The Swearing Jar

Interview: Director Lindsay MacKay’s The Swearing Jar

One of the delights of an annual film festival like TIFF is the discovery of hidden gems–small movies that would normally fly under the radar that are given a chance to shine. Director Lindsay MacKay’s The Swearing Jar is just such a film and what’s more, it’s a local production.

Filmed in Hamilton and Dundas, Ontario, but with an international cast, the film has a distinctly Canadian feel. In days of old, that would be a kind way of saying a film was self-consciously quirky (not always a bad thing) with next to no production value. But times have changed, budgets and technologies have improved, and home-grown filmmakers are exploring a spectrum of experiences. There is no longer one look or feel for north-of-the-border productions, but if there is a unifying identity, it’s the intimacy and passion apparent in the undertaking.

The Swearing Jar is based on a musical-drama stage production by writer and actor Kate Hewlett. It follows Carey (played here by Adelaide Clemens), a fledgling singer-songwriter who finds herself falling for the uncomplicated Owen (Douglas Smith), despite still being in deeply in love with her husband, Simon (Patrick J. Adams). The narrative has some unique plot points that spoke strongly to director MacKay–one in particular that becomes clear as the film unfolds. To get specific about that connection would be to spoil a huge aspect of the story (you can head here if you want to know more) but it’s no wonder she became involved and led the project’s big-screen adaptation. The film even gave her the chance to direct the legendary Kathleen Turner, appearing in a supporting role as Carey’s mother-in-law.

That Shelf had the chance to sit down with filmmaker MacKay ahead of the film’s TIFF premiere to talk about its characters, her (spoiler-free) personal connection to the story and, of course, what it was like directing an icon like Kathleen Turner (on screen here as Simon’s mother).

Emma Badame (That Shelf): Kate Hewlett wrote the play the film is based on back in 2008, where she also originated the role of Carey. This is truly her story. She even adapted the material for the screen here. How closely was she involved in filming and how did that collaboration work?

Lindsay MacKay: Once I came on board, we worked through the script a lot because she had done so many drafts for different directors. So we tried to come up with something that was my version of her amazing story. I wanted to be really subtle in the storytelling and there had been versions of this script where the passion between these characters was very upfront and heavy. We worked together to find that flow, where it kind of feels seamless, which was really quite lovely.

It’s such a different experience. I mean, most screenwriters haven’t lived a story like like she’s lived it.

Exactly.

She’s known these characters for so long, and so even in my shaping of it, she held onto what it was at its core. And so we managed to find this beautiful place together of our version of it. She’s an incredible collaborator. She was very trusting, which was so lovely too. I was so nervous for her to see the final version, but she was really floored by it, which made me so happy and so, so pleased.

We’ve talked about how your version came together, but what was it about the play that made you want to be involved in its adaptation? What spoke to you enough to want to make it your next project?

This story has come out so I can talk about it. That said, I don’t want to get too specific because it could spoil a major aspect of the film, but I had a personal experience happen to me in 2017 that’s very closely linked to a storyline here. [The Swearing Jar] is my first feature project since it happened and so it really was just like, ‘oh, wow, this needs to be it’. ‘I can do this, I think I can do this.’ So I wrote a big statement for the project and put a pitch package together about my personal connection to the material, for the writers and producers, and also outlined the kind of film I wanted to make. And it really resonated with all of them.

Kate and I spoke a few times about the kind of work I wanted to do here and the references that I was wanting to emulate. I think it really struck a chord with her. And as I said, they trusted me, thank goodness, and supported me in making that, which was huge. I’m so thankful to all of them for letting me do it.

Did that personal connection make it a little bit more challenging for you, or did you find it a bit cathartic?

I feel like it didn’t actually hit me until we were at the end of production and I was like, I’ve done it. I mean, Patrick and I obviously talked about my own experience, and Kathleen and I talked about my own experience too. We were working through some stuff together, so it was present, but it wasn’t in all things to the point where it was in forefront of my mind. It would take up too much space.

There are three relationships at the core of the film. How did you work with the actors–Adelaide especially–to parse out the differences in each?

