It’s morning at a coffee shop in Toronto’s Annex, and filmmaker Jonathan Hayes is dunking a cookie in his coffee and chatting about his debut feature while the still rising sun barely passes behind his head during our conversation, coming ever so close to blinding him. Not that he noticed or probably would have since his affection for the characters in his film and their situations are undeniable.
For the North Bay shot Algonquin (opening in Toronto at the Carlton this Friday with a special presentation with cast and crew at The Royal on Sunday at 7:00pm), Hayes looks at three separate acts in one man’s life. Jake (played by Mark Rendall) has recently seen his often absentee father, Leif (veteran actor Nicholas Campbell), resurface into his life. While neither Jake, nor his mother (Sheila McCarthy) are all that pleased, Jake agrees to follow his washed-up, egotistical travel writer pop to the family cabin to write a history of Algonquin. Not only does the trip not go well, but Leif passes away, leaving more questions than answers. Wanting to finish the book (but also being a struggling writer who isn’t very good), Jake returns to the cabin on his own to find Leif’s most recent wife, Carmen (Victoria Sanchez) and his young step brother (Michael Levinson) claiming ownership of the property.
It’s a search of self discovery that Hayes, who previously has directed several shorts, wanted told through quieter character moments rather than grand exposition. Hayes talked with us about the clashing egos within his film’s characters, the concept of denial and distance within families, and how his film is now related directly to the work of Casablanca director Michael Curtiz.
Dork Shelf: A good place to start talking about the film is with the introduction of the character of Leif, who even after he leaves the film haunts the story that follows. It seems like someone who behaves almost like an alcoholic, but he’s really only drunk on his own ego. What was it like creating a character that powerful that will only be around at the beginning, but then everyone will have to spend the rest of the film dealing with the repercussions of what he’s done?
Jonathan Hayes: Leif is an essential character. He’s the lynchpin for the movie, and I think you’re quite right. Conceptually, on the page, and in the acting of the character I needed someone who was nearly larger than life; not cartoonish, believable, but someone so big that you would have no problem instantly recognizing the relationship between father and son being one of utter dominance. The protagonist, played by Mark Rendall, is overwhelmed by him and he doesn’t know what to do with him. There are bruised feelings there, but also a desire to connect. He’s an enigma, but there are few things stronger than these father and son connections.
As far as building the question, which I think is sort of the root of your question, I think it began with the idea of ego and of a kind of faded joy where this is a person who attained a certain stature, was, as you say, drunk on that kind of glory, and a very common experience in that his time has passed. He’s looking at this project that he wants to embark on as sort of a twofer. The secondary reason might well be to patch things up with his son, but the first reason is that he’s going to do a book that’s going to put him back on the map and he needs help with it. I think it takes a certain kind of ego to traipse throughout the world, and while it’s never really said, but it’s implied by the slightly comedically titled books that he writes is that he’s the centre of them all. There were some inspirations in Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux that were sort of the demigods of travel literature. Guys who couldn’t quite be Hemingway, but there was an understandable, but possibly necessary kind of ego there.
To tie it up in a bow, what was most important was that Leif be such a big character that in his absence, he appeared even larger.
DS: There are some interesting touches that I wanted to bring up. The first of which is when at the beginning in the opening scene, you kind of compare Leif to his son and his students mock him, it seems like Jake is trying to be like his dad, but outwardly he’s trying everything possible to not be his dad. I don’t think Jake has that ego to be a successful writer. He’s also not very good at it.
JH: That’s right. That’s correct. I think for that age and stage of that main character Jake, there’s those early steps of adulthood where he’s sorting things out. He both wants to honour the father and give him the requisite “fuck you” at the same time.
DS: But he also really doesn’t have that same kind of ego to simply say “fuck you.” The other thing I wanted to talk about is how far behind his own life Leif was. You see his funeral and there are only a small handful of books and none of them look like they have been published since the 70s or 80s. It really shows just how long this family has had to put up with this unwarranted ego that has never been broken. It’s interesting because most people in that situation will have had their ego broken at this point, but Leif has kind of been enabled to keep this level of power, charm, and control. I think that also might be because he has this really deep love in his life that was genuine and real.
