For her first feature film, The Disappeared (opening in Toronto this Friday) Nova Scotia based director, novelist, poet, and screenwriter Shandi Mitchell had a grand ambition that fits in wonderfully with the current crop of aesthetically austere survival films that have seen release (even though her film technically debuted in Toronto back in March at the Canadian Film Festival, prior films like Gravity, All is Lost, and Captain Phillips arriving in the marketplace).
It’s an east coast story through and through, shot on gorgeous 16mm out on the open ocean. Six fisherman in two lifeboats (including veteran actors Billy Campbell, Shawn Doyle, and Brian Downey) look to survive in the wake of their ship sinking. Roughly 600 miles from home on the icy looking Atlantic and with minimal supplies and no way of signaling for help, the men have to band together and struggle to maintain hope.
It was a grand idea to undertake such a project for a debut feature, but one that Mitchell details quite extensively on her website, and the results are remarkable. Using a keen visual eye and an already established ear for emotion and drama, the award winning short filmmaker shot for 15 days in the realest conditions possible instead of working more easily on a set. The results are nothing short of stunning, as the film’s mise en scene perfectly complements the ever growing tension between the men in the boats as their ordeal drags on.
Mitchell talked to Dork Shelf about the differences between writing for publishing and film, why she made The Disappeared as her first feature, her connection to the ocean, shooting on 16mm, and the recent cultural fascination with mortality under extreme conditions.
Dork Shelf: You’ve moved between novel writing and various film work over the years. When you set out to make a film rather than a novel, what differs in the process if anything? Would you say that even when you just sit down and write you always have a visual idea of what the story should look like even if it’s not intended to come off the page?
Shandi Mitchell: I find the process and mediums to be very different. For me, film is behaviorial and external. I watch a character to understand them. As the director, I show the state of mind through a character’s actions and use the film palette to exemplify the internal. In fiction writing, I step inside the skin of the character and approach the work internally. But, I do see my fiction writing as vividly as I see a film in my head.
DS: What was it about the idea of The Disappeared that made it ideal material to make it your first feature?
SM: I don’t know if a film shot entirely at sea was an ideal first feature! But it was contained to one set and six characters. Helluva set, though. I was confident that I had the crew and experience to manage the technical aspects.
As the writer, I was intrigued by the sea as metaphor and using the story of six fishermen trying to find their way home, as a means to place the audience in the boats to experience the ‘terrible beauty’ and explore the broader idea that we are all in these boats.
DS: As an East Coaster it seems like everyone has a connection to the ocean and to fishermen, in general. What kind of personal connection did you have to the water and to the profession before making the film?
SM: I was raised on the Prairies and didn’t move to Nova Scotia until I was seventeen, which was the first time that I saw the sea. That immense beast both frightens and awes me. The first time I went out deep sea was on a 2nd Unit shoot at the tail end of a hurricane. Talk about confronting your fears. We went to the Emerald Banks, three hundred miles out, at night. In the morning I stepped on deck to a glass sea and infinite light. It felt holy out there. And in that moment, I knew that I was at its mercy and that my existence meant nothing in its expanse. Oddly, that realization calmed me.
I do have a personal connection. My maternal great-grandfather was a Newfoundland Sea Captain who was awarded the medal of bravery for a rescue at sea. Fortunately, I must have some of his blood, as I have not yet encountered seasickness. Some local captains say prairie people make good sailors because they understand the sky and the horizon, and aren’t cowed by its immensity and their finiteness. I like to say I’m an east coast, prairie girl who likes big skies.
In the writing and making of the film, I discovered the deep personal connections of my cast, crew and those who make their living at sea and was humbled by their stories. In France, coastal towns are referred to as Villages of the Sea. That ‘of’ I think is an accurate and poetic idea of our relationship with the ocean. One of the unexpected gifts of shooting this film was that I fell in love with the sea. Though, I still fear and respect her.
DS: You say that initially the idea was (pardon the pun) floated that the whole film should have been shot in a studio or in a tank, but you were able to shoot the film in 15 days on the water. Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t be able to achieve the degree of realism you wanted to display?
