Stay, coming out this weekend, tells the story of Abbey (Taylor Schilling), a Canadian woman who went off to Ireland to study and ended up falling in love with a professor, Dermot (Aidan Quinn). Now she lives with Dermot in a small Irish village. At the start of the film, Abbey learns she’s pregnant. When she reveals the news to Dermot, the two get into a spat and Abby takes off back to Montreal to figure out her next steps and wrestle with the very idea of becoming a parent. The film follows both characters on their separate journeys as they each do some serious soul-searching.
The film is written and directed by Wiebke von Carolsfeld, a German-born filmmaker who came to Canada and has since worked as an editor on several Canadian films. She began directing short films in 1998 and made her feature debut in 2002 with the film Marion Bridge, which won Best Canadian First Feature Film at TIFF.
Wiebke von Carolsfeld adapted Stay from a novel of the same name by Canadian author Aislinn Hunter. The film is small, but its characters are beautifully sketched, giving the impression of a world that exists well beyond the frame. And while the drama at the heart of the film is heavy, von Carolsfeld leavens the film with comedy and great heart, letting the small moments breathe and the emotions hit in subtle but powerful ways.
I got to see Stay when it premiered last year at TIFF, and at the time I sat down with Wiebke to talk about the film, the process of adapting a novel, nailing down two parallel stories across an ocean, getting the right look and casting the perfect charming older man.
Dork Shelf: So I wanted to ask you first of all, how did you find the novel? How did you decide to turn it into a movie?
Wiebke von Carolsfeld: Well actually it’s the novel that found me. It was the producer who saw my previous film, Marion Bridge, which is set in a small town in Nova Scotia, and I’m not a small town girl and I’m not from Nova Scotia, so he was like “this I gotta see.” So he went to see the film and he really liked, and he had bought the option for this book, which had just been released. So he asked me if I was interested in adapting it, and I read it and I thought, “sure.” No, he had asked me if I wanted to directed it, and I read it, and I said “sure, except I also want to write the adaptation.” Because I knew it would have to be a very loose adaption. The reason being, while I really liked the characters and they’re pretty much the way they are in the book, and I really liked the setting, Connemara, on one hand and then Canada on the other, there wasn’t much plot. So I knew there was going to be a lot of work in the adaptation.
DS: So in the process of adapting you added more plot elements?
WvC: Yes, like for example, there’s no pregnancy in the book.
DS: Wow. Okay. So that’s whole inciting incident. Everything that gets it going.
WvC: That’s right. So that’s what I’m saying. In the book she just goes back. I think because of her dad, which didn’t seem strong enough for a film.
DS: In that plot, you’ve got two characters on two sides of the Atlantic, and the film balances between the two. How did you find that balance between the two plots?
WvC: Well did I find it?
DS: I thought you did.
WvC: Great. I’m an editor by training and I’ve done a lot of editing, so trying to figure out how to keep two connected without them being not he same continent I thought was kind of an interesting challenge. And there are a few filmmaking tricks that I obviously employed. I always cut from him to her or her to him, so they often connect.
DS: It often feels like they’re looking at each other.
WvC: That’s it. We have several times, where there’s this shot where she lies down in bed, and then it cuts to him lying down in bed, and I made sure it’s the same lens and the same frame so you feel like they’re together. They do similar things, like she drinks out of the can, the maple syrup, and then he eats something out of a can. There are little hints all throughout. She says stuff and he repeats and vice versa. There’s things throughout that keep them connected and keeps the audience feeling that they are connected, and I think it works in the end.
DS: And so that was generally through the direction.
WvC: The writing and the directing, because already in the writing stage—and I didn’t have that right from the beginning, but I did figure out at one point that the single biggest thing was that it always cuts from him to her or from her to him. They’re never not connected.
DS: The other thing the movie has going is there’s kind of an air of mystery constantly surrounding the characters. What’s motivating them? Or the opposite of motivating them, what’s keeping them stagnant. Was that in the writing as well?
WvC: Well, for me, seeing that I don’t make movies with big explosions, there kind of have to be mysteries, so I look at every story as a mystery. And I also think lies are fantastically interesting story plots, like we know right away that she’s pregnant, but Dermot doesn’t know. We’re on to it, but he isn’t. And I think that engages the audience in a way.
DS: What I liked in this movie in particular is that these are characters that live outside of the movie. They feel very real. But that kind of extends to all the characters in the movie. How do you approach that? There’s the boy Sean, and there’s Deirdre. There are all these other characters, so how did you approach that in creating an inner life for them?
WvC: To me it was always not just about Dermot and Abbey. To me it was always about a group of people looking for a home, looking for a place to stay. So it was always important that it’s not just the two of them. And there was much pressure basically to cut out everybody except Abbey and Dermot, but Sean and Deirdre in particular, and to a lesser extend Michael the old friend, these to me were always fully fledged characters going through similar things as the main characters, because they are also all looking for a place to stay. Michael is English, I don’t know if you hear the difference in the accents, but he’s an outsider. They are all kind of outsider in their own way. But in terms of making them full fledged characters, to me it’s a character driven film, so these characters have to full fledged, three-dimensional. I think that giving them some mystery, giving them some secrets, making them lie, all these things help on a very practical storytelling level. I find it’s often good to come into the scene later and get out earlier and you will create some mystery.
