“We set out to fail,” director Jeremy LaLonde says of his and Jonas Chernick’s latest endeavour. “From the outset of this project, it was always, ‘it’s okay if we all fail’. Even down to our investors. We made them promise [that they] have to be comfortable with us even deciding not to ever show [the film] to anybody if it’s an utter disaster.”
The film in question is Ashgrove, a science-fiction, mystery, drama set in the not-too-distant future where a global pandemic has tainted the world’s water supply causing humans to balance their water intake with dehydration. While the context of a global pandemic may seem a bit on the nose for our current times, the idea for the movie was developed long before the real world got flipped upside down.
Ashgrove centres around Jennifer (played by Amanda Brugel), a scientist who is seemingly closest to finding a solution to the world’s water issue. Due to the insurmountable stress and pressure placed on her, Jennifer burns out, and it’s suggested that she and her husband Jason (Chernick) go away for the weekend to reset. Initially, their mini-vacation seems relaxing and idyllic, but soon it becomes clear that things aren’t as they seem.
LaLonde and Chernick worked with their lead actress on building the character of Jennifer, but also decided to keep her in the dark as to what the twist of the film was. They shot Ashgrove chronologically, revealing the full story to Brugel, and the rest of the cast (including Shawn Doyle and Natalie Brown), as they happened during the shoot. As you can imagine, pulling this off required a lot of precision and trust between LaLonde and his actors, and a bit of deception.
The end result is a compelling film that thrills as a whodunit and intrigues as a film about humanity, while also acting as a fascinating story about movie-making. Feeling that the making of the film could potentially be as interesting as the film itself, LaLonde decided to make a documentary about the development and filming of Ashgrove—The Ashgrove Experiment—which is set for a 2023 release. (That Shelf was given a 30-minute preview of the documentary in advance of our interview.)
“I thought it would be cool to have one [a behind-the-scenes documentary] for something I’ve done, and especially for this project, because I thought it would be unique for other people to see how we did it,” says LaLonde. “And if the film is an utter disaster, we’ll at least still release the documentary.”
Ahead of Ashgrove’s premiere in Toronto, LaLonde spoke with That Shelf about the challenges inherent in making the film, casting Brugel, and how the COVID-19 pandemic did (and didn’t) affect his story.
You and Jonas have worked together before and are very well known for working in comedy. What made you guys want to move to a “pure” science-fiction drama genre film?
JL: Oh my god, it was supposed to be a comedy. I’m sorry, we failed miserably. [Laughs.]
With this one, we just wanted to kind of challenge ourselves. I love all movies, I love all genres. As I move along in my filmmaking career, there’s a lot of things on my filmmaking bucket list that I want to check off. It wasn’t necessarily that I ever set out to do a straight drama. Jonas and I just went, “Well, what could we do that’s different than anything we’ve done before?” Just to challenge ourselves to break out of the box.
Jonas was really fired up on doing a really intense acting piece with a small cast [and] limited locations, [but] that’s interesting for me only if the stakes of the story are the end of the world. Of course, he’s like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense, that’s not what I’m going for.” So we dug into what we both wanted out of it and figured out a story that worked for that. But then also we didn’t want to write a script.
At the time, I was watching a lot of Mike Leigh movies and his process of working with actors, developing characters and backstories, but then also doing a lot of really focused improvisation within the movie. And not improvisation in the way we think of improvisation when it comes to comedy and whatnot, it’s more character stuff. So that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create the characters, cast the actors early on in the process, and then develop their characters with them. Then on the day, we’ll shoot the movie in chronological order, and the actors won’t have anything besides these really intense backstories they’ve created, plus a knowledge of their relationships with each other. Everything else, they just have to trust me to give them the motivations and obstacles. So every scene the actors walked into, they didn’t know what was going to happen. And that’s how we approached the film.
I know the idea for Ashgrove was developed before COVID and lockdown, but obviously it’s hard to avoid comparisons. As the pandemic developed, were you and Jonas emailing and texting each other about changing the story?
JL: At no point did we ever [think] we shouldn’t do this because of the pandemic. If anything, in the fall of 2019, we were sitting there thinking, is anyone going to understand what this [a pandemic] is? Are people gonna be able to relate to this? So in terms of that, the pandemic did not hurt the film. What it let us actually do was really pare back [the story] and not force too much exposition, because we knew that everyone in the world would be able to relate to a story about a couple dealing with their shit during a world crisis. We had a shorthand that we could tap into and we didn’t need to be heavy-handed with anything.
For us, it was more about the things that exist now with COVID that didn’t before. Things that we do habitually do now like, masks, hand sanitizer, distancing. So we were like, what’s our version of that with a water pandemic? You could only drink a certain amount per day, so maybe you’d have your special water bottle and you’d mark it. You’d probably be using a lot of hand lotion and lip balm, so all the actors had lip balm. It’s one of those things we never hang a hat on in the film, but Jonas, a couple times, puts lip balm on. There’s moisturizer in most rooms…little things like that just gave the world a little bit of authenticity that made it a bit different than what [audiences] know.
You mentioned the cast not knowing what they were walking into and Amanda takes the brunt of the unknown. The documentary shows how game Amanda was and also what lengths you and Jonas went to in order to keep her in the dark. Were you guys ever concerned that you tipped your hand too much to Amanda while filming?
