Interview: Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas

Yonah Lewis Calvin Thomas - The Oxbow Cure

The conditions under which I’m meeting filmmakers Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis are vastly different from the ones they shot their latest film, The Oxbow Cure, under. Right now, we’re on a hot, sunny, downtown Toronto coffee shop patio chatting away as eighteen wheelers, motorcycles, and construction equipment of various kinds thunder down Yonge Street on a Sunday afternoon.

The film they’re here to discuss couldn’t be further from that. Shot in near seclusion in March of last year, the nearly wordless film (opening this Friday exclusively at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto) tells the story of Lena (Claudia Dey), a woman steeling away to a secluded cabin in the woods in the dead of winter to face the potentially debilitating and life changing disease she’s suffering from head-on and to escape from the feelings of loss that have crept into her life. Wanting to be alone to think things over, Lena begins to sense a presence of unknown origin in the woods that’s been following her.

It’s a gorgeously photographed and bracing work that straddles the line between art and genre filmmaking without sacrificing either element. The filmmaking team follow up their TIFF 2011 selection Amy George with a vastly different sort of experience. At turns both thoughtful and incredibly menacing and foreboding, this largely one woman show builds enigmatic tension while essentially acting as a character study that features almost no dialogue at all. It’s wholly original and unlike anything else attempted by any film to be released in the city this year.

We caught up with Thomas and Lewis to talk about the film’s title change following a fundraising campaign, getting the most out of a 22 page script, uncooperative weather, casting for a movie that only has one character on screen the entire time, populating the crew with other filmmakers, and crafting an ending that changes the direction of the movie that came before it.

The Oxbow Cure

Dork Shelf: When you guys first set out to make this movie, you funded it through a Kickstarter where it originally had a different title. I would assume that when a film changes its title the direction of the film itself has somehow changed. How did the film evolve from when you first started the fundraising campaign to the actual production?

Calvin Thomas: It’s funny. The whole film has kind of changed from what we expected we were going to make going in, but all in subtle ways. We never thought of the title change being really connected to that. We had this title to begin with that we used for the campaign and that we applied for grants with, but we sort of always knew that we were going to change it. We just never really found anything else that really worked. It wasn’t until quite a ways into post – almost completing the film – that we decided on a title that maybe explains the film a bit better and gives a little bit of a clue, but it also feels a lot more fitting than Condition of the Heart, which was the previous title.

Yonah Lewis: It feels like the title that we previously had hit upon a lot of mystery that intrigued you to some degree while watching the film, but as it went on it kind of told you what you were seeing, if that makes any sense. The new title was really helpful in that sense. Condition of the Heart just didn’t do anything. Also, it was just the name of a Prince song that we really liked. (laughs) We were worried people would look up the original title and just get Prince songs and never find our movie. Whereas you look up Oxbow Cure, there’s nothing else called Oxbow Cure.

CT: But the film was something that we always meant to be a winter film. When we got to shooting, we knew we only had three weeks to do it and about a week and a half of that was winter. Last March we had a flash summer, so we lost pretty much everything and we started freaking out about it. Then eventually we kind of saw it coming in the forecast…

YL: The only time that weather forecasters have ever been right. (laughs)

CT: …so we were able to prepare for it. We would get our really small crew to shovel snow from one location to another to make it look like we had more of it than we did, but eventually we just had to give up and sort of let Spring just happen. It changed the movie in a great way.

DS: There are a lot of shots in the film that show the changing landscape that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and they look so good and fit the story so well that it’s definitely a happy accident.

CT: Yeah! It was a great surprise, but it was kind of a disappointment at the time because we thought we were losing all this beautiful snow and the landscape that we had in mind was just melting before our eyes. But it all ended up in post that it became this great saviour for the end of our film.

YL: It really gave the film an arc that it didn’t necessarily have before.

DS: There’s this poignancy to the film that seems mirrored in how you describe the experience, which is that an unexpected stimulus while in seclusion can have this sort of unseen and unexpected power. Did that sort of inform the direction of the film once you had to accept that the landscape you wanted was melting all around you?

YL: Well, we only wrote a twenty page screenplay. I think our final shooting draft was 27 pages, so it wasn’t very long at all. But we did that intentionally to leave us the room for experimentation and just find out what we could come up with out there. Until something like the snow melting, we had no idea that in mid-March there wouldn’t be any new snow. We left plenty of room to include anything we stumbled into while we were there, so I guess that was something where like the character of Lena, we were never 100% sure of what we were going to get. But we wanted that.

