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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 09.26.20] Canada horror

Left to her own devices, Vancouver-based writer/director Karen Lam would have had a big screening with crew and friends to celebrate the completion of her latest film The Curse of Willow Song. While the pandemic put a kibosh on those plans, Lam still managed to celebrate the milestone with a private drive-in screening and a world premiere at the City's largest film festival.

It's a milestone worth celebrating. Willow Song, which took longer to post-produce than originally anticipated, is Lam's best work yet, an exploration of the monster within and a deep-dive one woman's struggle to take back control over her life after being pushed to the fringes of society by a broken system that pays lip-service to re-integration but does little to actually help anyone achieve that goal.

Valerie Tian stars as Willow, a young woman fresh out of prison. With few options and trouble at nearly every turn, Willow finds herself living in an abandoned warehouse and beginning to experience an unexplainable transformation that will change her life.

We recently had a chance to speak with Lam about her new feature including her inspiration for the character, her decision to shoot in black and while and what she's working on next. An abridged transcription of that conversation is below along with the full audio of our conversation.

Quiet Earth: The film is a really interesting combination of social commentary and thriller. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for the story and how the whole thing together?

Karen Lam: I always talk about the process like following rabbits down rabbit holes. For me, whenever I'm starting any story, it's not that I actually have one story in mind. There will be a lot of research that goes in. I spent an entire summer just reading Lovecraft. New Lovecraft, old Lovecraft. I was watching a lot of paranormal shows as well. So that was part of it. I'm a huge fan of "The Dead Files." Not any of the ghost hunter ones, but Amy and Steve, they are my team. I learn something different each time and that whole idea of psychokinesis is something that was really inspiring to me that you. The idea that you can literally create poltergeists from your own distress.

Like the fact that there's people out there who have the ability to throw their energy in a way that actually does that. And I've experienced it myself with a few girlfriends who unwittingly have this ability. What's really hard is that sometimes you'll be with them and they're in a state of distress and afterwards it's not just that the energy is really heavy, you feel like something's clinging to you. I wondered what that was and then I finally saw an episode where people who have this ability might not even know that they have it. I was really inspired by that.

I spent also basically spent almost over a year researching and getting access to female inmates in a program to train them into firefighting and my researcher and co-producer Karen Wong and I headed down to Portland and we were at the Coffee Creek Penitentiary. We spent a few days in the forest with these women hearing their stories. So the character of Willow Song is also about that; getting out of prison, what parole feels like, getting retrained. That was really inspired by the women that I talked to. So I think there's a mash of all these different ideas that are in there.

Something that I thought was really interesting that you don't often see in a film is that the worst you become as an individual, the more control you have over your life. But that seems to be what happens to Willow. The more she turns into this sort of monstrous character, the more she seems to have control over everything that's going on around her. How did you come up with that idea and how did that develop?

I wonder whether or not it's that sense that I've always seen the inner monster. I've always been more sympathetic to monsters than I often have to human characters. I always see our own inner demons and so I think that the more you embrace your own dark side and the kind of the demons that plague you in some ways, instead of pushing them under, the more empowered you actually are. So maybe that's what it comes from.

Was the film always going to be in black and white or did that develop over time?

It was always intended to be black and white. And it was so funny because, you know, when you first send it out to people and I actually say first line "In black and white" and they're like "make it city saturated." I'm like, "Maybe it's just black and white." There's a very different way of filming when you make that choice. If it is just saturated, then you're still looking at a palette. You have to look at it in black and white. You're looking at framing, you're looking at lighting, you're looking at how to get texture across in a way that isn't about palette. It really informed how we were going to shoot Willow and basically the fact that she was going to feel incarcerated in every shot, regardless of the fact that she was free. That's something that we could do in black and white, not saying that you can't do that in color, but there's, again, a different sensibility when you have color.

Is it more difficult to find a cinematographer that can capture the images that you want in black and white?

I'm lucky in this case with Thomas Billingsley who shot it for me. He was really interested in doing it this way as well. And we just had to have a lot of reference materials beforehand. We were watching the same films we came up with a lot of the textures of what we wanted in the black and white. Once you actually have that pallet and you have a shorthand, then it was, not easy, but it became cohesive. And it felt like the film had developed a language.

Valerie Tian who plays Willow is fantastic. How did that casting come together? It seems like it would have to be a very special kind of person to pull that off.

I was really lucky to work with Val. I've known Val for years. She has this really classic face from the 1920s.

I cast Val in a web series that I did for Telus. I put her in, um, you know, traditional cheuhngsaam dress. She had pink hair at that time and she had the most ethereal personality. The camera loves her and her face is so expressive. What I noticed is she's one of those actresses that she's never not acting. She's reactive. When dialogue is hitting her, it's not that she's just waiting for her line, everything that is said to her washes over her face. And I actually wrote Willow with her in mind after working with her on the web series.

What are you working on now? I know you always have multiple things on the go.

Since pandemic I have been really trying to rethink my voice, where I want to go, what I want to do, because I'm not sure how our film industry is actually fairing. I don't know how I'm going to film after this. I would love to, obviously, but in the last while I've been writing a lot of prose, which I haven't done for ages. I've been working on some for hire television work. But as far as screenplays, I haven't felt the real need to write a screenplay. It feels to me like right now, I just want to get story ideas out. And again, I am lucky in that if I write, you know, a longer or shorter piece, I can adapt it later. So as long as I get it down on paper and start thinking about it, that's the important thing. I have more novels and short stories in mind than I do screenplays at this point.

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