Both stars of Canadian independent cinema, actress Deragh Campbell (Fail to Appear, Stinking Heaven) leading a film by Kazik Radwanski (Tower, How Heavy This Hammer) seemed bound to happen. The result, Anne at 13,000 ft. feels like a potential breakthrough for both of them. The Film Stage was lucky enough to sit down with the two during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to discuss crafting the film together, and how personal it was for both of them.

Watching the movie, I sort of can’t imagine it without Deragh in it. It almost feels like you two collaborated in writing it. Can you two talk about the genesis of the film?

Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, it was always Deragh. I wrote it for her. People say, “What’s the inspiration for the film?” I would say Deragh is the inspiration. It’s not based on her life at all or anything like that, but I was always thinking of her when I was writing it and conceiving it. And I normally don’t show screenplays to actors, but I did show it to her very early in the process. And, so we had a lot of conversations–maybe you can see that too–but Deragh did a lot of research of her own too in different ways. We shared certain memoirs to read, and video clips very early, and then we worked at the daycare for a while. So, it transitioned. I kind of broke this more than usual and then it was a process of cutting that all away slowly and sort of reinventing it through us having conversations and trying scenes out. And then also working at the daycare and picking up on dynamics there and things like that.

Deragh Campbell: We both live in Toronto. We both participate in going to see screenings and everything like that. And both of us are aware of each other’s work and it were interested in working together.  We had very early conversation about Kas’s method of working and if that’s even like tenable for me because it’s a longer shooting process and making sure that that was something we were up for. While there’s a screenplay as Kaz said, it’s seeing what rings false and what rings true and adapting as you go as well. So, it’s true the film couldn’t be with another person because it is Kaz’s’ way of working plus my way of working and seeing what the result of that is. That’s a really interesting kind of mathematics I think. You don’t know exactly what will come out of it.

Well, you mentioned the extended production period and it started shooting in the summer of 2017. Is that about right?

KR: Yeah, yeah late summer. 

Is there specific ways the film maybe grew or the character changed over this extended production period?

KR: Definitely. Just from trying different things to put on the character and building off of different things and narrowing things. It was a constant evolution. There were different dynamics that merged so the conflict with the other teacher, for instance, is definitely something in the script that tension was somewhere else. And then also just the nature of the relationship with Matt [Johnson]. Matt initially had much fewer scenes in the film. We were a little nervous about working with Matt, but it worked out so well that we kept sort of following that lead.

DC: And I really enjoyed working with Matt too so that was something we wanted to keep.

KR: It was hard to think about what in particular we learned about the character.

DC: Learned about the character?

KR: Or sort of what was created through the process.

DC: Well, yeah. We had a bunch of ideas about her, a bunch of backstory about what she’d be like, and when you’re sort of improvising something you can’t really just be like, this person is this way, and I need to make decisions that reflect this. You actually just need to be in the scenarios and what the reactions end up being kind of becomes what the character is.

DC: So for me, performing this character was just about how it was a matter of pushing past. For instance, when I’m nervous, I shut down and I don’t say anything. So it had to be an opposite of action of being nervous and saying everything that comes to my mind. Like purposefully saying the wrong thing and just seeing how that changed the scene and Kaz was really good at that. For instance, in the wedding scene you would say something like, “Just keep telling Dora that you love her. Like no matter how awkward it gets just keep saying it.” Then it would become about creating a kind of energy, and a bit of madness.

KR: Or really it’s just a contrast into my other films (Tower and How Heavy This Hammer) which were, working with Erwin [Van Cotthem] or Derek [Bogart] and a lot of the process was learning about them and kind of tailoring the film to them and sort of learning how they behave in certain situations and following it. The difference with this is, it was a similar process, but with a character and then also having Deragh as a collaborator, so that she was also pushing the character. I would take my lead from Deragh quite often so that a scene would be sort of conceptualized and be kind of small and then it would explode. And I would just trust that Deragh had found something there and just sorta take a step back rather than try to pull it back to the script that I’d written.

