[NB: This article and interview do reveal plot details, but neither film is plot-driven as such, and would not, in my opinion, be “spoiled” should you choose to see them after reading. ]
On Sunday evening, I caught up with local director-writer Jon Mann and Toronto-based actor-producer Rob Ramsay to discuss their recent work together, particularly Cahoots (2018) and Missy (2018), which are both programmed in this year’s FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival.
Filmed in New Brunswick, where both Jon and Rob are from, back-to-back across three days in November 2017, Cahoots and Missy were shot by a miniscule crew, which included Halifax and Toronto-based director of photography Paul McCurdy. The two films differ from one another quite broadly. Cahoots is a quick, darkly comedic conversation with an old friend about his highly questionable career choice to work for ISIS’s social media; Missy is a bleak portrait of a man and his inanimate mannequin companion in what feels like a post-apocalyptic setting.
Years after knowing each other as students at Acadia University, Jon and Rob reunited in 2015 to make Rearview, a dialogueless short about a man tormented by a death he effected in a hit-and-run. Since that very first film together, Jon describes their shared trajectory as a kind of “baptism by fire,” which has culminated most recently in a television show concept called Wolfville. Developed through the Canadian National Screen Institute’s Totally Television Program, Wolfville’s pilot has been optioned by Take The Shot Productions, a production company in St. John’s, NL (Frontier, Republic of Doyle, Caught).
Jon and Rob say Wolfville, which is set in the titular town in Annapolis Valley, NS, does not mean merely to celebrate Maritime filmmaking, but to delve into a darkness and imperfection present here, and which remains largely unexplored.
Kelly Li: Of all the places you two know in the Maritimes, why Wolfville?
Rob Ramsay: We went to school there, we met at Acadia, and I think we both just have a fascination with the town. It’s this picture-perfect place in the middle of nowhere. It’s a small tight-knit community, but as soon as you go five minutes out of the town, there’s some really shady, dark places and dark people. And that contrast was always really interesting to us.
Jon Mann: So many contradictions in that stretch from Exit 9 to Exit 11. Wolfville is Exit 10, where there’s certainly some tension between students and locals, but I think the locals know that the students run the economy, basically. It balloons from 2000 people to 5000 people once school’s in, so there’s that. It’s what keeps the town alive, but then like Rob said, you start to go further into the Valley, and everyone’s heard of the Golers, and the seedy underbelly of this perfect-looking town . . . it’s such an interesting little corner of the world that should be explored. Everytime I go there—I mean, Splinters did it this week—[I wonder] how are more things not shot here? It’s gorgeous. And we just wanted to kind of explore what could be done. It’s like, how do people keep their lights on in Wolfville, given its appearance of perfection while there’s actually a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes?
KL: I feel that the international view, or even the Canada-wide view of Atlantic Canada is very much that picture-perfect, postcard ideal with a lighthouse, Peggy’s Cove, et cetera. But I do notice that with many Atlantic filmmakers, there’s a kind of desire to explore the seedy underbellies of things, the darkness that characters can’t seem to escape. How do you feel about that relationship?
JM: I think one thing that we always talk about when we talk about Wolfville is that the Maritimes, and Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick… if you take the analogy of “all our postcards have smiling lobster fishermen on them with their beautiful knit sweaters, and big grins,” what we wanna talk about is who was the lobster fisherman who was cutting other people’s nets, and murdering the family that no one talks about. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re more interested in. It doesn’t take long to go through Google to see the amount of stories about drugs coming in through the Halifax harbour, coming into the airport.
RR: Yeah, and I think that’s why you’re seeing all of that. Because there’s this picture-perfect representation of the Maritimes, and a good story is just plain the opposite of that.
JM: My sister is married to someone from Minnesota, and when they talk about—this always stuck with me—when they talk about the movie Fargo, that came out like 5 years after that murder that happened. And my brother-in-law has that accent, the whole family has that accent, and to them it’s just a really sad story. Where the rest of the world is like, “oh, they have accents, that’s funny” . . . but at its core, Fargo is a f-cked up story and really crushed this town. It was terrible, and terrifying, and traumatic. So we always like that kind of approach to things. Yeah, let’s celebrate that there are a lot of colloquialisms in the Maritimes, but at the same time, serious stuff happens here, and no one is really turning those rocks over as much as we want too.
