Canadian television veteran Sudz Sutherland has never shied away from putting in a lot of work and research into his productions, and his latest big screen outing Home Again certainly comes as no exception.
An exploration into the lives of three black adults in their early 20s (played by Tatyana Ali, Lyriq Bent, and Stephan James) that are deported from their respective countries to their birth country of Jamaica, Sutherland and co-writer/wife Jennifer Holness take a look at how the lives of the young can actually be ruined by flawed laws and a society that sees them as a criminal element. Filming on location in Trinidad and Tobago and a bit in Jamaica itself, Sutherland was always keen on authentically creating the deportee experience in painstaking detail, taking a lengthy amount of time interviewing people that were experiencing the same troubles.
We got in touch with Sutherland over the phone to talk about what realness and the concept of “home” means to him, the vast research that went into the film, some of his unexpected casting choices, and his thoughts on how the current hot button issue of Bill C-43 might only make things worse for deportees.
Dork Shelf: I know that you and Jennifer went down to Jamaica to talk to deportees about their own personal experiences. Where did the genesis of the film really come from and how did your trip inform how the film ultimately took shape?
Sudz Sutherland: I think all our films are made at the kitchen table. The jump off point is always a discussion. I remember we were reading the newspaper – and full disclosure, as I’m sure you know already, we’re married – and Jen saw that a friend of hers had been deported and subsequently murdered. She was, like, “Woah!” because this was someone she had grown up with. She had grown up with this guy, he had the same sort of history as her – his mom came up through the nanny program, so the mom brought him up when she was six. Jennifer came up when she was four. They went to school together and all that stuff, but he kind of fell in with the wrong crowd, one thing led to another, and he was deported in his early 20s. Fast forward a few years and he’s now been murdered.
So at that point we stopped and said “Okay, let’s have a look at this.” There was something not quite right about this. We did some research and went down and found out that this deportation order can also act as a death sentence. We wanted to investigate this. Our whole job again was to be asking more questions. We went down and asked questions, and of these men and women we began to build a portrait of their lives. We interviewed over 40 people to begin to put together a portrait of these composite characters; a portrait of the word deportee. We focused on three characters, two men and one woman, and then began to look at the whole issue through that prism.
DS: You’re shooting a little bit in Jamaica and a little bit in Trinidad. What’s it like to go down there to tell this story and not show the tourist ideal of a place like that, but to show it through the eyes of three people who are scared and kind of forced into living there?
SS: Again we strove to be authentic, and in terms of even things like how the way the characters spoke was the first hurdle I had to overcome. I wanted these people to speak with AUTHENTIC Jamaican accents. No sort of Cool Runnings type stuff. (laughs) It had to be real. I knew I would get roasted on the internet if there was anything less that authentic Jamaican dialect. So we went and got Jamacian actors like Paul Campbell, Kadeem Wilson, and Brian Brown to play these parts. Then we had to make a little school – because again a lot of this was filmed in Trinidad – for the actors from there who had to adopt a Jamaican accent. We called it Trinimaca. (laughs) These people worked really hard because a Trini accent is really sing-song. I don’t know if you’ve ever been down there, but it’s really different. It’s a different vibe, and we wanted to be true to that, so we trained them to speak in a Jamaican dialect.
We also had to teach our Canadian actors how to speak in a Jamaican dialect for those who had to have one like Fefe Dobson. Now she’s a musician and a perfectionist. Just and amazing songwriter and an amazing performer, but this is a new thing for her. She wanted to do it and she just blew me away in the audition and I said that we would still have to work on her accent. And she really put the time in, too. We had a dialect coach for her here in Toronto, one on set in Trinidad, and one in the ADR suite. Again, that’s something that’s incredibly difficult to adopt and it’s not something you can fake. You need a lot of preparation.
Another part of that was having the subtitles on screen in the body of the frame instead of centre-punched down below. Again, you don’t hear something that you heard before because these are parts of the characters and we wanted to imbue these subtitles with character.
DS: One of the things that I noticed about the last two things you worked on, this and The Phantoms (a made for TV movie about the last surviving member of a horrific bus accident involving a Newfoundland High School basketball team that made headlines a few years ago), is that you like to get as close to the bone as possible when it comes to dealing with these issues. How do you know in your heart when you have gotten something like this right?
SS: I think there’s a moment when you’re on set and you’re working with your actors and you’ve reached this thing, this feeling of good luck. I think you just kind of key into those energies, but I think also when you’re talking to the people who have lived the story and they say that you’ve got it right… Again, you’re in conversation with them, and when I was making Phantoms I was there with the mother of one of the boys who had passed and I asked her, since she was in the gym with us while we were shooting, “How can you be here?” I wasn’t questioning her motives, I just didn’t know how she could be there because I said it had to be hard for her. She said it was, but she said she was going through a process. There were a few months she said she couldn’t get out of bed. This was a couple of years later, and she goes, “I have two other children and I have to be here for them, and I know my son would not want me to NOT be there for them.” She said, “I read the script. You’re doing it right and you’re doing it great.” She emailed me after she saw it and she said she loved the film, but we’re always trying to get it right, and we want to do right by this story as well.
