Canadian filmmaker Adam MacDonald invokes ‘Pyewacket’

Canadians might know Adam MacDonald best as a veteran performer on screens big and small, but with his second feature film behind the camera, Pyewacket (opening in select Canadian cities this weekend), he continues his impassioned journey as a writer and director.

MacDonald established his reputation as a performer with prominent roles on Canadian television shows like Being Erica and Rookie Blue, but the Montreal native began developing his own feature film projects several years ago. After helming a few short films, MacDonald wrote and directed the intense bear attack thriller Backcountry. Based on a true story of survival, Backcountry premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 and established MacDonald as an upcoming filmmaker of note.

Pyewacket (which was a TIFF selection earlier this year) marks MacDonald’s return to the horror genre and to yet another intense, secluded location. In his sophomore feature, Nicole Muñoz stars as Leah, an occult obsessed, but otherwise normal teenager who’s been brought metaphorically kicking and screaming to a new home and life in the countryside by her mother (Laurie Holden), a woman desperate to unplug from city living in the hopes that it will ease the pain of losing her husband one year prior. Leah would rather spend her days hanging out with friends and moving on with life in her own way, seeing her mother’s decision to move into a secluded suburban home as a form of treason and emotional abuse. Following a particularly bad row, Leah decides to perform a black ritual in the woods where she wishes her mother was dead. Although Leah almost immediately regrets her own decision to perform the deadly rites, she might have set into motion forces that can’t be stopped, outsmarted, or reasoned with.

We caught up with the boisterous, well spoken, genre loving MacDonald earlier this week at a downtown screening room to talk about his latest outing as a director, how his experiences making Pyewacket differed from Backcountry, putting a bit himself into his screenplays, his leading ladies, and how hard it can be to gain the trust of producers.

Nicole Muñoz and writer-director Adam MacDonald on the set of Pyewacket.

One of the themes of Pyewacket that’s really relevant in modern society, especially given the rise of social media, is that you shouldn’t wish harm upon someone unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. I know that Pyewacket is more of a story about a mother/daughter relationship, but did you have a larger picture in mind when coming up with this story?

Adam MacDonald: I mean, it’s kind of like The Divine Comedy, you know? Whatever your sin is equates to your punishment in hell and all that. But I don’t know if I was necessarily thinking about that specifically instead of it coming out somewhat naturally.

I was actually drawing from my own life a little bit for this one. My mother moved me up North, and although my own father was still around, unlike the family in this film, I based a lot of the feeling of this film on that. I substituted that for a female perspective, which is something I also did on Backcountry. People always ask me why I choose female characters to tell my stories. Laurie Holden actually asked me that when we started. I think that’s just because I learn more from working with women, and also because I think a story like this doesn’t have the same impact from a male perspective. I just don’t think there would be a similar or richer emotional base if this were a film about a son trying to kill his mother instead of a daughter.

But in terms of the timely aspect that you brought up, I definitely thought about that more after I wrote it than when I was actively coming up with it two years ago. It’s definitely relevant in that way in the sense that you don’t go unpunished for those kinds of feelings, especially on social media where things can get pretty intense.

Another thing that I wanted to do, was that I wanted to run sort of counter to the notion that horror films are all about people banding together to combat some sort of evil head on. I wanted to draw more from the original Grimm Fairy Tales. I always thought of this as a dark fairy tale, and those stories always lend themselves well to feeling timely no matter when they’re brought up. These are stories that are often set in the middle of nowhere, and they’re so dark, but at the heart of them, they’re so simple that you can transplant a lot of those ideas to modern times. You can look at this as another story of a girl and her mother locked away in a castle somewhere far, far away, or you could look at it as a story of modern day isolation. Those stories are timely because they’re often about people who unleash forces that they can’t control, and they have to pay a price for that. Stories of people who face consequences that are unexpected or worse than expected are always timely.

Now that you told me about your love for Grimm Fairy Tales and your own personal upbringing – being a city kid uprooted to the country – it makes sense that both Pyewacket and Backcountry are thrillers that take place in isolated locations. In a setting like that, there’s very little emotional distance between your heroes and your villains. Is that something that has always fascinated you from a filmmaking standpoint?

