Thursday, April 21, 2011

Interview with Deborah Chow, writer/director of The High Cost of Living

Deborah Chow is a Toronto-born filmmaker who directed her first film while studying at McGill University in Montreal. After finishing her M.F.A. in film at Columbia University, she was selected as a participant in the 2005 Berlinale Talent Campus, and the Talent Lab at the Toronto International Film Festival.

She now lives in Montreal, where she completed her debut feature The High Cost of Living, which won the SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. It was also chosen by TIFF as one of Canada's Top 10 films this past year, and also won both the Super Écran award for Best Screenplay for 1st or 2nd feature at the Rendez-vous du Cinéma Québécois 2011 and Best Canadian Film at Female Eye Film Festival 2011.

As a fellow Asian filmmaker who is also Toronto-born but transplanted to Montreal, I was interested to learn more about her filmmaking process and her artistic journey. Here is my interview with her.

How did you get started with this movie? How and when did it begin?

It started actually … god, it’s over five years now. It was more than five years. And basically, to make a long story short, I had a short and I was premiering the short at Toronto. They had this thing through WIFT (Women in Film and Television) and Kodak, where they were offering this mentorship for a female director that had a short at the festival in Toronto. But they would only give it to you if you had a feature idea to develop, which I didn’t at all at the time. And so they wanted to do these interviews and it was with Dan Lyon (Telefilm’s Feature Film Unit Director for Ontario and Nunavut) and Patricia Rozema (writer/director, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park). And I did the interviews and they wanted to give it to me, but they said you have to come up with a feature now. So I had to, and it was insane because I was still trying to finish the post on the short. And I was in Montreal because it premiered first at the Festival des Films du Monde. I just remember trying to use their French keyboard to send an email with the pitch for the feature, which I was making up in the hotel room. So that is where it started weirdly enough. It’s changed a huge amount since then. But that was the original push to start it.

In the development process, it changed quite a bit?

It changed hugely. It changed a lot. I think I probably did at least 8 or 9 drafts of the script over the five years. So it went through a lot.

Was it always set in Montreal and multilingual?

It was. Actually, that was one of the first major elements. I was in New York at the time and I was finishing school. I knew I was coming back to Canada, and I was thinking, “oh god.” I had gone to McGill and I had done my undergrad in Montreal. I’d always loved Montreal. So I thought, “oh, it would be the best place to shoot a film.” So that was one of the first elements I had, that it was going to be in Montreal. And I knew that it would have to be bilingual because … I mean obviously I’m an Anglophone so I wanted it to be mostly in English but I didn’t think it would be realistic at all to make a movie in Montreal that didn’t have some element of French.

Do you speak each of the languages in the film?

I definitely speak English. My French is so-so. It’s not great. I hadn’t been living in Montreal for a while so I hadn’t been using it. It was enough to get through the film, it was okay to get through the film. And my Cantonese is pretty rotten. And they’re actually speaking a bit of a mixture because two of the actors were Mandarin and one was Cantonese and it was kind of all over the place with that. They’re speaking Mandarin in the film but I think there’s some Cantonese that pops up every once in a while. It’s meant to be Mandarin. Basically, the young kid, the sixteen-year-old, he was Cantonese. With the two parents, the mother could speak Mandarin very well. The father – they all had crazy stories – the father was actually Vietnamese so we were trying to get them all into Mandarin but it wasn’t the easiest thing.

So you went through 8 or 9 drafts. What were some of the major changes that came about?

If you can believe this, the very first script I pitched to Dan and Patricia was actually a fantasy script. And the very first version of this was about a woman who was pregnant who was in a car accident, and who basically was killed. Then she went actually to the afterworld and refused to accept what had happened. So the whole film was about her trying to get back to the real world. It ended with her giving birth to the baby and the baby got to live but then she went straight back to the afterworld. That’s how far it came. Yeah, I know – it started off almost as Beetlejuice and ended up where it ended up.

So you went that direction for a while before deciding against that?

My shorts and a lot of the work previous to this has been more fantasy-oriented. This is quite a different project for me, as compared to the shorts. I have this tendency to write really big. I write these huge, giant epic fantasy scripts and you’re like, “great, nobody’s ever going to make this.” So, I did drafts of that script and it was crazy – there were Vikings in it, there were talking birds. Then as the years went on, everything started to drop out until it just became about the central drama. The things that stayed ended up being the baby, the car accident and the city.

Did Patricia Rozema mentor you the whole time?

