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Interview: Foreverland Director Max McGuire

Director Max McGuire made his most recent film, the touching and heartfelt Foreverland (opening at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto today, where he will be doing a post-movie Q&A following the 7:20pm show), based largely on his own experiences and fears. Centering on a young, death obsessed Canadian man named Will (played by Max Theriot) who finds himself in the throes of a deep depression and tasked with the delivery of the ashes of his deceased friend to a healing shrine in Mexico to fulfill his final wishes with his former bestie’s girlfriend (Laurence Laboeuf) as a travelling companion.

While definitely in a better place now, the 31-year old filmmaker suffered through the same physical affliction and emotional uncertainties as his film’s main protagonist. When he was only five hours old, McGuire was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, a treatable and terminal disease that he’s been forced to live with his entire life. While not Max’s first film (which was made on 16mm when he was 18), Foreverland is the first to talk openly about his own personal fears.

Dork Shelf caught up with the smiling, humble, and positive McGuire yesterday to talk about his personal journey, living the life of the characters he created, and his own fears to do his subject justice.

Dork Shelf: I remembered reading that now you say you have moved on from the mindset of Foreverland’s main character to a happier place of peace now. Now that the film is actually about to head out there into the world, has there been even more of an emotional progression for you?

Max McGuire: Well, obviously every day you hope to learn something whether it’s positive or negative. When you work with such creative people and I was just lucky to be blessed with surrounding myself where I can share my experiences, you can share yours, and together you flourish into better people eventually. I cherish the fact that I was able to make this movie. I love that I get to live out this dream that so many kids go to school for and then maybe they don’t end up getting to do that. Now I feel really privileged that I got to make a movie, and I’m ecstatic that it’s being received so well, and coming from making credit card financed films to this is extraordinary.

As for post journey, who knows? Maybe there’s enough in my life right now to make a sequel, but who knows? (laughs) My writer and I actually joked about a few such ideas, actually. Prequels are probably more appropriate, though. (laughs)

Dork Shelf: It took about five years for you to write the film and get it off the ground and running. During those five years…

MM: Well, it’s even longer now since we started back in 2005.

DS: True. What was going through your mind at that time? Was it was it like in terms of the writing process, the search for funding, and getting over your own personal feelings towards the story?

MM: I’ll try and address all three. We constantly kept writing as far as editing, changing, and enhancing the story. The plot actually changed from Will initially choosing to take the trip himself into someone reluctantly being forced into it because it made the arc better. Then I took a road trip myself to this miracle farm in Mexico in 2008, and that fed into Will’s desire in his oddest moment to accept hope. So the script was constantly being worked on.

As for funding, it’s something that as a filmmaker you try to keep your nose out of, but it’s obviously an integral piece of the puzzle. Some pieces came and went and then we shuffled and reshuffled, and sometimes you would be told to pack your bags and be ready to go and shoot one year and then next Tuesday you’re told to unpack and you won’t be ready to go until the next spring. Then without even really realizing it, you’re a year older.

As for the personal side, it’s impossible not to get caught up in all that. You try to keep you eye on the prize, but then again this is a story that’s all in your head. That being said, it’s also an incredible opportunity and responsibility. But like I said, at the same time when you’re waiting for all of this to happen, you’re getting older. There’s been times in my life when I didn’t think I would ever even make it to 31. But I’m feeling great now and I’ve got lots of time, but maybe at times subconsciously I just wondered if it was ever going to happen. So you just have to stay afloat and just keep yourself busy. I’m really lucky that I have a great family, lots of great friends, and you just keep moving.

DS: That responsibility extends to your audience and people that might have been affected by both CF and other diseases. Was there any fear or pressure on you to make sure that you did the subject matter justice outside of your own point of view?

MM: I mean just that statement kind of addresses that. It’s something that’s not only near and dear to my heart, but also to anyone who has been affected. Then the sub-section of those are the people who have been affected by CF and their families. CF people are often attributed with being very positive, very joie de vivre, and very fun to be around. That’s what family, friends, and teachers see, so they might not understand the underbelly of the rough period when you start to get older and you begin to accept your mortality and the nature of the disease, and the ultimate conclusion that will undoubtedly rise. Once you lose your peers, that starts to really sink in that you’re living under different circumstances. So you try to do your peers justice in trying to tell a story about CF in as realistic and authentic of a way as you can and I think we’ve done well. I’ve been very lucky to come in contact with people, and parents, and families dealing with CF at different festivals who told me they were coming in and were excited to see it. Others would just come up to me afterwards and let me know they were terrified at how it was going to be portrayed who thanked me for doing it well. It really extends to people with any disease or anyone at all, really. Everyone knows they’re going to end at some point, but nobody thinks it’s going to be imminent. A CF person or and MS person or anyone with anything like that has a ticking time bomb within themselves that makes them want to do things.

DS: Was there anything that you put into the screenplay that you wanted to live out that you hadn’t gotten around to yet?

