Toronto-based director Kazik Radwanski’s third feature had a considerable gestation period. The project emerged from lead Deragh Campbell’s cameo in How Heavy This Hammer (2015), and gradually expanded this condensed moment into Campbell’s finely calibrated, profoundly committed performance in this year’s Anne at 13,000 ft. A recently-hired daycare worker whose alternating episodes of depression and mania make for an ill-suited match with children and her passive-aggressive coworkers, the title character (Campbell) also moves through a series of anxious experiences that are rendered like a puzzle of disconcerting, constricted memories: a Tinder date, her best friend’s wedding, and a doomed courtship with one of the groomsman (Matt Johnson). All of this is conveyed in the time it takes Anne to carry out a solo skydive. A refreshingly nuanced, economical take on the character study, the film recalls the tightly composed, handheld compositions of the Dardennes, and the spontaneity and intimate melodrama of the Cassavetes-Rowlands collaborations, while nevertheless exhibiting a vision all its own—and one that strips away stereotypical notions of the female-driven psychodrama. The day after Anne at 13,000 ft’s world premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform section, I spoke with Radwanski and Campbell about discovering Anne’s characterization and performance, their close collaborative relationship, skydiving, and the support system in Toronto’s film community.
Tyler Wilson (Rail): Tower (2012) and How Heavy This Hammer deal with masculinity and how these men, Derek in Tower and Erwin in Hammer, sort of perceive themselves in a state of alienation and arrested development. I think Anne registers as an oblique continuation of these themes. Can you talk about taking on a female character for this one?
Kazik Radwanski: I don’t think I could make another film about a man after Hammer, and Tower. [Laughter] I just don’t know if there’s a third one, it seemed unbearable—Hammer being almost a step up to, I guess you could say, the unlikeable male character. I wanted to do something different and I just didn’t have those instincts with a female character, to push them in that way. At the same time I felt very cautious making a film about a woman. I wanted to learn a lot. It forced me to take a step back and think, which is why it took so long to make. It was kind of a mutual thing that took us a while to find our way into it.
Rail: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you count on your main actors to rethink or redefine certain attributes of their characters. I’m interested to hear what that type of collaboration looked like between you two.
Radwanski: So if I were to contrast this with Hammer and Tower, it would almost be a forced rethinking of it, Erwin and Derek being different than what I had pictured. I think of these characters very abstractly and a lot of these ideas come from an introspective place, and filtering through it. With Deragh, both of us were constantly challenging and making the character new.
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, I mean, it was interesting. Maybe a bit similar to how I work with Sofia Bohdanowicz as well, to work this way, but this idea to work in a close collaborative relationship with a director so you can both have different vantage points of a scene, where you’re both gathering information and trusting each other, then it’s a matter of Kaz changing the situation. So let’s say we want to achieve a certain conflict and it just isn’t getting there, then it’s either Kaz adjusting the scenario to achieve it, or it’s me trying to find another way to bring it there, so the idea is that we have the same goals and that we’re working from these different places to get there. One thing—maybe we discovered it through talking about the film—is this thing where we didn’t really know who the character was, and so shooting a scene was a way to do research about a character, seeing how she reacted in different situations.
Radwanski: I think we almost overburdened ourselves at one point while talking about backstory early in the process. We were talking about this film for so many years.
Rail: Speaking of backstory and seeing this film, I can’t help but remember Deragh’s appearance in How Heavy This Hammer.
Radwanski: Yeah, that was a camera test.
Rail: I can’t help but entertain the idea that this was some past version of Anne. But now with this film, there’s evidently a specific kind of physicality required of you that’s unlike many of your other roles. How did you approach Anne differently from your earlier performances, especially in regard to thinking about the stunt work with this one?
Campbell: [Laughs] This is going to sound mystical but ever since I Used to Be Darker (2013) this really strange thing has happened to me where I don’t ever think about the physicality of a character but there is a period of gestation, there’ll be some research and conversations with the director where you watch certain films and think about the character and then the process of shooting is letting go of that and trying to be as present as possible. What’s really creepy is when I watch a performance I’ll realize that I’ve developed a completely new body language. Like, when I looked at Taryn in I Used to be Darker for the first time, she was just this completely hunched over body who was trying to hide, and so it’s really interesting to watch this and be like, oh, through just having all this different information about a character and different scenarios, kind of subconsciously I’ve actually just started behaving slightly differently. Which is really cool, which makes me trust the work a bit more, you know?
Rail: Kaz mentioned having a flexible level of experimentation with productions, especially with the method of filming over a long period of time, and you mentioned this camera test. You had this idea for quite a while?
Radwanski: Oh yeah, I mean, I think I wanted to work—essentially from the time Deragh moved to Toronto—I thought, “wouldn’t it be amazing to work with an actress?” She just felt like the right type of actress to work with. I think when I was a younger filmmaker I was very intimidated by actors, and it was like someone who’s engaged in films that I like, can actually make it—who likes Tower, and watches films like that. Deragh’s always at the cinematheque and gets that language, and just seeing her in I Used to Be Darker and Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven (2015), that just seemed like a new thing in Toronto. When I made my first films I just felt so alone, you know, like without peers. So, I wrote this for Deragh. I mean I wrote a script and gave it to her. That was essentially the start of the process. Hammer was sort of, “what does Deragh look like in the daycare, what is it like working with her in this style,” just like a very early thing for us to sort of mutually feel each other out.