No. I wish, but obviously she has other things to do. She worked with me for a couple of months, I guess. Dan was only meant to really work with me a week or two during the festival, and actually I kept in touch with him a little bit after that. But she was off and on for a couple of months, where I’d go meet her for coffee and we’d talk about what I was doing. That sort of thing.

Had you worked with or known any of the cast or crew that you used prior to making this film?

Not the cast. Everybody was from Montreal for the cast, except for Zach (Braff). The crew, I didn’t except a couple of them, like the D.P. (Director of Photography) Claudine (Sauvé). I knew her through different people who had shot with her – like Alex (Franchi) who had shot The Wild Hunt with her, and Tara (Johns) who did the Dolly Parton movie (The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom). So her I knew through different people, but most of the people, no. The Quebec film industry is its own thing, so there didn’t tend to be a lot of overlap with Toronto or with places or people that I’d been with before. I did know my editor. I’d known him since I was eighteen and I brought him on with me.

Maybe you can talk a bit about the casting process.

Sure. We started with Isabelle (Blais). She was the first person that we cast, mostly because it was such a significant role and we wanted to get the Quebec star who you knew who that was going to be, because that was the easier part. It was very easy casting her. I loved her. I’d seen Borderline, and I thought she was great. So we got the script to her and she really liked the script. Right from the beginning it was right on. So we had her. Crazily enough, it took us so long to get the financing – I think I might have met her almost two years, maybe a year-and-a-half before we actually shot. So she stayed on the whole time with us. And the crazy thing with her is that she actually had a baby – got pregnant, had a baby – and the baby was almost one by the time we shot, in the meantime. Zach came later. That was closer to when we were shooting. We weren’t sure for a long time what our budget was, for real. We were still trying to get money from different sources, so we didn’t actually try to get Zach until later on. And that was the same sort of thing. I was super-lucky, where I had a great casting director who’s actually an executive producer on the film as well. And she got the script to his people, or whatever, and he just immediately responded to the script. So then I went down to New York and met him. He was great. I sat down with him for almost an hour-and-a-half and he just asked me question after question after question with it. But it was good because it was all questions about “how are you planning to shoot this?” and “what is this?” and “how do you see this character?” That sort of thing. It was really good. He was really prepared. He was really serious for it.

He also is a director and filmmaker as well as a seasoned actor. How did that affect working with him?

He was really good. I know, a director especially with a first feature you’re a little … you know, working with a director as an actor. But he was very clear that he was not coming in as a director. He was coming in as an actor. And he really did. The only thing that I would say with that whole aspect of him being a director is that it was really good for me, it worked to my advantage because I think he was probably the only person that actually understood the film as a whole, understood exactly what I was trying to do, understood the references as to what kind of film we were making. He was very interested in the music, and this and that. He was very respectful but at the same time it was kind of nice because he knew exactly…. Like he loves Susanne Bier and he kept saying, “You have to see Open Hearts. You have to see Open Hearts” which was actually a Danish movie that he’s optioned and was trying to adapt himself. There’s a lot of similarities to The High Cost of Living in that film. And it’s super-low budget. I don’t know what they shot it for but it’s definitely under a million, so the production value is super-low. When I saw that, it was really nice because one, it was like he totally understood the movie that I was trying to make, and two, it was so clear he was there for the story and for the role and the acting, because this movie was so not Hollywood, it was so indie run-and-gun. That was nice. He really understood as a whole what the film was going to be.

How did you prepare Zach and Isabelle to work together? I presume they hadn’t met before.

No they didn’t. I wish I’d had more time. I think that’s the hardest thing about shooting something low-budget is that you just don’t have the time to work with everyone properly. We shot the whole film in 20 days, so there’s no time to do anything. You’re just lucky if you get a second take on things sometimes. So we didn’t have that much rehearsal time. I think we had one rehearsal and that was it, right before. We did try to shoot as much as we could in continuity with the two of them. We tried to schedule it as much as we could so that – and fortunately it worked – because at the beginning obviously they’re just meeting, they’re strangers, they don’t know each other. So that’s how we tried to do it, that we could go naturally with them getting more and more familiar with each other as the story actually developed.

How did you find Julian Lo who played Johnny, the teenaged son of the landlords?

