Canadian filmmaker Colin Minihan and actress Brittany Allen are no strangers to collaboration. Of still emerging genre maven Minihan’s four feature directorial outings, Allen has appeared in three of them: Extraterrestrial, It Stains the Sands Red, and their most recent team-up, What Keeps You Alive, which makes its Canadian premiere this weekend at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto after a successful world premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year. Vancouver born Minihan and Toronto born Allen are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a couple off screen, as well.
What Keeps You Alive is about as far from their jovial, relaxed selves as one could get. It’s a slowly building thriller that follows Jules (played by Allen) and Jackie (played by Hannah Emily Anderson), a same sex couple that has taken off to the latter’s secluded cottage country estate to celebrate their one year wedding anniversary. Not long after their arrival, the couple will be torn apart by a long dormant secret. Without giving too much away, the couple will engage in a deadly game of cat and mouse, and it gives nothing away to say that a divorce would definitely be in order.
We caught up with Minihan and Allen the day before the film’s Toronto premiere to talk about the challenges of creating a slowly escalating thriller, making a movie where the hero and the villain are almost perfect equals, Allen’s first foray into scoring a move, how the story came to centre on a same sex couple, and more.
One of the things that’s so fascinating about this movie is that it’s a thriller that keeps changing what kind of thriller it is, and it does so very seamlessly. It starts off as a domestic drama, then becomes a survival thriller, then becomes almost like a home invasion film, then it’s a psychological thriller, and also a revenge movie. What’s the challenge of creating a continually evolving and changing thriller that stays true to the characters and their specific situations?
Colin Minihan: I think it just comes down to the fact that my style of making a film, especially horror or a thriller like this, is to write it and shoot it as fast as possible before it starts to feel stale. We obviously didn’t shoot in sequence, but we always kind of stuck to that feeling. For me, the material always had to feel fresh, and it did here. Those beats that you mention where it starts to feel like it’s becoming too much like one kind of film or moments where we learn more about who this dark villain is are just part of the storytelling process for me. It’s just a natural progression that I tend to follow.
Brittany Allen: For me, it’s challenging because my character just goes through the ringer. It was very, very physically demanding, especially when the story keeps changing and different moments in the film require me to do any number of different things. But I don’t work out much in real life, so it was nice to see that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was. (laughs) When you’re forced to row across a lake all day, you really start to know what you’re capable of, especially when Colin’s on a walkie talkie from his safe perch quite a distance away yelling, “Row harder!” (laughs)
Colin Minihan: I assure you where I was sitting wasn’t THAT comfortable. (laughs)
Brittany Allen: No, it wasn’t. (laughs) But the biggest challenge for me is that when you’re making a film that keeps twisting like this one, some days your body just doesn’t want to go that place emotionally or physically.
Colin Minihan: Creatively, it’s always a challenge for any filmmaker to make sure they’re staying true to the material and to not be lazy. You need to care about the tone at all times, and you need to care about every shot as much as you cared about the last shot. I’m obsessive about those details, so my style is to wake up in the morning, crank up some super loud music, and prepare myself as if I were going out to play a sport or something like that. Making a film is always a marathon.
I could tell that this was going to be a really ambitious kind of thriller right from the opening where you were able to find a house to shoot in where you had plenty of room to move around and follow Jules and Jackie through their cabin. It’s a great looking shot, and there are a lot of details in there that are subtly implanted to come back later on.
Colin Minihan: That house was beautiful, and the second I stepped inside of it I knew that the only way to really reveal that space was to redesign everything I had already written for these elaborate single takes. It was almost looks like we built the house for the movie, but we were lucky to find it.
That ingenuity extends to one of the film’s most memorable and original sequences which is a chase between a pair of rowboats on a lake, which is equally terrifying and played for a few laughs at the same time. Neither boat can escape, they’re basically rowing in circles, and yet there’s a definite amount of danger involved.
Brittany Allen: That scene was so demanding, but so great. There are some really great laughs in that scene.
Colin Minihan: It’s hilarious, and even though it’s really a life or death situation, you can’t have a scene like that without having some humour. That was a lot of fun. There’s something to be said about a slow chase as opposed to a fast one. There’s tension in a slow chase that’s sometimes more palpable. You might have more tension because you’re just watching something that’s catching up to you very slowly that you can’t escape from.