I think Kate, the writer, had done that so well in the script. There’s an awkwardness to the Carey and Owen relationship. Like they’re both bumbling around each other with shyness and that early kind of puppy love. And both actors do quite a lovely job with that.

Then there’s the banter she wrote for Simon and Carey. The characters are just so quick-witted and playful with each other. Even in their arguments. They’re so smart and they feel like well-worn equals. Adelaide and Patrick worked together and found that even in the way they move around each other. And then similarly with Douglas and Adelaide, finding the way that Owen and Carey move around each other. They’re both so awkward and it’s so fun to see that difference between the two sets of characters.

It is a kind of innocent awkwardness versus long-term intimacy and comfort.

Yes, exactly. In the new, there’s that electricity. There are sparks and it’s so interesting. I hope viewers experience that feeling, where you’re like, ‘oh, there’s something there.’ But we also really don’t want that spark to happen [for Carey] because you love her with Simon and their relationship feels so warned and lived in. But we are all looking for thrills and excitement, that spark, so when Owen comes along it’s like, ‘oh, I really love this too, but I really don’t want this to happen.’

But there is also that third, more dramatic and antagonistic relationship between Carey and her mother-in-law Bev. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and how you wanted that to come across?

Adelaide and Kathleen are so incredible together and are also, I think, now good friends in real life. They spent a lot of time together because Kathleen was in Hamilton with us for almost the duration of the shoot, which was crazy. So she had on days and then on her days off, she and Adelaide would hang out and spend time together. And so I think they really did a lot of work, the two of them, separate from me, to just work through that on-screen relationship, which I am so appreciative of.

They’re both such pros. They’re both really good. If they need something, they ask for it. If something’s not working for them, we discover how we can make it work. But they were also very trusting of me, which was really quite lovely. It was a trusting group of women, working together, moving forward and figuring it out. Myself, Kate, Kathleen, Adelaide, and Jane, the producer. It was just a lovely group of women believing in each other, which was really quite amazing.

You mentioned Kathleen there so let’s talk about her. Kathleen Turner: icon, badass. How did she get involved with the project and what was it like on her first day on set? Like, what goes through your mind when you’re like, ‘oh, it’s Kathleen Turner.’

Totally. In terms of her involvement, I think she was really just drawn to the material. There were several different iterations of the project that went down, and she was on from the very first. Once we finally had it nailed down, we had to make sure she was still in and she was. So obviously, the material really appealed to her because it’s a great script but I also hope that I appealed to her.

Working with her was crazy. First I had a table read with her and then after the table read, we had a phone call. And then we had a few more phone calls just to get to know each other. I don’t like to over-rehearse things because I want them to feel very true. And obviously, we didn’t really have that option anyway because of the pandemic. So when she came on set the first time, that was also the first time I’d met her in person.

We’d work on things once she was on set too. I try and find different, interesting angles and I use a lot of reflections. I think my shot choices were kind of different from what she was used to. At one point I was trying to get her to step to this one spot so that I could get her reflection in a mirror because I thought it was just so beautiful but she didn’t really get why I wanted her character to be there. Was it for something specific? So I took her to the monitor and I showed her. I said, “if you sit here or if you walk here, I get your reflection here and it’s really beautiful.” “All you have to do is just tell me, McKay!” And I was like, okay—she’s worked with huge people. She’s a pro. So if I was requesting something weird, just explain it. So from that point on, it was great because then she really understood and liked the way she was being filmed. I think she really liked the images. And on top of that, she was giving me a great performance.

You talked about being on-set in Hamilton. What do you think a location brings to a story like this? The house feels almost like a character too.

We looked long and hard for that house because there were so many factors at play. You had to have a place big enough for COVID, right? But it had to make sense with the script and characters too. She’s a music teacher and he’s a novelist, so how do they have this huge house?

And you address that in the film. So thank you for that. It’s not like Friends where no one ever acknowledges the fact they can’t afford their apartments.

