By Tom Ue.
Steven McCarthy was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. An actor, musician, and theatre director, he appeared in Kate Melville’s Picture Day (2012), which played the Toronto International Film Festival. O Negative (2015), his directorial debut, follows a man (McCarthy) who tries to care for and find shelter for a young woman (Alyx Melone) in a roadside motel so that they can feed her addiction – to blood. The short film was selected as one of the 2015 Canada’s Top Ten Short Films.
You are an actor, musician, and filmmaker. How do you juggle these different caps?
Well, this is my first film so I am just learning about handling that side of things. I get bored easily and I like collaborating with lots of people. I look for opportunities to do that. Frankly, the film was made after a long time of thinking about it. Interestingly, for me, filmmaking brings together all of these skills that I have been honing and working on. Filmmaking is such a holistic medium.
You have extensive experience with theatre. Does that translate differently from cinema?
I think it’s really exactly the same thing. It just happens that there are cameras rolling. You control where to look. The way I work with theatre makers is a very similar process. It’s just a different technical requirement that you end up using as a filmmaker.
I really made this film with very low expectations. I basically have this first set of images in my mind: the car, him cutting his hand; arriving at the hotel. That was in my head for a long time. This was basically the first script I had written and I essentially just wrote it as an exercise – to see if I can work within the medium of writing for film. Then I thought, I am just going to shoot this right away, so I shot it the next month. I talked to everyone I knew who had done it. I am impatient that way. That was it. It was a very humble idea – of what this thing was going to be and who was going to see it. The fact that it ended up going into the TIFF a few months later and now selected for Canada’s Top Ten was way beyond my expectations.
I made it just to try to learn.
One of the things that I liked most about the film is the sound editing. In many ways, the sound takes the take the role of the dialogue, of which there isn’t very much. How did you design the sound?
In the months before I shot it – I have a wide network and community of friends – I ended up talking to people who have done it and they connected me to some great filmmakers. I had some pretty great allies. Our crew was basically six people: we filmed it up at Sault Ste. Marie, with students, kids volunteering.
To me, sound is the only thing that cannot be sacrificed. I can do a play with no lights, no sets, no costumes: just the actors. But the one thing that I would always do is to make sure that the sound is really effective. To me, sound is the thing that really emotionally puts the audience and the performers in the same room.
It wasn’t very far for me to realize that sound was going to be the emotional guidepost for the audience to understand where these characters were at. And I realized that I wasn’t playing in a world that is very realistic. There are a lot of times when the sound tells us what we were going to see before, where the sound guides us so that we were going to be worried even before we know what’s in the next edit. Aaron Mirkin, the sound designer, and my long-time collaborator Gordon Hyland, who plays saxophone in my band, him and his partner did the music. It was an incredibly rich experience. All of the music in the movie was basically white acoustic, made with real instruments. I really wanted something that sounded like real instruments, but then was altered to be uncanny. That was their first ever soundtrack.
The film sounds and looks quite different from the average vampire flick. How do you set it apart?
My favourite genre movies are the ones that happen to have very real fear. Movies that aren’t really genre movies, you can get away with a lot as long as you promise a genre game with the audience.
I underwent my own transformation. I thought I was going to write something quickly and I think in the end I made a movie about the feeling of getting older, the powerlessness of being addicted to something. What people seem to respond to in the film is that the vampire element allows for exploration of relationships, the nature of love and the nature of addiction. The idea of loving someone so deeply that you are willing to give your blood to them.
There is a kind of parallel between the sex and the vampire’s thirst for blood. Was that intentional throughout?
It was definitely intentional. It allowed me to write about something that I didn’t know that I wanted to write about. I intended to write about co-dependence. The idea of blood-lust and sexual-lust is in a long line of filmmakers. For me, the sexuality meant something about beauty, youth. The idea of someone very tired. Not being able to stop themselves. This strange and beautiful woman at the centre of it.
What is next for you?
We are working on a feature film of O Negative. We are just entering that world: how to make a feature film? For me, it’s always about the journey, creating with people and following the energy of what people respond to. What’s been great about O Negative, getting the TIFF attention and getting on this incredible list, is that it opens doors.
I really look forward to a feature film version of O Negative! There is great potential in it.
It’s been very interesting for me as a filmmaker because I wanted something that allows the audience a lot of leeway for what the characters’ motivations were and people bring a lot to the table. They imagine what the man and the woman were thinking. So it’s been very interesting and strange to negotiate what the feature version of that would be.
Or how he met the vampire…there are many gaps that can be explored.
Yeah, that’s where I am at now, negotiating exactly what the film is.
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. He has recently completed the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London and he is presently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.