronto at the beginning of Donald Shebib’s massively influential low-budget 1970 Canuck classic Goin’ Down the Road. Werewolf, and its characters, stay firmly planted in that dead end, stranded on their island. With its pronounced documentary impulse, the film may broadly be connected to the same neorealist strain that runs through Shebib’s movie, but McKenzie is enormously invested in developing an almost subjective experience through a harsh, at times assaultive sound design and an intent, detail-oriented way of constructing scenes that consumes the viewer in the moment-to-moment process of getting through the day, entirely appropriate to the experience of people caught up in the monomania of substance dependency, for whom there is no future and no past.
Since Maryland, Werewolf has had an impressive festival run and a wide release in France, and McKenzie has been traveling far and wide. When we spoke on the occasion of her superlative debut feature’s weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives, she was freshly back in northeast Canada from the Berlinale Talent Campus. Preparing to take Manhattan, McKenzie discussed budget-determined aesthetics, toxic relationships, and the risks and rewards of regional filmmaking.
So you’re coming to New York with the movie, correct?
I am. I’m a newbie. I went to New York once when I was in junior high with a basketball team. We took a bus from Cape Breton all the way down to Florida and made a bunch of stops on the way, so we were maybe in New York for a night.
I’ve just rewatched the movie, which I first saw in Maryland. And I’m wondering what the script looked like as written, how long it was. Because the movie is such an immersive experience, it would seem to depend more on being in these spaces and responding to them with a camera, less on dialogue.
I can’t recall the exact page count but it was definitely short for a feature. It might have been 65 pages or something, because there wasn’t much dialogue, although maybe there was more than in most of my short films, which have almost zero dialogue. So especially with the procedural stuff, where they’re talking to doctors in the clinic and therapists, there’s a bit of a dialogue there. But it was a pretty stripped-down script. It was definitely just a jumping-off point.
We did the opposite when we shot. We really gave things a lot of space and time and shot a ton of footage—102 hours. I was working with nonprofessional actors—though some people, like Bhreagh, who plays Nessa, studied in theater—but besides that, most people didn’t have any experience. Andrew, who plays Blaise, was the only person who had ever been in a film before. So I felt like if I tried to prescribe the script too intensely it was just really going to crush the really awesome things that they were going to bring to the piece. So we were integrating people on the fly into the film and I would just let them say things in their own words, and I would just set the scene up, so they wouldn’t even see the script. The lead actors saw the script but people who we would just work into the film—a lot of the supporting cast were cast on location—would not.
The movie seems to depend so much on the actual physical experience of the spaces that you’re returning to again and again. Was that part of the process, familiarizing yourself with certain pieces of territory that you knew you were going to spending a fair amount of time in for the movie?
Yeah, I feel like I’m always scouting locations and talent pretty early. It’s part of my writing process, I would say, because my films rely a lot on atmosphere and a lot on those textures to communicate a lot and I’m usually thinking very specifically about that when I’m writing. But in many ways I don’t have to familiarize myself very much because I’m writing about a place where I’ve spent my whole life, and it’s not a super large place, so I usually just have something in mind, and I’ve been there many times in my life. But then that’s not always true—I hadn’t been in a methadone clinic before. But I had a very specific location for the ice cream parlor in mind when I was writing.
When it comes time to actually try to lock down a location in production or pre-production, things change. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to secure the spot that I did have in mind when I was writing so we would have to let that go and find another place and again, I guess, really try to accept the features of the new location. The ice cream parlor we ended up shooting wasn’t the one I had in mind, but it had these really incredible props and some pieces that visually communicated a lot of the things I wanted to communicate, but maybe in other ways. It was really letting the film evolve into something new. That cookie grinder wasn’t something I had written in the script, but a lot of the ideas of that imagery were definitely embedded in the script, but I hadn’t written about that specifically because I didn’t know about it. We were in the backroom of that place and I saw it.
It can’t be pure serendipity, though, that the methadone clinic and the soft serve ice cream stand, and the activity that occurs inside of them, end up visually complementing each other so well.