Yeah, there was no line like that in the script originally. I had a very distinct vision and myself, the cinematographer, and Diana, the production designer were really searching for this one type of home–with doorways and separate roomes. And everything’s open concept now, so it’s hard to find! But it had to be old and it had to have texture. And so we found this house, but it was way too big. And so we kept searching and searching. We saw probably I don’t even know how many houses. But we kept coming back to this one. And the owners were incredible and lovely. So then we just had to figure out how to shoot it to make it still feel small and intimate.

It is like a character. Diana did such an incredible job with that. It’s just these subtle little hints that you see in the different time periods, where you can see the changes that the house goes through. It goes through the same changes that Carey goes through. And so did Hannah, the costume designer. The changes to Carey’s wardrobe hint at these little things as well. So, the house was incredible, and it was so fun to map out with all of my creative partners.

I wanted to ask about some of the visuals that you used alongside Careys’s two different relationships. There was a different feel, but I’m not sure I could really put my finger on what shifted. What were you focussed on there?

We talked about how we would start with Carey and Simon always in each other’s frames and then slowly try and separate them. But with Owen, they start separate and then slowly enter each other’s frames. But then we had this realization that we’d started to subconsciously mirror the relationships, but not to the point where it’s obnoxious. Like the scene when Carey and Simon find out they’re pregnant happened in that living room. It’s a beautiful scene. They’re gorgeous and it’s so happy and exciting. And then you also have another scene where Owen comes over for the first time and it happens in that same living room. And both are really gorgeous moments for Carey. The blocking is slightly different, but similar too.

I love that it happened organically because sometimes if you overthink it and then you make too much of a point of it, it doesn’t feel natural.

We can’t talk about the film without talking about the music, which is just beautiful. Adelaide does such a beautiful job with that aspect. You talked about not having a lot of rehearsal time. What was that like with that musical aspect? Because that probably makes everything a little bit harder.

Well, I honestly feel like Douglas and Adelaide got more music rehearsal time than we got acting rehearsal because we pre-recorded all of their songs. Adelaide is amazing and was working with her own vocal coach pretty early on. And then, we pre-recorded about a week and a bit, maybe, before we went to camera. So Douglas and Adelaide got a lot of time together but because we started shooting with Patrick first and then we shot with Douglas after, we had to ask Douglas to just, like, go away!

So they did a lot of rehearsals and Tim, the composer who arranged Kate’s songs, came up early and worked with them a lot. And I would bounce in and out and Kate would bounce in and out. So there were pre-mixed songs before we went to camera so that when they were singing on stage in the film, we would play those for them so they could kind of lip sync through it but also live perform them as well. So it could be complicated, but we got it figured out in the edit.

I really loved the live performances. I loved what we filmed on the day. The sound of their voices is so raw and they’ve been singing for so long, so they were kind of hoarse, but I really love that. So in the actual mix [you hear in the film], it’s a combination of the pre-recorded and the live stuff, which is incredible. I felt in really good hands and really safe with Tim and with Kate. These are her songs and she’s a musical genius. So I had a lot of support on that front and in bringing them to life.

The movie has moments of true drama and even tragedy, but the movie ends on a note of hope. It’s not a depressing ending. What do you want audiences to feel about Carey’s journey when the credits roll?

I think that is the debate we had. Kate and I talked a lot about how we wanted to leave it–do we want hope? Will she’s end up with Douglas or not? And I really wanted it to be whatever your own interpretation is. But I hope that the actual thing you feel is that she’s come to a place of growth. She’s come to a place of acceptance. She’s come to that place regardless of whether or not her life ultimately involves Owen or not, it’s really about her just coming to a place of getting over what had happened to her. And she’s got Bev too and together they can move past this horrible thing that happened in their lives. And there will be more community and potentially love within that community, but really it’s just about acceptance and moving forward.

I did this thing that I’m not sure if people will notice. There’s a recurring direct eye contact thing. She has a moment with Patrick at the start that’s with each other. They’re really happy to have a baby. The next time you see it, it is after an argument and it’s a disconnect between them. Then the next time you see it, it’s with Owen, where she’s feeling comfortable and she’s feeling safe. But then the final one is just her direct to camera. She’s here, she’s okay, and she’s looking back at herself.

The Swearing Jar is now playing in select Canadian theatres.



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