CT: And we always had the idea early on that she was someone who wasn’t all that comfortable with being in the woods and being by herself, surrounded by nothing BUT nature, and I don’t know how much actually ends up in the final film, but it’s something we definitely talked a lot about. We didn’t add necessarily anything too specific, like “Uh-oh! Nature’s crashing in through the windows on her!” But we did want the character to feel  uncomfortable with it, but that she still wanted to go with it and go out there and face nature like she’s trying to face everything else in her life; to have that layer that, even though she isn’t comfortable with it, she’s trying to really experience it all.

YL: We were working on a film before this that we just sort of eventually tired of, and that was about a young man in Toronto who was afraid of the oncoming winter. So I think that we took a lot of that, and whether or not it’s there on the surface of this one, we definitely put some of that into this.

CT: It’s a very Canadian thing. (laughs) It’s super, super Canadian to make a film about being afraid of weather and the seasons.

DS: There were three of you who wrote the screenplay, and yet there’s only a few lines of actual dialogue. I assume this was a screenplay that required a lot of fine tuning as you went along. How much of the screenplay did you think out ahead of time and how much of it did you find once you got to the set and found out what you were dealing with?

YL: It was a fairly specific screenplay, but it wasn’t all that detailed, if that makes any sense. We would write a scene that was situational specific. We would write that Lena would collect firewood for her fire. In the older versions of the script we would have written about 15 or 20 beats for that one action…

CT: Like, little character and stage direction. In our older scripts we would always say that “so and so would fidget with a coin” or something like that…

YT: Yeah, or they would physically drag the firewood across something and then place it into the whatever and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah… And we just decided that none of that mattered here. We didn’t have to describe the leaves or the snow or where everything was in relation to everything else, so the screenplay could have been written as a 75 or 80 page screenplay, but we just chose not to.

CT: We very quickly broke the screenplay down into cue card, where you would just have the scene header, the content, and what time of day it was written down on it. We just had a big billboard at a neighbouring cottage where all of our crew was staying, and each day we would just decide on what we were going to shoot. We barely referenced the script at that point. It was easy to memorize twenty pages (laugh), but those cue cards and one-liners were enough for us to just say “This is what were doing” and approach it in the best way possible given the circumstances.

It goes back to how Yonah and I did a lot of shot listing before we went into the film. In our minds before hand we thought out lots of dolly track shots, and sort of reverse shots, and how we were going to film every moment. Within a few days we threw every bit of it out because we realized we were referencing production techniques that just didn’t work in the confines of the cabin that we had. We worked the same way with the script. We were a lot more spontaneous with the camera movement and the plotting, and the content of the script would just change based on the confines, what we had available, what time of day it was, the type of light we had…

DS: And you guys really didn’t have a lot of time to shoot the film on top of the weather troubles…

CT: We didn’t have a lot of time, but it was always pretty relaxed. All of the crew lived in one cabin, so we would just wake up, have breakfast…

YL: …we’d look at the cue cards on the board, and we would pull of about five or six that we would do that day and just go to it.

CT: It was surprisingly relaxed shoot, mostly because there wasn’t too much travel. On our other films we would be in a different location every day, and you have to organizing getting everything and getting all the gear into the same place at the same time. Here we just had a base camp and we would at the most just go on little field trips every day and then come back to the same place when we were done. That makes things a lot more civil and relaxed.

YL: In terms of the lack of dialogue, though, to get back to that, there was originally a lot more of it in the screenplay. There was quite a bit more than there was, and it just slowly got whittled away in the editing. There was a little bit more in the film before now. In our first cut there was considerably more than there is now.

DS: How much of the brief flashbacks and the opening that take place outside of the cabin was there originally?

YL: That was actually all added later. We did pick-ups on all of that. There was nothing in the original screenplay other than just the cabin. Through watching other cuts of it and showing it to friends and other people, we realized there needed to be a little bit more contrast to talk about where she was coming from and where she was going, and you couldn’t get any sense of that before. There wasn’t even really the slightest bit of it. I mean, you can only even see the slightest bit of it now, but those were all pick-ups that we did back in Toronto.

DS: How did you guys settle on Claudia Dey for the lead, because it can’t be an easy decision to make when your film really only has the one character that’s on screen for the whole film?

CT: Casting is always really hard for us, and we really don’t like it very much. (laughs) The pressure here is much higher than you would really like. We cast for a really long time trying to find someone we were interested in. Just like on Amy George, after we did the basic casting of actors and doing online casting calls and stuff like that, we kind of broadened where we were looking. We started looking at musicians, and artists, and people who weren’t actors.

