Film by film, Canadian writer/ director Ruba Nadda is carving out her place in the industry. Her biggest success to date has been Cairo Time, a romantic film that connected with an audience larger than even the most ambitious Canadian indies expect to find. This week sees the release of Nadda’s fifth feature film as writer/ director, re-teaming with Patricia Clarkson for the dramatic thriller October Gale.
Clarkson plays a recently widowed doctor from Toronto who is staying in her Georgian Bay cottage alone for the first time. When a man (Scott Speedman) nearly dead from a gunshot wound finds his way into her cottage, she saves his life and unwillingly becomes involved in a violent revenge story. We spoke to Nadda about the challanges shooting a thriller on a small budget in Canada, how false accents can hurt a performance, and the new TV series she’s developing for HBO.
Dork Shelf: October Gale takes place primarily in one location with only a few characters, was it a very intimate set or did you still require a large crew?
Ruba Nadda: I’ve gotten really used to not shooting in Canada, or North America. You’re able to get away with a lot more when you’re not shooting in North America. Here it was a union crew, so I really tried hard to keep it small but it’s kind of hard. With this one it was complicated. On the surface, it’s just a drama with a little bit of thriller. You know Georgian Bay, it’s a bit of a nightmare to shoot up there. It was freezing and we were stuck with these storms. I tried hard to keep it minimal but logically we had to go bigger.
DS: So was weather the biggest antagonist?
RN: I thought the weather was going to be the biggest challenge. This was last year and they were saying that it was the worst winter we’ve had in 100 years, and then this year it was even worse than that. The lake usually thaws in February or March and it remained frozen until May. Completely three inches frozen and Scott Speedman turns to me and says “you’re the most optimistic person I’ve ever met, but you’re screwed.” Tim Roth was showing up in two days and we were supposed to shoot on the water. Sure enough, we got a storm and the wind came and took the ice there was the lake. The weather was kind of crazy, but at the end that was the least of our problems. The production kind of went sideways. It always does and you just have to figure it out. It’s an independent film so there’s going to be problems. I remember thinking I’ve shot in Cario, which is a nightmare, and I’d shot in South Africa which was an even bigger nightmare, so I thought Georgian Bay is going to be easy, but it was my most difficult movie to film.
DS: Your first couple films are pretty subdued dramas, while this and your previous film Inescapable have more action/ thriller elements. Is this a trend you see continuing?
RN: I’m ending this trend, I’m tired of it (laughs). This one was really supposed to be a drama. It’s a very simple story, and then things happen to this woman. For me, it’s always about character. It always starts with an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary situations. I realized though that what I’m doing is a little too ambitious because when you have a very contained budget you can get away with a simple drama story. But then when you’re trying to have a chase sequence through a forest, and cranes, and weather, and lightening… I only had twenty days to shoot this, it turns into bit of a nightmare. On the surface I write these stories and they seem simple to shoot and then I get to the reality of production. I try to challenge myself and as a filmmakers it’s good to get ambitious about it so you don’t stagnate, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
DS: Do you write with specific actors in mind?
RN: Yes, I do. I definitely did with this one. I love Patricia and I love Tim Roth. I saw Tim Roth in this, he was the first person I sent it to and I couldn’t believe when he said yes. For me as a writer it really helps imagining a certain actor and I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to get them. I’ve heard a lot of writers and directors don’t like to do that because then they get obsessed with trying to get that actor and what happens if you don’t get them?
DS: Did you ever consider getting Tim Roth to do a Canadian accent?
RN: Actors are very good at doing American accents but a Canadian accent is very different. It’s very unique. As a director, I tend to like actors using their own accents, I just feel like it’s a little more authentic. Especially with this one, Canada is so multicultural that everybody has a different accent. That’s the first thing I said to Tim, that it’s more interesting if you just keep your accent and it just adds a lair to the character. He’s this immigrant to Calgary which to me felt authentic. I also think when an actor doesn’t have to think about their accent you get a better performance out of them.
DS: What part of Canada did you grow up in?
I was born in Quebec and then we lived in Manitoba and British Columbia and Alberta, everywhere in Canada. We lived in really small towns when I was growing up and these small towns are not as multicultural as Toronto so growing up I didn’t feel very Canadian, and now I feel very Canadian. I’ve lived in just about every province. My parents were immigrants and they were very nomadic, it was my dad’s work that took us all across Canada. We finally moved to Toronto about twenty years ago and have stayed here ever since.
DS: Do you ever prepare for a project by watching other films?
RN: No. I studied literature, I didn’t study film, so I’m not the kind of director who would watch a movie and say ‘I want that shot’. I took a six week course at NYU and the first thing the film professor said to us was ‘you’re never going to enjoy watching a movie again’. I remember thinking I love watching movies, I don’t want to watch a movie and pick it apart, I try hard to not do that. I try to come up with it myself, visually.
DS: What can you tell us about your new HBO show Elizabeth?
RN: I’m so excited about it. It’s a series that would star Patricia (Clarkson) again, it’s being produced by Alan Poul, who is amazing. He produced Six Feet Under and Newsroom. It’s deeply romantic and it’s set in the world of politics.