Adam MacDonald: For sure. I grew up mostly in the suburbs – ones that you can actually glimpse in Pyewacket, and is where I plan to set my next story – but before I was twenty, I also had the experience of living with my family both in the heart of Montreal and also out in the Laurentians, where if you go out around the outskirts of Sainte-Adèle, it’s basically the bush. At one point where I lived there were no paved roads, so we were really in the heart of that.

But although I thought living in the city was intoxicating, I found that being out in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing but forests on all sides could be calming, but it was also very eerie to me. My younger brother, who’s seventeen years younger than me, and I would go on these hikes, and those days of backpacking were so inspiring for me that I’ve been drawing from them ever since. Forests are always in my dreams. Being there is the closest thing I can think of to experiencing a higher power other than us. I always find that in nature.

And it can be spooky, man. I still remember the first time my mother left me alone up there for the weekend. When you lie down, and you can’t hear anything at all, and you realize that you’re surrounded on all sides by nothing but woods when you look out the window, it’s like being in the womb of Mother Nature. You feel almost like you’re trespassing. If something breeches those walls you find yourself inside of, that’s it. It might feel like there’s no salvation if that massive outside world were to infiltrate those walls. It’s very intense, and that’s the feeling that I love drawing from.

It’s kind of ironic. When we were shooting the movie in this community about half an hour’s drive North of Sault Ste. Marie, right across the street from this isolated house where we were shooting was this church. It was this very small community church, and we all thought, “Man, how fitting is that?” (laughs) It took us a while to find the perfect house to capture the right feeling for the film, but that church and house in this somewhat isolated area felt like a real sign. Those who were religious on set felt a bit safer about making the kind of film we were making being close to something like that. (laughs)

And in terms of the subject matter, I did a lot of research for this one on the Left-Hand Path and black magic, and it was scary stuff. Sometimes I said I don’t believe in it, but I think I just don’t WANT to believe in it. Like any religion or system of beliefs, there’s a dark side. There was some real concern from some of the cast and crew that we were performing real rituals, which we were (laughs), but I reassured them that we were only doing bits and piece of them and not full rituals. But I wanted people who understand things about the Left-Hand Path will be able to identify what Leah is doing and know what it is.

Laurie Holden in Pyewacket

The dynamic between Leah, your main protagonist, and her mother feels very true to life. They’re struggling through feelings of loss in different ways, and they fight like crazy, but there are all these little, brief moments where they understand each other before they go back to fighting. I was wondering how challenging it was to find performers like Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden to portray these characters and their up-and-down dynamic. The whole story basically rises and falls on their chemistry and the believability of their relationship.

Adam MacDonald: For the film, like I said, I was drawing from my own life a bit, and I was really close to my own mother, so I knew exactly what these characters needed to be, and without Nicole and Laurie, we absolutely wouldn’t have been able to realize that.

I was so nervous when we were casting. Without the right actor playing the daughter or the mother, the whole film would collapse. Nicole was just head and shoulders above the rest of the people we looked at. What she did with her audition and her portrayal of Leah was that she personalized it. She blew me away so much, even though she wasn’t really anything like how I envisioned the character when I was writing it. She took what I had written and found her own way of expressing it, and that was key to what the performance needed. She got that immediately. She was in every scene of this film, and it was this character’s journey, and Nicole really got what the role required.

And Laurie is such a professional, and I knew that she could do it. When I first pitched her on doing the movie, she initially wasn’t too keen on the idea of doing a horror film. I told her that this was more of a drama wrapped in the trappings of a horror film. There was more drama to be found than horrific elements. I knew that she wasn’t afraid to go places that were personal and emotional, and I really needed someone like that to play the mother. There were moments when I was sitting behind the monitor watching her, and I would start tearing up.

You touched on this already, but this film does feel at times like it’s more of a domestic drama than a horror movie. You really take the time to set the stage and establish the relationship between the characters before you even start introducing any of the spooky stuff, and this is the kind of thriller that often doesn’t get made these days. Even when you get around to the scary moments, you build up to them slowly. What’s it like trying to get a film like this made where you want to pitch it as a horror movie, but the first thirty pages of the script read like a drama? It’s got to be hard to convince people on a financial level these days to get behind a slow burning horror film.

