Canadian writer, actor, and producer Aaron Poole has finally found the time to think big, and it will be surprising to many that have followed his career that the short film Oracle which premieres at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in the Short Cuts programme) is the first thing he’s ever directed.
Since the start of his career, Poole has been known largely as a character actor, taking on roles big and small, on television and film, in everything from dramas to horror films to paranoid thrillers to broad comedies to westerns and anything you could imagine in-between. With most of his time devoted to either his work or his family, Poole says he didn’t have much of any space to develop a project on his own, and that the time finally felt right to make Oracle.
Oracle is a thoughtful, borderline experimental drama about a young boy (played by Carl MH Brooks) who’s experiencing a bit of fear and trepidation as his family home starts undergoing renovations. A unique reflection on the various ways we process memories, our first experiences with anxiety, and the realization as a child that the world is bigger than we initially thought it was, Oracle draws from a lot of Poole’s own experiences as a child and some of his favourite themes and moods to explore in his work.
We caught up with Poole before the festival to talk about why it took so long for him to take up directing, how the story can be perceived differently based on the person watching it, the casting process, and his aversion to nostalgia and sentimentality.
You’ve been in pretty much every type of movie you could be in as an actor, and you’ve been so active in that realm for so long, so what made this seem like the right time to step behind the camera and direct? Was this an idea you had kicking around for a long time?
Aaron Poole: For me, the reason I’ve only been acting is because I’ve been a committed father for the past nineteen years, and I just shipped my daughter off the Montreal for university this week. I focused a lot of my time when I wasn’t acting on being a parent, and I think now there was this spectre of having extra time. I was finally creative enough and afraid enough to put pen to paper and follow my own ideas. I found that a lot of my creative choices that I had made as an actor always came from this desire to do something more, or that it was born from some sort of longing or frustration. Once I realized that was how I kind of worked, that was what got me out of largely auditioning for other people’s stuff and I started producing and getting involved with more independent projects. And now I have followed that to writing and directing.
As for the impetus of the short, there are some images in there that I’ve had in my mind for a huge portion of my life. Some of them come from recurring dreams, and others are things that I remember seeing growing up in our 1850s era farm house as a kid. It might’ve been my imagination or it might’ve been a ghost, and I just kind of thought that this part of my cosmology would be perfect for a silent sort of short piece.
This short really does get started off by staging a great recreation of how we process memories from our childhood. Sometimes they come to us in flashes, and you can remember the most random moments that don’t always hold a lot of significance for the rest of your life, but they’re just as vivid for some reason as grander moments. Is that something you wanted to pull from for the film?
Aaron Poole: I definitely think that’s a big part of this. In our memories, there’s this ineffable feeling of placing value and consequence on seemingly insignificant moments, and I think that’s something that’s hard to convey in cinema. I found when I was writing the screenplay that the chills and the import came really easily when you look at things from that perspective because there’s an unease.
I knew that if I could get people working quietly on set and just sort of point the camera in the right direction that we’d be able to capture something that’s really unspeakable and hard to describe. What I have discovered that’s so important to me about film is that you can capture things that are impossible in any other form. You can go into something so tightly and subjectively, and if you move and work quietly enough, you don’t scare the cat, so to speak. It just sits there and it will either purr, or growl, or you just observe it. That sense of curiosity and openness to discovery was a big part of creating that feeling for the short. That’s how I wrote the script, and then when we got to set, I tried to encourage everyone to work in a quiet, focused manner, and I’m proud of a lot of the images in the film.
Some of the most memorable films that you’ve been in as an actor find you playing rather anxious characters, and in a lot of ways, Oracle is a film about the first time a young person feels a sense of anxiety. Is that a subject that has always spoken to you as an artist?
Aaron Poole: That’s so interesting to think about, but yeah, there might be some truth to that. I think that unlimited curiosity and unbounded sensitivity can’t function in the world without going hand-in-hand with anxiety. We all, as humans, limit what we sense at times in a bid to appear better suited to handle the world around us, and the film is about someone who chooses a path and they’re somewhat frightened about where it’s going to lead, and that’s definitely something I’ve experienced in my own life, and I think everyone feels that way at some point or another. There’s a lot of decision making and quick thinking sometimes that goes into choosing a path, and in the case of the child in this movie, it’s anxiety that makes that choice for them because it’s manifested in something material that they can see in front of them. Anxiety and dread aren’t great to feel, but they’re something to be felt that’s preferable to vast nothingness. Without feeling, you wouldn’t have a film, and in our daily lives, if you don’t feel those things you’d be completely open about everything and that’s almost dysfunctional. For this kid and the family, they have to decide what they’re going to be, and this is a young person who’s learning about adult dread and anxiety for the first time.
How do you find the right kid for something like this?
Aaron Poole: Casting director Jesse Griffiths was incredibly helpful. He’s worked with some of the best casting directors in the business for years, and not too long ago he split out on his own. I wrote a description of what I wanted the audition to be, which was a mix of sleepwalking while counting backwards and forwards at the same time. I didn’t care about gender, but I knew the age was important, and it had to be someone who was pre-adult consciousness. I also knew that any kid who sent in a tape who could handle sleepwalking and counting at the same time would be open to a complex style of play where we could try different things and experiment a bit. I knew if we found that, we could harvest it for the film.
When you’re making a film about pre-adolescent feelings, have you considered how adults might look at this differently than a younger viewer might? Have you thought about how adults might read this differently? To an adult, it might appear like a memory piece, and to a child it might feel a bit more profound.
Aaron Poole: I actually hadn’t thought about it too much, but it’s interesting to think about. I think that I’m speaking to an adult audience in using the medium of memory and trying to remind them of our childhood sense of curiosity, but I haven’t thought about how a younger audience might see it. At the same time, that was why I kept things really simple, so people’s interpretations could be projected onto it. I think the push to classify something like this as a genre film might be something symptomatic of an adult way of thinking, and I think younger viewers might view it without putting this story into a specific compartment or box. I think people are seeing some of these images and they’re feeling a sense of dread, but a kid might be more open to some of the more subtle abstractions because their imaginations are that much more alive, and that’s kind of the perspective that this is coming from.
I think in either interpretation, what I haven’t found is that people who feel a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality, because when you’re looking from the perspective of a child, they don’t know nostalgia yet, and this isn’t a sentimental sort of story. Those experiences in film are two of the things I hate the most because it just plays on the cultural assumptions of what a childhood should be without any of the specificity or complexity of what being a child is actually like. That kind of thinking speaks down to both kids and adults, and I feel lucky that people don’t view this exclusively as a memory piece. There’s no longing and it doesn’t play on emotions that could be seen as sentimental. It’s something a lot more formative and hard to describe, and that’s what I was always striving for.
Oracle screens at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Programme 6.