Did she kind of dictate like where even you would put the camera in a way?

KR: No, I wouldn’t say that. But at the same time, the camera follows the actors–just the way cameras work now that we can really follow the performance that I don’t have marks or cues in particular. Sometimes I will give slight direction, but it’s more for performance that urges something that can sort of create a conflict or dynamic between people. It’s funny, too, just from talking about cameras and stuff and also back to how long we’ve been developing this. We did like a camera test for this film essentially with How Heavy This Hammer. Deragh has a cameo, so since 2015 we’ve been working on this. We did a screen test and were kinda thinking about it.

Isn’t Deragh’s scene in How Heavy This Hammer also at a school?

KR: It’s also at a daycare. It’s the daycare where we shot this film, it’s the same place.

DC: I guess it’s sort of the same, I mean, she’s called Ms. Campbell.

KR: Or Ms. Cam… [laughing]. Well, yeah, we didn’t decide on the name until very late in the process.

DC: Yeah, and [cinematographer] Nikolay Michaylov was very good at this. I’ve worked with lots of really good DPs, but one thing that’s really special about him is even though he’s so close, he actually has like a really quite uncanny awareness about everything that’s going on around him. I have this moment in another film where it was also like a handheld thing and I just started spontaneously crying, like crying in character and went under the table, and when the director said cut I realized that the camera just hadn’t been on me–like, the entire time, and I’d had this like really genuine emotional experience that just like was not captured. Whereas Nikolay is very good at knowing where the thing that has to be captured is.

I had a friend who was a stage actor, and he told me that he really hated doing screen acting like commercials or television, because he felt he was always very restricted. He couldn’t really use his body to his full extent. I mean, with a film like this, where really you’re shot very tightly. Did you find that a challenge? 

DC: Yeah, I mean maybe it’s a testament to Nikolay again but he was such a moving part; he moves similar to another actor moves or something like that so it doesn’t feel like this one-sided thing of like a camera that’s watching you and capturing you. It’s kind of an interaction, which I think is really nice. It’s a blessing that I just don’t think about what I look like, or what I’m appearing like when I’m on camera. And I can’t imagine trying to produce a certain effect or something or look a certain way. So it’s a much more straightforward thing of just trying to not think, “I am Deragh making a movie with her friends.” I try to think more like I am paying attention to this person that’s being mean to me. Just try and be as focused as possible because I think that that’s when your face and your body say so many things that you don’t even know. 

KR: Our process is that it’s just such a small crew. And quite often Nikolay has no gaffer or assistant or anyone working with him–he does it all on his own too. So just that amount of intimacy is also what I think what helps preserve it. But yet, a camera’s always on, I mean, it’s on for two years. Every time we rehearse something, we’re camera ready. So, I hope it just becomes invisible. I feel like it encourages less talking and we just start filming and sort of getting in the moment. And then also, some of the scenes we’re shooting in sort of a live daycare classroom. Half the scenes were with children, like child actors. We signed a bunch of permission forms and Deragh would just come into a room with 30 kids and Nikolay would just follow and we would just kind of ease our way in there.

DC: I had to get a criminal background check.

The thing they always say is don’t work with children or animals right? Was working with children kind of a challenge or was that …

DC: Working with children is great.

It’s energizing, right?

DC: Yeah.

KR: I think it just creates chaos or energy or something to respond to in the scene so it’s something I gravitate to. All my films have dogs in them. And it will be like that scene with Matt visiting the surprise dinner where he’s not invited and it’s like, let’s throw a dog and a kid in there too and really get everyone disoriented.

DC: That’s a great method because as an actor you have to pay attention to a dog and a kid, and a weird boyfriend character and your mom. Like you’re not going to be thinking, “Is my arm weird?” because you have so many other things to pay attention to.

KR: Sometimes it’s really just an atmosphere. Like a morning with just a dog wandering around the house, just makes it for me feel more like a house or something familiar. But then yeah, other times it’s great for chaos or for tension.

DC: It’s also your mom’s house.