That was more specifically in the script, for sure—that was something I wanted to parallel. There was definitely a lot of partitions written into the script, and very specifically I had this idea that there would be a reversal for Nessa, her being on one side of a partition receiving a dose early in the film and then at the end of the film being on the other side of the window dispensing ice cream and working that machinery. That was the trajectory I saw, but I didn’t know about this particular methadone machine that works like an ice cream dispenser. It was more seeing her reversing on opposite sides of a partition, and the idea of a dose being dispensed. But most pharmacies—in Cape Breton, at least—dispense methadone differently, and we probably talked to every pharmacy on the island to try to lock down a place to shoot but no one really wanted to touch it because it’s kind of touchy subject matter. But then there was this one new pharmacy that opened that was sort of the first that was trying to cater specifically to methadone clientele, and because they were doing that they had invested in this newer technology that was out of the U.K., this machine that would regulate and eliminate any room for error in terms of giving someone a wrong dosage, or giving the wrong dose to the wrong person. So when I was writing I didn’t even know that machine existed until we got to trying to shoot and lock down a location. It tied into that sort of idea I was already working with but I got to take it one step further, which was nice.
It surprises me that you shot so much. Was this largely for performance issues? I feel like there’s such a surety to the camera placement in the movie, to where you put the sticks down, and I have a difficult time imagining you shooting lots of coverage on this thing. It seems like you’re making your decisions and rolling with them.
You’re correct about that. The high shooting ratio didn’t have to do with coverage. It had to do with sometimes doing to do a lot of takes—but not even that. I sort of stopped calling cut and would just let the camera roll for, sometimes, a long time, but I would still commit to an angle. I would just see what would emerge in the moments after when I would normally call cut. And something more natural maybe would happen, and then maybe I would whisper something into the scene—“Do this…” you know—and then a new scene would emerge in the moments after the scripted scene. And it just started to work better than I thought the scripted scenes were working. So there were times when we would just run with that, but very much commit to very limited coverage. Just one angle but maybe run the camera for 20 minutes, or I remember one time we ran it for 45 minutes.
We did run two cameras for almost the entire shoot so I would always have at least one other angle to cut to. But we only had one camera operator—we had such a tiny crew—so we’d just lock off a camera, and that was another reason we might just let the camera roll. We would be exploring the scene live and then our cinematographer Scott [Moore] could run to another camera, or I would have a camera and would be moving around a scene while it was just happening live and we were sort of just free-styling things. But then other times, like when we’re working with the little boy, Donald [Campbell, who plays Blaise’s son], some of that stuff we would just be super committed to what we thought was the perfect shot for that scene. I always quote John Ford saying there’s a hundred places you can put the camera but only one right place. We were definitely subscribing to that idea. But sometimes when we’re shooting with people we’d just meet on location and they didn’t know the script and we were making up scenes on the fly, we had this more documentary approach. But in order to, again, get what we felt were very precise shots, we would have to just really hustle and shoot a lot of coverage.
You mentioned earlier that partitions play a major role, particularly early on where we’re often being placed in the position of people who are being addressed by Blaise and Nessa, either employees at the methadone clinic or homeowners being approached to have their lawns mowed. And we’re often placed in this cagey, apprising stance, sometimes peeping over people’s shoulders, having to go through this process of sizing up these people who are wheedling and whining and trying to hustle their way through one situation or another. How does that visual strategy evolve as the movie goes along?
