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Australia,Canada (MIFF 2015, Australian Showcase, MIFF Premiere Fund)
Director: Michael Rowe
Age is never an issue. Until it becomes the only issue.
Now in his 50s, David (Paul Doucet) works as a janitor in a retirement home, his job a daily reminder of an existence that he’s slowly tumbling towards and the yet unburied ghosts of his own past. David’s younger wife, Maya (Suzanne Clément, from Mommy, MIFF 14), is wrapped in a world of technology that he cannot understand, and when he discovers the reason for her technical immersion, the walls of his reality come tumbling in.
In this MIFF Premiere Fund-supported film, former Cannes Caméra d’Or winner writer/director Michael Rowe (Leap Year, MIFF 2010) has crafted an unflinching meditation on the difficulties of intergenerational love and the disconnection that can thrive when humans are given a new way to connect.
Early Winter is one of five MIFF Premiere Fund-supported films for 2015. We sat down with Australian-born but Mexico-based writer/director Michael Rowe, a former Cannes Caméra d’Or winner (for Leap Year, which screened at MIFF in 2010), to ask him a few questions about the making of his first English-language film, shooting insequence and how he made the transition from journalist to award-winning director.
The action of your MIFF Premiere Fund-supported film takes place in Quebec, French Canada. Why did you decide to set the movie in Quebec?
What really interests me in the world is the complexities of human interaction, human relationships. I have some good friends in Canada and we’d spoken about winter and the emotional effects of being closed up, and I think the seasons there must have a very strong effect on a relationship. So I was interested in exploring the breakdown of a relationship or the crisis in a relationship that was intensified by the isolation that winter brings on.
And also my own themes, which I always explore: immigration and isolation of characters out of context and trying to emotionally survive in environments that aren’t their own. So it was a combination of those two things.
How was it working in Australia for post-production on the film?
It’s strange because it’s a very tight, closed community, the cinema world in Australia. Everybody knows everybody. And since Cannes, everybody knows about me in a sort of an abstract sense; that I exist. This statistical anomaly. Some people have seen my earlier work, some people haven’t. I feel like when I arrive there, I feel this void where the figure exists – there’s this abstract guy who did this in some other country and won this prize, and he’s born in Australia.
But to actually be there, I become real. The figure becomes real and I think my work takes on a different depth for the people. I was met with great openness and enthusiasm and I felt very welcomed. There are some very, very talented people there.
Paul Doucet and Suzanne Clément, the two main actors, embody a couple in crisis, sort of going through the motions, with a rocky marriage and kids. What was interesting to you about the dynamic between the couple at this particular point in their journey?
I’m 44 years old. I’ve been through a divorce, I have a child, one of my best childhood friends is divorced with two children. All of the people around me are either in marriages that have been together for 15 or more years, or are divorced, and most of them have two children. I think the struggle of keeping a marriage together and the work that is implied by raising children is something that’s a very big thing. I think it’s the centre of most people’s lives and it’s not something that’s generally explored in movies as much as the more glamorous part of a relationship, which is the falling in love, the kind of adolescent part of things.
I think Western society is stuck in a kind of prolonged adolescence in so many senses, and that one of the main carrots that hangs in front of people everywhere is love in the sense of “falling and being in love”. This kind of altered, psychological, chemical brain state, which is a kind of drug. It’s an amazing thing, it’s really great, but the nuts and bolts of everyday living under one roof together for 15-20 years is much less glamorous, much more tiring, and I think it’s a struggle that is not so much explored in cinema because there’s a strong streak of escapism in commercial cinema. And that’s one of the things that people go to the cinema to escape from.
Early Winter is entirely filmed in sequence-shots, a technique you’re known for employing in previous work. What does it bring to your film?
For a lot of films, the real creation is done in the editing room. And the actors don’t have a lot of control over that. I like the actors to create the film with me – what they do is what we see and it’s the final result. It’s risky; sometimes it has a lot of challenges for editing. When you work that way, inevitably, some takes will have some things that are incredible and things that are normal. Sometimes you don’t get all the incredible things happening at the same time in the same take. So you have to sacrifice some things in one take when you choose another take. And that’s kind of sad, but if you use the overall flow of the story as a guide, that’s I guess the best you can do.
