By JESSICA BUCK
Following the releases of I’ll Take Your Dead, Let Her Out, Bite, and Antisocial, Black Fawn Films and Breakthrough Entertainment Inc have paired up again for THE OAK ROOM, a Gothic Canadian thriller.
Based on a Fringe play of the same name, THE OAK ROOM begins on a snowy night in a small-town Northern Ontario bar. Enter a drifter who has returned to his hometown with the intent of settling a debt with the grizzled bartender by telling a story; one that spirals out into increasingly grim tales. With the film premiering today at the Fantasia International Film Festival, director/producer Cody Calahan and stars RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad), and Peter Outerbridge (Orphan Black, Saw VI) sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss Canadian filmmaking, snowy adventures, and winter horror movies.
Usually Fringe plays feature an empty stage with a couple pieces of furniture. Did you find it was challenging to extrapolate from that, or was it easy because it’s so minimal that you could do whatever you wanted?
Cody Calahan: You know it’s interesting because it kind of goes both ways. It was so minimal, so we were like “okay we can do anything” but I didn’t want to really change it too much. There’s something really great about the way it stood and the way it was written as is. Obviously you need to tweak some stuff that would work in theatre but not in film–then just adding in more cinematic beats outside of the bar to help push the story. We did add a lot, but it wasn’t a big change from the play, if you saw the play and you come to see the movie, it’s the same story.
Given that this is a character-driven story, can you give us an idea of what these guys are all about?
RJ Mitte: I play a character that left his small little town to go to school, and I guess in some people’s eyes pissed it away. Now I’m coming back and kind of settling up some of my debts with some old friends that aren’t so friendly [laughs]. Instead of settling up with money, I’m settling up with this story. It’s about a man who walks into a bar telling a story about a man who walks into a bar, about a man who walks into a bar. You don’t really know if I’m a good guy or a bad guy: I could have every good intention or I could have none. I think what’s nice about this movie is we let the audience decide the path I am on.
Peter Outerbridge: Paul is the owner of a bar called The Spruce in a small town near Elk Lake, Ontario. And you know, Paul was the guy who was the Big Man on Campus in high school and that was sort of his grand hurrah. So now he runs a bar in this little town and that’s about it, that’s as far as he’ll go. I think when we first find him in the movie he’s at that stage where apathy has kind of taken over his world. He’s not angry, he’s not happy, he’s just alive [laughs]. Let’s put it that way.
The film very specifically takes place in a rural Northern Ontario bar. Was it important to have a Canadian setting?
CC: Well me and the writer and most of the actors all grew up in small towns. So I mean outside of Canada, I haven’t been anywhere else. It felt kind of weird–we could have made it Alaska but none of us had been, so it was like “well, why?” It was always written for a Canadian bar. I think if people are concentrating on the fact that it’s Canadian towns and some of the characters have Canadian accents, if that’s the focus point then we’ve done a bad job of making a movie.
PO: I wish I could say I am kind of a nationalist but I’m not. I like a good story, I’m not particularly excited about doing nationalism. This story happens to be set in Canada, where we’re being very free with our colloquialisms and stuff like that and doing Canadian pronunciations–whatever that means. But it’s not a flag waving story. It’s not like “clearly this is a Canadian Story, look there’s Mounties and beavers!”
RJ, as an American did you find it difficult to get into the headspace of a small-town Canadian man?
RJ: Not really, no. This movie does take place up by Elk Lake off of Highway 10 in the fucking middle of nowhere. But I’m a small town country boy for the most part. I mean, as much as I’m not, I am. I’ve grown up in small towns in rural areas; from forest to nothing, to city to back to forest. I don’t think it’s regional, it’s kind of everyone’s path in life: we come from the smaller town to the bigger city, and back and forth. I feel like it’s something that everyone can register with.
So, does the snow play a factor in the story?
CC: Yeah snow is totally a character and has probably been the hardest thing to shoot. Because we shot some of it earlier this year when there was snow and it was either too much snow so we couldn’t shoot, or not enough. So it was a challenge getting all that. Once we got all those pieces that are the cold Canadian exteriors, we’re matching it in here with like–well I won’t give any secrets away–but tons of different ways to make it look like it’s legitimately snowing.
Do you have any fun, snowstorm-related anecdotes?
CC: Yeah, I mean it’s funny because it wasn’t snow. I’m gonna get the date wrong, but I think it was 1998. There was an ice storm where I was living and it was so bad because our house was on a hill, and it was so icy that we couldn’t drive the car because if you hit the brakes you wouldn’t stop. Even stepping out in the backyard, if there was a slight angle you’d slide away. We were without power for two weeks, and it took us a week to get out of our place down to the road. Then we lived at friends of mine because as power went out everywhere, they kind of started in the cities and moved out–we were in the middle of the country. It took almost three weeks to get power and water and all that back. That was the real deal
RJ: Only in the last five to six years I’ve dealt with my fair share of snow. I work in a town in Texas where trees spontaneously combust, so I’m used to extreme heats…
Do you have a favourite wintery horror movie that you’ve been drawing inspiration from while making THE OAK ROOM?
CC: I think my favourite winter-themed horror movie would be The Shining. But I feel like I keep falling back to, like Fargo and stuff like that. Because it’s a thriller, but it’s kind of in the world of the Coen Brothers where the thriller aspects are super serious and handled in a serious way, but the movie itself is quirky.
RJ: 40 Days of Night is always one of those winter horror movies, or like Black Christmas–those holiday-type horror movies, they’re always really quirky. This isn’t really that type of film but I like horror, I’m really into horror.
What is it about the horror genre that draws you in?
CC: Well, the funny thing is that this is probably the furthest thing from horror, and into the thriller genre. I don’t know, I’ve always been attracted to the absurdity of it. It’s almost like going back to film school because you can kinda do whatever you want, you can experiment with that genre specifically. But yeah, after doing three (horror movies) I kind of wanted to try my hand at something a bit different, something like a character-driven drama thriller.
PO: I love horror movies! I grew up on horror movies. For me they are cinematic roller coasters so it’s sort of fun. I was in one of the Saw movies and there was a scene where horrible things are happening to me and the director just kept crying out “More blood! We need more blood!” They basically had more blood coming out of my body than exists in the human body. It was like fountains and fountains of blood and it’s ridiculous, it’s cartoonish, but there’s something that is visceral about that. I think that we just like them, we just like being scared. In a funny way it allows us to sort of feel like we’re taking control, like we’re learning something terrifying and from that knowledge we will protect ourselves against that terror, you know what I mean?
What would you say is the lesson to be learned in THE OAK ROOM?
PO: Don’t go to Northern Ontario, man, at all [laughs]. Do not go to Northern Ontario in the snow.