We want to call attention to this in this way because a lot of people take citizenship for granted. This is a free country with one of the highest immigrant accepting rates in the world, and we can’t take Canada for granted. What we’re trying to say here is that if you don’t have your citizenship, to get it, because you’ve got rights and responsibilities. Be a part of the political process. Be a part of it all. If you want to protest something, protest it. If you want to support something in the government and what they’re doing, support it! But more than anything else, be a part of things. Because Canada is only as good as we make it. That’s another thing we’re trying to do. We’re trying to engender a debate about being Canadian, and what we all have to do and what our rights and responsibilities are. All these things show that we’re trying to do right by these things and we’re trying to participate in it all because I think it’s a participant democracy that we have. And people should feel like they own it. Because we do. We own it.
DS: You show how when these people go back to Jamaica that they’re seen almost like criminals almost from the second they get off the plane from wherever they’re coming from. I remember that when the film was just debuting at TIFF last year, Bill C-43 was just sort of generating a lot of interest and press. Do you think those two things go hand in hand, like just hearing about Bill C-43 will further perpetuate that kind of view that anyone with even a minor offence against them could be seen as being worse than they really are?
SS: Oh, hell yeah. I think that you’re going to see more of that. If you go down to Jamaica you’ll hear all these people saying that deportees are the cause of all crime. They’ll say outlandish things like that as if no crime had existed before deportation. But you’ll get that back, and I think that with Bill C-43 it overly criminalizes deportees. Now with the new legislation, which is at the Senate right now, it used to be a threshold of two years, where you would get deported if the sentence was in excess of two years. You would be deported, but there would be a process. You could get a stay, or there could be compassionate grounds, or whatever, blah blah blah. Each case was looked at individually. Now they want it to be six months, which could be common assault like a bar fight, DUI, bootlegging a movie from inside a movie theatre, and then you would be gone and there wouldn’t be a process. It would be automatic. So that’s the new world we would be living in.
DS: I wanted to talk to you a bit about the casting of Stephan James for the character of Everton in the film because he has probably the greatest fall of all the characters in the film, and the hardest role to play, but he’s also playing someone older than he actually is in real life and he’s playing a British person. What endeared you to him for that role?
SS: I’m going to be totally honest here and say that I was split down the middle. There was another guy, and Stephan, and it came down to the two of them and I was undecided. Then Jennifer just said (enthusiastically) “Stephan!” (laughs) I swear to God. I said I wanted to make sure I was going to make the right decision because this was the character who had the biggest arc here. We had it in front of our producer Don Carmody and all these people, and it was crazy because all the women said outright that Stephan was the only one. I remember Don’s wife said something along the lines of “I want to clutch him to my bosom.” (laughs) It was something crazy like that. But all the women really wanted Stephan, and all the guys we’re like, “Well, the other guy could do it, too!” I was shocked and I had never seen anything line up along gender lines like that before, and I consider myself a smart man, so I listened to my wife and we hired Stephan.
DS: I guess that also makes it harder for people to watch him hit a level as low as the one he hits in the movie if he just has that look and that way about him.
SS: And that was exactly our feeling, and that was what the thought was behind it. He just knocked it out of the park. This guy, he was 17 and a half when we were shooting this and he was doing this full character arc. He had been a day player and he had been on Degrassi and stuff like that, but he never got a full character like this who does a whole arc. The thing, though, is that he came and he was rolling in the dirt and getting dirty and he was wearing all these prosthetics as the movie went on that were pretty nasty and unpleasant. His teeth were really unpleasant. Horrible tasting! He had to put up with a lot of physical stress on the day. He wouldn’t shower and he’d be getting water out of a cold hose at the end of the day to get all the make-up off his face. This dude – and I don’t want to sell him like an athlete who, you know, (sounds gruff) “gave 110% – but, man, he really did.
DS: With the storyline for the Dunston character, played by Lyriq Bent, he’s playing someone that’s familiar with the Americanized crime world, but he finds himself thrust into a very different situation in the Jamaican crime world, especially if you’re familiar with someone like Dudus Coke who would be running entire blocks as his own ruler. What was it like creating that arc of an outsider coming into that world?
SS: Honestly, we talked to the Dons, and through doing so we were kind of disillusioned by the ideas of what a Don would be. You know, someone like Dudus is only about 38 or somewhere around there, right? I have a cousin that went to school with him; to university. Dudus only went to school there for one year (laughs), but the thing is that these guys are SO young. They come up very, very quickly, and they’re ruthless. So in terms of how they look at Americans coming in they very quickly ascertain if they think you’re bad and they think you’re going to try to take this place over. If they do, they’ll eliminate you. So at the opening of the act where Dunston sits down for that meal and he has to get permission to stay with his own relative is something that you HAVE to do. Those permissions have to be granted. You can roll in down there and just think that you’re the man because you’re from Miami or New York or whatever. That does not happen. It’s starting over again.
DS: You have a TED talk coming up shortly out in Waterloo on March 27th about the concept and reality of what the term “home” really means. How excited are you for that especially with the release of the film coming up?
SS: Big time! And you asked earlier how it affected me personally in terms of interviewing these deportees because only then do you really begin to understand what home means. Home means something completely different to people like you and I because we take it for granted; these familiar sidewalks, the streets, the coffee shop we go to, the little “Hello! How you doin’?” interplay. That’s home. You go and you rest your head on the pillow. You’re with your family. That’s home. If those things are taken away from you and you’re removed from your context, that’s when you really have to figure out who you are.