KL: In both Cahoots and Missy, there’s a slightly apocalyptic vibe. It’s a little more prevalent in Missy, but even in Cahoots, there’s the idea that ISIS is infiltrating small town life, your buddies’ lives, et cetera. And it’s mixed in with a kind of escapism and a kind of absurdity…
RR: In terms of Missy, I think we just find… To me, I love exploring what people do when they’re by themselves. That’s a kind of true representation of someone . . . But I think that was just a storytelling tactic that we wanted to use. And then for Cahoots, jeepers! I don’t know.
JM: I think one thing, especially with Wolfville, [is the theme that] there’s no antagonist and no protagonist, but those roles can always be flipped depending on a scene, depending on the relationship, as you’re watching it. So I think even with Rearview, and Missy, and Cahoots, our approach has always been that no one’s ever as bad or good as they seem. I think a big moment in Cahoots is when Rob’s character is kind of saying… he doesn’t say it point-blank, but basically, “I know, I know this isn’t ideal but when you compartmentalize it, I’m healthier, I’m not drinking anymore, my parents are proud and not asking me too many questions.”
As far as dealing with it comedically, I think there’s definitely a time and a place. With what’s going on in the States right now I could drive myself absolutely insane thinking about it, which I do sometimes. But then, if you put a spin on it, I think it’s so “funny”—air quotes, for the record—that there is a social media guy for ISIS! That’s insane to me. It’s insane that they send each other emails . . .
RR: It’s a business!
JM: It’s an operation! And maybe you don’t call them a CFO, but they definitely have a chief financial officer, in some capacity, and I’m sure that they have work duties, and whatever. So just like looking at in that lens, I think makes it feel less scary, even though it is very scary. But sometimes you do have to create a bubble for you to live in. We were nervous, going into Cahoots . . . I don’t want anybody to think that we ever take anything lightly, but when you start to look at it [that way] it does become comedic. And a big part of writing Cahoots was wanting to make sure there was enough heart in there with the friendships. . . It’s just this guy, that’s his job, that’s his day job, and we’re not defined by our day jobs at all, we’re moreso defined by the relationships that we have. That’s what I wanted to be the great takeaway.
Getting back to your question, you kind of have this theme of “no one is ever as good, bad as they seem, or as happy as they seem, or as sad as they seem, or as social as they seem”—you just don’t know what’s going on behind the curtains of certain people’s lives. I think that moreso comes out in Cahoots, and with Missy, it’s just so in your face. [Rob’s character] is slowly going into a turmoil of being alone . . . There’s just [the question of] is he a good person? Are we supposed to feel sad for him? Are we supposed to be happy for him? Kind of playing with that [audience’s relationship] to Rob’s character, who we feel bad for in the situation. Missy looks creepy; she didn’t do anything . . . We wanted to create something where we didn’t know if this guy was the last man on earth. Is he in purgatory for something? Is he the first man on earth in this new weird post-apocalyptic thing? And none of those are wrong, if you come away thinking that stuff. How do you know what you’d be like in that situation? You don’t. If you fall in love with a mannequin, or whatever.
KL: The location in Missy is absolutely wild—it feels so vast and desolate. How did you come across this place and what’s your relationship to it?
JM: Well, my grandfather built it. It’s my family cottage, which is terrible to say, because it looks so awful in November. It’s a nice place, I promise. And that was actually kind of a start, especially with indie short films. The most expensive short we ever made was like 400 bucks, and that was Missy. And that goes towards coffee and food. And so, the location was super intriguing in that sense that we could do a lot with this kind of opportunity, especially late in the fall in New Brunswick, [when] everything looks dead.
RR: All the other stuff was around that cottage.
JM: We didn’t even scout anything. In the weekend, it was like, “we need a field, so let’s drive around for a bit and find one.”
