'Grief and loss and loneliness, there has to be a way to present these without being boring.'|
by Stephen Cooke, Arts Reporter, published on September 18, 2015 - 6:26 PM, last updated on September 19, 2015 - 12:11 PM
Patricia Rozema has a pretty good idea of what she would include in her post-apocalyptic survival kit.
After exploring a realistic end-of-the-world scenario in her new drama, Into the Forest, part of the Atlantic Film Festival on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Cineplex Park Lane, she would include a flint fire starter, a bicycle, a rain barrel and some really good knives.
We also learn that maybe it wasn’t such a great thing to dump off those old sets of encyclopedias at Value Village, thinking they’d be useless in the age of the Internet.
“I know! I should have got Encyclopedia Britannica to sponsor the film,” laughs the filmmaker, who was captivated by the Jean Hegland novel Into the Forest and the author’s human approach to the collapse of society.
So much so that the director of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and Mansfield Park has turned it into a compelling drama starring Halifax’s Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler) as sisters who must fight for survival in the woods of British Columbia after an unknown calamity has befallen the world at large.
At a time when Mad Max has returned to the screen for the first time in 30 years — and is also ripe for parody in the latest Spongebob Squarepants adventure — Rozema felt there was room for something in-between, something more believable.
“I thought that it was more frightening to tell this story of the loss of all power — and especially communication — in a realistic way, and a character-driven way, than by having zombies appear. Or hordes of raving biker gangs.
“On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale, but on the other hand, I think there’s some empowerment in it. Which are two notes that are very hard to hit at the same time, but that was the goal. But people I’ve talked to who’ve seen it feel that it works on those two levels.”
When we meet sisters Nell (Page) and Eva (Wood), they’re getting ready to leave the nest of the comfy forest home they share with their father, Robert, played in a warm turn by the versatile Callum Keith Rennie. Nell is studying psychology and preparing for university, while Eva pushes her body relentlessly in advance of an audition for a major dance company.
But soon those dreams will be dashed as thoughts of the future turn to struggling for survival, with a creeping dread that’s closer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Mad Max: Fury Road.
“It’s interesting that everyone is tackling this,” says Rozema.
“There’s something in our collective minds that seems to demand dealing with what it would be to be without all our conveniences, comforts and gadgets.
“At first, there’s a feeling of plain old annoyance, but then there’s the most frightening thing for me, which is to not have information and not know what happened or if the world is in the grip of widespread disease or violence. Even in the city, you think, ‘Well, we’d have our cellphones for a day, and then what?’”
Filmed in the lush heart of Vancouver Island by cinematographer Daniel Grant, Into the Forest’s tone captures the pace of life once all distractions are removed, the batteries have died and there’s no more gas for the generator.
As the sisters adjust to living an unplugged life beyond being merely off the grid, the film is marked by quiet moments, when the silence can be deafening.
“I felt like most dramas in life are overstated in movies,” says Rozema.
“Grief and loss and loneliness, there has to be a way to present these without being boring. Spareness is something I love; maybe coming from a Calvinist background has something to do with it, but I like to not gild the lily.
“I didn’t want to make this an action-packed thrill-a-minute film because that’s exactly what (this situation) wouldn’t be.”
There is certainly drama to be found, in coping with a medical emergency or discovering what happens when good people turn bad.
“There’s a line early on that says, ‘Crisis doesn’t always bring out the best in people,’” says the director.
“And I think there would be a lawlessness that would take over. Even if you’re isolated, you’d be vulnerable.
“Right now, contemporary movies like to have women being dominant and victorious at every turn, but I think women would still be vulnerable when the law has left the town.”
As the film progresses, it takes on the feel of a modern Brothers Grimm fairy tale as the sisters cope with their isolation in the woods, and their relationship frays under the strain.
“I think it’s a microcosm for what would happen if resources become fought over so viciously. When someone finds a little piece of chocolate, that’s like gold,” says Rozema, who encouraged Page and Wood to spend as much time together as possible before filming to help build a believable sisterly relationship.
“They really became sisters. They were so incredibly relaxed with each other by the time we came to shooting, which was such a joy. Because there’s something time brings, and even boredom brings, that creates an understanding that you just can’t manufacture when you meet on the first day of shooting.”
They share extreme moments of grief, joy and horror, most notably in a scene where Nell, played by the actress named PETA’s “sexiest celebrity vegan” in 2014, has to slaughter a wild pig.
“That scene was really wild to shoot, and Ellen did it,” says Rozema, noting the hog in question was already on its way to the butcher’s.
“I think you can tell from the footage that was her. She gutted a pig from beginning to end. The camera operators were dropping like flies; it was quite an ordeal.”