I think that stems from practical concerns regarding resources as well as aesthetic concerns. But, specifically, in deciding to have a very singular focus in scenes, and often also wanting to isolate a detail, in deciding not to shoot a wide and a close-up and a medium and use that classical film language. Knowing that I mostly wanted to commit to one shot. And I decided I also wanted it to often be close—I was thinking specifically about using a small canvas, because that’s something I could control. If I was working with a larger canvas, we didn’t really have the resources to control all the elements in the mise en scène. I wanted the details to be microcosmic, to speak to the larger emotional currents of the film, but also psychologically it made a lot of sense. If I’m just going to show one thing, and I decided I am going to focus on the two characters, it didn’t feel right to cut away to these people on the periphery. I wanted to do something that was the opposite of what their lives are actually like in my community, where Nessas and Blaises have fallen between the cracks, and people don’t really see what their lives are like. So I just wanted to, in an uncompromising way, force people to look at that and not cut away, and not have that reprieve. It just didn’t feel right to give camera time to these more impersonal interactions. It also felt right for their mindset, because I think they’re in such a tunnel vision while living that kind of life. In survival mode, you really don’t have a kind of perspective. So it felt right on a character level as well.
A broader thing that Nelson [MacDonald], my producer, and I talked about is that we live on this island, we grew up in industrial Cape Breton, which is what you see in the film, but there’s also a part of the island that’s really beautiful and scenic and is often voted one of the most beautiful islands to come visit. So films that have shot here are never really homegrown. People come from away and drop in and they get some scenic shots, some beauty shots, and they leave, and maybe they’ll set the film here but they’ll shoot it somewhere else. So we were trying to tell a very contemporary story that just had nothing to do with that sort of approach, so we also made a deliberate choice that we never wanted to show a horizon line or the ocean or a landscape. Again, for these characters, it’s not something they see day to day. So we sort of tried to turn that idea on its head.
I seemed to remember you saying that there was really a large dose of observed social reality in the film, that the central couple was based on some people you had actually seen kicking around in Cape Breton.
Yeah, basically the germ of the film grew out of something Nelson and I saw in my town, New Waterford, we saw a young couple pushing a lawnmower down the street and knocking on my neighbor’s door. And each of them went to a separate door of the house, which caught our eye. So we just watched this scene—it really felt like a scene—play out. They walked into the house, and there was an altercation. It piqued our interest because it’s a small town, everyone knows everybody, so it just seemed out of the ordinary. Although methadone is super prevalent, it’s still something that happens behind closed doors. But there was just this one summer where several young, drug dependent people were going around knocking on doors. So it was the first time people had a visual, had to face it in a different kind of way. That grabbed us, and when we mentioned it to a few people, everyone had a story about these two people. They called them the lawnmower crackheads. So then we started to hear all these gossipy stories about this particular couple that made us want to actually know them. These stories didn’t really humanize them, and it did the opposite, which made us want to know more about them. We thought, “Oh, we probably went to school with them and then maybe they dropped out.” We were curious but it was something that we didn’t really pursue or look into at the time. It was just sort of an image, I guess, or a scene, that stuck with us for years.
It wasn’t until maybe six years ago, this time six years ago, I was moving home from Halifax to Cape Breton. And I thought about a friend of mine who I had been in touch with and at that moment, I didn’t quite realize it, he really epitomized a lot of what Werewolf is now, and was experiencing so much of what Blaise and Nessa experience. When I was moving home I imagined him—he was wanting to work with me, he had never been in a film, but he was like “You should put me in a film.” And people say that sometimes, but when he said it I was like, “Yeah, I would actually like to put you in a film.” Because he was a very charismatic and creative person. And I was like, “Actually, I could see him playing one of the couple who pushes the lawnmower around, one of the lawnmower crackheads.” That’s when it became more personal, for me. This friend was an artist and musician, Phil Tarr, who performed as Mess Folk. He committed suicide in September of 2012. I was early in the writing process and on my way home from TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] at the time. He had mental health and addiction struggles not unlike Blaise’s, but the character is not a facsimile of Phil. His song “Love Letter Ballad” plays in the end credits. Andrew Gillis who plays Blaise in the film was also good friends with Phil, and I felt strongly that he could step into those shoes pretty naturally. I didn’t audition anybody else for the role.
So it wasn’t actually the couple that I saw that day—that moment inspired it, but then years later I think it was this friend of mine who I started to write the role for that really became somewhat of a heavy draw. And then my whole life became a heavy draw at a certain point. I was in a really toxic relationship. The more time you spend writing, the more things from your life seep into it.