After the first twenty minutes of the film, you have to play someone who’s in a perpetually fluctuating state of shock. Seeing that you didn’t shoot the film in sequence, what was the trick to remembering how scared or strong you had to play in each scene?
Brittany Allen: It’s really a combination of things. I’ve done a number of thrillers and horror films where I’ve had to be in a pretty distressed state for a bulk of the shoot, and in some ways I find going to those places to be almost easier than doing the more subtle and nuanced dramatic scenes. If you have nerves or your mind is racing, you just commit fully to the stress of the situation you’re in. You use that stress, and you just thrust your body into the situation before your brain has time to catch up. You just throw yourself into it, and you’re forced to give up all your inhibitions. When you fear for your life, you’re not thinking about anything other than surviving. And I always get a thrill out of doing that kind of work. It can be a really cathartic experience. If you have to do it for too long, it can drain on you, which is why shooting out of sequence on something like this can be a real gift, but it’s just a great opportunity to just let it all out.
It’s great for all the times you want to just scream at the top of your lungs, but you just can’t, or to cry all the tears you want to cry and you can’t let out otherwise. I draw on any number of things, and I have a pretty good toolbox of methods that I can pull from. If one thing isn’t working, I have plenty of other things that I can try instead. It’s challenging when you’re making a film and shooting out of sequence – regardless of genre – to remember where you’re coming from and keeping track of where your character has been coming from up to this point. If you’re not thinking about that, you’ll end up giving a lopsided and inconsistent performance. But for that, I always have a cheat sheet that I can pull from with a scene by scene break down so I can go back to that really quickly.
And Colin is just an incredible director who I can really rely on. If I’m struggling in a given moment, he’s there to help me get back on track.
Does it make it easier that you both know each other really well and have worked with each other before? Have you guys been able to adopt a certain kind of shorthand with each other to figure out what each other needs?
Colin Minihan: Generally speaking, yeah. I’m always pretty good at cutting through the bullshit with people, and actors especially respect you when you’re able to call them on their bullshit and push them to find a truthful place for a scene to come from. And Brittany and I definitely have that shorthand where anything like that could be conveyed between us almost with a look and not by even really saying anything.
Brittany Allen: It’s a really beneficial thing to know someone’s process that deeply, for the most part, but sometimes when you know someone that well, you might try to get away with certain things that you might not try with someone you don’t know as well. As a performer, you always have to stay on top of yourself, and when you work with people you’ve worked with frequently before, you have to stay vigilant about your own weaknesses. You can’t always think of how great it is to be working with your boyfriend or your best friend or anything like that. You might relax a bit, but you don’t want to be too relaxed that you unwittingly end up letting them down, you know?
Colin Minihan: For me, you’re just so much of a character actor that I never thought about that. When you take on a role, you just transform your appearance from movie to movie and show to show. You put so much work into your characters. When I’m looking through the monitor, I’m not seeing my girlfriend acting. I’m watching Jules come to life on screen, and I’m trying to hone and facilitate that performance in any way I can.
Brittany Allen: I guess that’s true because we still tend to talk about the character’s I’ve played in these movies as if they were real people.
Colin Minihan: Yeah, and I kind of watch you as you let go of them.
Brittany Allen: That’s true! Molly from It Stains the Sands Red is someone we still talk about in the third person. (laughs) We have a tendency to do that and treat these characters as people we used to know. (laughs)
How hard is it for a filmmaker to find someone to play a role like the one Hannah Emily Anderson plays here?
Colin Minihan: Honestly, we got incredibly lucky with Hannah Anderson on this movie. I think there are so few people in Canada who could pull off this role in the same way that she did it. The answer is that it’s really hard to find that person. (laughs)
I’ve told a few other people this story, but we had problems with casting right up until the last minute with this role specifically. It was only through the third party suggestion of a make-up artist who was working on a movie that Britt was shooting in Montreal that talking to her became an idea. Britt also had an interaction with Hannah while working on the movie Jigsaw. I was relying on their opinions and the opinion of another filmmaker who had made a short with her. I talked to them about her, and then I studied every bit of acting from Hannah that I could find because there wasn’t enough time to get another audition tape. We were literally a week out from shooting when we cast her.
Brittany Allen: So she only had a week to prepare for this intense role, so it’s even more amazing.
