Friday, 18 February 2011

Interview with Ed Gass-Donnelly, writer/director of Small Town Murder Songs

Ed Gass-Donnelly

The following is a transcription of an interview with Ed Gass-Donnelly, writer/director of Small Town Murder Songs where we chat about inspiration behind the film, finding the natural balance with a less-is-more approach, casting against type, the international market and recently being named one of Variety as one of 10 Directors to Watch.

Small Town Murder Songs is set in a small town Ontario community which is strongly affected by the crime that has appeared. A powerful score, compelling characters and fantastic performances creative an extremely powerful viewing experience. The film stars Peter Stormare (Fargo), Aaron Poole (This Beautiful City), Jill Hennessey, Martha Plimpton & Stephen Eric McIntyre and opens in Toronto and Edmonton Friday February 18, 2011.

Rather listen than read? You can! This interview is on Episode 25 of the Movie Moxie Podcast where I also chat with actor Aaron Poole.

Shannon: First I’d like to say thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your film.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: No worries, it’s a pleasure

Shannon: First up I’d like to hear what was the inspiration to tell this story in Small Town Murder Songs?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: The whole process came about very quickly and I only started writing the film in January 2009 and we were shooting by October of the same year. So it didn’t necessarily come out of a period of a lot self-reflection. I definitely wanted to show the ripple effects of murder in a small community, and the initial idea was I was really inspired by idea of writing a movie around a record. So that was the initial impetus. There had been a double murder on my street in my neighbourhood and there was very much a sense of loss of innocence in the neighbourhood and I think I wasn’t consciously trying to explore that but inevitable those thoughts and questions were certainly on my brain a bit, so using a small town as a way to explore the ripple effect of that kind of violence became conscious.

And then the initial idea was to have a bunch of not necessarily connected scenes that were sort of woven around a soundtrack. I just started writing it evolved more into an linear narrative and a hero emerged, and it steamrolled and progressed from then. Like I said, because it happened so quickly there wasn’t a lot of time to be really asking a lot of questions of myself as to the reason why but, was more of just compelled…

Shannon: Just go!

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Definitely, yeah.

Shannon: So with such a quick process did you have time to research the small town-ness that emerges in the film?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: No, not really. I find that that voice kind of comes to me fairly easily. I haven’t spent a ton of time in small towns, but I guess enough because my dad’s family is from Abbottsford BC so I spent some time there as a kid and the lead character was loosely inspired by a ex-girlfriends dad from Nipawin, Saskatchewan, so there are parts in the world that I guess inspired it. A couple friends of mine grew up Mennonite, so that certainly influenced the Mennonite element and they were certainly a resource.

Shannon: So you already had it in you, you didn’t have to go out to research as you already had it inside?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah, I guess. Originally it wasn’t going to be a Mennonite town specifically, but a murder in a small community. But then there was a character whose history of violence, the idea of specifically putting him in a community of pacifist became a lot more interesting to me. I’ve always been inspired by the more you can set something in a specific place, the more you can take an audience on a journey that they may not be familiar with. It just became a community with a strong Mennonite presence, became richer and more interesting to the story to me.

Shannon: And the film has such a haunting quality to it that really keeps you on edge, but also completely drawn in. I was drawn in within 30 seconds, I was like “This is fantastic”, and I find that to be really adept storytelling and Canadian. Do you feel it’s a uniquely Canadian film?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: You know, it’s funny I don’t even know what that means anymore in some ways. I guess in some ways I really strived to make an un-Canadian movie.

Shannon: Oh?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Well, yes and no. Un-Canadian from and industry perspective because I don’t think we do ourselves a service by like branding a movie as Canadian.

Shannon: Fair play.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Ultimately I set out to make a film for an international market. We don’t have a distinguished language from the US. We are not Quebec, we are not Greece or say somewhere in Europe where the general public have a specific affinity to seeing a film from there indigenous culture because of the fact that it’s in their language. That right off the bat is a reason to watch something versus something else. Because Canadian audiences don’t, and it’s not a negative thing, but they are happily served in English 24-7 so they don’t have to go out of their way necessarily to look for content that is there own. Unless it’s somebody who is specifically nationalistically inclined.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: So for me, putting a bunch of maple syrup and a flag on a film don’t necessary serve your purpose, in many ways I think it can ostracize you from an audience.