I was going to ask about that. From my admittedly limited acquaintance with you I have the impression that you are not yourself a regular crack smoker, but the movie still feels personal. To use an absolutely terrible word, it’s “accessible”—accessible to anybody who has been in an interpersonal situation of mutually reinforcing bad energy, and gotten into a destructive, solipsistic cycle. The world you’re depicting is itself a pretty marginal one—socially marginal, though more common than one would like to think. But regardless of whether or not you have that direct experience, much of the basic interplay is familiar to anybody who has gotten stuck in a very gnarly rut with a partner.
Yes. Oh, God, it’s taking me back. That sort of emotional nadir. I really did pull from that place more than anything. I didn’t set out to make a film about young people who are drug dependent. It wasn’t about that couple I saw that day or my friend that really resonated with me, it was more the idea of dependency in general because it’s such a heavy theme in life. In Cape Breton, specifically, because of the mining industry and coal industries, the culture here has been one of dependency. I was interested in trying to understand that. And also making a relationship film was really what I felt like I was doing, and it just seemed to make sense that I was making a relationship film here that was exploring dependency. Methadone just takes the feelings, that idea, one step further. People call it liquid handcuffs. And it just seems like the characters would either be on methadone or maybe be in the earlier stages of opiate dependency, and if I was like making it about working-class characters, it made sense to use that as a way to speak to the broader idea of addiction, whether it’s to a person or substance, just being in that space. As you say, it’s just really fucked up, which is something we can all relate to. Especially when it comes to people who are drug dependent, we can be like “Oh, I don’t see myself in that” or really scapegoat that, but addiction or compulsion is really just a set of behaviors that can apply to anything, and I just feel like we all have that. We all can find ourselves in that space of a pretty pernicious cycle at certain times in our lives, where it’s like “How the hell did I get here?”
A key exchange, I think, is with a counselor that Nessa has at the clinic who lays things out in terms of: the fact of the matter is it’s very difficult for two people to get well together, to dig out of this situation together. Again, I think that’s something that, regardless of one’s history of addiction, might be familiar from a lot of relationship situations.
That therapist conversation was a combination of some research I had done with people who either did have drug dependency or used to, and that particular wording was something that I remember from a woman who had struggled with drug dependency but then recovered and then was helping doing counseling for people who were drug dependent so she had really clear opinions about these sorts of things. And then I went to a therapist to deal with relationship issues. I think maybe there’s something she says like “You’re doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result, and that’s the definition of insanity.” That’s something a therapist said to me. So that whole scene is an amalgamation of interpersonal relationship things as well as the notion of addiction that we’re more used to, related to substances. But it’s all just chemical craziness.
The other formal aspect of the film that I’d like to hear you talk about is the sound design, which is almost immediately so aggressively present—I’m thinking of the rattle of lawnmower moving along the pavement. You mentioned earlier the cookie grinder contraption that they have at the soft-serve ice cream place. There’s so much attention paid to creating a sonic environment that makes you conscious of how thin-skinned and on edge the people we’re looking at are, where you can just feel the environment grating on them.
That’s definitely something we wanted. It’s really to get into their headspace. It’s a pretty irritable and volatile and visceral experience to try to live in that space where you’re trying to treat a medical condition and try to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. That sort of feeling is something that we wanted to capture, and we were willing even to make things feel even a little bit unreal at times. We really paid attention to Foley and almost tried to heighten certain sounds because we felt like, subjectively, that would be how Nessa and Blaise were experiencing the world. And then outside their subjective state, just generally as a filmmaker, I care about a lot about sound. I really care about details, visual details, graphical details, and sound details more so than maybe the average filmmaker who are more invested in narrative and plotting and character. For me I like to work on a smaller scale where I reduce the drama as much as I can and really allow the sound and graphical elements and film language to carry a lot of the information and communicate a lot. I don’t use a lot of music. With this particular film it just felt right on a stylistic and philosophical level to really feel the abrasiveness of the world, and that’s similar to not wanting cut away visually. We didn’t really want there to be a reprieve while watching.
