Filmmaker and writer Emmanuel Shirinian has picked a hard film to talk about for his debut feature. Not that it’s hard to describe despite an idiosyncratic tone and a time shifting narrative that sometimes obscures facts for bigger reveals, but because It Was You Charlie (opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday with a cast and filmmaker Q&A on opening night) has so many turns that it’s hard to chat about without spoiling greater reveals. Going through the interview we had over the phone earlier this week, I had to be careful to cut out some of the clues and some of the bigger beats to ensure viewers.
There are a few things that I can say without spoiling anything: The film takes place over the course of three years, shifting between the main character’s 40th and 42nd birthdays. Shirinian (who studied at the Canadian Film Centre and has produced several shorts previously) follows the sometimes unnerving, sometimes funny, and sometimes depressing exploits of Abner (played by Michael D. Cohen) and his rocky relationship with his more successful and good looking younger brother, Tom (Aaron Abrams). Following a fall out between them over Tom dating a woman that Abner has had an unrequited crush on for quite some time and a tangential tragedy, they haven’t spoken in years. Wallowing away in an overnight job as a concierge and constantly on the verge of suicide, Abner finds his life changed when he meets a kindly cab driver (Emma Fleury).
We chatted with Shirinian about his sometimes unlikable protagonist, his influences, and creating a different sort of brotherly dynamic.
Dork Shelf: Your main character in the film, Abner, has a really interesting arc to him. We join him in the middle of a crisis and a longstanding family problem, but you never feel the need to spell out his character’s past. How much did you think about the backstory of this character that remains unseen when you decided to create this story and the brotherly dynamic at the heart of it?
Emmanuel Shirinian: Well, first and foremost I think it’s a testament to these two incredibly gifted actors and their talents. There was really a lot of discussion about these things. I think that when you talk about the backstory for these characters, you’re right, we allude to things and we never flesh it out fully for the audience because that would be another kind of film. It’s wrought with complexity and how these two interact with women in their relationships. Especially that scene at the party where Abner pulls Tom aside and accuses him of being a womanizer and “leaving a trail of bleeding hearts over the years.”
Together with the actors we thought about what that relationship where an older brother looks up to his younger, more successful brother, the better looking brother, and how does that effect you in turn. Through some brainstorming during the rehearsal process we talked a lot about the family dynamic. We thought that maybe even his younger brother was the person responsible for getting Abner laid for the first time, that maybe he had a hand in that. There’s a certain kind of idyllic admiration that cuts really, really deep for Abner.
The strength of the relationship is really displayed through that yearly pilgrimage to go see On the Waterfront. Every year on Abner’s birthday, Tom would take his brother to see this movie and quote lines from it as they immerse themselves in that Elia Kazan world. I think that’s really special and unique and that bond is really potent, but there’s still a lot of conflict.
DS: When Abner starts really reacting to the fact that Tom is dating the woman of his dreams, you really want to believe that Tom is genuine and it’s sort of hard to believe immediately that Abner is being anything other than selfish. It’s an interesting dynamic because there’s a lot of sympathy that I had for Tom in the film, probably more than I had for Abner.
ES: That’s a very, very astute observation, and you’re absolutely right. I think Abner is approaching that conversation – that argument at the party where they have it out – while looking at the Tom from the past. The beauty of that scene and what Abner isn’t registering or listening to is that his brother is telling him that he’s a changed man. “I’m not that guy that you think I was, so that when I tell you that I love Madeline, I really mean it and I kinda want your blessing.” It’s another conquest for the more successful brother, but it’s arguably the most personal one. It’s another failure for Abner. And more importantly, Abner still has that fear that Tom is just going to leave Madeline, screw things up, and that she doesn’t mean that much to him.
The proof of that really comes in their second confrontation in the diner. It shows that over the years Tom has really changed, but Abner hasn’t. I think it’s only at that point that he realizes that there might have been a change. I’m really happy that you pointed those nuances out in that scene that they have together.
DS: In a way a lot of the film and the narrative hinges on that diner scene. It feels like the lynchpin that the time shifting of the narrative hinges upon.
ES: Yeah! His brother says to him “What are you doing with your life? Are you painting? Are you working?” He’s really been doing nothing. He’s been stewing, wallowing, and trapped in his own vortex of distress. Ultimately, the plot of the film properly takes place over 24 hours, but the story spans three years. In those 24 hours, Abner really looks to connect with his brother again and he doesn’t really know how.
The theme of family is a big component of my work so far, and I really never looked at the concept of a film revolving around two brothers before. I was thinking about films that moved me a lot as a kid, like East of Eden and Raging Bull and On the Waterfront, of course, and all those complicate brotherly relationships was kind of the impetus for this story. I think it began with the two brothers, and then there was the car accident element, and then I worked back from the car accident to kind of peel away the layers of their relationship. It was a really mysterious writing process for this screenplay, but I think it came together in a certain way.
DS: Even before the three year period of this film, it seems almost like Abner’s life was leading to a point like this. There’s sort of a latent, misplaced pride that he has below this unassuming exterior. He seems unable to admit that he’s wrong, and that makes him for a sometimes hard protagonist to like.