Shannon: That’s interesting because one of the things I found so fascinating about the film was that it was so accessible, although there is lots of harsh content that’s not glorified or even often onscreen, but so much comes across in sheer tone so it’s accessible to a very large audience. Was that a conscious decision to keep it accessible?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Well after my first film This Beautiful City, which is an unapologetically an indie gritty film with liberal doses of sex and violence in it, and it was definitely not a commercial film and we didn’t apologize for that. But I don’t necessary want to do the same thing again, certainly not right away so I want to do something different. A part of me did sort of want to flaunt the opportunity to branch out theatrically in countries throughout the world , so obviously I’m trying to… the goal is always how do you tell a story that interests the greatest number of people without watering down the story that you are trying to tell.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Because if you were to take this film and try to water it down further, not water it down, but or if you were try and make it more accessible than it is then in starts to become a CSI episode or something like that, then the film completely falls apart. It’s always finding that natural balance and just being honest with yourself, what is the story you are telling and realize what is the audience for that and in turn how much do you try to make if for as a result. If I tried to make this film for $20 million, I’d still be trying to make this film.

Shannon: Right. It’s interesting. We get a lot of crime dramas and crime thrillers, what do you think draws people to these stories over and over again?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Well certainly the thriller drama, and I certainly would not consider this film that, the word thriller is a bit of a word du jour, in filmmaking especially these days. Because last year no one wanted to touch drama.

Shannon: Yeah.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: But then of course, movies like Winter’s Bone and Black Swan happen and True Grit, and then they succeed so there is always a back and forth. At the end of the day you can’t try and chase the market. I guess you can and some people do, maybe as a producer you can in terms of what content to trigger but from a creators perspective because the process generally takes longer I don’t think you can chase the market because by the time you finish it, something else is in vogue. So you can really only be trying to make the best films possible and have some kind of general sense about if it’s realistic. I mean, if I had wrote in a whole bunch of helicopter fights and stuff like that, would it have been realistic to the story? Would it be feasible to make? That’s my producer brain, perhaps, but I don’t really want to spend 5 years trying to get a movie made.

Shannon: For sure. I’m just trying to imagine helicopter fights in the film, and it’s not quite working.


Shannon: The music in the film is extremely powerful. Can you talk a little bit about it and how it played into the film? I know said it was an important piece.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah, I wrote the movie around the idea of using a specific record and I guess the impulse of that is that an album is created in a specifically time and place and has continuous themes, and it feels very much a whole. The album can often feel part of that record. So that was the idea of using the album as a soundtrack. That said, the music that I ended up using the film is not the music that inspired the film.

Shannon: Interesting.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: And I very much love the album that inspired me, but I really felt that the album had influenced the pace and tone and sort of the texture, cinematography, the tone sort of the colour of the film to such an extent that when I had the same music up against it in the edit, there wasn’t any real conflict between the images and the music. They were all to me, saying the same colour. And also I felt that I really needed a bit more abrasive to the gentle lilting to the film. I’ve known Bruce Peninsula and was listening to their stuff while we were shooting the film and was inspired with the movie begin and end with the Bruce Peninsula song, and then rest be this other album instead. Because what I really liked because their stuff is so influenced by gospel music, I was able to continue the thread through picking which songs, able to string though the spiritual journey of the protagonist without never having to necessarily talk about religion.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: And I’m always very suspicious of things that give away to much, I’m very much a less is more school of narrative and information. Just in general but I think you can have something that’s sparse but powerful, that to me much more exciting than expositional.

Shannon: Sparse but powerful, it’s definitely sparse and powerful. Absolutely fascinating to look at it that way.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: It’s fine tuning to find that balance of when you hold back information how much are you inviting people to think and participate and then at one point if you hold back too much do they just get confused and annoyed. We went to both sides of that through the edit, at times it was even sparser to the point where it’s so sparse it’s impenetrable versus too much information. It’s almost too much information to the point where if we are going procedural than we are going to need a lot more information.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: So it can be a tricky slope of like, you say two words and then it almost wants you to say 30 and it can go on and on and on. It’s very delicate house of cards that you try and create just how much and how little information you can getaway with providing, and it what form. For me the title cards and the music were a way of imbuing scenes that had nothing to do with spirituality with a sense of his spiritual crisis. You just felt that weight continuing throughout these other scenes without me ever having to talk about it, and there were certainly times more open. It was always very sparse in the script but at time I did speak more about his spiritual struggle or just Mennonites in general but I think the word ‘Mennonite” is mentioned once in the film and it just becomes a flavour and a texture as opposed to, I didn’t want the film to become about that.