As you mention this involvement in detail work, one of the things that interests me is the scenes you make a point of not having. For example, when Nessa is going in to work at the soft-serve ice cream place, we don’t see her applying for a job or resolving to turn her life around. Instead we get this close-up involvement in the moment-to-moment process of job training and going through all these little myriad details that make that up. Were there things that you shot that got rid of along the way or no?
I mean we definitely got rid of a lot of stuff. We dropped some scenes. In some ways a lot of the footage was just, obviously, pruned very heavily. But, you know, I like a good ellipsis. Maybe that’s the Bresson thing in me. I think when I write I worry sometimes that I’m shying away from drama too much and I’m leaving things too lean. I try to force myself to not write like an editor because that’s my instinct, I’m seeing the edits in my head, and I’m really making the script super-lean. So I try to force myself to leave a little bit of meat on the bones, knowing that I’m going to just be sculpting really hard at every stage anyway. So there’s definitely some stuff that I shot that didn’t make it, because it didn’t feel like my style or it didn’t feel honest. But generally it’s something I do integrate pretty early on, shying away from the dramatic stuff and being very particularly about scene beginnings and ends.
That elliptical style is something that makes a lot of sense for me as a filmmaker. I feel like Werewolf and a lot of my short films so far have developed this really elliptical style, having these very slice-of-life slivers that together end up composing a film. It’s also just a result of my working process and certain decisions I make to work with non-professional actors and to shoot in locations that aren’t secured, having a hybrid documentary-fiction working process. I felt very aware of that more so than I ever have working on Werewolf because I think a part of me wants to have more extensive scenes and more elaborate choreography and staging. I think that’s where I want to go, so we’ll see what that means for who I cast and what the shooting process is, if I want to achieve scenes that go many different places and use more sequencing.
What’s coming next? What’s the elevator pitch?
Next film is a lengthy feature about deviant young women in Cape Breton. Multiple narratives flowing into one another tapestry-style. The characters’ perceived afflictions are repositioned as advantages. The elevator pitch would probably say Certain Women meets Alan Clarke BBC portrait dramas.
You mentioned that you moved back home six years ago from Halifax and really committed yourself to the idea of working in a local idiom and building something up from the ground floor. And for a slender movie about methadone users wandering around Nova Scotia, Werewolf has had an enormous amount of success. You have to feel good about deciding to come back home and do your own thing.
When I moved here six years ago, I made two short films and then I made Werewolf. And it’s been really rewarding for myself and for my collaborators that we’ve managed to make three films in the past six years and, for Nelson and me, figure out a process that began when we first moved back here. We didn’t want to move away, we wanted to just make films here right away, but when we tried to, we had no resources and no crew, so we had to go away and make a couple of films and meet people and then we’d convince people to come here because we were shooting film at the time, celluloid, so it required a skill set that wasn’t available here. Once we arrived at shooting Werewolf we didn’t have to do that anymore. We made a choice to shoot digitally and to crew up locally, which meant we were going to crew up with people who had never done a film before, who had never done art direction but who have experience in similar fields and have a creative sensibility and really know the story better than anyone—everyone has a Nessa and Blaise in their families—so we made a decision to work in that way. And that’s something that’s been really rewarding for us all. It’s really a few of us here doing this, but everyone has to go back and figure out how to make their lives work in between.
We just won this Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, which is $100,000. It’s like, “What the hell, that’s close to our budget.” It’s pretty wild and I think it’s validating for people in the community just to see some young local people do something that’s out of the ordinary for around here, and to see it received internationally. I never really did it with the idea that I would develop a film scene here. I know that’s not realistic. But what I feel like I have to offer as a filmmaker are these stories and it’s what’s familiar to me and what inspires me, so it feels like the place I need to be.
Werewolf screens through March 7 at Anthology Film Archives.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Film Comment and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.