MM: Well, I took the actual Mexico journey in the screenplay after I had written the first draft. Having looked at the script, I realized that I had lived everything else out to some degree except for this portion. I felt we just had to live out the portion that we had created because I knew it was a great way to represent the road trip as a physical representation for Will’s mental journey and I had never taken it. I had this trip in my mind, and I just put it off, put it off, put it off, and then I said “We gotta do it.” So a documentary friend and a cinematography friend of mine went and we documented it and it’s to be a small eventually released documentary.

DS: Did a lot change about the trip from the first draft after you went on the trip?

MM: Of course! Will’s reluctance to hope kind of evolved out of that. I went in as a pragmatist at the beginning of my own script, and I always knew it was about the journey and not the destination. But that thinking almost made me devalue the destination itself. The destination has power, especially with the concentrated thought all the way to this shrine you need to get into this certain kind of mindset. Once you get down there, you see all these people around you and they are down there counting on this because it’s their last hope, and it affects them and you can’t say it never rubs off on you. I can’t say that I never went to go there to get cured of CF or anything like that, but it was a reminder that we all need something like that every once in a while. The mental healing is just as important. I think that’s a big part of the reason why my sister and I are in such great health right now.

DS: How did Max come to your attention to play Will?

MM: We had great coverage at the agencies down South over casting, and I had seen him in Chloe and a few other things before, but I wasn’t sure if he was going to be in to our movie. And he actually wasn’t sure about me yet, either, because funnily enough he read this script while he was coming back from the airport after being in Mexico. Then we decided that we had to meet this kid because he was obviously a great actor, and I went down to LA and we ended up talking about life, movies, CF, surfing, and then about how we both saw Will, and it was just apparent that this kid was just awesome, responsible, loyal, honest, and he’s really quite self-protective as opposed to these other kind of actors who are just in your face. With that we drew the conclusion that he was going to be durable and he was going to be with us every step of the way , and he was an we were right, which is what we were really thankful for. (laughs) He was the perfect guy for the role and he was always asking so much and so many questions.

There’s a scene towards the end where he was in Mexico and he’s soaking wet and shaking… The desert is freezing at night. The swing goes from twenty-six degrees during the day to zero at night in winter, and he’s freezing with water all over him, so we’re just dumping hot water on him all night. We always kept tea kettles boiling just so we could warm him up, and I can’t imagine having done that with stars A, B, or C. He gave us huge sacrifices all that winter and I think it pays off.

DS: I wanted to talk to you specifically about two members of your supporting cast and specifically the roles played by Matt Frewer (who plays a funeral home director and casket salesman) and Juliette Lewis (who plays Will’s bigoted, estranged aunt). Did you base those characters off of anyone you knew?

MM: (laughs) Oh man, how great was Matt Frewer? In my parents basement when I was 25 when we were initially knocking out the screenplay for this I was wondering if we could get Matt Frewer for this. That was back when this was still a credit card film. So to be able to get him was phenomenal. My first day on set was with Matt Frewer. Then Juliette Lewis, I mean, to have an Oscar nominee and someone who’s been on the scene for 20-plus years, and who is such an… individual, for lack of a better word.

To answer your question, Steadman (Frewer) isn’t based on anyone in particular, to be honest. He’s just someone that’s just closed himself off from the world and doesn’t have any friends or real relationships, and he kind of likes this inadvertent friendship that develops and he appreciates the company because its more than what he normally has, but he also wants to impart some wisdom on this kid.

Then with Juliette and Aunt Vicky, we wanted then to represent overall ignorance. Not just in terms of a specific faith or anything, but that you can misinterpret anything and stray from your own path when you try to think that only bad things happen to bad people. It isn’t true because bad things can happen to anybody. It just happens, and if they were to even bother looking into their own faiths, it isn’t a healthy thing to prescribe to this. It’s the whole “only the good die young” karma, I guess? It’s not a bad thing. You just have less to learn. I’d love to think that Aunt Vicky has a movie of her own where one day she learns. (laughs)

That’s I guess the down side to making a movie that’s about a road trip, though. You don’t get a chance to revist these characters no matter how much time you spend poking around in the basement with them. You want to make sure you don’t make it episodic and that they all tie into the plot of things.

DS: You’re filming a lot in the middle of nowhere, and much like how your characters experience their own difficulties, did you have any similar issues during the filming that you couldn’t foresee when you started shooting this modestly budgeted production?

MM: We had these wonderful pictures that we got back from scouting trips and they’re so scenic and beautiful, and you get there with your 18-wheelers and your crew and then all of a sudden they can’t get over these massive sand dunes even with just going on four wheelers. Our first location out there was the big love scene in the film and it was a pack mule trip where we had booked some four-wheelers that never ended up showing up. So our crew were hiking equipment half a mile away from the nearest town and a 15 minute walk up a hill to get to this great looking giant rock. Then you realize that maybe if I had chosen something closer to the road I could have gotten more opportunities to get more shots and coverage, but it wouldn’t have been as picturesque. The quid pro quo is always the hardest part. (laughs)

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