Award winning film A Wake comes to Vancouver
We had an opportunity to talk with director Penelope Buitenhuis about her riveting, darkly comic, improvised drama.
tV: Where did this story come from. What inspired it?
PB: My father had died and I found that around mourning there's a lot of honesty and a lot of openness and awareness around mortality so Krista and I thought that setting it around the death of somebody would be a high stakes story.
tV: It was co-written by you and Krista Sutton but the actors are credited with improvising the dialogue. Can you talk about that a bit?
PB: I did this television series called Train 48 and I really fell in love with all the witty nuggets and all the surprising things that happen when actors are around to improv. I really wanted a visual kind of feeling to the film and Krista and I felt that, because we'd done Train 48 together, we'd like to continue that sort of style: unexpected and what happens in the moment.
We weaved a really intense story that was written but there was no dialogue in it. We would do numerous takes and and play with what they came up with. We did a lot of character study ahead of time so all the actors knew who the characters were and what their motivations were so it wasn't all loosy-goosy. It was pretty tightly storied. Once people got in the flow of working with each other it came very naturally.
tV: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges you faced making the film?
PB: We had a very, very short shooting schedule: very little time. Also, it was winter time so we were constantly shoving ourselves into this country house and getting out again and dealing with the weather, power downs and all that kind of stuff.
Also, it was challenging finding the right actors who were comfortable with improv who had enough life experience to draw on so they could bring some richness to their characters.
tV: Was there anything that happened while you were filming that surprised you in a positive way?
PB: I think that what surprised me was the ability for six actors to be in a room and to find a flow with that many people talking, and for it to move through an incredibly long scene. There's one scene that's eleven minutes. To maintain a liveliness through all that and an intensity, I was really surprised as to how uncomplicated that was (laughs).
There were daily surprises of what actors came up with in the moment. When Chris Turner jumps up on the counter in that scene where they're smoking dope, that came out of nowhere. He just did that and I thought that was fun and intriguing and crazy. That kind of stuff, where you let them go.
tV: You won the feature film award at the Carmel Arts and Film Fest. What was it like to have Clint Eastwood there to confer the honour?
PB: It was awesome. It was the best thing that could ever happen (laughs). He's just like he is in the movie: really stoic and the cowboy, upright and a man of few words. He was a real gentleman and very respectful. We were all back stage before we went on to receive the awards and he came out and was standing by himself, so I jumped on him and talked to him for a minute about directing and why he went in to directing. He said, “I'd rather tell the story than have someone tell me the story.”
I was totally excited. Luckily not tongue-tied.
tV: What would you like, if anything, for people to take away from your film?
PB: I think that we all carry things from the past and it's always good to let go of them. It's a film about transformation where people come in heavily burdened from their past and leave somewhat lightened and able to move on. I think that's something really important that we need to do all the time. And so watching these people go through this roller-coaster over the weekend, it shows the short version of change or possible change.
Also for people who like Shakespeare, I think the subtext is really fun and I think you get even more out of it if you know Hamlet. There are lots of layers to that, that some people get and some don't.