KR: All the films have been shot at my mom’s house.

You talked about working on the script and sculpting what comes in at a very trim 75 minutes. Are there any scenes you cut that you kind of miss?

KR: We talk about Nicolak, but [editor] Ajla (Odobasic) and I have been working together even longer–since 2007 she’s done all my films. When I work with Nikolay, Ajla, and Deragh, it’s a true collaboration and I’m not micromanaging them. It’s very much like: give Ajla the footage and she’ll work with it for a bit then we’ll work on it together. But yeah, the more we cut, the more we cut. This is I think out of all my films the tightest. We just hacked so much away that there was an hour and forty-minute cut for sure. 

I feel like we don’t see female leads like Anne in many English-language movies, at least in terms of a character that’s indecisive. What that something a purposeful decision with this character?

KR: All my films are kinda in conversation with each other and just coming back to root influences. Some talk about portrayals of female protagonists in films. All the way back to when I made Princess Margaret, which was my thesis film, certain films always struck a cord for me. Like, Passion of Joan of Arc or Wanda or A Women Under the Influence

DC: Breaking the Waves

KR: Yeah. 

DC: I mean, she’s indecisive. I think that she has a lust for life, but is easily destabilized, which I think is an interesting or I guess tragic set up for a person. Because she wants to be connected to people. She wants to have experiences kind of beyond what she can really handle. Right? Sure she has an apartment and a job, but that’s kind of not enough for her. She sort of wants more, but by kind of wanting more, it is kind of what makes the rest of her life fall apart. So what you have set up is that she’ll kind of always probably perpetually keep rebuilding and destroying and like rebuilding and destroying.

KR: It’s hard to know how since learning what people pick up on. With this film people at least feel that there was some trauma or that she had a major episode at some point. She wants to rebuild herself or wants to sort of reach out, but there’s this certain suggestion that there are real stakes. That it’s not just apathetic state or like my other protagonists, that’s it’s more like existential baggage or something. But with this, there’s almost the feeling–and maybe that’s because it’s a female character that it just felt less interesting if it was all self-created–that there was a real sort of a risk and I suppose that’s also why I set it a daycare. She’s working around children, there’s always kind of that question, should she be with them? Or just how protective parents are. And, so yeah there’s sort of this indecisiveness and elevated stakes.

DC: That’s nice, the idea of elevated stakes. Because it’s like when she makes the decision to jump out of a plane or, try to fall in love or anything like that, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. There’s the hope of something incredible happening. 

Do you see this as a really personal film for both of you?

KR: For me, yeah. All my stuff is incredibly personal. I mean, it’s shot at my mom’s. My mom’s in the film, she plays the supervisor. I went to that daycare as a kid. And so yeah, there’s a lot of biography just in that. But in terms of the crisis, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m returning to something in my films.  So I always start with something incredibly personal and sort of fractions of things that have happened to me or, or people close to me and then it becomes this process of grounding something else and sort of this collaborative thing of working with Ajla, Nikoaly, [producer] Dan [Montgomery], and Deragh and over two years it grows into something else. The film almost starts embarrassingly introspective and then gets grounded them into somebody else. 

DC: Yeah, certainly it’s personal. I definitely started off the film thinking that Anne was very different than me, and I’m a tiny bit disturbed by the ways that she’s similar to me. I’ve become a much more socially anxious person as I’ve gotten older somehow. And the way that she experiences social anxiety is very different from mine, like that kind of becoming super overbearing. When I get anxious I withdraw. But, just kind of seeing this intense desire to connect with people, but kind of wanting the connection so badly that you kind of make it impossible. I think is something that’s really depressing.

KR: Yeah, we’ve both been there.

DC: I don’t know. Despite the fact that she will put other people in uncomfortable situations, I think she’s really sympathetic as a character.

KR: Yeah. I mean, I hope all the characters are sympathetic.

DC: Yeah.

KR: There’s no villain or antagonist. The villain is society. [Laughs.]

Anne at 13,000 ft premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

See our complete TIFF 2019 coverage.

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