Shannon: I felt myself listening though, to make sure I had the right term, like who are we talking about here? Just for accuracy, but not so much to pin it down to something.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Right.

Shannon: I have to ask you about the extraordinary cast who do such an exceptional job. Can you share how the casting fell into place?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: The only person I had from the beginning is Aaron Poole who played the younger cop, because he’s really talented and one of my best friends and story edits and sort of a creative collaborated on a lot of what I do. And Peter Stormare as Walter, I’ve been working with a really great casting director. In the process of jamming out ideas you create a list of 50-60 peoples, just archetypes of actors whether they are even realistic or not that you might but a Christopher Walken on there or an Al Pacino, just more about are these the kind of people? And you can say yes or no, just to get a flavour of what is the feel of the character. And what ideas could we get that are very different than I imagined. So it becomes a creative jamming out process. I’ve been a fan of his TV series “Prison Break”, and I watched that and I just happened so see Armageddon on when it was on television and saw his character in that and reminded me of how funny he is in that film and realized it was the same guy. I I was intrigued after that. I was thinking more about it and realized he was in Fargo, and the places I knew him from and I went and saw Dancer in the Dark again, and that was for me really what sold it because he was just so innocent and sweet in that film. I was a little nervous because his other characters, at least with the material because it’s so Hollywood, it wasn’t sort of the naturalism I would be going for with his performance? I mean you can’t really consider Fargo and Armageddon to be naturalistic.


Ed Gass-Donnelly: But there was just something I saw in his character in Dancer in the Dark that just felt very real. There was a shy awkwardness to him in that that I really liked and I got really interested and started to see more and more of his stuff. I saw this Swedish film called Varg, which means Wolf, that he was the lead in just to see as much possible. And then we just arranged for me to meet him in New York and over quite a few drinks we decided to work together.


Ed Gass-Donnelly: And the rest of the cast, Martha Plimpton was one of the very person we discussed for that role and we had no connection to her. We talked and the conversation for a while came back and we made an offer to her and she agreed to do it. And Jill Hennessy, it’s funny because when you make a Canadian film there is a balance of needed a certain amount of your stars to be Canadian, to assess public money. And I was at a film festival party in 2009, in the September about month and a half before we started shooting and I hadn’t cast that role yet and was talking about how I needed to find somebody. A friend of mine suggested Jill Hennessy, and I said I needed someone Canadian and I didn’t realize Jill Hennessey was Canadian. I knew her work from “Law and Order”, but I didn’t know specifically that she was Canadian. Again I got intrigued looking at more of her work.

Shannon: Great casting with her, she does a fearless performance in the film.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah, and again I’m always interested in casting very much against type. Certainly with Peter I wanted to do something very different from what we’ve seen, to be honest to the extent that sadly most people didn’t recognize him. Which is great from a creative point of view, but then you put him on a poster and it’s like “Who’s that guy?” I mean, people don’t even recognize him. His character was written with very much the intention that he would have these large glasses and big moustache that were sort of like a mask on his face. I didn’t consider the possibility that if you put that kind of a mask on someone face and it’s hard to recognize them. Which is really wonderful when people then realize who his is as they can sort of loose themselves in the story and character.

Same with Jill, the first day she was filming the note I had to give to make up was “You gotta stop making her looks so pretty.” And even though she looks good in the film, there was definitely a typical vain approach to say, a 40 year old woman in a movie.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: You try to make her look better, try to make her look 10 years younger. And I was like you know what, let her be an attractive woman who’s 40, or 39, or whatever IMDb says. I thought, let’s make her look a little rough around the edges, we don’t need to glam her up. That was it, she started looking glam and I was like, take that down, take that down. Make it look like she’s not wearing any make up and her be more a natural character for that world as opposed to she just stepped out an episode of “Law and Order”.

Shannon: I chatted with Aaron Poole recently about the film as well, and it was great to see you two working together again on this project. Can you talk a bit about what it was like to work together?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: I’ve known Aaron for years and years because we went to high school together, it’s just a constant collaborative process. On this in addition to playing a supporting role in the film he was the story editor from the beginning so it’s always sort of more than just screen acting too, in terms of that relationship. He was in my previous film as well, being one of the leads and the story editor. It’s just a constant creative process. Because I tend to do a lot of jobs on the film, this one I was the writer/director/editor and one of two producers ,so all the more reason I feel that when I do so many jobs I need to surround myself with people I creatively trust because you need an outside eye, you need feedback constantly. Because you don’t have another editor with another writer or you don’t have the luxury of always having a second brain for input.

