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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.07.13] Canada thriller

Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Ferocious director Robert Cuffley to talk about the genesis of the movie, the casting, budget and how the digital revolution is changing the way films are made and not necessarily for the better.

Ferocious opens in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Nanaimo, Kelowna and Saskatoon today before expanding to Winnipeg and Toronto on March 15th. The director and stars will be on hand for Q&A's after a few screenings this weekend; more details on the events here.

Before we start talking about your new movie Ferocious I wanted to get a little bit of background about you because outside of Canada, folks may not know much about you and your work. Was filmmaking something you always wanted to do?

Yes, since about 7th grade. The idea never really left me but it wasn't until I turned 16 that I realized that one can actually make a living making movies. Part of it is because I was naive. People are still naive though maybe not so much out here. In the mid-80s, breaking into the movie business was a very mysterious thing which few knew how to do. When I realized that people in Canada could make a living at making movies, I looked into schooling.

This entire career decision came about while on a bus ride; act one, two and three. Act one was the thought that making movies would be interesting Act two was the conflict, the thought of "What's stopping me? A lifetime of not making money and that sort of thing?" Then resolution was that I ended up going to the Professional Motion Picture Production school which is located in Calgary and after that I went to the National Screen Institute.

The rest is history as they say.

The rest is learning on the job I guess you could say.

Did they teach you anything in film school?

They did, yeah. This particular school is very technical and I'm not so big on that. I wish that we had watched and dissected movies more but on the other hand, there are some schools that are just theory and no hands on. At the time I was looking for something which balanced the two but I get enough of the theory by "film school at home." We always watch different movies and I'll watch them again and again and sometimes I'll watch them with the sound off because that presents a completely different story and you realize how much of the story is being told with visuals and how much is being told with dialogue.

It's an ongoing thing. Life is film school in a way.

In an interview for Walk All Over Me you had mentioned that some of your inspirations are Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet you haven't made a sci-fi movie...

No. Should I?

I don't know. Should you?

They're so fascinating. Particularly 2001. I was just at the Kubrick exhibit in LA and they have all sorts of props from Kubrick's movies. I could have lived there, just being surrounded by those items. I guess I just don't gravitate towards that sort of thing. Maybe as a spectator but not as a filmmaker.

Now I want to do something that my kids can see because everything I've done to date has too many f-bombs for six year olds. I think I want to lighten up. I really like the genre of thriller, if it's done the way I did it and the way other filmmakers have made it, like Brad Anderson's Session 9. To a certain degree Ti West is working in the same style which is slower, more methodical and suspense laden with a build up that is for the patient. It's not for the impatient who want their act one turning point within 90 seconds of the movie starting. That's not to say it's overly slow but you have to sit down and absorb it and then before you realize what's going on you're completely sucked into it. That's what I'm interested in: the slow burn as opposed to staccato edited movie. I'm just not interested in that.

I'm currently adapting a haunted house book by Suzie Moloney titled "The Dwelling." Even that I'm trying to approach it with the idea that you don't need a) CGI or b) rapid fire editing to scare people. Session 9 is a great example as is the original The Haunting. You never even see what's haunting them, ever. When director Jan de Bont was remaking that, he said, or it could have been Stephen King because he was involved as well in some capacity. Either way, one of them said that in the original, the big problem is that we never saw what was banging on that door.

There's two camps of people. One camp want to see what's behind the door while the other camp, my camp, say that it's more powerful when the secret behind the door remains a mystery. Another example is M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. I really liked that movie until they showed the aliens and then I just wanted to leave. What I've taken away from all of those movies I've put into Ferocious. It's partially budgetary consideration but it's also stylistic. I don't want to see the violence but I want to hear it. Hearing it some how makes it more evocative and sinister. The ending of The Blair Witch Project is another great example. I don't know how well you remember that but nothing really happens...

The ending is engrained in my mind. I'll never get that image out of my head.

Or the sound.

That's right. Or the sound as they're running up and down the stairs in the dark.