DS: Related to that, you’re talking about characters trying to find themselves, but in a way the characters are also often isolating themselves. It’s weird when you have a film with so many characters and all of them sort of want to be alone.
WvC: I think you got the film! I thought it was compelling. I love these different characters. All these different characters are from the book, but they’re also extensions of myself, and each of them has things from myself. I mean, I also feel they reflect upon each other. Abby’s character goes away and is struggling with the idea of whether she should become a mother or not, and then there’s Deirdre who has just become a mother and is clearly struggling with that idea, so without having to saying anything in the day, just by juxtaposing those images, we understand much more clearly what Abby’s character is thinking about even if she’s not saying it. And I find that a filmically interesting concept.
DS: How did you go about creating the visual language? The way the shots look, there’s kind of a naturalistic feel, but it also feels different when you’re in Ireland and when you’re in Montreal.
WvC: Well, I worked with an amazing DoP, Ronald Plante, who did Monsieur Lazhar, and he’s fantastic. I also had a very clear colour palette. I’m very bossy about my frame, what can be in the frame and what cannot be in the frame. And there was an amazing production designer in Ireland, John Hand, who—perfect name for a production design—who is fantastic and really helped me create this lived-in feeling.
There’s an article in The Globe and Mail where the author of the book (Aislinn Hunter) came to visit the set, she had nothing to do with the making of the film, and she walked into the set and she was like, “oh my god, this is like my imagination has become real.” So it was a lot of work to make something real that comes from the imagination, but it’s very controlled. It looks uncontrolled, but it’s actually extremely controlled. For example, there’s a bookshelf with all the books in it, and the guy had delivered a whack of books, but not all books look the same, and I’m a reader—well, it wasn’t even me who saw it, it was the production designer who said, “this is terrible, you can’t do this.” So my friend Karen, who was there as my assistant, went to a bookshop and got ten or fifteen boxes of books that Dermot would actually read. So we had the proper books in the bookshelf.
DS: And it creates the identity for the character, too.
WvC: It does, without saying anything. The artwork that’s on the walls came from a local gallery, and it’s very expensive art hanging on the wall actually, but it’s all created.
DS: I also wanted to ask about the casting. How did you come to choose Aidan Quinn, Taylor, and even some of the smaller supporting characters?
WvC: Well, with Aidan, it’s a younger woman being in love with an older man, and it always bothers me when in the movies that happens and the younger woman is gorgeous and the older man is crappy looking, and I’m like, “what the hell?” That’s not really how that works. So I wanted to have a charming older man.
DS: So Aidan Quinn.
WvC: So Aidan Quinn is a no-brainer, and thankfully he liked the script, and he was actually attached for a long time. Taylor Schilling actually came on board much later and she came through a casting agent and I met her over Skype. We had a great conversation and she immediately understood what I wanted to do, and also I felt that she could listen to what I said and then translate it in her own words. And the smaller cast, I’m so glad you asked about it—
DS: Well they’re so distinctive. They immediately make an impression.
WvC: I love actors. I love casting. I’m there for every single casting call, for every single cast member. I wound up casting this great talent pool in Ireland, obviously, but apparently I cast outside of what usually is cast. I tried to always cast a little bit—to make an internal challenge for all the characters. For example, there’s this barfly in the script, and in the book he’s seventy years old and he’s this old barfly, so I had actors come in for that, and then in comes this guy who’s in his forties. He knew he was never going to get the part, and then I cast him and then he’s great. And it’s more interesting because he’s young. I just love the process.
DS: The last thing I wanted to ask was, sort of, the tone of the film has a light touch, and it’s a plot that could get melodramatic, but it never does. It stays soft with bits of comedy. How did you go about discovering that tone?
WvC: It’s very much a tone that I’m interested in having. That’s what I was going for. I don’t find melodrama—To me, I would like to make honest films about real people, and real problems that they face. Now, I don’t like them to be dour, and I don’t want to be lectured to, and I do want to be entertained, so I think humour goes a long way to make that interesting. And while there could’ve been moments that go into melodrama, like when she finds the diary, and moments like that. I mean it’s a very fine line between drama and melodrama, but melodrama often is not as honest as drama. I think for me honesty or truthfulness in the storytelling is of supreme importance. When it didn’t feel true to me I would say, “let’s do it again and let’s scale it back.” I did a lot of, “let’s scale it back.” I don’t think it’s necessary. I think most audiences are smart, especially if they see a lot of films like this.
DS: A lot of it is visual, too. The punctuations. Even the very ending of the film, nothing is said, but you get it.
WvC: You get it, right. When I’m the audience member, I think I’m engaged when I use my heart and my brain, so I think what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker is to engage people on both levels. And then hopefully they go on a little journey.