ES: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that. I don’t know. I know that he quit his job because he really loved Madeline. She was a student and they were in the school together, and that kind of stuff is both heartbreaking and he thought it was wrong. He quit his job and then he told this student and person that he likes a lot these lines about how it’s cooler to produce art than it is to teach it. In reality he did that all for love, and it crushes him because he had gone to those lengths. His pride was definitely crushed and most of this is Abner’s fault. He sees this as another notch for Tom and another X in their shared history.
DS: Abner definitely seems like the kind of person who puts all of his eggs into one basket, quitting his job at 40 years old to pursue a younger woman that he can barely even talk to. He’s getting desperate.
ES: Absolutely. And more so to the fact that Tom has become more of a success in less time that Abner has even been alive. Tom brings all of his rich friends to the party to buy Abner’s art. No one else will buy it. And Tom has a right to be angry after supporting his brother over the years. He cares about Abner when no one else will give a shit, but Abner still has a lot of resentment. I was really trying to show that there was a lot of love in Tom’s eyes, and that he really hates seeing his brother at a kind of dead end. It’s heartbreaking. I think Aaron Abrams was really remarkable in that respect. He was kind of duplicitous, but you’re never sure if he’s really going to screw Abner over, but you don’t want to believe he would.
Tom is clearly maturing faster than his older brother. Tom never had any problems getting ahead in life: good looking, charismatic. Abner is more of the black sheep of the family. He had to work extra hard, so when he goes into this crisis he shuts down. He works as an overnight doorman, he wanders the streets alone, he has no coping mechanisms for these kinds of things, and finally on his 42nd birthday he finally thinks, “Fuck, I have to do something with my life.”
DS: The tone of the film has a time bending narrative, dark comedy, and elements of a paranoid thriller to it. What was it like constructing this world and this kind of feel for the characters? It’s really hard to pull all of those elements together, but you do it quite well.
ES: Thanks for saying that! I worked really hard on constructing that. I’ve been doing a lot of press now for the film, and I say it’s kind of a hybrid of an unrequited love story combined with a psychological thriller. There’s a bit of Polanski and Woody Allen in there. It was a very hard thing to strike that balance, though.
I knew it was never going to be a linear film, but I knew I wanted to tell a very intimate story that had a very epic feel. We decided to shoot it in 2:35 aspect ratio. I wanted a very big frame that would dwarf Abner even more. I wanted a working class feel to it. I wanted Toronto to look very austere, very cold, but I wanted the flashbacks to be a little warmer, so we changed the lighting and the photography a little bit.
There’s also the balance between what is real and what isn’t real in this film. The juxtaposition of those two entities allowed me the freedom to play and manipulate tone a little bit. On one hand you can see it as this story about a guy who loves this girl and then his brother takes over, but then he’s haunted by these images of a book on the road, and feet on the road, and Abner has this beard and he’s bleeding. Where is this all coming from? That was all strategically plotted in the screenplay, and I knew that I would be switching back and forth from 40th birthday to 42nd birthday. The one thing I never wanted to was to have a seamless line between what was and wasn’t a flashback. I wanted an organic flow from one scene to another. That’s a great tribute to the camerawork and the editing and how we come in and out of sequences very lyrically. I think that shaped the tone, and once we got into post and I got to work with my composer, the tone of the music really brought out that extra element of the dark psychological thriller component you were referring to.
To be honest with you, it was difficult. I just kind of closed my eyes and trusted my instincts that it would all work. We’re really lucky for the most part that people have responded to it. I was worried that I was asking a lot of the audience. It wasn’t going to be a film that people can watch passively. You really have to be an active participant in it. For the most part, people have really enjoyed trying to figure this story out as it unfolds.
DS: How did you settle upon Michael Cohen as your lead? Did you always envision Abner as having the kind of look to him that Michael has?
ES: Michael Cohen was an actor that I met back in 2006 when I was studying as a director at the Canadian Film Centre, and I had cast him in a bunch of short films that I had been working on at the film centre. I was working on things with him previously.
He’s actually a very comedic actor. He does a lot of voices, he’s worked for kid’s animation, and he’s done clown work. He’s a very, very funny guy, but he had never really done the dramatic lead in a film. We’re great friends now. He’s moved to Los Angeles where he still does great work.
As I was writing the film, I wasn’t necessarily writing it for Michael Cohen, but as I started falling more in love with the character and peeling away the layers of who Abner was, I knew how brave an actor would have to be to deliver this kind of a performance. That was when I thought of Michael Cohen. It was a real instinctual feel that Michael was the actor for me. I needed someone who could play off the more dashing looking brother, so physically I needed someone who looked a little different. But Michael has the most expressive eyes. For a little guy, he chews up a lot of scenery on screen. His face is really engaging, and there’s a vulnerability to Michael that I love as an actor. You’re also right that he can be harsh and unsympathetic in this film, but there’s also a softness to him, too. Michael was able to bring that out beautifully.
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