It has only been a year since the last time I spoke to Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta, but this time it’s about a completely different film than the one he debuted at TIFF last year, the India set family drama Siddharth (which should see release sometime later this year). The film we’re talking about in a downtown boardroom this week is a western set sci-fi drama titled I’ll Follow You Down (which opens tomorrow).
Actually, there are some similarities aside from the films being shot back to back and being ushered through post-production at roughly the same time. Both films deal with a sense of loss and longing that’s made greater by the disappearance of a family member. In I’ll Follow You Down, Haley Joel Osment stars as Erol, a twentysomething university student who learns from his grandfather (Victor Garber) that the dad he thought abandoned him as a kid (Rufus Swell) had actually invented time travel and was somehow killed in the past. Erol, his chronically depressed mother (Gillian Anderson), and his current long term girlfriend (Susana Fournier) have all been living in a sort of negative timeline that shouldn’t exist. Torn between his need for closure, his own curiosity, and the potential that his current life isn’t all that bad, Erol wrestles with the idea of following his father’s footsteps and bringing him back to the present.
Instead of using time travel to write his way out of situations, Mehta uses the ethical and familial problems take centre stage without skimping on the genre movie twists that he tries so hard to keep secret while talking about the film. We chatted with Mehta about how his films can be compared, his admiration for Steven Spielberg, creating strong female characters, and his love of sci-fi films.
Dork Shelf: I know this isn’t really too much of a change of pace from what you’re normally known for because you already made one short that had a bit of a sci-fi element to it, so what is it about science fiction that makes it a genre you want to come back to and use it as a backdrop here for a human drama?
Richie Mehta: Well, I started with sci-fi, not even just the shorts I did, but also in terms of consumption. It’s my favourite genre. I would watch it all the time and it’s really the reason I probably got into movies in the first place. I studied it like crazy. It was kind of always where I wanted to go: towards sci-fi and fantasy.
The India stuff kind of sideswiped me, and I thought that was really interesting, too. I realized while I was constructing the projects in India that I was seeing even those as if they were science fiction films. People over there would watch them over there, but they were primarily for consumption here. The beginning of both Amal and Siddharth, you look at what’s happening and it feels like they’re films that take place on a different planet. The air is different. The light is different. The activities of these people are different. Then over the course of the film you’ll acclimatize to that environment and find an emotional way in, and at some point you realize “Shit. This is my world,” and then you find that relationship to it. That was the point of both of those projects.
With I’ll Follow You Down, I had started writing it in 2000 before I had ever made anything. It was a holdover from my youth in a way. But I approach everything in the same way. It’s all about world building. Even in this film, there’s something really disorienting about it. I know I’m in a Western environment, in this case Toronto, but what I’m seeing is a little bit different. For me in whatever I’m doing it’s always important to create an environment first.
DS: I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of most time travel films because I think it can be shorthand for lesser writers to write their way out of big situations while creating more problems for themselves. Here, you spend most of the film talking about the ethics of time travel rather than the specific workings of time travel, and everyone is weighing the consequences of their actions long before they follow through on them. What made you want to use time travel as a story device and in turn talk about what it actually means to go back in time?
RM: Well, it started very pragmatically. I had this premise for a film, this idea of someone not coming back from a business trip. It was actually an experience I had at an airport. Someone just wasn’t coming back and my mind started racing. I did some research and I realized that it actually happens quite often. It happens roughly 6,000 times a year. I started outlining it and sketching it out, and then when I started really thinking about it I saw the ending of this film exactly the way it was. I don’t want to give it away, but it really started with this premise and the ending. Someone disappears at the beginning and then at the end this big thing happens, so then it became a question of asking myself “How does that make any sense?” It’s completely nonsensical without the time travel, but to me for the story that was being built it just seemed right. The only kind of narrative that I could construct for any of this to make sense was time travel, unless I went either to reincarnation or a really deep metaphysical place that might not have worked from a genre standpoint.
But the theme that I really wanted to talk about was consequences, and the idea that you’ll pay for the consequences of your actions. You won’t be judged for them per say, but to have you become aware that consequences are there. I thought that if I was going to do that, whatever plotting we had would have to revolve around that idea. So if we introduced time travel, (A) I wanted to do it in a way that takes into account that I know the audience has seen a million of these movies and (B) I wanted it to be about the consequences of making that choice to go back in time. Even from a geeky sci-fi standpoint, the film exists in what I like to call even in the film as this negative space of time travel.
You talk about Marty McFly in something like Back to the Future and he has that photograph of his family that keeps disappearing. This movie takes place in the world where that family would have already disappeared and what would have happened to them, not with someone time travelling. We’re dealing with the people who actually already vanished from someone’s life and not the other way around, and to me that was a really interesting idea. We’re living in the after effects of someone else’s choice.
And that’s especially true with parents. You live those choices in great detail and the ripple effects from those choices are huge, and you never realize it at first. I looked at my birth certificate recently, the long form version of it, and my name was written and then scratched out, but then my real name now was written in there. I was, like, “Wait a sec, was that a last minute thing because that permanently changed who I was then and what I think of myself now.” Life is full of all of these little meaningful choices, so I knew if I was going to focus on time travel that I was going to focus on that aspect of it.
DS: The fact that the family is in this negative space that you speak of really brings to the forefront this theme of absence. One member of a family removed can throw everything out of alignment, and in a way you almost don’t need the time travel aspect of it.
RM: Yeah! Sure! Absolutely.