Julian was great.  We were having a tough time because it’s not easy. I mean, I’ve tried to cast movies in the past in different cities with Asian cast and I always find it’s really hard, especially when you’re looking for younger or older. I find there’s a lot in the middle, like you can get thirty-somethings or twenty-somethings, but there’s not a ton when you’re trying to get 50s and 60s or under-twenty. So I knew it was going to be tough. Also in Montreal, there’s not that much work for an Asian actor there, so there’s not that many, the community’s not that big. So it was pretty hard actually. The casting director was really looking high and low to try and find young kids to even audition. We had to start going to all the schools and CEGEPs. There weren’t that many choices. Julian actually was fifteen when we found him and he’d done one high school play – I think we found him through his drama teacher at high school – he’d done One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he played the Indian, and that was it. But he came into the audition and he was really good. He was really natural and he just kind of got it. And I did a fair amount of work with him. I was rehearsing him and giving him acting lessons for about a month before we actually did it. But he had the natural talent, thank god. But it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

How was it filming in Montreal?

It was great. The only thing was it was February, so it was cold. We were pretty lucky, though. It was pretty mild for a February in Montreal. We were expecting minus twenty, and it was more like minus five, minus ten at the most. So it was pretty mild. But it’s still cold, especially when you’re doing night shoots and you’ve got car rigs and stuff like that involved. So it was a bit cold. But the crew was really good, and they’re all hardened and used to the weather. So it was fine. It was very smooth, amazingly enough, considering that we were running around so much and trying to do so much in such a short period of time. We really didn’t have any major traumas or disasters.

You used Fairmount Bagel bakery in the film. Where do you stand in the Fairmount vs. St-Viateur bagel rivalry?

I’m pro-Fairmount. I mean they’re both good, but I like Fairmount a bit better. A lot of the locations – like I live on Fairmount and Jeanne-Mance, so I’m like two blocks away from that essentially – I was trying to use a lot of the locations of places that I went to in my life. For me, it’s like my experience of Montreal is mainly the Plateau and Mile End and the downtown places like Chinatown that I’ve spent a lot of time in. So I was trying to use that. But I think with Montreal, people really know their locations. It’s not as much so in Toronto where it’s bigger and more sprawling, where people are all over the place. People I think really have relationships with a lot of the businesses here, so I was trying to use places that would be genuine to the character. So I knew I wanted to use Barfly right from the beginning, because it was like Henry’s character, Zach’s character, it was like this would be the bar that he would be hanging out at. I’ve certainly hung out enough there myself. So I was trying to use places that really made sense.

So what were the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?

I think it’s time. Time and money, as it is with every film. It’s hard – twenty days is short to be shooting, especially when the performances … there are some scenes that are quite hard for them and then you’d feel terrible going “god, that’s it.” Two takes and you’re done, for your closeup, and you’re out. So that was the most frustrating thing, was just time. Obviously you want more time to be able to give people more time to try things and have some space to feel like they don’t have to get it on the first take. But they did have to get it on the first take, so….

But as you said, no major disasters.

No. It’s crazy for a shoot like this, there really was nothing. I mean, we had a generator go down once for two hours, and that was it. It was really pretty smooth. We had some weather issues obviously, where you can see in the film we’re all of a sudden in a snowstorm on the rooftops out of the blue. But we just had to roll with it basically, so if it was snowing then it was snowing. There were a few things we had to drop for continuity, just little scenes here and there, because the next scene either wasn’t snowing or it was snowing. But in general, I think we were pretty lucky.

How would you compare being a director and being a writer?

It’s obviously a pretty different process, but the thing I think is good about being a writer/director is that you know the material so well, that you’ve lived it and breathed it and been with it for so long that you know it inside and out – and as you’re writing it, you’re also somewhat starting to direct it because you’re starting to write for certain locations and thinking how you’re going to do it – so that I think is what makes writing/directing [something] you can give it a real authorial voice. The only thing I think with the writing and the directing I try to be careful of is not to get too rigid, to get too tied to “this is the way it’s supposed to be” from the script because it never is. Things change, and it’s never how you were thinking it would be exactly when you were writing it. So that’s the main thing, is just trying to stay open to things being different or changing, because for the most part I find that when things change, a lot of the time it’s actually better than what was originally in the script.

You have no preference then? You generally see yourself doing both together?

For me, for my style – unless I was getting hired on something – definitely writing and directing because I really do love both. I mean, they’re really different. I would say if I had to choose between them, I’d go with directing for sure. I think if I tried to be a full-time writer for the rest of my life, I’d get really weird. It’s just too much time alone in front of a computer. Directing is, I don’t know, it’s much more … you’re out there doing it, which is great. And you’re actually making the film as opposed to just writing the film which may or may not see the light of day. But I genuinely love both.

The High Cost of Living opens across Canada on Friday, April 22.

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