It’s an interesting time in the career of Canadian writer and director Sean Garrity. It’s not often that a filmmaker will have two movies competing for his attention at the same time, but at a coffee shop in Toronto’s Wychwood neighbourhood, he seems positively energized by the prospect.
Not only will his TIFF Canada’s Top Ten included comedy My Awkward Sexual Adventure be popping up in theatres later this year, but this weekend marks the Toronto arrival of another of his films, albeit dealing with some decidedly darker and heavier subject matter.
With his latest release Blood Pressure, Garrity tells the story of a bored suburban housewife (played by Michelle Giroux) who becomes intrigued by a mysterious letter writer that takes an active interest in her life despite constantly remaining anonymous and in the shadows. When the letters start asking her to become a bit more of a voyeur, it adversely affects her already shaky marriage (to husband Judah Katz) and her two teenage children (played by hot young talents Tatiana Maslany and Jake Epstein).
The Winnipeg born and current Toronto resident Garrity sat down with Dork Shelf over a cup of coffee about his competing projects, suburban malaise, collaborating with actors, his working relationship with writer and actor Jonas Chernick (who stars in and wrote My Awkward Sexual Adventure and has a supporting role here), and what draws him to films about fledgling relationships.
Dork Shelf: This must be an interesting time in your career, but also kind of strange, having two films out at the same time, especially with My Awkward Sexual Adventure being a lot lighter than the darker movie that Blood Pressure is.
Sean Garrity: (laughs) Yeah, it is! I’m sure it will be the only time in my life when I have two films coming out really within a month or so of each other.
DS: Which one came first?
SG: It was all mixed up. Jonas had started working on the comedy years ago, and then in 2004 or 5, we started working together on it, and we had been bandying it back and forth. In fact, one of the things that got me into the kind of stripped down filmmaking that Blood Pressure represents is the fact that we thought that (Jonas’) film was going to be our next one. Then it just became a process or rewrites and rewrites, and you get to a point as a filmmaker where you’re wondering if you’re a filmmaker or a rewriter. I didn’t see myself making a film here.
So through the frustration of working on My Awkward Sexual Adventure, I made a film called Zooey and Adam, which was my third film, and Blood Pressure kind of grew out of the approach that that film took.
DS: In a way, My Awkward Sexual Adventure is kind of the odd man out in your filmography, but it’s still dealing with some similar subject matter. You generally have a tendency towards darker stories, so that one was a bit of a surprise to me coming from you. And Blood Pressure is even more scaled back, and in some ways it might even be a little bleaker…
SG: You think so?
DS: Yeah, but a lot of that bleakness comes from the very setting of Blood Pressure: This sterilized suburban locality with rows of tract housing that comes from a kit rather than any sort of actual design. It makes it easier to see how the people in this film would want to escape from their daily lives.
SG: Oh, totally! That was something that I was really interested in, but it wasn’t necessarily part of the script. It was the location when we got up there and we saw it and thought “How could we NOT play with this place?”
DS: And there are neighbourhoods like that throughout Canada, especially in the suburbs and outskirts of Toronto. I used to live in that kind of area of the city and it was pretty bleak and bland to be around.
SG: And all over North America, too. I think a lot of people could find that with that neighbourhood. It’s interesting because we were looking for a location where this family would live, and my co-producer – because as you know I’m not from Toronto – said “Well, if they have that kind of an income, let’s go to Leslieville!” That seemed like a smart investment. (laughs) We go Leslieville and if you’re from Toronto you would think “Woah, that’s a million dollar house,” but anywhere else on the planet or in the suburbs on Earth would say “Really, they live in that tiny side-by-side? With all that money? What’s wrong with them?” And the interiors were shot in Richmond Hill…
DS: I actually was going to guess it was shot somewhere around there because that’s exactly the kind of interior one of those houses would have, and it’s like so many houses that I have been in around that kind of area.
SG: And yet, it’s so interesting that that style of house and suburb and the design of it back when they were trying to create these kinds of places was made to be something that would answer all of our living needs. It’s designed to be lovely and make us feel kind of liberated, but it just has the opposite effect.
