We may be nearing the end of awards season, but this weekend will see the 4th annual Canadian Screen Awards recognizing the best in Canadian film and television.
One of those being honoured at the event is writer and director Jamie Dagg, who has already nabbed the CSA for Best First Feature for his striking film River, starring Rossif Sutherland (also nominated for the film, in the category of Best Actor).
Having premiered at TIFF this past September, River will open in select Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal theatres on March 11. The story centers on John Lake, an American volunteer doctor working in Laos who tries to intervene in the sexual assault of a young woman. Events take a dark turn and he finds himself on the run, suddenly a fugitive accused of both the murder of the assailant and the rape itself.
For the young director – who hails from Timmins, ON and has made music videos for the likes of Broken Social Scene and Bedouin Soundclash – the experience of filming in a country like Laos was an incredible one. I chatted with Dagg and Sutherland recently about the project and the captivating story that drove them, along with the rest of the cast and crew, through a challenging yet rewarding month-long journey in Southeast Asia.
Jamie, you seem to have been really inspired by the location itself. Did the story come before the setting or was it the other way around?
Jamie: I was actually in the location. I was travelling around Laos and it just happened to coincide with this time in my life when I was thinking about how all of us have this capacity for violence within us.
Rossif: It must have been a really dark time!
Jamie: It actually was! My father had just died and I found myself angry at the world and all that sort of stuff. I’m not giving a sob story or anything…but that’s what I was thinking about and how we’re not that far removed from the animal kingdom. I was starting to think about what would make for that perfect storm of circumstances that could allow even the most rational person to commit an act of violence, you know? That evolved into the idea of a doctor being thrown into a situation where he becomes a killer.
Watching it, I was never quite sure what the main character was going to do next. Rossif, what was your reaction to the script and the path of your character, John Lake?
Rossif: I was struck by the natural flow of it. I knew when I read it that this was something I could do and therefore I wanted to do. I felt like I could go on this journey and offer a truthful performance. The story that Jamie was describing is one that really intrigues me – this idea that, although you might be a good person, we’ve all had those moments. It seems even instinctive sometimes, and you shut it down because of who you are and how you grew up and your knowledge of the consequences of your acts. But if you forget about all of that and you’re dealing with something that seems wrong to you and you try to correct that wrong…sometimes in correcting that wrong, you commit a wrong yourself. And so by trying to stop this assailant, my character ends up killing him. As Jamie was describing, he is a good guy. He’s a doctor. It doesn’t mean he’s a perfect guy. We all have our reasons to be charitable – sometimes those reasons are quite selfish. He’s there for his own reasons and he’s trying to find purpose in his life, same as many of us do. Then he commits this act which puts him on the run. Not just from the authorities but from himself as well. Because he knows that he can’t explain that story to others and he doesn’t really understand what he did. He knows why he did it – but he took it too far. It’s one thing to stop somebody, it’s another to kill him.
In that light, would you classify River as a morality tale of sorts?
Rossif: Sure, there’s morality involved, certainly towards the end. To me, it was really just an exercise in trying to figure out what would happen. What mistakes happen one after the other, what right choices should be made…and ultimately, this idea of how does one live with oneself when you do have a moral compass? You may be “free”, but even if there aren’t bars blocking your view it doesn’t mean that you’re free. How do you find that freedom again? It was a very intriguing journey to go on and I was well supported by this very small crew of hardworking, enthusiastic filmmakers who had a lot to prove. It was not the most glamorous of experiences and not the smoothest of experiences. It was a labour of love and it was painful. But we all came back home safe. Not that the environment we were in was dangerous at all, but it was just the exercise of actually trying to make a film with 6-day weeks and 31 days in a foreign country with no film infrastructure…a small crew…no money…working with non-actors…
Jamie: In four different languages….
Rossif: In four different languages. Running through crowds with no crowd control, running through traffic, swimming across the river…but nobody got hurt. As a result of it, we have a little film that hopefully will allow this beautiful man that’s across the way from me to make many, many others.
Let’s talk a bit more about the experience of making a movie in Laos. Jamie, was it rewarding as a filmmaker to be able to go and shoot a full-length feature film in such a location?
Jamie: It was extremely rewarding. Making any film is tough, you know? Regardless of whether it’s your first film or your tenth film, it’s a difficult endeavour. So when you’re over there and you’re sick and things aren’t going the way you want them to and you start to get down on yourself…I’d have to remind myself “This is an extraordinary opportunity. This is what you’ve been working towards for so many years”. As soon as I reminded myself of that fact, I found it really uplifting. And the more time that I spend away from it, the more that I look back on it with fondness. I’m good friends with a lot of our crew and we all tend to reminisce about this experience in the fondest of light. It was truly amazing.
Rossif: But we’re a bunch of dreamers and we all have our ideas and we all ended up together marooned on this island. We were trying to tell this story and things didn’t necessarily go to plan…but I think it was a big lesson for all of us to be able to adapt and make the most of everything. It doesn’t mean settle for less but sometimes you do have to settle and move on. It’s quite the transition when you go from what you had in your head to what you’re able to achieve, good and bad. There were some extraordinary surprises too.
Jamie: Surprises that made the film that much stronger. Things that, at the time, seemed so dire.
Rossif: Since everything is scripted, you try and control your environment. But we had to also let the environment control us.
Jamie: The nice thing too is that, for the most part, we shot chronologically. When you’re block shooting, shooting out of order, it’s much more difficult to be fluid and adapt. But shooting chronologically allowed us to embrace a lot of these little surprises that I think ultimately made it a stronger film.
RIVER opens in Toronto on Friday, March 11 at Cineplex Odeon Varsity and VIP Cinemas.