We did that a lot on Amy George, and we had worked with Claudia before, and we wrote her and said “Do you know of any buddies who might want to do this?” And she wrote back and said , “I would do it.” (laughs) We never thought to ask her because she had just had a baby and she was busy working on a new book, and it just never occurred to us. We thought she would just say no and we didn’t want to take her away for three weeks, but she was just super into it. We just dropped everything else and said “Yeah! Great!” (laughs) She was such a pleasure on Amy George to work with. She has this presence that we really liked, and she’s just stunning to photograph. We tried changing the character a bit here, as opposed to Amy George where she played very much herself in terms of presence and attitude, except for how she relates to her son in that movie. (laughs) In reality she’s a pretty great mom, and this film her is a lot more of a stony character for her. We tightened her hair up…

YL: …and put her in some bad clothes (laughs)…

DS: … but that’s indicative of how the character is feeling.

YL: It was also great because she brought up her youngest kid, who was about 8 moths at the time, so it was a great experience  to have them all there.

One of the things we tried to do in terms of our crew was that while we had a really small crew, we tried to bring up people who were filmmakers themselves and not just technicians. So, for example, our production designer is also a director, and our producer is, too. We had a lot of people who could bring more to it other than just showing up and just bringing us the right props at the right time. We wanted people who were storytellers themselves. We went up there with a small script and a bigger number of people up there that could help us make good decisions. And Claudia was definitely one of those people. She’s a writer, and actress, a novelist, and now even a fashion designer. So she was able to bring a lot of things that we were really appreciative of.

CT: It’s just nice to be surrounded by people who have constant ideas and not just a punch-clock crew.

DS: Well, they’re stuck with you for three weeks, either way.

CT: (laughs) Yeah! On our film if you punch out, you just go a few feet away, sit down on a couch, and everyone is still there. Everyone was just spot on and we were trying to encourage the creativity all the time. If they had a idea – even if our data management guy had an idea because he went for a walk and found a cool location – that’s perfect. That was the kind of thing that we wanted.

DS: There’s an interesting balance going on between the loss that Lena finds herself experiencing in her family and what’s going on with her own body. Was that something that was always there or did that come about as a result of the few little things that you added after?

CT: That was always there, you just never saw it. It was all originally dealt with through phone and email conversations, but we felt that it had a little but more impact when you see just a little bit of that. It was always there, and what we added was really just there to aide that subplot.

DS: You guys still have a little bit of that with a pretty memorable scene with an online chat that kind of explains what Lena is going through, but you wait a while until you get to a point where the film can’t really progress without the explanation, and I think it’s a great example of how to make something as mundane as an online chat window into something exciting. Because in a screenwriting course they would tell you that doing something like what you do is a huge no-no, but you guys find a way to make it exciting.

CT: (laughs) It’s funny because in the script stage it’s something that you can really get caught up in and become self-conscious about. We felt that on Amy George, too, but to a lesser degree. As the script writer you know what you want to say even if the words of the script aren’t saying it explicitly.

DS: By that same token does the director in either of you ever wonder why you wrote something the way you wrote it?

YL: (laughs) Oh yeah. Certainly there are times when you get up there and you can believe that you wrote this particular thing that you’re now going to have to shoot. That’s usually tied to something more complicated and tied to something that’s production design related or stuff like that when we find ways to overly complicate stuff.

CT: When we first started writing scripts, we wrote much, much bigger. When we wrote Amy George, we wrote with the intention of actually going ahead and making the movie without anything or a larger budget. As soon as we became aware of the reality of our own situation, we started to write with the idea of also producing the movie in mind. And because we produce, we sort of know what’s attainable. It was very much the same on Oxbow. We knew we were going to be working with a much bigger budget than Amy George, and for the most part you try to write as a director and a producer. Maybe it’s not the best, but in a case where we are making the films ourselves, it kind of becomes a necessity. It would just be silly if one of us writes a scene that’s really huge. It might be great, but then we would know there would be no way we could ever pull it off.

YL: We used the limitations that we know we have and try to make something that we hope is interesting. There’s no point in writing something and then having to recreate it and compromise it and possibly do it poorly.

DS: Without really giving away too much about the final section of the movie, but it becomes sort of like a specific kind of genre film. How did you guys make that decision to make the leap to doing that when the rest of the film is so stripped down to its essence? Was that something you resisted or something you always had in mind for the film?

CT: It was always there. I think the idea started with those two separate elements, and we knew that we definitely wanted the movie to have a pay off. We wanted people to see the movie and have something that feels very surprising. We’ve had some great reactions seeing people when they figure out where the movie ultimately goes, which is great for us because we often watch these kind of slow burn movies – and, obviously, we’re into this kind of slow paced filmmaking – but often times halfway through the movie we often just find ourselves questioning it and saying “Well, wouldn’t it be awesome if THIS happened now?” (laughs) Our very eclectic taste in movies comes up when watching these kinds of movies, and often ends with us coming up with our own endings for films that would never have that kind of ending.

YL: It’s terrific when you see a film like Kill List and it goes in a different direction than you were hoping it would go in eventually, and hopefully that’s what we’ve done here.