DS: There’s something nice that you do with that setting, though, which is that you’re able to reflect all of the shadows that sort of heighten the tension of this central failing marriage, and again latter when the words of the letters being received begin to colour the world around the main character. It’s something that’s filling a blank space that your main character wants filled.
SG: Thanks for catching that! You’re so perceptive. Usually in an interview I have to bring that stuff up and explain it, but you got it all. (laughs)
DS: I like to try to beat people to the punch on those things. (laughs) What is it for you that makes you want to keep coming back to telling these stories of relationships in trouble that you think makes for interesting films?
SG: It’s kind of a thing that’s real for me, and most of us, I think. You look at films that deal with guns, and drug dealers, and car chases, or cops, or whatever else, and it’s fun to watch those and live vicariously through the high octane adventure of that stuff, but there’s a level at which I just can’t personally relate to it. I don’t really know any cops, and I’ve never been a drug dealer, and I don’t drive over the speed limit because I’m a terrible driver. Plenty of people write those movies, but I’m always trying to go for stuff that feels really authentic, and I’m just trying to go for stuff like that. Something that’s got something I can dig my teeth into it a bit more. Especially with something like this movie where I’m collaborating a bit more with the actors. We mined the scenes so much rather than just playing the roles. There’s a lot of improv involved and a lot of stretching of the material and taking it into different directions. I feel like that kind of approach really lends itself well to relationship conflict, and it’s something I’ve always been really comfortable with.
DS: Speaking of the collaborative aspect of it, you have five major roles all taken up by kind of an indie-Canadian dream team of actors to create this family and the outsider that kind of circles them all, but what was it like creating that dysfunctional dynamic with this kind of a cast? It seems like an interesting interplay because within the family everyone has their own specific problems when it comes to relating to Nicole, the mother.
SG: My approach was to not share scenes with actors that didn’t involve them. So, you know, Tatiana – who’s now off in LA and I won’t see her for a while, I’m sure – but I wrote to her that there were people who wanted to do some interviews with her about this movie and I asked if she was available and I asked if she would be able to come out to the show and she said, “Yeah, I would love to talk about the work alongside you, but I don’t actually know what the movie’s about. I can’t wait to see it and find out!” (laughs) Because we talked about her and her mom and that arc, and we created all of this stuff outside of the movie so they could sit in a place that was kind of believable and true, but there was no real need to know what anyone else was really up to.
DS: That’s a really interesting way to create a portrait of a family that’s already fractured to a point where they only know a little bit of what’s going on in each other’s lives anyway. They never really come together as a family at all, really.
SG: They’re only interested in their own trajectory. We dealt with how the kids have the own relationship that we built, and each of them kind of have this bizarre relationship with the father that plays out really over not a lot of screen time, but I think these actors brought out a lot for that. It was really about crafting that central relationship with Michelle that took up most of our time.
DS: And playing into that same sort of malaise, the father and the mother have some of the most archetypal suburban jobs possible, and it adds a layer of reality to see characters. I have seen that kind of father before that just sort of stays in the background and is really enthusiastic when you go up to him, but is immediately off in another world only moments later.
SG: It’s funny because we developed and entire arc with him originally and around his job. He’s an actuary for an insurance company, so we found an actuary in Toronto that took Judah to work and showed him what that was all about, and we really researched it so he could just be into that thing, but I don’t think anyone who sees the movie would really be able to say what he did for a living if they were asked. (laughs) It doesn’t ever really play, in a way. We looked to try and motivate him to be that kind of a guy. And because Judah – jumping off and kind of back to your previous question – only saw the scenes that were him and Michelle. He didn’t know where the whole thing was going and he didn’t know about her other life. Until he saw the first cut he was convinced that he was the hero of that movie. That he was the lead and he was the second hero and that it was just a story about a couple that was just going to reconcile.
He brought these different layers to it, because if you watch the movie he kind of could come across as a bad guy in the scenes he’s in, but he doesn’t ever realize he’s playing a bad guy. He’s playing a father who’s trying to get his wife back and he sees his life is kind of drifting away. He brings those layers to the story just by thinking he’s a good guy. He doesn’t have the information that he needs as a character and just enough that he needs as an actor.