SM: For me, the only option for this script and its theme was to shoot at sea. I don’t know how else I could have remained authentic to the work; nor achieved the naturalistic performances. Once at sea, I knew that we would be immersed (haha) in realism. The questions were: could we capture it on film, would the gear hold up, could we be safe, would the weather co-operate, and could we maintain an intimacy of performance in such an uncontrollable environment? I worked hard to research the details and spoke to many who make their living on the sea. My greatest worry was ‘getting it right’ for those who have been out there.
DS: What was the first or most important thing you learned that was a valuable lesson about directing a film on water?
SM: Surrender and be open to see what is being given. However, my DOP, Christopher Porter, and I planned extensively in the months leading up to the shoot. We had fully shot-listed, developed the aesthetic and technical approaches, and compiled multiple options as to how to respond to the unknown. It’s why we could adapt.
But we always knew that on Day 1, we had to be open, efficient and somehow still manage to hold onto the vision—no matter what surprises were ahead. Even when we had to adjust for weather or time, we always had our intent to refer to when making decisions. And we were lucky, the sea gave us great beauty even as it demanded that we hear its rhythm.
DS: You had an excellent crew of talented technicians who were used to filming on the water, but what kind of convincing did it take to make sure the cast felt safe on this ambitious project with a first time director?
SM: Both cast and crew had to know that we had an exceptional marine co-ordinator and crew and that safety was of the utmost importance. We had the best marine team led by Capt. Bill Flower out of Lunenburg who knew those waters and had vast shooting and working knowledge of the sea.
And foremost, the entire creative team (cast and crew) had to trust me and my DOP and believe that we had a plan, knew what we were doing, and would bring them back safe. I had to earn their respect, plain and simple.
As a shooting team (both cast and crew) felt that we also had to earn the marine team’s respect. We had to honour those who lived it. We couldn’t complain under any weather conditions. We never forgot that we were only making a film, and we could return to shore at night.
My creative team shared an extraordinary experience out there. It was one of the great adventures of my life. On our last day coming in, there were many glistening eyes. But I have to admit, there were many who thought we were mad and many others who thought it couldn’t be done. I suppose in the end, we all swallowed our fear and trusted that the sea wanted the story to be told.
DS: You’re likely going to be one of the last Canadian projects to shoot initially on 16mm film to see a theatrical release. What was it about the format that appealed to you and the storytelling?
So many reasons.
Technically, we trusted the film cameras to keep on working in severe weather conditions: heat, humidity, salt, cold, and 112 mm of rain one night! We couldn’t come back in to replace gear or take the risk of cameras going down.
Aesthetically, it was the medium that could capture the depth, colour, light and movement of our seventh character—the sea. We tested four digital cameras and they couldn’t handle the ocean’s movement. Digital created a plasticity and separation of the men from the environment.
Thematically, this film echoes to the past and loss, we wanted the story to feel timeless. I wanted the grain of film, as well as the depth and tonal impression of film. Also we were a veteran crew and film was the first language we learned to speak. We were creating an ode to other times and other forms of cinematic storytelling. Perhaps, it was my way to honour and say goodbye to film.
Stylistically: Not having access to big budget equipment, we shot it old school, using bungee cord and human steadicams. We built a 16x 25 foot camera raft. We used zodiacs as dollies. Every choice was elemental and organic. I wanted to strip away everything, as the story does. This approach applied to the shooting style, performances, edit, score—and it applied to the choice of no water tank, no rain towers, no digital effects, no slow mo—the ocean seemed to cast off artificial manipulation. Shooting on film seemed to speak to this sensibility.
Personal: For me it is the most beautiful palette. It is light.
DS: You’ve had the film completed and have screened it for quite a while now, but it seems like this year there’s a wealth of survival stories where men and women are placed in opposition to disaster and changes in nature that are unforeseeable and are forced to adapt. Why do you think these films and stories seem to be resonating with audiences so much these days?
SM: It is an interesting zeitgeist this year. We seem more willing to look at our mortality and humanity and ask what it means to be alive. Perhaps, it is our primal fear and knowledge that in the face of cataclysmic natural disasters and the portent of changes that seem out of our control (climate, politics, violence, disaster, inhumanity) that we are asking ourselves who will be when we are confronted? What choices will we make? And how do we save ourselves?