‘Lavender’ filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly on the subtle art of the thriller

by Andrew Parker

It has been a little while since Canadian audiences have seen anything from Torontonian filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly on the big screen.  Donnelly first made waves in the Canadian film scene with the one-two punch of his 2007 debut feature This Beautiful City and 2010’s Small Town Murder Songs. Following the success of both dramatic features, Donnelly was given the chance to helm the genre sequel The Last Exorcism Part II, which features not only a screenwriting credit for Donnelly, but also for Whiplash and La La Land filmmaker Damien Chazelle.

As is the case with most filmmakers working on the Canadian and independent film scene, the road to whatever his next project was going to be was an up and down battle. Eventually, however, he would come around to a project that he had toyed with doing almost a decade ago.

Lavender, which debuted earlier this year at Tribeca and opens across Canada this weekend, is a psychological thriller centred around Jane Rutton, a famed photographer played by Abbie Cornish. Following a childhood trauma that left her with a fractured skull and sometimes faulty memory, the adult Jane has become obsessed with photographing and documenting abandoned homes in bucolic country settings. Following an almost deadly car accident that nearly destroys the memory of her daughter and husband for good, she begins to piece together some of the details from her childhood with the help of her therapist (Justin Long) and her estranged uncle (Dermot Mulroney). But once she arrives to spend time at the countryside house of the birth parents she doesn’t remember, Jane starts to believe that there might be something supernatural drawing her home.

The point of Lavender is to make one question if Jane is going mad, if she was previously mad and blocked out her bad memories, or if someone or something is trying to mess with her. We caught up with Donnelly earlier this week about how those dynamics create the filmmaker’s favourite kind of suspense thrillers, why Lavender took such a long road to the big screen, and landing some pretty major stars for a smaller Canadian film on a tight budget.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, and correct me if I’m wrong on this, but Lavender was a film that you have been trying to work on for a while now, is it not?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah. It’s sort of one of those classic background projects for me that took years for me to get around to. It has always been there. Colin [Frizzell], who co-wrote the script, had actually been working on this for longer than I have. I have been working on this for about six or seven year, I think, but I also think that I first read a version of this that Colin had done probably close to ten years ago now. It was very different, and someone had given that to me ages ago because it had been optioned by somebody else, and I thought about it and then passed on it. Then several years later after I had made my first movie, Colin just called me and said he had written this script. I read it and thought it was really interesting, and it felt vaguely familiar. Turns out it was the same film that I heard had been optioned and I read the original draft of it, but now he had gotten the rights back and taken it all in a different direction. So it was always something that was fundamentally interesting for me.

Part of the reason it took so long for this film to get made was because we wanted to figure out who this protagonist was. At first it was a man, and then it got changed to a woman. Secondly, we wanted to figure out why this film needs to get made and this story needs to get told. In all the previous incarnations of the movie before we made it, the protagonist was someone who had been doing just fine in their life, and then bad things would happen, and by the end of it things would go back to normal. So why did all this happen? And a lot of it could be explained in a way where we could say, “Well, twenty years ago to the day such and such happened,” and I hate those kinds of movies. Once we thought about it more, we became more interested in a movie about someone who was suffering, but they didn’t know why, and in the process of these traumatic events there can be some sort of healing that arises from this tension. It’s a film about an artist that has all this subconscious fuel that she doesn’t realize is beneath the surface.

Once we cracked that, everything made sense. Once we got to that point, there was a big Hollywood producer attached to it – Mike De Luca – and we would have done things roughly the same way, but slightly differently. Then Mike took a job running a studio, and the film kind of fell by the wayside, but by that point the script had still found its way. Ultimately, we ended up producing the movie here instead, which once we got around to it made more sense for the story and setting. There was never any real reason for this movie to cost $20 million, but it was one of those things that took a long time to find its home.

It is funny when people bring it up though because they often make it sound like I was working on it every day, which wasn’t the case. (laughs) Other projects would just jump the queue and those would always take a year or more away from your time. Once a couple things get ahead of it that were ready to go, that always put this one on the backburner until we went and shot it last year and until it comes out this week!

