Here's one thing Ryan Redford would prefer you didn't know about his first feature film, Oliver Sherman: It was shot largely in the pleasant environs of Powassan, Ont., about a half-hour drive south of North Bay.
It seems a harmless detail, but the Vancouver-born director deliberately stripped his life-after-war film of anything that would locate it. It could be in Canada or the United States; it could be a portrait of officers returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, or even a fictitious war. If the film works, you should be none the wiser.
Instead, Redford wants audiences to zero in on a more universal look at how humans cope with trauma, a theme he worried would get lost if the film (which opens Friday) turned political.
As it stands a former soldier named Sherman Oliver (played by Garret Dillahunt) turns up unannounced at the home of Franklin Page (Donal Logue), the man who saved Oliver's life seven years earlier when he suffered a head wound on a battlefield. With no family to turn to, Oliver is living on a psychological knife's edge, unable to adapt to the rhythms of the peaceful home front.
His saviour, meanwhile, has moved on. He has a wife, two young children and a charmingly peaceful small-town life which he is, at first, happy to share with Oliver.
At every turn, the any-town setting is designed to point attention to what's going on inside Oliver's head, and away from who and what he and Page fought for. But it might have turned out rather differently.
"There were people at the financing level that were hoping this could be a definitive Canadian coming-home movie," Redford says.
At a boyish 32, Redford has a self-deprecating manner that sets him apart from many filmmakers. He's says he's incapable of formality, steers clear of almost anything "highfalutin," and declines a publicist's offer of a latte saying, "I'm very low-maintenance." A Terrence Malick fan, he began work on Oliver Sherman after abandoning four-plus years of work on a Canadian western that was to be his first feature.
But he refused to back down and put an identifiably Canadian stamp on his new script, which is loosely adapted from a short story by Rachel Ingalls.
"I felt very comfortable because he would fight for his film all the time," said Dillahunt, who likes the movie's anonymity. "On every film there's the harpies' circle - [they]look at their watches and bite their fingernails - and that's their job. But he managed to drive that stagecoach with all these horses pulling and keep it on track. He knew what he wanted and he was going to get it."
Logue, who was born in Ottawa, initially disagreed, arguing it should be a strongly Canadian tale rather than a "vague North American thingy," based on past experiences with the Canadian industry.
"You come and do the film and they're like, 'Don't mention Tim Hortons or fly the flag.' And you're like, man, you know what? What's great about Canada is how nice it is and all that, but they need to have a little bit of a superiority complex enter into their aesthetic with the filmmaking, because there's something remarkable about this country," Logue said.
Still, he respected Redford's stance and decided "in the scope of this film, it's fine."
Betraying a flash of self-confidence, Redford notes with a shrug that the lack of specificity "will drive some people nuts, but it doesn't bother me." He knew the cast would have to carry the day instead, signed on fellow Canadian Molly Parker first, then looked no further for his lead than Dillahunt, Parker's cast-mate on HBO's Deadwood.
"[Dillahunt's]role that really solidified it for me was the one he played in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Redford said. "His character in that had a kind of ferocity while simultaneously being completely sympathetic. This guy could kill you at any instant, but he's still this fragile thing that you feel for."
Dillahunt, who grew up near an army firing range in Yakima, Wash., is confident audiences will be smart enough to navigate Oliver's psyche, especially given the discerning crowds smaller films often draw.
"I don't know that a lot of people will get to see this movie. It's not the kind of thing that appeals to a massive range of people. The stories I like, the authors I like, have all been a narrower stream," he says.
At the risk of sounding "insane," Redford says he feels a greater affinity for the solitary, awkward Oliver than for the well-adjusted characters. Maybe that's why Oliver's existential anti-heroism, rather than war's very real heroism, steals this show.
"There are plenty of movies that have done the coming-home thing," Redford says. "I hope [this is]getting at something a bit harder to pin down, a bit more strange."