Colin Minihan: I was really forced at the last minute to roll the dice with Hannah, but she has such a fantastic take on the film. From that point, once I knew her take on it, it was my job to adjust the film to facilitate her take. That was so much more freeing than trying to shoehorn her into this version of the character that I had written things that didn’t feel right coming from the take that she created for the character. It was a great collaboration because the character revealed things to me that were different from what I had been writing. But you just trust that it’s going to work and that it’s going to be for the better.
Brittany, you’re also a musician with an album on the way, and you pulled extra duty on this film by also producing the musical score. Since this was your first time scoring an entire feature, what was that experience like? I can’t think of too many lead actors who also composed the music for their films, but I imagine it must be a great asset to be able to put music to a film where you remember what your character is feeling during a given scene versus putting music to something you have no frame of reference for.
Brittany Allen: It was so much fun, but also so challenging. I’ve been recording music on my own and professionally for the last several years, and Colin has always been so supportive of that. Leading up to the shoot we were always throwing around the idea of me doing the scoring for this, and we just kept saying that until it finally became real. We tried a couple of scenes to gauge if I was capable of that, and I was really excited by what I was coming up with.
Colin Minihan: It really brought our collaboration to the next level, and it was a ton of fun to work on that.
Brittany Allen: And I definitely had an inherent understanding of all the scenes, given my experience of working on it as an actor. It’s going to be an interesting exercise trying to do the same thing when I don’t have the same kind of connection to a story, but I am so excited to try doing it again. It’s definitely something I want to do more of.
This is a film with four primary actors. Three of them are women, and two of them are involved in a fully fleshed out same sex relationship, one of which will turn out to be a dangerous person. Even working in a normally bankable genre like this film, was there ever some hesitancy on the part of financiers and producers to take this material on, specifically because of the heavy female perspective?
Colin Minihan: I never gave anyone the time to even say anything that stupid to me. (laugh) I like making movies. I don’t like pitching and trying to convince people into letting me make a movie. It’s fully within my power as a creative person to make something from a script that I know I can make and that I believe in. Generally, the rule of thumb is that if I believe in it and I’m excited by it, someone else out there will believe in it and be excited by it, too.
Brittany Allen: And thankfully, a story like this about a lesbian couple is something that audiences are craving. There are people who have been looking for films like this and even thrillers like this for a long time, and now these stories are being told with more frequency, and these kinds of stories are becoming celebrated on a wider level. It was something where the people we took the film to thought it was fresh.
Colin Minihan: From the people who directly wanted to work on making this movie, we never experienced any push-back in that regard. It wasn’t a strategic play to make this film revolve around a lesbian couple. I think it has made it a bit more topical, even if the film isn’t really about the sexuality of these people at all.
Honestly, what excited me the most about making this a same sex couple was the ability to create a really iconic female psychopath. There are so few of them, and initially when I started out with this idea and the role was supposed to be played by a guy, there were so many of those kinds of stories out there. There was no way to top characters like Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Lecter or whomever, pick your poison. That wouldn’t have felt fresh, and I didn’t really get excited about the idea until I made it about two women.
But from a business standpoint, foreign sales are a bit of a different thing. There are certain countries where every distributor has passed on it exactly because it revolves around a same sex relationship. It’s still obviously a global hurdle and an issue when trying to get these stories made from a business perspective, but even that wasn’t a concern at all. Fuck those countries. (laughs)
The people who want to see it in countries like that will always find a way to see something like this, anyway.
Colin Minihan: Exactly. And, you know, you hope these countries will catch up in time.
The other thing that I love about the dynamic in this film is that while one of the women is clearly a villain and the other is a hero, I felt like while I was watching the film that it was a fair fight between the two of them. From scene to scene, it’s sometimes hard to tell who will be able to get the upper hand. What was it like creating that dynamic where it’s not just a weak protagonist facing off against an unstoppable villain like we usually get?
Colin Minihan: It becomes challenging when you’re writing the script because you know that invariably the audience is going to just start thinking, “Well, why don’t you run? Just run away! Get out of there!” But I always felt that the math of script – short of spoiling the film’s inciting incident – always had to have them on even ground to a point. She’s better at some things, and you’re better at some things, and when it comes down to a battle of wits it can be pretty even at times.
Honestly, that’s a hard question to answer because I think at a certain point the script starts to write itself. Once you know the story and you know these characters, you kind of know the math of it all and the characters just start to speak for you. When you get to a point like that and the characters just kind of speak for themselves it places them on equal ground and makes you wonder where this is all going to go. It just takes you there naturally.
What Keeps You Alive screens at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival on Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 9:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox.