“Going Back There and Doing All That Again”
Never Eat Alone director Sofia Bohdanowicz and her stars Joan Benac and Deragh Campbell discuss the fine line between fiction and documentary
When I first watched Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone on a desktop computer (sorry, Sofia!) in the Vancouver International Film Festival office, I didn’t know anything about it. The film cold-opens with an excerpt from a live musical melodrama shot at Casa Loma in the 1950s, which is then followed by an endearing exchange between an elderly woman and her granddaughter, who has brought over some juice to help her recover from a cold. I spent this whole sequence trying to figure out if what I was watching was documentary or fiction. I recognized the actor playing the granddaughter (TIFF Rising Star Deragh Campbell) right away, and knew that her last name didn’t match that of the woman playing the grandmother (Joan Benac), but I was so convinced by the naturalism of the performances and the atmosphere of intimate familiarity (aided by the use of a cheap DV camera) that I felt it simply had to be real.
As the film progressed and its intricate formal design became more evident, I realized I was clearly mistaken: it was a work, in fact, very artfully constructed, but the rapport between the actors endowed it with a remarkable air of authenticity. It was only after I had programmed the film for Future//Present — a new section at VIFF that I conceived in part under the influence of Never Eat Alone (a note I urgently scribbled during that initial viewing: “the future/present haunts the past”) — that I discovered that the exchanges in the film were largely informed by actual conversations between Bohdanowicz and Benac, who is indeed the filmmaker’s grandmother.
Now that I’ve seen Never Eat Alone multiple times, including on the big screen with Bohdanowicz, Benac, and Campbell in attendance at the VIFF premiere, I’m still compelled by the way the intimacy and generosity of Bohdanowicz’s direction (beautifully reciprocated by her actors) creates the sense of a genuine relationship, and one we seldom see depicted in movies. And after encountering most of Bohdanowicz’s other work — including the stunning trilogy of shorts about the loss of her paternal grandmother — I now know that every time she turns on a camera we are invited into a very personal experience where the lines between documentary and fiction are hardly relevant. This exceedingly rare quality is no small part of why such a seemingly modest family portrait manages to touch upon such profound depths of thought, feeling, and expression.
In advance of the TIFF screening of Never Eat Alone on Saturday, March 25, Sofia Bohdanowicz sat down with Joan Benac and Deragh Campbell to conduct the following conversation.
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Perhaps we could start this conversation by talking about the way that we worked together, which was really unique and different in comparison to how a lot of other films are made. This was a low-budget film, shot mostly by myself and my producer Calvin Thomas on a little mini-DV camcorder.
We started shooting the film as a documentary first with my grandmother Joan at her home, taking care of her apartment, eating, just living her life. Calvin and I weren’t sure what we were shooting from the outset: we just wanted to explore what my grandmother’s life at home looked like, what elderly people’s lives look like, how they live, and the relationship they have with their domestic spaces. I cut it together and started to develop this narrative about [recalling an old love affair], based on what you, Grandma, had told me. That’s when I realized I needed a vehicle to string all of these bits together. Deragh, you stepped in so perfectly, seamlessly, and I think in four or five days of shooting?
Deragh Campbell: Five, yeah.
SB: Was there anything about that process that you wanted to talk about?
DC: You already, as I understood it, crafted the story to a certain extent, but felt that you needed another vehicle to move through the narrative. We were friends, so I’m sure maybe at some point I would’ve come over and had dinner with you and your grandmother, but I came there with the goal to build an onscreen relationship. It’s a privilege as an actor to have that access.
SB: Grandma, we started working on this film and we didn’t know what we were doing; suddenly, you started talking about this long-lost love of yours, and we decided to turn that into a narrative. What was that like for you, when we wanted to craft a film from what is, essentially, a story from your life?
Joan Benac: For me, it was a bit of a journey. First, I was nervous because in walks this young woman — I mean Deragh — and she’s a professional actress. I’ve had no training in that field at all, so, I’ve said this before, I was just flying by the seat of my pants.
I think this happens in your life as you age: you have a tendency to look back. I started to look back at what had transpired way back when. In that way, the story took on a life of its own. I think it was a big goal for me, going back there and doing all that again.
SB: In going back there and doing all of that again, was that a cathartic thing? Was it good to finally be able to have a platform to talk about the experience of loving someone in your early 20s? Or in exploring that regret and talking about it, was it difficult for you?
JB: In many ways, it was difficult. But in other ways, it was a very interesting journey because strangely enough, a lot of things that I had forgotten started to come back to me. That made it much more intense. When the story started to develop in the film, we started the search [for my old love] and I was excited. Because I felt like, "Wow, you never know. Here we go, here’s another phase in your later, later life."
SB: What was it like, presenting the film to an audience and so courageously and elegantly sharing such a vulnerable part of your life?
JB: Well, I can’t use the word "happy" because it was the unknown that we were going into. Gradually, as the film went on, we found out what the last chapter was going to be in this story. We tried to make the film have a nice ending, a comfortable ending, a happy ending if you want to use that phrase. But that’s not the way life goes. You turn one corner and you think you’re done, but you’re not because there’s that other corner down there.
SB: I’m always so impressed with your answers, you’re so articulate! Deragh, what was the experience like for you, working in such an intimate way?
DC: Yeah, it’s interesting because I am the fictional element of the film. (Laughs.) Like, that was not my apartment, that is not my Murphy bed.
SB: It was my cousin Grace’s apartment you were in, and your character’s name was my cousin Audrey’s name — so you were like a fictional mishmash of family members! You did such a good job of creating [Audrey] and being her.
DC: In creating her, yes it’s “acting,” but it’s also just the situation that you created. I think you have success when the conceptual idea and the result both work. The fact that this film has this strong conceptual undercurrent and also a natural and emotional result is the best that you can hope for.
SB: (Laughs.) That’s good to know. You were even wearing some of my clothing and some of my grandfather’s old clothing, like his old plaid shirt and his grizzly bear hat. One of the sweaters you wore also belongs to Calvin’s mother. Just to explain it a little bit further, Calvin’s mom’s father plays the man in question in the film, [the one who may be] my grandmother’s ex-lover. With your costume and the set, I was secretly hoping they would work as talismans or objects that would help form that character. I’m happy that it worked for you and for us.
DC: You know, if you’re inserted into a situation and there’s nothing there, you’re not going to have anything to perform against or to focus on. Whereas your family has a very rich history, very intelligent and interesting personalities...
SB: Yes, I can’t just throw you that character and say, "This is who it is, just go do it." I think you need to provide that subtext and that’s where the collaboration is … Seeing the two of you together for the first time was so exciting because both me and Calvin were like, "This is working!" What did that collaboration feel like, and how did you support each other through those scenes? Because we’re filming in one long take, there’s no coverage, and you’re making up your lines, pulling the arc of the scene so cleanly and so seamlessly.
JB: I think that was because we did not work with a script, which was to my relief. We just went in and were ourselves. We put ourselves into whatever situation we were focusing on, and I don’t know, it was like a miracle to me. I felt much more relaxed having to work with this professional here. It all came together so smoothly, it was like a puzzle that fit. Deragh could be my granddaughter, we were very well-suited [to] this whole endeavour.
DC: You can’t really think too much about the strangeness of it or it being fictional, because that in itself will take you out of the situation. Joan and I are well-suited to each other and Joan has a very good sense of humour, too. So it wasn’t like I had to keep reminding myself to act like Audrey, act like Joan’s granddaughter: it was keeping a conversation going and just having to play out the situation. Maybe in preparing for that, you feel some nerves or a bit challenged, but I remember the shooting of the actual scenes feeling quite relaxing.
SB: The scene in the hallway was just supposed to be a simple scene where you stand by the elevator and you’re depressed because your grandmother has given you these bags of clothing. It was this amazing moment where I was like, "Wow, Deragh has such a strong capacity to embody a whole different physicality in her character." Because the way you stood against the wall, it was so funny. You took a simple scene and turned it into something really interesting. It was very Monsieur Hulot-like.
DC: I want to introduce more physical comedy into my performances. That’s something I’ve been increasingly interested in.
SB: I think you also did something with your hat, where it just hits the bridge of your nose.
JB: Well, it was 10 sizes too large for her little head. It kept slipping down over her eyebrows, she kept pushing it up, pushing it up. That hat was too much.
SB: There were lots of really great discoveries by bringing you onto this project. I saw you in I Used to Be Darker and knew you as a friend because we were in a cheese club together. But in continuing to work with you, there were so many pleasant surprises along the way where I was like, "I really, really, really did choose the right person!" It just felt right, I don’t think we could’ve pulled it off with anyone else. They were hard shoes to fill.
What should people expect when they go see Never Eat Alone?
DC: It’s a very vulnerable and emotional film, but at the same time, audiences should pay attention to how smart the film is in terms of the handling of archival materials, as well as documentary footage. Everyone should really be impressed and take enjoyment of how you were able to tell a story out of these different materials.
JB: It’s not La La Land, that’s for sure. This is a film that’s very different in its approach, you have to go in without expectations. Because its theme is aging — what does one do as they’re aging? How do they think? How do they function? Who do they function with? Different people age differently; it depends on your circumstances. I was very fortunate.