You're at home, in a well-equipped but isolated house on a forest road in the Pacific Northwest. The power goes out. And stays out. Your generator works for a while – until the gasoline goes. Your transistor radio spouts rumours: It's terrorism. No, it's infrastructure breakdown. A horrible disease is spreading. No, violence is. Then the radio falls silent.
That's the shivery premise behind the new drama Into the Forest, written and directed by Patricia Rozema, from the novel by Jean Hegland (it opens today). Ellen Page plays Nell, who's studying for exams; Evan Rachel Wood is her older sister, Eva, a dancer. For a while, they cling to the idea that everything will be restored. But step by step, amid the silent, swaying trees, they revise their expectations: about what their lives will be. About what human life on Earth will be. About what's important. About who they are. The film steeps you so thoroughly in its green spell that afterward, in the ladies' room, I was genuinely disoriented by the working plumbing and colours other than tree.
Page caught that feeling early, while reading the novel in her native Halifax, she told me this week in a joint interview with Rozema, in a whitewashed, loft-like space above a furniture store in Toronto. "I like postapocalyptic stories – what's going to happen to our world, our relation to the environment?" she says. "And this is a particularly intimate one. As well as a day-by-day reality of what it might look like."
She decided to make it her debut as a producer, and pitched it to Rozema. (The two had met to discuss making The Paper Bag Princess together.) Rozema jumped. "Lots of books, their beauty is in the language or internal monologues. But in this, the event is the metaphor. Plus, you know there's going to be serious acting. And nature. Old growth forest. [They shot in Vancouver and Vancouver Island.] End of times. It felt urgent and scary and beautiful all at once."
It's fun to watch these two together. Page, 29, who seems to grow tinier and more beautiful every time I meet her, speaks thoughtfully, carefully. Though she's more comfortable than she used to be in interviews, she still doesn't love them. She looks totally cool in grey leather (pleather?) leggings, a blue denim shirt, black jacket, boots and serious eyelashes. But she's so minute, she could perch on a mushroom. Her cheeks are so narrow, I swear their inner walls touch.
Rozema, on the other hand, sits way back in her chair, relaxed as hell. She could talk about this film (and anything else) all day. She's 57, dressed in black shirt and pants; her mane of hair is loose, and she radiates a sexy warmth. She urges Page to elaborate on her answers, and praises her like a proud aunt.
Page took on the producing role because the stories she wants to tell are hard to find – for example, this film and her next, in which she'll co-star with Kate Mara, are both about pairs of women. She also co-produces the documentary series Gaycation for Viceland TV. "Producing is a means of making things you might not be able to sit around and wait for," she says.
"You were the engine!" Rozema reminds her. Thanks to Page's persistence, talent who were too busy relented and came on-board (including composer Max Richter), and things that were too expensive became affordable (such as Cat Power's song Wild is the Wind).
Because production took a year to fall into place, Page and Wood had ample time to bond. "Evan has a child, so I was over hanging out with them a lot," Page says. "Pretty much at the end of every day, we talked and decompressed. We were kind of attached." They even shot a joke video, Page and Wood bickering in the back seat of a car that Rozema was driving to the set. (Page complains, "She touched me!" until Rozema cries, "Girls! Shove over or we're not making the movie.")
On set, their closeness was palpable, "and so valuable for the film," Rozema says. During a scene in which Eva is violently attacked, Page watched just out of frame; after the first take, she jumped up and declared one was enough. "No, Ellen, you're not the director," she says now, chuckling. "But I wanted to run to my friend and hold her."
About that attack scene: It's the rawest, yet also the most sensitively handled, iteration I've seen. "The more I do this, the more I learn that directing is a matter of emphasis," Rozema says. "You have to focus on the right thing. For this one, I realized, 'Just stay close in on her pain.'" At the last minute, Rozema decided to turn the camera on its side, to capture Eva's disorientation, and put it into slight slow motion, "because everyone talks about dramatic moments being slowed down." One take was all they needed.
Throughout the writing, shooting and editing, the challenge was the same: "To keep it raw and frightening and dangerous, but also lyrical and gentle and loving," Rozema says. "It's a cautionary tale, about how fragile all our comforts are. We need to take better care of our planet. We're choking and cooking and smothering ourselves. Play a longer game, humans."
"Look, I have my comforts, my phone, please," Page admits. "I'm as reliant as anyone on all those things." In her early 20s she spent a month in Oregon studying permaculture design, which is about living within the cycles of the natural world. "It makes you realize, 'Oh, all these things I was told make sense actually don't. This is what makes sense.' And why have we lost that knowledge? Why don't I know what things I can eat if I walk into the Nova Scotian forest?"
Page launches into some stats about how hard the movie business in particular is on the environment, but Rozema waves her away from that one. "The other point is about letting go," Rozema says. "Letting go of our plans for our lives, our expected future. To be comfortable with accepting what comes – that's a huge lesson I'm learning every day. And love the one you're with. Really. Just love them."
A few lines near the end of Into the Forest suggest the filmmakers' belief that hope will win over despair: "How long have humans been on Earth, one or two hundred thousand years? And how long have we had electricity? 140."
"When you look at those numbers, you think, 'So maybe people don't need as much as we think we do,'" Rozema says. "Maybe we'll be okay."