I had actually researched the professions of the parents in the film from most to least rewarding, and I gave him the most rewarding to every extent, which was an actuary at a life insurance company, and I gave Michelle’s character that of a pharmacist, which by most polls is one of the least rewarding professions. It was on purpose, so his character could always be off doing his own thing because it was an awesome job and he loves it.
DS: This film deals with a kind of boundary pushing issue in terms of dealing with this elicit sort of romantic dance at the centre of it, but many of your films push such boundaries, but you also make them really accessible to audiences that might not watch these kinds of films. How hard is that balance with this kind of material? I can imagine its one of the things that leads to you wanting to rewrite a lot.
SG: (laughs) Yeah, and we also test and test and test during the editing process. And I don’t test films in the way that a Hollywood studio tests, which would be if someone doesn’t like something then we’d better change it. I test in terms of knowing how I want it to play and be understood. In this film I know exactly when I want people to figure out just what’s going on. I test and test just to make sure it’s playing in the way I want it to play, but we do it a lot. If a scene is supposed to make someone angry and it does, that’s great! Sometimes people would say they were frustrated because they couldn’t guess what was happening, and that would be excellent because that’s exactly what I was going for at times. I would thank them for that.
It’s something I definitely focused on, especially coming from Winnipeg. We do a lot of amazing experimental work in Canada, so given my background, I’m not sure what else I have to add to that conversation, especially in Winnipeg where it’s such a rich conversation. I think growing up as a filmmaker there it was kind of a sense of: “Here’s another unexplored territory that could be made into an accessible movie.”
DS: The pacing of the film is really interesting and neat to talk about, because it is this character piece, but it gets started really quickly with you leading off with her getting her first letter and reading it instead of introducing us to their lives first. It sets the tone for a film about enticement rather than one that’s about paranoia. It would be really tempting to tell this story and start it in a way as a bit more of a paranoid thriller than the kind of mystery you ultimately set up. What’s the difference for you in making the subject matter here more mysterious?
SG: It comes from a place of what she wants and what we as an audience want for her. I was really struggling when we wrote it – well, I wouldn’t say struggling, but we were fighting with when we went into development of the script was this idea that I didn’t want it to be a dark, hopeless piece. There’s already so much isolation and stuff going on there that you want her to have something to hope for. I wanted it to be more of a seduction, and to me, the mystery plays more to that than something would be paranoid, which to me would be something a lot darker and hopeless, in a way.
It’s interesting that you bring up how it starts in that way and gets going right away because we shot a whole bunch of other stuff. Some of it was just for us, just to get a sense of these characters and get them on their feet, but there was also a lot of stuff where I just introduced her life. In all, the first cut of this movie was actually over four hours long. (laughs) At the beginning she originally had a near death experience that would kind of force her to ask, as the moments do, what she had done with her life and how that was almost it. We were really pleased with what we had, and we used to start the film that way showing life before the letter came, and audiences in the test screening just found that it made them impatient and it kind of strayed a bit. Through that though, we found that we could just show her life anyway as she walked around with this card and letter at the ready to show how she was evaluating it.
We shot a lot of stuff, so to a big extent we kind of found a lot of it in the editing suite, but the original short story that this was based on ended at the moment when we discovered who was writing the letters. That was the end of the story, and I recognized that it was really great for a short story because you have this twist at the end that those kinds of things need to have, but if you were to adapt it for cinema, it would be lacking a third act. So the last third was added on, and of course the first two thirds were changed radically as we added that on. We kind of adjusted everything to make it where we wanted to go.
Even while we were shooting it, because we shot it chronologically – which was very exciting – and the stripped down approach it allowed us a lot more time to spend with the actors in front of the camera. On a normal large production, if you need to do a unit move and have every cross the street to another location, you have to shut down the production for two hours so they can pull that off. With us we could move across the street in a minute. That allowed me to figure out what I was going to do with all this newfound power! (laughs) And one of the things I decided I was going to do was to shoot chronologically to help the actors focus on their craft.