JH: Yup. Absolutely. His relationship with Carmen really keeps that ego going. I think that’s a great point. It’s kind of heroic in a way to keep up that pretense. He’s indomitable in a way. He’s his own biggest fan, and the other thing that’s going on in act two and one of the big questions in the background is who are we to the people closest to us? Can we truly nail down and say definitively that this person is this or this person is that? When we’re at our most hurt or fragile and we want to lash out, that’s when we want to define a person in a certain way. I think in Nick’s approach to the character he’s either going to end up aggrandizing his accomplishment or minimize the impact it has on his life. What we come discover and makes things a whole lot more complicated is the picture that he had in his head of who he was is challenged quite drastically in the second act after he’s gone.
DS: Jake is this character that’s still trying to find himself, and it seems like there’s always something stunting his journey and that it starts and stops quite a bit because of things happening in his life. His dad comes back, his dad dies, everything with the cabin, everything with the book, everything with Carmen and her son. These are things that just keep building and building, and he’s really frustrated, but he’s never cynical about his life. Where do you draw the line between the character of Jake being frustrated instead of being cynical?
JH: I think that was worked at both at the script stage and working with Mark. It was necessary to create a character with all of these wants and desires and drive, and I think there are points that in order to truly be with the character and not think that he’s a complete pushover where we have to enjoy when he pushes back; those flashes of anger. I think it is necessary to have that.
The dominant emotion that I latched onto to make the story work for me was this sense of disconnection over everything else. He’s not connected to his students at the beginning. When it comes to family matters, he’s totally phoning it in. That’s important because that’s his armour. He doesn’t care that he can get hurt and he’s becoming a bit of a cliché, but we know that’s not correct or true. It’s a symptom of the hurt. He thinks of it instead as protection. In a sense, the journey that he makes is in tearing down the walls and allowing himself to care and to connect.
DS: He’s also a lot more guarded around his parents than he is around anyone else. He never has any trouble telling his students, or Carmen and her son whenever something is bothering him. What did you guys do to create that family dynamic where these actors can convey a sort of unspoken history that the audience isn’t entirely aware of?
JH: That’s interesting and that’s right. He does react that way. I think it began with the casting. I think we were looking for a situation where these characters would sit down at a dinner table and without a word being said you would believe this was a family with all the backstories that make up being a family. I think at a physical level I remember on the day when they all sat down together going, “Wow!” I feel like I see Mark Rendall in both the fine bone-ness of Sheila and the wild hair of Nick and all three have these piercing blue eyes.
Each character knew what their goal was in each scene. In terms of working with the actors, it was pretty simple and all just about being true to their desires in that moment. And we knew that exposition is a killer, so we didn’t have any of that with the purpose to signal to the audience that this is actually happening.
DS: How long of a search was it to find a cabin and a place where you could shoot this story?
JH: We were really going for this mid-century, lived-in kind of vibe. When I say that I don’t mean Danish Modern, but real mid-century. Things have a history to them and every object affiliated with Leif, whether it’s the things he holds onto, or the old truck, or his cassettes, or the old, untouched, neglected cabin, they all had to tell us a piece of who these people were. Things you see in the room would indicate that there were things around that signified world travels and sentimental objects. We did work hard on the production design, me and the production designer, when it came to really drilling down on that look. I think that was a major point of pride for us.
As far as the actual location of the cabin, you move from the idea in your head of what this should be to the reality of finding the location itself in the real world, and there are definite moments of anxiety in the pre-production process as you’re scouting over and over. The way the cabin came to us was the strangest thing because you know that you can get summer rentals on various listserves. And on these cabins with these kinds of views, newer more modern kinds of cabins have taken over and it’s increasingly hard to find the cabins that have been untouched. Those new cabins look like houses, and what’s great about the untouched ones is that they aren’t untouched because they’re unspectacular. They’re untouched because there is emotional and sentimental attachment to leaving things as they were. You can connect to your grandparents or your great grandparents because it’s a point of pride.