Shannon: Having a support team with you.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah, so for me when you start taking on more and more jobs like that, all the more reason you really need people you know and trust and really have deeper creative discussion with. And frankly, rather frequently because it could be 2 days later and I’ll have a new pass at the edit and I’ll want to bounce it off of somebody. So you really need that sort of that strong creative support structure.

Shannon: Interesting. Small Town Murder Songs has screen across south western Ontario, and also at TIFF. What’s the response been like in south western Ontario in particular?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: It’s been great. I haven’t actually been there for that many of them unfortunately because I’ve been travelling. But the response that we’ve had, and this is definitely why we started screening in small towns initially, because when we initially were getting close to finishing the edit and several of my friends are from small towns and really latched on the fact that they felt it was a really authentic portrayal of that community. Specially of my friends that are Mennonite they felt that there was a lot of authenticity that they didn’t normally see represented.

So I think on the one hand a little of the strategy was the title of the film was to creative something that was evocative and creative enough information “Small Town” and we wanted to make sure was included, then of course “Murder” and “Songs” was an odder part of the title, but a creatively evocative part . So I think we are trying to convince people to take a look in with certain genre and creative elements to it, to entice them but also ideally to feel that it’s in their community. I think inevitable people just feel people are curious, so it’s been playing really well and then some people, or the people that don’t like it who come in expecting a classic thriller, that’s been a constant struggle to make sure that the things like the trailer of the film are actually very reflective of the film.

It’s been interesting that when people either have no opinion of what they are seeing, or know what they are seeing , there is always an unanimously positive experience from person to person. I mean, maybe there is a person that says “That wasn’t a thriller!” or something totally different and I’d say “I totally agree with you.”


Shannon: I think it’s amazing the diversity of communities you’ve been able to capture – I was a big fan of This Beautiful City and I’m a Toronto Queen Street Girl myself I feel you really got that setting perfectly. I was wondering what’s next on the horizon for you?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: It’s a great question , I’d really like to know too. I’ve been developing 8 different movies.

Shannon: Wow.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: There are 2 or 3 contenders that look like they will go next. It’s always sort of exploring the US, when Variety named me one of their 10 directors to watch, that created a fair amount of attention for me in the States. So I was recently with a US manager and agent there and I’ve been working to set up a couple of the larger projects that I’ve been sort of back burning a little bit in Canada because they didn’t seem feasible to me as sort of a next film. I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to do maybe a $10 or $20 million film as a follow up to this.

Shannon: Right.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: I was focusing more on these movies for about $3-4 million, just from a business perspective but creatively I’m excited about all the stuff I’ve been working on it’s just I’m also trying to be realistic. In Canada, it’s not feasible to do a $40 million movie, so I wasn’t developing any. But suddenly in the States anything under $10 million could be a bit tricky because always needing enough elements from a business point of view in terms of cast and tech so if someone is actually going to risk $10 million, I mean $10 million is a lot of money, so that if they will actually make it back or not even make it back but make a profit. So it’s interesting whereas in Canada in the US is the hardest place to make a film between $1-5 million, and Canada is very much supportive of that. It’s not that Canada can’t do larger films, it’s just that the slate of material I’ve been developing which ranges from a supernatural thriller to a rock-gospel musical, for me it’s just really trying to think about what is the best place to try and get this movie made.

Because I’m also a dual Canadian-British citizen, I was just in Europe aggressively pursuing co-productions, so really it comes back to that I don’t want to be just a Canadian filmmaker but I want to be, I mean we are in an international marketplace and the movie is coming out in Toronto and Edmonton but it’s also going to be released in Turkey and Scandinavia as well as the US. So it’s exciting to be thinking outside of what’s my neighbourhood and what can I get financed here, sort of look a little bit broader and say what is the best place in the world for me to make this next movie.

Shannon: Well then you very much literally are one to watch because we are going to have to keep an eye on what you get up to next!


Shannon: Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the film and being one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch, that’s absolutely amazing.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Thank you very much.

Small Town Murder Songs opens in February 18, 2011 at the Royal Theatre in Toronto and the Metro in Edmonton. See the film website for more information on upcoming screenings.

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