Rail: How long was the filming process for this one?
Campbell: 20 months.
Radwanski: Yeah, two years. Sporadically of course, but yeah.
Rail: I’m curious how you grappled with the skydiving sequence.
Radwanski: It was the first scene we shot.
Campbell: Well for me the idea of skydiving is maybe almost a cheesily literal extension of my acting philosophy, if I have one, which is the idea of, like, put yourself in a situation and you don’t know how you’ll react. And then whatever your reaction is becomes part of the characterization—the idea of doing a thing where you literally cannot hide. Like when you go skydiving, I’m not going to be up there and be capable of pretending I feel one way if I feel a different way. It’s a very extreme thing. So the idea of having an experience that contributes to a characterization, that to me is really interesting. Just in the way you kind of wonder, this is a weird way to put it but like you know how sometimes you’ll wonder: Would I be heroic in a certain situation? If someone had a gun, would I tackle them and save everyone? [Laughs] Basically, through acting, I think sometimes you put yourself in different scenarios and you discover information about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Rail: It’s sort of a perfect distillation of what you mentioned earlier, of changing the situation to elicit a certain response. How many attempts did you have to shoot it?
Radwanski: It was the first thing we shot but then we looked at the footage—the cinematographer Nikolay [Michaylov] and I—we talked about it a lot, how to film in midair. There’s a lot of variables, but we weren’t too happy with the footage and were afraid to ask Deragh to jump again, so we did a series of camera tests where I jumped out of a plane—my first time jumping out of a plane—so I was the stand-in and we showed Deragh the footage and she jumped again. And when she jumped again it was amazing how we got to the point of her fainting in midair.
Campbell: That was my first time doing that. [Laughs]
Radwanski: That’s based on a YouTube clip. That happens a lot when people skydive, the G-force or whatever. So I showed that to Deragh, and what’s amazing is that she did four takes of that in mid-air with an actual skydiver.
Campbell: But it was the sort of thing with Kaz giving me this instruction and then just like freefalling and then in my own head being like, “action!” [Laughs]
Rail: Did you enjoy it as much as Anne does in the film?
Campbell: No, I did not like it—I would not skydive again.
Rail: So how did you pitch this scene to Deragh?
Radwanski: I don’t know! It’s funny when people ask, “what’s the inspiration for this film?” It really is multiple things, and it really is this process of talking about it for two years—very gradually—and you know when we got to an interesting place with the film it was sort of stripping ourselves of those initial inspirations or backstory or things like that. That’s what was great about the skydiving, because it just gets to the point where you’re just doing. So even when we rehearsed the film, it’s always camera ready. We were always filming, we were always just doing and learning from that moment. It’s this weird mixture of chance and stumbling into something, then reflecting on it, and then figuring out the best way to stumble into more.
Rail: There’s a strong sense of community in the Toronto film scene, and I think it’s especially evident here in your collaboration and how you share collaborators, and by the work made under the umbrella of MDFF, which also presents a local screening series. Could you talk a little bit about how this particular community in Toronto has influenced your working methods?
Radwanski: Absolutely. It’s worth pointing out that Matt Johnson is in the film too, he’s also a filmmaker and in the main supporting role. Matt, in terms of support, you know, just broadly, has given so much support. A lot of crew members work on each others’ films. People share cameras, people watch cuts, give notes. So support in a very basic sense for sure, but then even just thinking back to when Dan Montgomery (the co-founder of MDFF) and I started working together in film school, if one person does well, for me, it is so reassuring. Maybe it just comes from the moment before this type of Canadian cinema, everyone felt so alone and I just feel now that so many filmmakers working autonomously and make very different films but are somehow supporting each other and giving. Making this, again it’s the Canadian climate before and the types of films that were getting funding and just how ignored these kinds of films were, and now they’re not ignored.
Rail: I’m sure it means a lot that this film premiered in Platform as well. How did the screening go last night?
Radwanski: It was very—it felt very big. I mean, we’ve screened in this building many times and at this festival many times but last night felt different. It felt like a culmination of that stuff. Just a selection in that program, by Cameron [Bailey] and Andréa [Picard] and being one of ten films. But it’s also a film that we made completely on our own terms, I didn’t think about the budget—I’m sure the budget is a fraction of most of the other films’—but just being on equal footing and getting so much excitement about it…
Campbell: I think Andréa Picard put it so well in the Platform press conference where she just talked about—because there are different film scenes in Canada and the kind of micro-budget arthouse ones—about how we all go to the cinematheque. We all see each other in the theater like Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Ben Petrie, and Grace Glowicki. All of these people were in conversation with each other and our films were responding to international cinema in a way that maybe more industry Canadian films aren’t. But I think what’s so amazing about this community is how everybody watches each other’s films and now there is this thing where different people in this scene are coming into visibility and it’s not competitive, it’s supportive. I think that’s why it feels as much as a group as it does because—it’s cheesily put—but we’re stronger together. I’ve been part of scenes before but this is the most I’ve ever seen something that has been strengthened by mutual support and participation.