Adam MacDonald: That’s a great question, and you’re actually the first person to ask me that. And you’re also bang-on. It’s not without its challenges, but it’s also something that has come up with both of my films as a director so far.

With Backcountry it was probably more of an issue. When people started to get interested in this script about a bear attack, they were a little bit alarmed that the bear doesn’t show up until about 45 minutes into the movie. They forget about how long it takes for the shark in Jaws to arrive, but I would always ask the people I was talking to if they liked Alien and Aliens, and I would remind them that the creatures don’t show up until around the 50 minute mark in both instances. It works because the film is all building to that point with character and story. These aren’t films where people sit around on their hands talking about the weather!

On that film, I think there was a bit more of a trust that had to be learned, since it was my first film. It’s hard with something like Backcountry to get people to see your vision because it’s not there in the script. Whoever reads that script isn’t seeing the same location in their head that I have in mine. The music isn’t there. The actors aren’t there. We had talks where people would ask if we could have a little bit of the bear earlier on, and I would always say no because that would defuse the tension. I would say that it was always only going to be a 90 minute movie, so it wouldn’t drag out for longer than it needed to, but I always said the film was going to have a pulse. I also said that by the time the bear begins attacking around the halfway point, the audience members who came to see just that kind of movie would say, “Well, I didn’t like the rest of the movie, but once the bear showed up it was great!” (laughs) I also told them that the longer we held off on showing the bear, the cheaper the film would be, and everyone loves to hear that in this business. (laughs) But at the most, I hoped that by the halfway point people would be into the characters and realize that something bad was going to happen. I wanted them to be invested, but Backcountry was so dependent on tension and visuals that it was hard to read the script and see what I was going for.

It was a risk for anyone to get on board with that because I was untested and it hinged on a bear attack. But the thing is that once we shot it, people could SEE the bear. They could see exactly what it was that they should be scared of. It’s such a hard sell because you have all of these phone calls and meetings with people telling you that there’s nothing happening, and you have to tell them to trust you until they see the finished product. It’s so hard to explain music and visuals because they have to be experienced. With Backcountry, the experience was in my head, and not as much on the page, and I was so grateful for the support and trust everyone showed toward me.

With Pyewacket it was almost the exact opposite problem. The original draft of Pyewacket was a lot longer than what made it to the screen, and I cut it down because it was a bit too heavy on the dramatic side. My approach on both movies was the same in terms of storytelling: set the table, develop the characters first. But Pyewacket actually gets started a bit quicker.  Probably about thirty minutes in is where Leah performs her first ritual, but it slowly invades the lives of the mother and daughter from there.

Going into Pyewacket, I had established a lot of trust from Backcountry, and it was a bit easier to get off the ground. Also, Pyewacket was a much scarier script than Backcountry. Pyewacket read REALLY well, and I still think it reads as well as the film. Everyone who read it would feel creeped out. There was something about the language of the script that was able to really get people’s imaginations working. It was an easier sell in that respect and it worked.

But during the process of the editing, that’s when Pyewacket became tougher. It was hard to do test screenings because the sound design wasn’t in yet. Backcountry tested really well in test screenings because the bear attack was on screen and you didn’t need it. You could see it there on screen. Pyewacket is a lot more ethereal in tone and execution, and that’s hard to see when everything isn’t totally in place.

Pyewacket is kind of symphony of sound that makes the drama feel eerie and horrific, and it’s a real testament to the men and women who worked on the film that it’s looks and sounds as amazing as it does. They worked with me to scrutinize every frame of the film to make it what it became. It was something I had never done with a film this intensely before, and they helped me find my way through it.

Even the musical score from Lee Malia was something new for him and for myself. He’s from a band called Bring Me the Horizon, and he had never done something like this before, but he’s so talented. I wanted everything in this film to sound like something you never heard before, and that’s why I wanted a fresh composer. He was game to try, and I was excited by this other layer of people trying new things, and it turned out amazing. I always like do try things that I haven’t done before and then make them more difficult, even if it means having people take a leap of faith that you know what you’re doing.

Pyewacket opens in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Sudbury on Friday, December 8, 2017.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.