The party last Friday night at filmmaker Bruce McDonald's house was called Weirdos and Werewolves, and sure, it was a celebration of Weirdos, his new movie set in Cape Breton, as well as another Sydney, N.S., production about misfits, writer-director Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf, both of which had made their world premiere that night at the Toronto International Film Festival. But it was also a nod to the artistic spirit in general: Filmmakers, after all, love the underdog – the weirdo, the wretch – because more often than not they are misfits themselves.
And yet, as McKenzie's quietly compelling debut feature makes plain, everyone might love an outcast, but that doesn't make it any easier to actually live with one. Or, for that matter, to be one.
Werewolf gives us Blaise and Nessa, two young methadone-dependent lovers trying to claw their way out of a hardscrabble existence. They each begin their days sucking back a small bottle of the grey opioid under the supervision of the local pharmacist, before heading out into the beating sun or the pouring rain to drag a battered lawn mower around Sydney in hopes of making a few bucks from charitable homeowners. They talk of scraping together enough money to get out of town; they tell each other they're going to go far. But they're like East Coast Samuel Beckett characters: stuck in place, and they don't even know why.
Here in Toronto, on the morning after the party, McKenzie, 31, is perched in the back of a dimly lit downtown bar, recalling how Werewolf began its life. "I saw a young couple with a lawn mower in my community, going door to door, doing this kind of thing, and that intrigued me," she says.
For years, a friend of hers, an artist in Cape Breton who struggled with mental illness and addiction, had gently pestered her to put him in one of her short films. She had lived elsewhere for a stretch, but then, about five years ago, decided to move home. On the long drive back, she suddenly realized that her friend would be great as one of the young couple; in a flurry, she wrote eight or nine scenes. "Everything just gelled in that moment," she says. That's how it often happens for her: "I can become obsessed about a character, and as soon as I have someone I think I want to play that part, then I just have something to go dive into and someone to connect with, and build a relationship with."
In 2012, McKenzie attended the TIFF Talent Lab, an intensive five-day professional-development program for filmmakers. Full of energy and ideas about the feature, she flew home to Sydney – and found out that her friend had just killed himself.
"There's this strange double discourse that sort of happens between my films and my real life," she says now. "That was one of those moments where I was starting to broach this topic of young people living in Cape Breton, and struggling and trying to figure out how can you exist in this place where you have so few options, and I wanted to make it with this friend of mine, and my friend took his own life."
She stopped working on the film for a while: "I think it was just a lot to process." But every so often, she and another friend, Andrew Gillis, would get together and talk about her ideas for the film, and her research, and about their mutual friend who had killed himself. She wound up casting Gillis, a shy fellow who is magnetic onscreen as the seething Blaise, one of a corps of non-professional actors populating the film who give it a startling authenticity.
McKenzie was able to draw out the performances in part because she shot digital video rather than film. "When you have film, you only have so much film, you're probably going to take less risks, you're probably just going to do the scene and call 'cut' because you don't want to waste any film," she notes. "When you shoot digital, you don't have that limitation."
The approach also meant she didn't need to import a large professional crew. "We didn't have to bring technicians in from away – because in Cape Breton, there's no one trained to shoot film. So, once we weren't bringing in people from away, we could schedule things more to our liking."
But while Werewolf was a low-budget affair (pegged at approximately $250,000), its arresting cinematography gives it a blunt beauty. We catch glimpses of faces and bodies; McKenzie's characters poke into the margins of frames, just as they remain on the margins of society.
"In a lot of my work, I use a lot of headroom," notes McKenzie, talking about a scene in which Blaise moves in and out of the bottom of the frame while mowing a lawn, as the camera stays trained on the power lines and sky above him. "There's just something about that, that feels right for the characters, because it is just sort of oppressive," she adds.
"My films aren't very narrative-driven, so I rely a lot on composition to tell the story," she explains. "So I think that's maybe why I can't just do a classical: 'Wide shot, medium, close, and then shot-reverse-shot,'" she says, referring to a film editor's common building blocks. "That style works for narrative-driven films, because you're just conveying narrative information, and the shots don't matter. But for me, I'm not doing that, I'm definitely trying to find – aesthetically and compositionally, and the sound as well – elements that seem to capture something about their experience."
At one point, Nessa begins working at an ice-cream stand, and McKenzie's camera catches her swirl of streaked hair bound up in a food-service hairnet, like an undulating nautilus; later, a jumble of Oreos jump and pop as they succumb to a creaky, ageless hand-cranked grinder.
"When I see that hairnet in the frame, all of a sudden I feel so much stuff," McKenzie says. "There's something about this grinder that's just poetically saying a lot. And the film is made up of a bunch of things like that, that I think do a lot of the heavy lifting."
Techniques like that led to McKenzie being a three-time recipient of the National Screen Institute's Fearless Female Director Award, though she says she doesn't think of herself in those terms.
Still, there is this. "People would always ask, since I started making films: 'Are you gonna move to Toronto? Are you gonna move to Montreal? Why aren't you doing that?'" she notes. "I guess it's just because I'm doing what feels right to me, and I'm not trying to follow a typical path.
"I'm just doing what I want to do, and maybe that is different. Maybe that's what makes it appear fearless."
Werewolf screens Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Scotiabank Theatre (tiff.net).