I actually found this cabin on Kajiji, and it was the strangest listing for a summer rental I had ever seen. It was basically an advertisement of the cabin’s history as it related to a film project. In the 1940s, Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca and a lot of other classic films, came up to North Bay to shoot a film with James Cagney. It was a wartime film [Captains of the Clouds, ed.] and it appeared in the film. Not only is it in the film, but it was the first cabin that was built on that lake. That little factoid is advertised in this summer rental, and to my mind that’s kind of ridiculous and serendipitous. Instead of saying it has two bedrooms and a gorgeous view, it comes with this bit of film history! It was in this guy’s family for generations and that fit in perfectly with the concept that I had in mind for this kind of cabin.
What I knew I had on my hands here was a real film buff and a guy who had pride in that. So I went out to see the cabin when we were scouting and from the picture we got I was afraid it was going to be too small for our needs, and when we got there I couldn’t believe it. There it was and everything seemed to sharpen into focus in my mind once we landed on the place.
It’s a combination of finding the right place and being very clear on the type of look you have. But I have to recognize the work of our cinematographer Catherine Lutes. She did an amazing job, and to my mind there’s a bit too much talk about what camera to use and people seem to get impressed by the type of camera or the type of lens, and the truth is that it’s really in the operator behind that.
DS: A lot of what makes a film look so great comes from instinct…
JH: I love that you call it instinct, because I think it’s a combination of meticulous planning and then once that’s done just going in and just feeling it in the moment. Something can happen at any moment and you have to be there and feeling it and Catherine is just excellent at that second part.
DS: The design of the film certainly speaks to a sense of nostalgia for thing in the past, but the movie itself is headed by a main character who is really unsure about his nostalgia for being back there.
JH: 100%. That’s another great point, and really that nostalgia is something he has to contend with and reconcile for himself. In a way it’s kind of a haunted place for him. In act two he’s retracing the steps from an important trip that he took with his father, and for lack of understanding the complexities of how he got to where he is, he reduces the story in his mind to one of bad luck. Something happens that’s not a part of his personal script, then it has to be bad luck. If he can correct that bit of bad luck and go back, he feels like things will upend and sort themselves out. The movie in a lot of ways is about how untrue that is. He has to get to know these things himself.
DS: His journey really is an actual search for what’s been causing his bad luck. Jake is a character who has accepted what’s happened in his life, but he needs something to blame. He needs something more tangible than just accepting that sometimes life his hard. And yet, everyone around him in this film is suffering from some sort of massive denial about something or that something should be wrong or that something should be said. Jake isn’t really in denial about anything and he’s perfectly capable of understanding things, but he needs a reason. Was there a conscious decision to make all of these other characters wrapped up in a sense of denial?
JH: I think that the clues to who he is lie in his parental relationship, and that’s why his wires are generally scrambled. His mother and father have the strangest of pacts between them, where there’s this weird Honeymoon phase that they have, but at the same time there’s this dark edge. And you used the word correctly. It’s a denial.
I think Sheila McCarthy plays that brilliantly. Whatever it takes to keep the ship afloat. I think she has a lot of pride in the myth of the husband as this great writer. And I know Nick Campbell felt that through his reading of the character that one of his secrets was that she had a serious hand in the writing of these books. And that was for him to bring to the character, and true or not I think that’s a great and interesting insight. And Sheila does what great supporting actors do, which is that she’s always giving you a taste of something really interesting and keeps you unsure of what’s really going on inside of her. She’s just riveting to watch and you’re wondering how this woman continues this way. It gives a big clue as to why Jake is the way he is.
DS: In a way, both Sheila and Jake are involved in an emotionally abusive relationship with their father. He’s not violently abusive, but his ego and manipulation. And Sheila seems to know that Leif is capable of great things and that she does love and care about him, but she always gets drawn back into his life only because of Leif’s charm and not much else. At first she remembers everything great about him and several hours later she suddenly snaps back to reality and realizes what a terrible person he is.
JH: I think that’s VERY true. In this relationship that in order for that emotional abuse to have its way on both of them, it requires their consent in a way. And she feels like she can’t help herself and then she beats herself up for that same impulse. It makes the behaviour of that character hard to pin down, and it makes Jake more sympathetic because of that and getting caught in the middle of it.
I would suggest that she also holds a key piece of information that the audience doesn’t know, and she has to almost look back on and evaluate Rita’s behaviour once the audience knows the whole story.