For a thriller, this has a really unique kind of setting and tone that seems to recall both Dario Argento and Terence Malick at the same time. Was it also a struggle to find the film’s sense of place and tone?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yes and no. A good example of the kind of internal struggle we had while working on the material was that as the film was originally written, it was supposed to take place in the fall, which if you think about it is a bit of a cliché. Sometimes when you do genre films, you tend to think and think and sometimes overthink whether or not you’re unwittingly giving in to clichés or if you’re actually doing something with what you’re given. I’m sure there will be someone who criticizes this because it’s another thriller about the nature of memory or that it’s some sort of revenge movie, but there are some clichés that we all know would be true and that’s the reason they’re clichés in the first place. The key for this film was to always be cognizant if you were doing an intentional homage, something truthful, or if we were unconsciously ripping something off. We actually ended up shooting the film in late June, which was a different palate from what it had been written to be, but it was actually a lot better because there’s a poetic creepiness that I didn’t notice in sort of a quiet, rural summer during the daytime. We had a lot of scenes that were written to take place at night that I switched to taking place during that day to capture some of that beauty that helped give the film this distinct voice.

In all honesty, while some could call this a horror movie, I don’t really like horror movies all that much. Actually, I should say that I don’t love “Capital H” horror movies. I like films that have more scary elements to them than ones trying to openly be scary. I like films like The Shining or The Babadook. One of the biggest inspirations for this film was actually The Others, which is a strong, character driven piece. From the opening to the end, it’s the kind of emotional puzzle along the lines of what I personally find thrilling. You believe in the story the whole time, and for me, that’s critical. Often times in thrillers that are trying too hard to be scary, the first thing that falls by the wayside is performance, and the second is believability in the characters. If the characters can be smart, realistic, and believe in their world, that makes you as a viewer believe in it. Any time you make a movie where someone screams at their television or the screen about a character doing something unbelievable, that’s when you know you’ve made the wrong decisions and the wrong kind of movie. I love being entertained, but I love being entertained on more than one level.

Ed Gass-Donnelly

Ed Gass-Donnelly

This also differentiates itself from other thrillers is that it’s never immediately clear if Jane is crazy, or someone is messing with her, or if there’s something supernatural at hand. Is that sense of uncertainty also something you find thrilling in this kind of film?

Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah. I’ve certainly known people who have discovered and relived a moment of childhood trauma, and that fallibility of memory is terrifying. I’ve got two young girls, so I take some of Jane’s backstory as something that I’m sensitive to as a father. I never want to make something unnerving into something flippant or glib. If you feel like a film is being cavalier with you, that often takes you out of the film. I think the more specific you get and the more focused you get with your characters, the trauma or powers at play don’t have to be tied to anything you actually lived through for you to be able to relate to it. It can make you think of things tangentially to a point where you can see yourself in the shoes of this person’s confusion or back to some other similar feeling tied to something else in your own life. I think the best stories always do that. If it’s a film that’s just one jump scare after another that assaults your senses, I don’t think those linger as long in your mind afterwards. I love making movies that make people talk about them afterwards rather than films that people forget about the day afterward.

For a film with this modest of a budget, it certainly didn’t damage your ability to get some pretty big names to fill out your cast.

Ed Gass-Donnelly: (laughs) This is the type of film where I think either everyone needs to be recognizable or no one should be recognizable. I had seen Abbie in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and we’re both with the same management company, so in some ways that was a path of least resistance to someone that I really wanted to work with. So many people are always trying to reach out to these kinds of performers, and they always want to do great parts, but sometimes it’s hard to get through to them. So getting to her was a relatively clear path because her manager saw the script directly and liked it and passed it on, and then I Skyped with her and we went from there. And once Abbie was in place, we were able to cast other people that I really liked in Justin and Dermot to get them to play roles that are fresh, familiar, and different from what people normally see them play. They’re all people who can play things a lot more emotionally. Seeing people in roles like this they can throw you off a bit, and makes things less familiar.

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