Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Matt and Mara is from acclaimed director Kazik Radwanski and stars Matt Johnson and Deragh Campbell.James Michael Chiang/Handout

It is a sweltering Toronto evening and actress Deragh Campbell is wandering the stacks of ABC Books, reminiscing about the time that director Kazik Radwanski had her jump out of a moving airplane.

To clarify, Campbell eagerly skydived for the bit, which was the very first sequence shot for the pair’s critically acclaimed 2019 drama Anne at 13,000 ft., in which she starred as an awkward daycare worker whose life changes after the high-altitude stunt. But on this night in July, 2022, there are echoes of that original leap of faith among the endearingly disorganized shelves of Stephen King novels and discount comics, where Campbell and Radwanski are shooting their latest collaboration, Matt and Mara.

Once again, the actress is placing the entirety of herself in her director’s hands, certain that she’ll land softly.

As is Radwanski’s style, the bookstore is not exactly a closed set, with a tiny crew of five (it would have been seven, if producers Dan Montgomery and Candice Napoleone weren’t out with COVID) intermingling with random shoppers and passersby. There is no craft-services table, no green room, no distance from the real and the slightly manufactured. There is no proper script, either, with Radwanski and Campbell discovering their story and characters along the way, a cinematic high-wire act that demands precision just as much as it does improvisation. Which in this case means take after take to nail a five-second scene.

“If we were to shut down the store and fill it with extras, it would feel pretty different. Early in the film, it’s nice to have this energy as a starting point,” says Campbell. “Although it’s not quite the same as jumping out of a plane ...”

It’s not, although Anne’s electric, nervy atmosphere courses throughout Matt and Mara, an anti-meet-cute dramedy that follows the uneasy relationship between a creative writing professor facing a rut in her marriage and the charismatic ex-boyfriend who pops back into her life after becoming a successful novelist.

Campbell’s Anne at 13,000 ft. co-star Matt Johnson plays the “Matt” of the title, and is tonight preparing to film the moment in which his character reconnects with Mara for the first time in ages, running into each other among the piles of old DVDs and distressingly tattered copies of Neil Strauss’s pickup-artist memoir, The Game (these sell distressingly fast, according to the shop’s manager).

Johnson, ribbing both Campbell and customers between takes, is happy to be playing hooky from his other, perhaps more “real” job: editing his latest film, BlackBerry, which had wrapped shooting the month before.

”I’m not messing with the takes, I’m being very quiet, and being a good little boy,” Johnson says with a smirk.

Open this photo in gallery:

On Feb. 20, Matt and Mara will make its world premiere at the prestigious Berlinale film festival.James Michael Chiang/Handout

Johnson doesn’t need to worry, as imperfect takes – cinematic margins of error – are what make Radwanski’s work so uniquely arresting. Whether it is the swirling character drama of Anne at 13,000 ft. or the emotional claustrophobia of 2015′s How Heavy This Hammer, to watch a Radwanski film is to become totally, hopelessly immersed. These are beguiling portraits of in-the-moment intimacy, each backdropped by a defiantly raw Toronto.

On Feb. 20, Matt and Mara will make its world premiere at the prestigious Berlinale film festival – and the bookstore scene above will be cut from the film entirely, victim of Radwanski’s habit of experimenting until something absolutely sticks. But back on this summer night in 2022, the ABC Books shoot feels like the perfect encapsulation of what Radwanski is aiming for with the sometimes hilarious, sometimes unnerving, and thoroughly excellent Matt and Mara: subtle yet playful in its comedy, exact in its style but loose in its execution, and just ambitious enough in its scale to feel like the biggest microbudget movie ever made.

”Compared with Anne, we have double the number of people on set – but that’s still only five of us,” Radwanski says while on a bubble tea break between takes. (Johnson possesses a surprisingly deep knowledge of Yonge Street’s best tapioca cafés, ushering the group a few blocks south of the bookstore.)

”It’s funny, because I’m always invited to be in so-called low-budget movies, and when I arrive there’s a 40-person crew, and they have no idea,” says Campbell. “I feel like this style of shooting, people don’t even know it exists.”

”And with stepping things up, you don’t want to lose the things you rely on, which is spontaneity,” Radwanski adds, noting that while the production budget for Matt and Mara is double what it cost to make Anne, it’s still only about $700,000. “I want Matt and Deragh to be able to walk up Yonge Street and for us to not have to shut down the whole block to do so.”

It helps, too, that Matt and Mara is a kind of family affair – if your family sits at the nexus of the most exciting Canadian cinema scene to come along in ages.

Not only is there the core trio of Radwanski, Campbell and Johnson, but the bookstore clerk on tonight’s shoot is played by Michael Scott, who had a small role in Johnson’s BlackBerry; cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov has shot films for Radwanski contemporaries Antoine Bourges (Concrete Valley) and Lina Rodriguez (So Much Tenderness); executive producer Matthew Miller is Johnson’s own producing partner; and Avery Nayman, the baby who plays Campbell’s on-screen daughter, is the youngest child of Toronto film critic Adam Nayman.

“This is a zero-stress shoot for me. It’s a vacation, just shooting and getting bubble tea with my friends,” says Johnson. “It’s important for Kaz to have people here who will go above and beyond, who want to be here.”

Campbell isn’t so sure about the zero-stress part. The team is shooting with a 40-page outline, but no screenplay, necessitating concentrated bursts of imagination.

“It takes a bit of faith that the character will materialize,” she says. “It requires a certain abandoning of control, and a certain amount of trust. Kaz has an idea of what he wants, but he allows himself to become interested in different things as they happen. On Anne, Matt was supposed to be there for a day, but the dynamic between us meant that he kept coming back and the story became more interesting.”

Still, Campbell concedes that there may be more of a method to Radwanski’s madness than she can see.

“At one point I revisited the initial Anne outline and I was shocked at how closely it resembled the final film,” she says. “Have I been part of a grand design this whole time that I was completely oblivious to?”

The bubble tea break now over, the trio head back to the bookstore to chase the remaining hours of daylight.

”There’s a weird trust thing you have to have, showing up with your friends who you know are capable of doing these different kinds of things,” says Campbell. “Something interesting will happen, you just don’t know what it will exactly be.”

”And if it doesn’t, Kaz will just keep doing more and more takes – you’ll enter the bookstore and not leave till the next morning,” Johnson cracks. “I’m kidding! He’s wonderful. We all love Kaz.”

Matt and Mara premieres Feb. 20 at the Berlinale; it will screen in Canada later this year.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe