Empathy Without Sympathy
The writers and directors behind the Canadian TIFF ‘17 titles Never Steady, Never Still and Cardinals discuss their craft and how they built complex, layered performances with their legendary stars Shirley Henderson and Sheila McCarthy
First features have a tendency to look inward at the filmmaker’s recent experiences through high school, college, or a post-graduate millenial malaise. First-time director Kathleen Hepburn and co-directors Aidan Shipley and Grayson Moore have instead crafted rich portraits of their middle-aged female protagonists as they cope with their immense amounts of guilt and grief. Their respective films, Never Steady, Never Still (playing September 9 at 12:45pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox and September 11 at 9:15pm at Scotiabank) and Cardinals (playing September 8 at 9:30pm at Scotiabank, September 9 at 12pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and September 17 at 10am at Jackman Hall) finely discuss the impact one person’s trauma has on an entire family with unforgettable performances by legendary character actors at the helm. Scotland’s Shirley Henderson plays Judy, who lives in rural British Columbia with her husband and teenage son and who struggles with Parkinson’s disease in a visceral, heartbreaking performance. A flinty, unshakeable Sheila McCarthy plays Valerie, who returns home from prison to her two daughters after killing her neighbour in a drunk-driving accident.
Both are slow and skillful films from emerging Canadian writer-directors where you have to work for every ounce of information parcelled out. But it’s well worth the effort. Never Steady, Never Still was filmed in sumptuous 35mm and boasts captivating performances, especially from Théodore Pellerin and Mary Galloway, both of whom were selected for TIFF Rising Stars this year. And Cardinals is an assured psychological thriller that offers a new take on Canadian passive aggression. We asked the filmmakers to interview each other via telephone. Here they talk about the pressure to fight for your film, how to collaborate with radically different actors who all need different approaches, and why editing your first feature might give you “the editing bends.” Tickets for Never Steady, Never Still and Cardinals are on sale now.
Grayson Moore (writer and co-director of Cardinals): I think the logical starting point to this conversation is Shirley Henderson. Wow.
Kathleen Hepburn (writer and director of Never Steady, Never Still): She’s pretty great.
Aidan Shipley (co-director of Cardinals): How did you meet her?
Kathleen: We actually met her at TIFF. Two years ago, she was there with another film (2015’s Urban Hymn), and we met her in the lobby of the Scotiabank Theatre. We tracked down her agent and sent her the script.
Aidan: How did you narrow down [casting the role of Judy] to her?
Kathleen: Originally, we were looking for an older actor. The character had been written as 62. What I was really looking for was someone who you look at and think, “They could break if you squeezed them too hard.” At the same time, I wanted them to have an incredible intensity and strength. Shirley is a powerhouse.
Aidan: Working with someone who’s such a talented veteran, how did you approach giving notes?
Kathleen: I’m sure you guys had a similar experience with Sheila [McCarthy, the star of Cardinals]. I’m a really shy person, so talking with actors for the first time is generally intimidating. As soon you talk to Shirley, you realize she’s just the most genuine person you’ve ever spoken to and she loves to work. That was huge for me. What was your experience with Sheila?
Aidan: I’ve known Sheila since I was a kid. She’s from Stratford as well, and has been good friends with my family for as long as I can remember. Her two daughters were like my sisters growing up. When I went to film school, she reached out immediately and said, “If there’s a project you need me to help out on, let me know.” I have the utmost respect for her, so I said, “I need to figure some stuff out. Then I’ll come to you with a project you can actually sink your teeth into.” That was better, because we could shape something for her, specifically.
Grayson: She was an exciting person to write a character for. She’s unbelievably smart and thoughtful, but you wouldn’t want to cross her.
Kathleen: How do you manage co-directing on set?
Aidan: We iron everything out before the shoot. It’s nice to conference before giving notes. When you’re working with four or five actors, you’re able to talk about the notes you want to give and split them up between the actors and the crew.
Grayson: We’d directed a short together (Boxing, TIFF ‘15) that was more “freewheeling.” Approaching a feature, we knew the unique challenges of having two directing voices. Throughout the writing process, I shared pages with Aidan and we crafted our approach. By the time the script was done, we felt prepared.
I have a specific question about Shirley. I spent the first portion watching your movie being so impressed I wasn’t thinking about the logistics of her performance. [Her character has Parkinson’s,] so the intention of what she wants to say and do is different than what we see. How did you choose what her character succeeds in saying and doing?
Kathleen: Her character’s [condition] gets progressively worse as the film goes on. So it was about trying to show her progression while not losing the audience and making sure key points of dialogue were getting across, such as the scene where she’s telling a story about when she and her husband first got engaged to her support group.
Aidan: I love those scenes with the support group where you were utilizing a doc-style shooting.
Kathleen: That was a really challenging day, just having so many people in the room. Apart from Shirley and the other woman who has a monologue, they all have Parkinson’s disease and are all non-actors. There were moments of beautiful surprise too.
Grayson: One of the things our lead characters share is that they don’t want anybody to feel sorry for them. Even though the other characters in Never Steady, Never Still watch [Shirley’s character] struggle, she can see their pain, too…
Kathleen: A lot of that is because Shirley is just an empathetic person.
I want to ask you about the craft of filmmaking, because we don’t often get to talk about that. I guess we are about to go to a film festival, but…
Grayson: Not on the record.
Kathleen: I loved your opening shot. It’s a challenge to get a shot that grabs people like that. Was it scripted?
Grayson: It was. In theory, it was because we wanted the film to play out that, as more and more is being revealed, things get more and more tangled… The never-ending, overlapping pipes was a way of showing that visually.
Kathleen: Overall, the pacing was really wonderful. The film shows a lot of restraint.
Grayson: That’s nice to hear. That was one of the keywords on an index card above the computer we were editing on.
Aidan: We definitely weren’t scared of silence while we were filming, which gave us a lot of freedom in post.
Grayson: Thematically, we wanted the film to deal with the things people carry around and can’t necessarily talk about. A lot of the most critical things are left unsaid.
Kathleen: That’s fascinating because that’s significant in my film as well. Do you think that’s a Canadian thing?
Grayson: I find it funny that in Canada, there’s an element of politeness in conflict.
Aidan: It makes it more uncomfortable.
Grayson: Your film has a lot of long takes.
Kathleen: For sure — that was a conversation with the DP, Norm Li. Some scenes we had planned on shooting in long, single takes, but others we didn’t. In the scene towards the end where Théodore and Shirley have a cathartic moment together, we hold on a voyeuristic shot through a doorway, but we originally planned that scene as three shots. When we started doing it, it felt too invasive to go in. It’s such a private moment.
Grayson: I was glad to have that distance so I could appreciate the bigger picture. From a craft standpoint, you get to see two amazing performances play out in detail at the same time.
Aidan: It was earned. They’d been separated for so long that to finally get to see them together was really touching.
Grayson: I was going to say...
The trailer for the feature version of Never Steady, Never Still (2017).
[Suddenly, Kathleen’s dogs start barking like crazy.]
Kathleen: There might be something at the door. [To her dogs] There’s no one there.
[The dogs bark again.]
Kathleen: Oh, there’s someone there.
Man at the door: Hello.
Kathleen: Now is not a great time. I’m just on the phone.
Man at the door: Oh, I’m sorry.
Kathleen: That’s okay. Thank you.
[Kathleen closes the door.]
Kathleen: Freaking Telus!
[Aidan and Grayson erupt in laughter.]
Grayson: I was going to say, before we were rudely interrupted by your dogs: It felt like right after your opening sequence with the voiceover, we were in really great hands. That’s an amazing feeling as the title card comes up. So many times watching films, the opposite happens. The lights are dimmed and you no longer feel confident in who’s telling the story.
Kathleen: I try to avoid voiceover as much as I can, but I had a compulsion to use it. I understand all those rules they try to drill into us, but especially with a first feature, it’s important to make your mark. To take out voiceover in this film felt like ripping out a vein. It’s very personal to me, so I found it useful just to get inside the heads of the characters.
I keep going back to the opening of your film because it’s crucial to make an impression. You guys went with silence.
Aidan: We had a few other options we explored, because our mantra in post was to explore as many options as we wanted. For your first feature, you want to make sure you do it right. I think silence can encourage more silence [in the theatre], which was crucial in how to set the tone for the film.
Grayson: It primes the audience for a fairly quiet film. We spent a month on the first five minutes of the movie. We ran into some problems where we didn’t have as much time as we wanted [shooting] inside the plant. It’s a working factory, so we couldn't be running around. We had a PA sitting next to someone’s desk who’s trying to get out of work on Friday afternoon.
David Mamet calls it “location sickness,” where you have a camera, you’re excited, you start pointing it at things, and then half your day is gone. When we shot the Stratford Swan Parade, we looked at that bouncy castle, sat the camera there, and it just started to deflate.
Aidan: The motor broke. I’m sure people there thought that we had something to do with it. It was already so funny to see a bunch of kids totally bundled up for a bouncy castle. There was actually green grass the day before we shot. Then, we got hit with a snowstorm.
Kathleen: It really paid off — that scene was amazing... You guys mentioned trying everything you possibly could in the edit. Did you get a lot of pushback?
The trailer for Aidan Shipley and Grayson Moore's short film Boxing which played TIFF in 2015.
Grayson: We spent the better part of eight months editing with [Dan Haack]. Our general rule was: “Don’t leave a frame in the movie we don’t like.” That was scary because in the first few cuts, we felt like, “We have to leave this in. How could we make the film work without it?” In last two months, we started to write down parts of scenes on cards, shuffle them around, and figure out how we could take something out and still do justice to the scene. Our producers Kristy Neville and Marianna Margaret believed in us and didn’t pressure us to lock until it was right.
Aidan: There’s so much pressure the first time you watch the assembly. It’s always…
Grayson: What’s it called when you’re diving and you come up too quickly?
Kathleen: The bends.
Grayson: It’s the editing bends.
Kathleen: I went through that. I felt like I’d recovered going into the fine cut; then you watch it for the first time with an audience and it pushes you right back.
Grayson: How long was your editing process?
Kathleen: We shot part of the film, then edited for two months. Then we shot the rest and edited for another two months.
Aidan: Was there anything particularly difficult to shoot, or rewarding?
Kathleen: Yes — one of the final scenes when Théodore Pellerin and Mary Galloway are sitting in the truck on what might be their first date. The scene is eight minutes of dialogue. We were shooting on film, so each take was an entire roll. We did the first take and they nailed it. It was the most excited I got on set because I thought, “This is going to work.” I could finally take a step back and be happy we’d gotten this far.
Grayson: Did you do a lot of rehearsal?
Kathleen: We didn’t do a rehearsal because I wanted it to be uncomfortable. They just had one Skype conversation. What about you guys? What was the most rewarding scene to shoot?
Grayson: For me, it’s the scene where Mark infringes on Valerie’s meeting and walks over to her at the refreshment table. That was the first scene we shot with Sheila, so it was the first time we were seeing her character. It’s an interesting moment because it’s the first time you’re seeing the character who becomes the anchor of the film. I remember that moment because after months of stress (it was probably day four of shooting), I could finally be excited because Sheila was magnetic.
Kathleen: Yeah, there are scenes where, on the page, they don’t seem like that big a deal. [There was a scene] where I had written, “[Shirley’s character] gets out of bed and struggles.” But when we shot it, it opens up a whole new opportunity.
The trailer for short film Never Steady, Never Still, the original inspiration for the 2017 feature, which premiered at TIFF in 2015.
Grayson: When you were shooting, did you have a different approach with each actor?
Kathleen: It was pretty different with each person. Shirley was ready to go as soon as she got off the plane. She had the whole script memorized. We didn’t have to talk that much about her character because she just embodied it. With Théodore, he’s a very intuitive actor, so we talked more about what the character was going through — the emotional side of things.
Grayson: That’s pretty consistent with Grace Glowicki. We’d talk about what the character was going through moment to moment, the tone. Katie [Boland] has this mind for structure and taps into what you’re trying to do on a macro scale. Noah [Reid] and Sheila both have a theatre background.
Aidan: She actually taught him at the National Theatre School.
Grayson: They had this whole teacher/student thing going on, which added great subtext. I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone, but they were all incredible to work with. They were great auditors of the script and would tell me right away if my language was too much.
Aidan: I act from time to time and felt like I learned so much from watching the differences in their performances. Going through the post process and getting to dissect the work of six incredibly different actors throughout a scene was a huge learning experience.
Kathleen: On that note, is there something you would never ever do again, or something you would do again every time?
Aidan: I found the discussions beforehand with the actors to be extremely useful and critical for getting on the same page. You want to have as much time to let them experiment and hit the notes and the beats off the top, so that you can give them space to hopefully find something else in the shooting that works for them. I think [shooting six people talking] in a living room is tough, especially when three of our actors are sitting in different parts of the room. [Laughing]
Grayson: I would want try to forget that I’d written the script as soon as I had arrived on set. I knew, theoretically, that you have to separate being a director from being a writer, but there were times where I was still critiquing the writing as the scene was going on. Being a first time writer-director, there are some self-conscious tendencies where I’m asking if I wrote a scene the right way. Next time, I would just try to be less critical, because there’s only so much you can change on the day. I would try to enjoy myself more and soak it all in.
What about you?
[Kathleen sighs. Aidan and Grayson laugh.]
Kathleen: I didn’t think I’d have to answer this! I realized that the camera and makeup tests people do are really useful, not just superfluous. One thing we figured out about Théodore once we were in the editing room was that he looks like he’s a completely different age depending on which angle you’re shooting from. That’s something that we really could have played with.
Aidan: I wish we could’ve known in advance how each actor does a close-up.
Kathleen: Yeah, it’s not about how good they look. It’s seeing how different people respond to different camera angles and how to most effectively get your story across.
Grayson: You’ve talked about the most rewarding scene you shot, but do you have a favourite scene now that the movie is finished?
Kathleen: I have a lot of favourites. I think the one that’s closest to my heart is probably the first scene we shot with Shirley where her character has to put on her boots. I remember when we started shooting, she was making the noises she does [in the film], and it felt so much like what I had seen before with my mother, who has Parkinson’s. For me, that was the most honest scene in the whole film.
Aidan: What a cool choice — the moment where you have your actor literally step into another person’s shoes.