I also like to be able to control the frame, the composition, as closely as I can. I like to be able to narrate, to tell a story through the frame in each scene. It’s a different way of doing things, I guess. This was the first time I worked with a non-Mexican crew and non-Mexican actors, and everybody was quite freaked out by it, by the style of the film. We finished the first take, and I said “alright, we’ve got it. Let’s move on.” And there was a silence for like four seconds. Everybody looked at each other and somebody said: “You’re not going to do coverage?” And I said no. There was another silence. And this person said: “Okaaaaay. Whoa. ” And for the first two days, people weren’t really sure of what was happening, or what we were doing, I think. By day four, everybody on the crew was so excited and blown away by what we were doing, so committed and convinced that they weredoing something important… and it’s been really gratifying for me to work with them.
You set the scene as an intricate painting, with every minute detail having been carefully considered. Why is this long-take method so important to you?
It lets me concentrate on actors and the acting. I think that there are many, many ways to make films. I’m a little bit biased toward actors; I really like working with them. I believe that you can tell the story through good acting and a good script. I kind of go in a little bit naked in that sense: I don’t generally use music; I don’t do internal cuts within a scene and that lets me focus on the actors, and lets them do their work and lets me do the kind of work that I want to do.
I think really good acting can get you almost anything in terms of emotional results, and if something is well-written and well-acted, you can get anything. It gives you an enormous freedom to do things that way. If you don’t have to do coverage – the full, medium and close-up, and the corresponding shots for each side – it takes up so much time, you know? That process gives you material to make the kind of films that you see every day, cookie-cutter films in terms of semantics and the way that emotional impact is constructed. I think doing it with a fixed frame is much more challenging in many ways, but it allows a lot of freedom to the actors to concentrate and do what they want and to be real creators. And my actors are my co-creators. I like to work closely with them and adjust the script to their emotional register and their own life experiences.
You won the Cannes Caméra d’Or in 2010. How did being awarded this prestigious prize affect your career?
I came into directing cinema late in life. After 15 years as a struggling screenwriter whose screenplays nobody wanted to film, or people wanted to film but nobody wanted to finance, I realised that if I didn’t do it myself I was going to turn 40 and I wouldn’t have a single film credit to my name. So I got over my aversion to directing and did it. I had been living as a journalist for almost 20 years, as a reporter, as an editor, as a translator. So I had an office job, and wrote screenplays in my spare time, and tried to kind of keep the dream of doing things alive by giving screenwriting classes and helping out on short films.
And then suddenly, from a zero-budget film in a tiny apartment with an unknown lead actress, I’m standing on stage in Cannes and there are people offering me all sorts of money and strings of movies and I think it took me about three years to get over that! It was a Cinderella story, which is amazing, but it was a complete change in my universe and a very deep transition, and it took me about three years to adjust and to rearrange the universe, psychologically and emotionally around me. To inhabit that world the way that I needed to.
You are a Ballarat boy and you’ve drawn on some Australian experiences in creating Early Winter. How is your relationship with Australia now?
It’s a strange thing. I feel a bit like the prodigal son. I think the first time I was rejected from a cinema school I must have been about 21 or 22. Well, I wasn’t really rejected because I didn’t apply. But I called the Victorian College of the Arts. They had a cinema school there, or a course… I can’t even remember now. I had done some theatre and had had a certain amount of success with what I’d done. I spoke to somebody there and they said, “well, you’re 21 years old, and our policy is to take people who’ve lived something more of life, and generally most of the people we accept are in their late 20s, they’ve already done a film or two, or they’ve already been a construction worker on an oil rig, or they have a certain life experience to back them up, and from which to create. So we suggest you go and live life, and come back to us in five, ten years time.” So I did.
What do you hope the life of Early Winter will be?
I’d just like it to move people. To make them reflect a little bit more on what it is to be a human being and how we try to find happiness, and the partners that we choose to do that and the things that we do to them. I think that’s the main thing that I would like.