I had goose bumps. It was petrifying. So much of that was based on what your mind is filling in. That's what's fascinating to me. And with an actor like Kim Coates who is all over that sort of thing... He said to me that he didn't want to play a bad guy unless he's interesting and when he read this script he was immediately on board.

We really wanted to work on something together. His approach was to be a very soft spoken, again methodical, antagonist who’s not a knife wielding maniac. I always say that this isn't a cat jumping out of the closet movie but rather a Kim Coates staring at you from across the room and then slowly walking towards you until your nose is touching kind of movie. He has such a piercing gaze and such a weird charisma.

There are a lot of pitfalls on a small movie but one that we circumvented was getting people on board who were on the same page with what we were doing. There's a big scene with Amanda Crew where she sees someone being dragged down a hall. Just before we shot that scene I pitched it that instead us seeing what she's seeing, we're just going to look at her face for the entire time. It's a 30 second shot and it becomes 300% inflation in terms of its value from imagination and a suspense standpoint.

I'm really into that and what's really good about it is that it lends itself really well to a small budget. This is the smallest movie I've ever done and it was very hard to do which I found frustrating but I found that the less is more approach lends itself well to a small budget.

You mentioned your actors and you have quite a cast here. You have a knack for working with actors whose careers are rising. Katharine Isabelle with your first film and you had another great cast with Walk All Over Me. During press for that movie you'd mentioned that before making it you didn't care who was cast as long as they could act but after working with Leelee Sobieski you realized that having a name actor could bring an entire new audience to a movie. When you were preparing this project did you have an idea of who you wanted to work with?

Yes but I also suffered from this Canadian psychosis that I have and which I think a lot of us have. I knew I wanted Michael Eklund in it because he's a very close friend. He's my Mia Farrow but on the other hand one of the producers, Anand Ramayya, suggested Kim Coates. My first reaction was that we'd never get him. I've since had to beat that attitude out of myself. I hate that I had that thought because we sent it to him and within an hour he called and said he wanted to do it. Suffice to say it was like a Scorcese movie there were so many f-bombs.

I don't know if it's a Canadian thing. I'm down in LA a lot and I've met some big actors and they take meetings with me not because of who I am because no one knows who I am down there, but because they've read something that I've written. That's what actors are curious about, they want the person they've never heard of and who has something a little bit different and I'm trying to make that work for me.

And Amanda Crew?

She's fantastic. She carries the show. She instantly knew that I didn't want the character of Leigh to be like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween which is shrieking and pulling back and screaming. You haven't seen Ferocious yet but it's the complete opposite. It's all about keeping it in.

We did test screenings and I showed it to a friend of mine who was visiting and she asked me why Leigh doesn't screaming more. That comment taught me something: it's been engrained in our minds that women in thrillers should be screaming. A) it's absurd and b) I hope its day in the sun is about to fade because it's cliched and annoying and completely superficial.

Amanda realized that she could play the fear and anxiety all in her eyes, without screeching. Much like Session 9, i keep referencing that film because I love it, but much like Session 9, Ferocious builds and builds and then only at the end does she crack and loses her shit but up to that point, Leigh is this battalion leader who just goes into these increasingly dangerous situations but then you realize why she's risking it and hopefully as the situation worsens the audience will understand why she's doing it. There's a lot at stake.

I like developing a short hand with actors and Amanda got me right away. I took her suggestions very seriously and she listened. Directing and acting are both about listening and Amanda is a great listener.

You mention strong female characters and that's one of the things I've appreciated about your films. You have these strong central female characters and that's not something you see often in film. Is that a conscious decision on your part?

It's not conscious. I just start writing and all of a sudden it's there. I remember working with this story editor on Ferocious and she suggested that I flip the gender of every single character. I did consider it for a while, the idea that a guy would go back in search of this video tape. That could have been very interesting. I just find women more interesting.