RR: And then that scene where I’m in the abandoned place—that was a place we’d been both obsessed with for a while, actually. It’s called Cape Tormentine. Tormentine?
JM: Tormentine, I always want to say turpentine.
RR: Yeah, so Cape Tormentine is where the old ferry from New Brunswick to PEI used to go. Yeah. Now closed and abandoned, so we did some… guerilla stuff.
JM: Yeah, completely . . . So we knew that was there, and when we went, we literally hopped a fence with Paul [McCurdy, DoP] and just went into this warehouse [that’s in the film]; you duck under an old garage door, and that’s how we got in and out . . . We were lucky, we didn’t ask for permission, which is what we usually do. Even shooting Cahoots, we shot at a Dolan’s Pub in Fredericton, and the pub was open while we did that. Mike Corby, who’s also an actor [in the film], he’s not an actor—he’s an actor in [Cahoots, but] it’s the only thing he’s ever done . . . he works in that industry and he knew the owners, and was like, “Is it ok if we come in for 6 hours?” And we had to beg them not to turn the music on and everything. That’s kind of our style.
KL: One of the most intriguing parts of Missy are those conversations you [Rob] have with the mannequin. To what extent was it scripted, to what extent was it you improvising?
RR: At one point in time, we even thought, “Well let’s write down what she’s saying.” I don’t think we ever did, but in our minds, we knew what she was saying. We had several conversations about, well, what is Missy? Or what’s her motivation in this scene? What does she want to happen? So just knowing that in the back of my head, and I think, like any hopefully successful actor, you do a sh-tload of preparation and when you get there, you throw it out the window. So there was maybe 10% improvisation and just sort of winging it. There was a couple times when it was like I was playing out the conversation in my head, and sometimes she went in a way that I wasn’t expecting, and I had to respond to that.
JM: It was interesting, because Cahoots is so fast and that was an 18 page script down to an 11:11 [mins] runtime, and Missy’s the opposite, where 11 pages became 17 minutes. Because it’s just a lot of description. And with her… I think we had an idea—obviously we had to have an idea of this is what she says, or this is what actually happened when they were alive. So we knew the story, and that kind of helped us propel. That dinner scene was probably 4 pages of dialogue that got cut down. Made some choices with, “Oh, that’s too on the nose, that gives too much away about what actually happened when she was alive, or if she ever even was alive.” What do you think it is?
RR: I’m not giving it away.
JM: That’s fair . . . I think, without saying exactly what I think . . . the fact that the opening scene and the end scene are the same, and you can actually hear that Mamas and the Papas song playing very faintly on loop in the first scene when you’re looking out to the water, this guy [Rob’s character] is stuck and he keeps doing the same old thing. Whether he’s being punished for something he did in his past life , or just can’t seem to get out of this “rut”—air quotes, for the record—I think that kind of is the biggest… not giveaway, because it doesn’t give anything away, but is the biggest help or nod [towards] what you will think Missy is about.
RR: Yeah, and what I was going to say was we didn’t really do any backstory for her.
JM: She’s a very passive character.
RR: Wicked sense of humour though. I think what makes it stronger is that it’s an object. And I think in terms of backstory, I gave a backstory to what [my] character, or what his relationship was with whoever Missy was representing . . . But I think it worked best if it was just an object, and we didn’t really think of it as more . . . there was a whole scene where he has charcoal or something and gives her a face, but we scrapped it.
JM: We were scared it would look too comical. Yeah, to Rob’s point, I think that the way Paul shot her and the way her head’s on a creepy tilt . . . there’s a few edits where she interrupts you. And you can just feel this sense of, “Oh, these two have a relationship, and there’s like an actual yin-yang here.” So that’s what we were trying to execute.
Cahoots and Missy are programmed in Atlantic Shorts 3 and 5, respectively. They screened over the weekend, and will screen once more in encore presentations at Park Lane; Cahoots on Tuesday, September 18th at 9:10PM and Missy on Thursday, September 20th at 9:10PM.