Director Rob Connolly talks ‘Edge of Winter’

by Andrew Parker

For his debut feature, Edge of Winter (in select Canadian cities this Friday, July 19), American filmmaker Rob Connolly took his cast and crew to the not-all-that-exotic locale of Sudbury, Ontario for a tale of familial strife and suspense. It’s a small, independent film, but one that boasts not one, but two rapidly rising stars that director and co-writer Connolly was lucky enough to land.

Edge of Winter stars The Killing and Suicide Squad actor Joel Kinnaman as Elliot Baker, a recently laid off labourer in large amounts of debt who’s about to enjoy a hopefully quiet visitation weekend with his two sons: Bradley, played by newly minted Spider-Man Tom Holland, and younger brother Caleb, played by Percy Hines White. One day while out on an adventure, a series of mishaps causes the family to crash their car about thirty miles from civilization. During an overnight in their car, Elliot learns that his sons will soon be leaving with their mother and stepfather to a different country. After a night of being stranded, the family finds a cabin to hole up in, but the brothers start to wonder if their increasingly desperate and erratic dad cares about them getting rescued at all.

It’s a survival thriller and domestic drama all rolled into one, and Connolly gave us a call during a recent swing through Toronto to promote the film to talk about how Edge of Winter came together.

Andrew Parker: You worked on this film with co-writer Kyle Mann. At what point did you get involved with the project and when did you know you wanted this to be your first feature length film?

Rob Connolly: Kyle had already written a draft of it about six months or so before he pitched it to me. We were about to start working on a different project that was coming together where we were working together in a completely different capacity. I was originally co-producing another project that we were supposed to work on – in Winnipeg, actually – and throughout that entire process this story that Kyle had just stuck in my head. I kept coming back to it and saying I was going to direct it, and eventually we started talking about how we would want to shape it. Then we spent the next year reworking the script and getting it ready to shoot. Then in about November of 2014, that was when we got Joel to sign on and we started shooting just after the New Year in 2015.

Andrew Parker: It’s the kind of film where you need a desolate and snowy kind of location or else the set-up for the story and how this family gets stranded might lose some of its immediacy. At the same time, you need to choose a snowy, cold location that’s also accessible, safe, and a place where you can actually work instead of fighting the elements all the time. I know you ended up in Sudbury, Ontario, but how arduous was the process of finding a suitable location?

Rob Connolly: (laughing) Yeah, I think you totally hit the nail on the head there. It was completely a shock to me how hard it was to find a place that has something even as simple as a bend in the road that has the right look, gives off the appearance that it could be treacherous, but not too treacherous so that we wouldn’t be able to work there safely and we could access it with trucks and a crew. It’s an amazingly difficult game to play. You immediately think, “Well, how hard could it be to find a forest?” Or a lake, or an isolated road. But just trying to find a lake with a road that leads to it with no stop signs or power lines around it – you know, things that signify nearby traffic and civilization – is way trickier than you think.

We spent a ton of time in the car looking at a lot of places, and there were a ton of places we found where people would wonder why we couldn’t shoot there, but there were plenty of obvious restriction on what we could and couldn’t do in a lot of areas. Even if we could find something that looked exactly right, we had to be able to get trucks in there. We had to be able to somewhat easily lug equipment around without putting the crew and cast in any danger. It’s absolutely more challenging than you think it should be.

Sudbury was actually a really early find for us, and a lot of that hinged on the weather, itself. We knew we needed a lot of snow, and that winter was being forecast as potentially being a warmer winter. Our schedule was set up on the backend of when it was going to be coldest there, so we knew we had to go pretty far North if we wanted to make this happen, and that was the mission we set out on. One of our line producers in Toronto did a lot of work in Sudbury before, so we sent some scouts up there.

Andrew Parker: We know where Joel and Tom have ended up in their careers as actors now, but you also have performers like Shiloh Fernandez and Rossif Sutherland here in supporting roles, and they, much like Tom and Joel, can move easily between leading actor roles and character work. When you have a film like Edge of Winter where there are only a handful of parts to begin with, is it important for you to cast actors that could both command attention and blend into the rest of the film whenever needed?

Rob Connolly: Yeah, and that’s everything when making a film like this. These guys are huge personalities, and people who you can watch disappear into a role. Let’s just say you’re watching a movie with someone like, say, Julia Roberts in a leading role. You’re aware of that star power and her presence as Julia Roberts, and she’s an amazing actress, but some performers just have different sorts of skills when it comes to be an actor. These guys are amazing at what they do, and they can become real people in front of your eyes instead of just being actors that are exciting to watch.

Andrew Parker: I think it will be shocking for a lot of people to see someone like Joel Kinnaman, who has become known for his looks and leading man qualities by many people, as someone who’s quietly desperate and unravelling. How did you work on the character with Joel to make Elliot come across as someone who has to seem somewhat dangerous, but not too crazy, and as a father figure?

Rob Connolly: Again, you kind of hit the nail on the head there. That was the biggest trick of the film was to create that feeling. One of the biggest things about this was to make the viewer somewhat sympathetic towards Elliot to a point where you’re almost willing to put up with a lot of the stuff he does with these kids. We had to really get down to what his motivations are, and when Joel and I first started talking about it, it became apparent that we needed to diagnose the character with something specific that we don’t spell out in the film to sort of give us something to hold onto.

The more we looked into the script and how it was written, we sort of honed in that Elliot has an undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. Things trigger him differently more than most people, and Joel wanted the character to be exposed in a way. He’s like a lying live wire. On the surface, it’s not really an active threat to just look at it and take in from a distance, but if you do something with it, the danger gets amplified much more quickly. For me, Elliot was always this person who’s incredibly short sighted. He only ever deals with whatever’s directly in front of him. He just got laid off from his job, he just got this bad news in his life, and he’s reacting to these things. I think that’s how Elliot became a father in the first place.

He’s someone who never really thinks things through long term, and when he gets into a situation that can be dangerous, he can’t really see how things got that far away from him. For Elliot, his decisions in a crisis always lead him to someplace unrecognizable to him, and I think that’s really the story in a nutshell. By the time everyone recognizes that they might be in some kind of real danger, it’s too late.

Andrew Parker: Tom and Percy really come across as having an almost effortless brotherly dynamic, and I think they’re the glue that really holds the film together. Did you get a chance to test them together as actors, or were they cast separately and they just figured things out with you when you all had a chance to get together?

Rob Connolly: That dynamic was so important to me, and I wish I was able to test that more before we made the film, but because of where everyone started from – Tom was in London at the time, and I think Percy was in Toronto – we never had that chance before we started shooting. It was going to be tough to get them together, but I think we had them Skype once before they got to meet on set so they could generally get a feel for it.

But one of the great things about shooting in a place like Sudbury was that once we all got there, we basically just hung out together all the time. We all got familiar, and immediately they all had this bond. Tom knew the task at hand, and being the older of the two, he knew he could help steer this relationship. A few hours in, they were playfully shoving each other around like brothers even when the cameras were off, so we knew they totally hit it off.

It was the same way with Joel. In a remote setting where you’re filming every day with pretty much the same three people in every scene, there’s a lot of downtime, and it makes it easier that they were all happy to be around each other. Joel took on that challenge of entertaining the boys, and the boys were entertaining him as much as they possibly could. It was a really great way to become a much tighter family on screen in a small amount of time.

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