I guess I already know myself and have an inkling about my own gender but females are more of a mystery and they're under represented as well. It's not like I'm doing this cavalier gesture on behalf of women it's more my interest than anything else.

Which we appreciate. I was reading an interview from 2008 in which you foretell the disappearance of the video store and here we are in 2012 and the video store is essentially dead. How you see that affecting this film and its release and what does this new distribution model do for the longevity of the film?

The movie's already sold in the US and it's a completely different game in terms of buying and selling. The industry has changed so much in five years. What I like so much about Ferocious is that it's being seen in places where movies like this are generally not seen. As an example, we're taking it to Abbotsford. I've never been to Abbotsford there's something really neat about that because it's a new experience for us and for those who come to the screening because this isn't the kind of thing that they usually get.

Digital makes a movie a lot easier to transport than five big reels of film. Typically you only had two or three prints where as now we can bang out copies of the digital film considerably cheaper and you can hold it in your hand without being a body builder. I like how accessible it is.

I still miss a lot of things about film and I still want to go back and shoot on film but it's getting harder and harder to do.

And more expensive.

Ironically yes.

I'm curious about the shift from film to digital and how accessible movie making is now. Do you think that's a positive or negative thing?

I think it's good and bad. It's good because prior to this revolution, regular people couldn't make movies and now they can, they can make them with their iPhones. But I also think it's bad in the sense that - how can articulate this - there's this Christmas morning aspect to film. When you shoot it it's much like pre-digital cameras in that it has to go to the lab before you can see what you shot. I grew up with that old process so I'd shoot film and I wouldn't see what it looked like for a week. I would have to do this long drive to the lab to colour correct it and it was the anticipation that was so exciting. That's gone now. Now you just see it. The editor can be cutting the scene within three minutes of you shooting it. This might sound really weird but some of the romanticism of making movies is gone now in the sense that it's so immediate. It's so assembly line that I kind of miss shooting it and ruminating on the footage before seeing it.

Because technology is changing the process of how a movie is made it's probably also changing the end product right?

Exactly. If you know that you're never going to run out of video because its cheap where as with film, I would hold up a roll to my actors, a roll was 11.5 minutes, and tell them that once it's gone we're not going to shoot any more. I didn't want to rush them but this was the reality of the situation. With digital you can just keep going which is great in a sense but if you're not careful it can also breed laziness.

I always use the adage of big budget versus low budget. If the big budget productions don't get something right they can just keep going until they get it right whereas a smaller independent film has to be more creative, heads huddling together to figure out how to get the shot within three takes because of constraints. I like the indie approach more than the "don't worry about it we'll fix it in the edit" approach. The big budget approach is imprecise and takes out the analytical aspect of film making. It leaves too much to chance.

I don't think you'll see it in my films but my favourite director is Stanley Kubrick. I love how precise his movies are and none of that was left to chance.

Do you think that the digital revolution is going to chance the way movies are made in Canada specifically? We're always hearing about how difficult it is to make movies here because there are very limited pools of money.

Whether we realize it or not we take our queues from the US. I can think of two people right now who just got out of film school who have said screw funding and have just gone out and made a movie. One of the guys made a movie for $6,000 which is incredibly cheap. What I admire about that is that he wasn't waiting for someone's permission. He just said "fuck it, I'm doing this." That takes a lot of gumption. I love that. It's fantastic.

I'm at a stage now where it would take me a lot to do that. I'm used to getting funded. To go out and make a $7,000 film… I'd probably end up in a mental institution. Again.

It's not the movies, it's me. I get emotionally involved and they're very taxing on me. Not just because that's the nature of filmmaking but because I make them that way. It's an emotional thing getting really close to these people and getting to see paper transform into three dimensional characters that say words that you've written... that's a very strange metamorphosis. Having said that, I never want that to be normal. I never want to take that for granted. I always want it to be a miracle. It's fantastic.

I understand that the Ferocious shoot was really intimate and all of the actors were sharing a space rather than having individual trailers. How did that affect the production?