One of the interesting things that happened was that Jonas Chernick had severe concerns about where it was going and where his character was headed. The ending used to be quite a different ending, and in one of the scariest things I had ever done as a director, we were rewriting the ending as we were shooting the film. So at the end of week one, Jonas came to me about where it was going to go and why I was taking it there. We kind of sat down together to work it out and figure out where his motivations were and his backstory and where it was all going. We had it revealed to us, in fact, that it didn’t make sense for the character. It would have been exciting and thrilling, but it would have been a totally different movie the way it was originally written and not one that really made sense.
DS: Since Jonas wrote My Awkward Sexual Adventure and starred in it, did you pull that with him on that movie?
SG: (laughs) Well, we shot that one kind of out of order, so we didn’t have that luxury, but there was some stuff that we did suggest to each other, and we’re doing that all the time. We’re always talking and taking each other’s suggestions to heart, and I have this thing where when I’m dealing with an actor that I’ll never force them to play something that they don’t feel is properly motivated. I can try to do it with backstory or whatever else, or we will change it. Similarly, I don’t think Jonas would impose anything as a writer on a director that he knows they can’t get behind. We kind of hold this trump car against each other. Certainly, there’s a lot of stuff in My Awkward Sexual Adventure that he did not like as the writer that I kind of imposed as a director. (laughs) Like that haircut that he has. There were theatrics like CRAZY over that haircut, and I just said “Dude, you wrote the character! That’s what the guy would look like!” But that kind of qualifies our relationship, we value each other’s input on aesthetics almost sometimes to a fault.
But we’ve worked together on four out of five of my films. We’re very lucky like that. We grew out of the same Petri dish of South Winnipeg, and I met him when I was casting a short film and he came in and got the part. We had such a great time working together and we had such a great rapport and he has such a great energy. He was also very different from me. We seemed to match in all the right spots, though. If we were to make a list of our top ten favourite movies of all time or even the past year, there would probably wouldn’t be a single common film. We have very different tastes, but in a way that really works out in our favour when we work together. Jonas is always trying to pull things into the light and I’m always trying to pull things into the darkness and we always end up with a nice blend, I find.
After we did that short film together we enjoyed working with each other so much that we sat down and said we should do another one. I said what I wanted to work on and he was pretty gung ho on that, and I didn’t really know much of the acting community since I come from this kind of experimental film world, and he knew that world. It was those kinds of things that brought us together to make the first feature, Inertia. It’s essentially cast by Jonas. In terms of the leads, there’s only one lead that didn’t work out that we had to replace with someone I found myself, but it’s essentially all him making the calls to people and I just worked on everything else.
I wrote that one and Jonas was very active in the creative input, and when we went on to make Lucid, he wrote it and I was kind of suggesting stuff. That partnership works because we hold that trump card on each. I would ultimately be directing it and if I was dead opposed to something it wasn’t going in, but similarly as the writer and the actor he was the one who ultimately had to make it work or sell it to me to show me how it could work or make sense. And if he can’t make it work or get motivated by one of my ideas, it’s not getting in there, either.
There are things, and most notably in My Awkward Sexual Adventure, that he wrote and was I would say I couldn’t see it working and he would just tell me to wait until we got on set and he said he would sell it. And more often than not he really could and he could get me to see what he was going for, and sometimes after a take he would come up to me and say “Okay, I didn’t sell that. I know that. How do we get out of this one?” (laughs) Then we just sort of figure out a way around it.
It’s interesting with such interesting and different tastes that we have a real sense of when something is working and something is not. I don’t think we have ever had that disagreement on set where one of us says something is working and the other says its not. We both seem to think there’s more to be found there or we just move on. We never disrespect each other in any way. It’s all about a mutual feeling about the work. There are places where we’ll drag each other down a path of explaining things in detail and how it’s going to work so the other can see where it’s headed. I think that’s really useful. One of us will draw it up on paper and the other tries to shoot holes in it, and it goes back and forth.