JL: Great question. I think because of the way I structured the whole project–that the whole thing was an experiment–the actors were just so open to whatever. I would trick Amanda and also Jonas, too. There were things I didn’t want Jonas to know so he had his own surprises along the way.
I’d give them different things every single time, and part of that was to kind of subterfuge Amanda. I’d throw [lots at her] so that it was almost impossible for her to track. At one point, Amanda was like, “I know what it is: my husband’s fucking crazy.” I didn’t hate her going down that path.
[On the day we shot the reveal] you can hear me say [in the documentary], “stay in it.” At the end, when we all had a check in with each other, she was like, “I never in a million years would have guessed that it was this.” So we did a good job of keeping it from her. We had a 10-day shoot [and the reveal happened on] day 6 or 7, so every day, she’d go home [wondering] what’s happening next. She was thinking about it quite a bit. The fact that she put that much thought into it and somehow we didn’t tip our hand was a miracle.
In the back of my head I was nervous that she’d figured it out early. Jonas was nervous that when the reveal happened, she’d be mad about it, that she’d think that we lied about the kind of movie we were making. But I never felt that. I always felt like it was pretty clear the tone of the film, the direction of the film, and the twist didn’t really shift or change that. So we had different concerns.
You and Jonas had both worked with Amanda before. Was it an important consideration that you found an actor who you had a previous relationship with?
JL: It was crucial, especially for Amanda’s part, but more importantly, for our co-writer. I wanted to give the two main leads co-writing credit on the script given how much involvement they were going to have in the development, also the dialogue and the scene structure itself. Amanda was the first choice. Amanda was the first person [whose name] I threw out and Jonas instantly went, “If you think she’d do it, let’s do it.” I called her right away and she was all in. She loved the idea and the concept.
For me, it was important that it was an actor I’d worked with before, that it was someone who would just trust me to basically fail–and that was every actor on this film. I needed actors that would trust me implicitly, which I think is the biggest currency a director needs on any project. But on something like this, it’s imperative. If an actor doesn’t trust you, and you’re making a film in this way, you’re doomed from the get-go. I think that’s why they all loved it because there’s a bit of a challenge.
I was very, very lucky that she [Amanda] was in from the [start]. It helped that we’ve worked together, but we’re also just friends in real life. We knew each other and through the whole process we spent during COVID of workshopping the characters and their stories, all three of us [Amanda, Jonas and myself] were sharing super intimate details about our lives and things that we thought we could bring into [the film]. I was being as vulnerable with them as they were with me, which I think made a big difference. When a director opens up the way an actor is expected to, I think it lets the actor know that they’re in safe hands.
We talked about tipping your hand to Amanda, but how about audiences? When you were in the editing process, how did you make sure you dropped enough bread crumbs to lead us without giving the whole game away?
JL: That was the big thing for me. We did little tests with friends and small audiences, and we had a questionnaire that [asked], “At what point in time did you think something was off?,” “At what point in time did you realize something was happening?” We’d look at the responses and realize we need to insert something here or there. [We asked], did you ever figure out what was happening? And nobody did. And we sent this to some smart, smart people, so we are constantly shocked that we are able to maintain the surprise, and also the intrigue.
Music was a big thing, too. Ian LeFeuvre [the film’s composer] did a really great job of having little stings and things that he would bring in to tip the viewer and [make them] pay attention without hitting it too hard on the head. Little subconscious things.
It was a real balancing act that we needed–to be completely honest, we were nervous that people would be bored for the first half of it, because it’s really just two people. I know I was fascinated watching their performances when we were making it, but as good as these two actors are, we need something, like little Easter eggs, that make an audience go, “What’s up with that?”
We asked people if they were just watching on their own, they weren’t friends of ours and they didn’t have to watch it, at what point would they have turned this off? And [mostly everyone] was curious where it was going and what was happening because they knew something was off. From there we knew we were in good shape. People are at least watching it long enough until something happens.
The process of making this film is so interesting, especially considering the actors didn’t know what was going on. I’m glad you guys made a documentary about it, too.
JL: Yea, it was such a fun project in so many different capacities, it’s kind of ruined all of us for projects. All of the actors on their next projects, they’re like, “Ugh, I have lines to memorize. I know what’s happening. It’s so boring.” [Laughs.] Because for actors, their ultimate job is to be present and bounce off another actor. When you’re making a movie like this, you literally have no other choice. When they started getting comfortable, I’d throw something at [them] didn’t happen in the last take or they didn’t expect to happen. They had no choice but to always be on their toes.
I think the closest thing I made them memorize was the answers to the couple’s game they played. I gave them the answers that they thought they knew and then not the actual answer sometimes. So when Amanda’s getting frustrated in that scene, she legitimately is because she’d memorized all those answers and in her mind these are wrong, this is not the answer. She was just sitting there going, “Fucking, Jeremy.” [Laughs.]
I did enjoy how many times she called you an asshole in the documentary.
JL: [Laughs.] We love each other.
Ashgrove premieres in Toronto on December 2 with a digital and physical release to follow.
Disclaimer: Jeremy LaLonde hosts Black Hole Films on That Shelf’s podcast network.