With actors you have to approach it delicately because they are used to a certain regime and protocol. Trailers, quiet space, rehearsals… when you take that away from them some will say sure, I'm up for a change while others will say forget it, I don't work that way. I'm lucky that with all of my movies I've been able to attract the more acceptable of those two options. I've had actors who understand that not having trailers isn't ideal but they make it work. You lead by example. In this case Kim Coates, the most seasoned of our cast, was the first to take it in stride and when the others saw him doing it everyone else fell into line. I'm sure they would have done it without him as well.

I say it's a small budget but in fact it was a million dollars which in fact isn't small when you consider that some people are making movies for $1,000. I can't cry the blues that I hardly have any money when people are making movies for 1% of that.

I've heard it from a number of sources that the big is getting big and the small is getting small and the middle is disappearing. The blockbusters are getting big and regardless of how many times they get beaten up, like Jack the Giant Slayer did last weekend, why that had to cost $200 million I don't know. I could have told them it was going to be a disaster. Anyone could have told them that. But the more industrious people will survive. Paul Schrader's The Canyons is a good example of adapting to a changing situation. Some won't be able to adapt because they're used to having all the perks but the people that are adaptable and flexible will find success.

Where did you get the idea for Ferocious?

It came from a couple of places. I remember on Walk All Over Me, a couple of the actors, I won't say who, were joking about how fame was nice but that they could take it or leave it. I couldn't hold my tongue anymore and I said "bullshit. You love it and if it went away you would fucking do anything to get it back!" It was all tongue in cheek but I was actually quite sincere. It also came from different experiences with actors. I've noticed how good of liars they make because they're actors and how petrified I'd be if my kids were ever actors. I have a pretty good bullshit detector but with actors... it nullifies my powers.

It's my kryptonite.

Exactly. I'm just looking at them confused shaking my head. Sometimes I'll drool and saliva will come down my cheek... I'm simply confounded by how adept they are at spinning lies. I'm not saying they're liars but they're good at spinning stories. I wanted to get deception in the movie as a theme but most of all I wanted to get in the idea of living with a secret, a dark shadow that's looming over your shoulder, the idea that you can carry on for so long but that eventually you can't live with it and you have to confront it.

Fame is pretty interesting. I'm not famous but I know some famous people and it's a no brainer why there is so much paparazzi based media coverage. That's such a slam dunk because we're prone to watching that sort of thing. I'm not above that whole thing but the aspect that fascinates me is how people act on camera versus how they act when the camera isn't rolling. I love that shit. Love it. So I put it in Ferocious. Leigh being interviewed and then what she' s like when the camera turns off.

Amanda developed this laugh that she used for her character. I associated that laugh with Leigh but then Amanda gave me that laugh and I couldn't figure out what was going on and if it was Amanda or the character talking. It was very confusing.

You mentioned that you wanted to make something that your kids can watch. What do you have coming in the future?

We're hoping to shoot a wrestling comedy this summer.

Is this the one about the deli guy who falls in love with the wrestler?

Yes, that's Chokeslam. I also have another sort of John Hughes superhero movie in the works called Lifting Cars and Seeing Through Walls which is aimed at tweens. I have god daughters who haven't seen any of my movies so it would be nice to show them some of my work.

When I started out I'd look at directors and their body of work and I'd see similarities or themes that flowed through all of their films and I always wondered what my through line was going to be because all of my movies are completely different from each other. That really weirded me out but now I'm embracing it. If I can go from Ferocious to a wrestling comedy which I describe as a cross between Harold and Maude and Rocky 3, I'll be really happy. I think that would be really interesting.

You have to keep it interesting.

Yeah. I don't want to make the same movie. Not to say I'm pointing fingers at people who do that. There's something about branding yourself which I fully understand, like John Carpenter or Wes Craven, but that's not for me.

Is there a reason for that?

I don't want to settle down. I'm not ready to commit but I am in a thriller zone at the moment so I do want to do that again it's just a matter of when.

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