By Tom Ue.
Ashley McKenzie is an emerging writer-director from Cape Breton Island, Canada. Her 2015 short “4 Quarters” screened at TIFF, VIFF, Stockholm IFF, Festival du nouveau cinema, and won Best Atlantic Short at the Atlantic Film Festival. With her previous work, “Stray” (2013), “When You Sleep” (2012), and “Rhonda’s Party” (2010), Ashley has earned a spot on Canada’s Top Ten Shorts list by TIFF, been a three-time recipient of the Shaw Media Fearless Female Director Award from the National Screen Institute of Canada, and won CBC’s Short Film Faceoff. She is an alumnus of the TIFF Talent Lab and co-owner of grassfire films. Werewolf, her debut feature film, follows the story of a young couple who are addicted to methadone. It premiered at TIFF this September.
Congratulations on Werewolf, your feature length debut! What inspired this film?
Five years ago I noticed a young couple hustling down the street in my hometown pushing a lawn mower. I watched them cut through my neighbour’s yard and start knocking on the door loudly: the guy at the front door and the girl at the side door. Nobody answered, so they walked in, and I could hear an altercation taking place with somebody inside.
I mentioned the incident to a few people, who remarked that they were the “lawnmower crackheads” in town. There were many drug-dependent, young people mowing grass that summer and a lot of gossip circulating. I wanted to know the intimacies of these people and what their lives were like, day to day. The film germinated in this moment, but over the years I drew inspiration from other things like friends living in Cape Breton and my own personal life.
Tell us about your research.
My research entailed talking to clients and administrators of the methadone program in Cape Breton, so I could understand the procedural processes of how you get a prescription, where you go for your dose, how you can apply for carries, and so on. There were several people I consulted with who were very generous and frank in talking about their struggles with addiction, from street drugs to methadone. The book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté was an important read during the making of this film.
What were some of the challenges of making a feature?
There was an agility and freedom gained from making a first feature with a tiny team on a microbudget, but at times the DIY ethos can pose challenges. We ran two cameras on many scenes, but only had one camera operator and one monitor. So there was lots of multi-tasking being done by everyone on set. At the end of a long day, you don’t call cut and go home. You help pack the gear, then drive back to headquarters to unload it and prep for the next day. It was an endurance test.
The film is shot in your hometown Cape Breton Island. What was it like to shoot it there?
There is a feeling of ownership and comfort in the place where you grow up and live. That sense of ease and familiarity was definitely present during shooting. There was an excitement every time we walked into a location and discovered talent there. Many people in supporting roles were cast during shooting, simply from chatting with people living or working in the locations, and then integrating them into scenes on the fly. We weren’t afraid to ask people to get involved, because of the connections we have with everyone at home.
The camera regularly uses close-ups and focuses slightly away from the characters so that we are looking in. Tell us about your stylistic choices here.
I didn’t want to shoot traditional shot-reverse-shot or wide-medium-close coverage. I felt bored by that and also knew it wasn’t realistic with our budget and shooting process to run a scene many times with perfect continuity. I decided to choose the framing that felt most potent to me in each scene, no matter what was left by the wayside, and I hoped that in committing to my instincts a singular aesthetic vision would emerge.
Focusing on Nessa and Blaise and being close to them always felt right. The film is about two people caught on a short leash, quietly suffocating. Escape is something that they can talk about but never taste. The camera doesn’t look away, so there is no escape for the audience either.
Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil, on whom so much of the film focuses, effectively capture the desperation of Blaise and Vanessa. Tell us about the casting.
Andrew Gillis and I grew up in the same small town and connected as artists and friends many years ago. I talked to him a lot while I was writing the film and offered him the part of Blaise knowing that he would understand the intricacies of this character, because the whole thing is steeped in the place we’ve both lived our whole lives.
I did a long casting search for the role of Nessa. I was auditioning several young women who were non-actors, trying to find somebody who fit the role and had chops. Bhreagh MacNeil was somebody a friend told me about, a teenage girl from outside the city who was hardworking and acting in lots of local plays. We messaged her on twitter a month before shooting and asked her to audition. We ran several auditions with her and Andrew together, and there was something about her youthfulness that was raw and grounded the whole thing. We knew she had the work ethic to pull if off.
Blaise and Nessa may be methadone addicts, but it seems as if their plights resonate with those of a lot of young people. Did you have that in mind as you were making this film?
I never felt like I was making a film about two people on methadone. I don’t think the word addicts ever crossed my lips. But the plight of young people around me, my own personal struggles included, was always on the forefront of my mind. Living on an island with high unemployment and youth outmigration can be very isolating. It’s easy to feel trapped and form unhealthy dependencies to people, substances, activities, and so on. Methadone is often referred to as “liquid handcuffs” and so it was an easy symbol for this dilemma that so many young people do experience in some way.
Much of the film is communicated through silences. What led you to tell the story in this way?
Blaise is a loud character who says a lot compared to characters in my previous work, which made me kind of nervous. I don’t like conveying things too explicitly to an audience. Silence and actions tend to say more with less to me than dialogue does. Words too often come off as exposition, so I shy away from that. Telling stories this way and reducing the scale of drama to something smaller and quieter is a tendency I’ve developed in my short films. I’m always striving for things to feel honest, and this is the path that I’ve taken to try to get there.
By the end of the film, are you optimistic for Nessa?
I feel more optimistic for Nessa at the end of the film than I do at the beginning. I think she harnesses an inner strength that is vital. But I also feel heartbroken and bleak about the options that exist for her on the margins of society.
What’s next for you?
My next feature is about a socially misfit, forty-something woman who’s a dog catcher. She grooms animals in her basement and has a dysfunctional sibling relationship with her sister. I want it to be a really unhinged and beautiful character study of two women.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.