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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.02.17] Canada horror thriller

Ed Gass-Donnelly left a huge impression on me a few years ago with the release of Small Town Murder Songs (review), a little Canadian thriller with Peter Stormare in a rare leading role.

The movie garnered Gass-Donnelly a lot of attention including being named one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" in 2011 which lead Gass-Donnelly to head to Hollywood to direct The Last Exorcism Part II. That movie turned out to be a disaster but Gass-Donnelly has persisted, taking it as a learning experience and continuing to make movies on his own terms.

His latest, a thriller called Lavender, stars Abbie Cornish as a photographer who, after a car accident, finds herself dealing with suppressed memories from a traumatic childhood event. Along with Cornish, the movie stars Justin Long and Dermot Mulroney.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Gass-Donnelly about how he came to this project, the advantages of working with frequent collaborator Brendan Steacy, the music of the movie and what he has lined up next. And yes, we also touch base on what went wrong with The Last Exorcism Part II.

Lavender opens theatrically and is available on VOD and digital HD on March 3.

Below is an abridged transcript of our interview with Gass-Donnelly. For the full interview, listen to the audio!

I wanted to touch base on how you came to the project because I was reading that you passed on it the first time and I'm wondering what it was about the second go at it that made you change your mind?

A very good friend of mine gave me the scrip. There was something interesting about it but I passed on it and then a few years later I was given the script but I didn't even realize it was the same script. I later found out that they had tried to take it in a couple of different directions. I thought it was interesting but it wasn't really resonating with me. I re-read Colin's [co-writer Colin Frizzell] original draft and I saw what he was trying to do and what the original idea is. It became a long process of working on it for seven years. It wasn't constantly but we'd put it in a drawer, make a movie, come back to it. It was an on-again, off-again process.

A couple of years ago I dug it up and started working on it. One of the biggest challenges in movies like this is the "why now. Why is this happening now." What I really tried to find was that this is someone who has actually been searching for this, for what happened to them. This is essentially what made her a photographer and a woman who is obsessed with these houses without realizing that it's actually a lot more than that. Once those pieces started to fit together...

Making a movie takes up so much of your time that for me, it has to be more than just the surface of the story. This now made the movie about the nature of obsession. What drives our obsession? What's hidden in my own - what childhood events fuel what we become obsessed with? I think find that interesting. Ultimately by the end of the movie, our protagonist has actually grown as opposed to just being in peril. The trial by fire that is the movie sort of creates a cathartic release for her and by the end, she realizes this is actually a necessary step to accomplish something.

One of the really interesting things about Lavender is that the audience doesn't know any more than the protagonist does. I'm interested about how you came up with that concept and how difficult was it to edit the movie around that idea?

I love the idea of an unreliable narrator because frankly, in a movie with a small cast, you only have a few people who could be the bad guy. With unreliable narrator, questions like "did she kill her family?" are in much more comfortable footing. It puts the audience in a first person point of view where you're trying to solve the puzzle as she is.

I love movies where you make the audience engage rather than just sit back and wait to be entertained. I love the idea of empowering your protagonist. It allows you to have more mystery where if we know more it's not as interesting.

Two of the things I find most consistent about your films are visually striking they are and the music. I wanted to touch first on the cinematography and the work that you've done with Brendan [Steacy] over the last couple of years. Apart from the shorthand that I'm sure you two have developed, what do you enjoy the most about working with him?

It's easy. It's not just a shorthand. It's surrounding yourself with human beings you enjoy spending time with and who also happen to be really talented. Life's too short to suffer assholes.

When you're working with an actor you can sort of put up with it because you only have to work with them for a certain mount of time but I spend a lot more time with Brendan through prep and post. I mean, we went to university together - we're very old friends. Any time you can get paid to hang out with your friends is pretty awesome.

As for the collaboration, we see eye-to-eye. We share taste. I mean, when we started this we were already starting from a place of understanding. I mean, on this movie we were already well into prep when we realized we should probably look at some references.

In our first movie together we had so many references. We had books and photographs on walls. At that time we were much more in the "get to know you" phase. You know, after you've been married for a while you start to guess what your partner might want or need and I kind of feel like that on this.

When you start with that shorthand, you hopefully have the time and energy to go beyond that version to a place where you're understanding each other.

The other thing is the music. It's such an important part of a movie like this but it plays a big part in all of your films. I'm curious about your process for music and in this particular instance, how you found Sarah [Neufeld] and Colin [Stetson] and what sort of information or references you gave them to prepare the soundscape for the film because it's very striking.

It's funny because I actually gave them their own music to reference.

I was working with Dev [Singh], my editor, through initial assembly. Colin and Sarah has just put out, like that week, their first album together. They're both independent musicians - she plays with Arcade Fire, he plays with Bon Iver. He [Dev] cut in one of their tracks and I really responded to it. I wrote to them and by the end of that week they were on board.

In some instances, I was using their existing music as a temp track and there are a couple of songs that they wrote for the movie.

I really respond to instrumentation. On Small Town Murder Songs, Bruce Peninsula did all the music for that. That movie was really all about vocals and acoustic instruments. It was interesting in that certain instruments become the voice of the film. It was similar here. It just became two voices.

I wanted to touch quickly on your experience working on The Last Exorcism Part II. It's obviously very different working in the Hollywood machine and working in Canada. I'm wondering what that experience was like in informing where you're going with the films that you're making now and if working in Canada with the constraints of our budgets, if it's worth it to make those concessions in order to have more creative control?

I'm actually going back to Hollywood but the project hasn't been announced so I can't talk about it yet.

The biggest problem with The Last Exorcism Part II - and this was really a lesson worth learning - being honest about the movie you're making. I wanted to trick teenagers into seeing Rosemary's Baby. That was cool when I had complete creative control over the movie for a while until CBS bought it off of having seen the trailer but they hadn't seen the movie. They thought they were getting a straight up horror movie but they had this meditative arty film. They completely re-cut it and it turned into, frankly, a mess. There wasn't enough footage to turn it into the movie they wanted and it's not reflective of what I did either.

I was trying to take an idea where people expect one thing and then subvert it to something else. I think you can do that when it's entirely your own vision but otherwise you really can't. I think you really have to embrace it and be on board for what the expectation is or walk away from the movie.

You mentioned that you can't talk about what you're going to work on next but I'm curious if it's a gig that you're writing and directing or if you're just writing or just directing?

I've done a bit of writing on it but I'm not a credited writer on it. I've worked with the writer to make it reflective of my idea.

A friend brought me a project that has a studio on it and I thought it had potential so I worked with the writer for a few months to get it to where it is the movie I wanted to make and the writer was really excited about that idea as were the producers.

Lavender opens theatrically and is available on VOD and digital HD on March 3.

Recommended Release: Small Town Murder Songs

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