DS: It’s especially fascinating because in this film and in Siddharth that concept of absence is explored through a child that has gone missing in this almost equally negative space. Is that a concept that as a storyteller that you find yourself drawn to: what happens when a loved one has just disappeared or gone missing without explanation?
RM: (laughs) It’s not something that actually something that fascinated me until someone pointed it out! We recorded the scores for both I’ll Follow You Down and Siddharth back to back in London. One of the orchestra members after we did the second one – which was I’ll Follow You Down – came up to me, and they hadn’t seen the film because they were just recording the music, but they said to me, “I don’t know what these films are about, but aside from the fact that we have never done two films from the same director at the same time (laughs), I think yesterday’s film was about a father looking for his missing son and today’s was about a son looking for his missing father.” And then I just said, “Oh my God! You’re totally right! That’s so messed up!” (laughs) I honestly didn’t even have it occur to me at first, but it’s absolutely true.
You don’t really construct films that way, and I had started this one in 2000 and Siddharth was based on something that just happened to me and that I had heard about. But it’s obviously an interesting device for a drama. The idea of searching is something that has always compelled me ever since I first got attracted to movies. One of my favourite movies while I was growing up, like so many of us, was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of the most fascinating things about that film is that Indiana Jones must not get what he’s going after until the very end because after that point nothing matters. That was the film that made me appreciate the power of searching for something. After someone finds something in a film, we aren’t invested in it anymore. In Raiders what he ended up going for was what he never set out to really get, and by the end he was okay with that.
When you talk about the hero’s journey and that sort of clichéd kind of thing, I think that’s still a really important thing for all of us to internalize. What is it that we’re going after and why? With Siddharth, the reason I named it that way was because that word in Sanskrit in one of its forms means “search for absolute truth.” In that film a man winds his way through this world and creates an understanding of it that he didn’t have before. In this situation in I’ll Follow You Down, everyone at every stage is highly educated and they can’t help but always opening question what it is they are going after and how they are going about achieving that. Even the characters, like Gillian’s who are in the most dire of places, find themselves considering their situations carefully. Everyone asks why and those are the questions I think we need to constantly ask.
DS: Over your films so far, another parallel that has emerged is that you write very strong and independent female characters who are capable of making their own decisions and making their voices heard, but they are forced to live with the consequences of a loved one’s actions.
RM: Yeah, and that was kind of an intentional choice and not something that really happens on accident. I mean, I could technically be accused of making these really interesting three dimensional female characters and just leaving them in the wake of these men’s choices. I hate to say this in the case of these characters, but for me it is true that raising a child alone is an impossible feat. I’ve seen people do it and there’s a general understanding that if you know someone in that situation you have no idea how it is they can ever do it. We all say that, but in this case I think that’s what’s behind this. We can do whatever we want and make all these choices, but there will come a point once a child is involved where a single parent will put their foot down and you can’t lean on them. It will force the men in their lives to actually step up and do something productive and be accountable for what they have done.
At the risk of generalizing, men have a real knack for backtracking and never committing to anything in any aspect of their life because I think men more than women never think of consequence. Then when it comes to falling in love with someone or having a kid and deciding to do something major together and you take steps to do that, you can’t just say you’re going to drop everything and go save the world. Even if it’s the noblest of pursuits. In this film, both the father and son are acting under the impression that what they’re doing is noble, and arguably in some ways they are.
And the whole thing is that there are some things in life that all the nobility in the world could never fix, you know? The resolution of this film is something that I still don’t know, without giving anything away, if it’s a positive or a negative ending. I really don’t know, and I like to think it’s somewhere in-between, but to me that’s what’s enticing about it. There’s so much work to be done, still. With Victor Garber’s character who keeps saying that we have to go back and correct this situation, he’s very sensible about it because he keeps saying, “All we need to have is have your father be honest with your mother.” That’s literally all that has to be done and all that had to be done to have avoided this whole thing in the first place, and I think that honesty is a very simple thing that we can take for granted. To me letting that mistake play out within a family that clearly loves each other and has no inner turmoil or malice is a fascinating and sadly common occurrence. It’s that same ripple effect we were talking about before. All these characters ever want is an honesty that they’re never getting.
DS: In terms of the film’s look and casting this really does have the feel of something that was definitely inspired by Spielberg and Zemeckis like you were talking about before, so what is it about those films that you grew up with that inspired you to apply a similar approach here?
RM: I think when you talk about those movies, the very fact that we still talk about them speaks volumes. I don’t know if there are a lot of movies that we see on a Friday night anymore that we’ll be talking about in 20 years outside of individual moments. Most films are the kinds of films where if you see them on TV, you’ll kind of put them on and kind of remember them. These kinds of films that I found inspiration in are the kind where you remember everything about them and how it felt when you saw them; the kinds of films where if they come on TV you’ll just end up watching the whole thing again because they’re so well written and so thoughtful.
I do think the look and the fell here follows in a way. Things are well rounded, but in the case of this film and a lot of the stuff I do, there’s a darkness that underlines everything, and the characters perceive that darkness. There’s always a pessimistic angle to them, and it’s funny because I’m really the furthest thing from a pessimist. I’m a hardcore optimist. But I try to create an environment around them that they aren’t really seeing. It’s about creating an environment around them that’s worth more to them once they see it, and that idea of creating that environment was something those kinds of filmmakers I loved growing up always did well and that became one of the main things I strived for.
If you’re going to do a film that deals with darkness, you need to give audiences a reason to stick around. You need to show them something beautiful, whether it’s visual or acoustic. I tried to always do both to give them a reason to stay in this world, and to trust us that we aren’t going to manipulate people just for the sake of trying to get a feeling out of them.