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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 09.28.15] Canada comedy drama

I first discovered director Sean Garrity ten years ago after seeing Lucid (trailer), a dark dramedy about an insomnia-plagued psychotherapist whose life is falling apart. I was so taken by the fine balance of drama and comedy of Garrity's work and the striking look of the movie, that I became an instant fan.

In the decade since the release of Lucid, Garrity and frequent collaborator Jonas Chernick have doled out a wide variety of projects and their latest is another winner.

Borealis stars Chernick as Jonah, a gambler who is on the verge of losing everything. His girlfriend (Emily Hampshire) is nearing the end of her rope and his daughter Aurora (Joey King) is only living at home because she doesn't have another choice.

She's also going blind.

When Jonah loses a load of money at a local poker game, he decides it's time to reconnect with his daughter and take her north to see the Aurora Borealis before she loses her sight and can't see it at all. Also convenient that it gets him out of town before he has to pay his debt. The trip is made more interesting by the fact that the duo is being followed by Tubby (Kevin Pollak) and his assistant Brick (Clé Bennett) – the collectors.

Borealis is a great drama, part road trip movie, part family drama and part comedy and the mix makes for a beautiful and affecting hybrid.

Leading up to the movie's premiere tonight at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I had a chance to speak with director Sean Garrity and co-writer and star Jonas Chernick. The transcript of that conversation is below.

I wanted to start by congratulating you both on the movie. It's really fantastic. I can't say I'm surprised, because I'm not. I was expecting good things.

Before we talk about the movie itself, though, I wanted to backtrack since this is the first time that we've talked, and you guys have a long history of working together. Tell us how you met and how you started working together.

Sean Garrity: Sure. I was making a short film in Winnipeg about 1 million years ago, shortly after the invention of fire, and I did this thing where I only released a couple of lines of text to all of the actors coming for auditions.

So, Jonas came out, and the other actors only had a portion of the script; but Jonas had secretly talked to my production managers and read the entire script, and so he had a real insight into the character that our other actors didn't have. So, essentially, he tricked me in the audition.

After that, the short film was such a good experience, we said, "Let's start another project together," and it ended up being the feature Inertia.

So, he talked himself in as an actor, but how did you guys discover Jonas was actually this great writer as well?

Jonas Chernick: Well, the verdict's still out on that, but around that time that we made that short film together, I had started getting frustrated as an actor because I was waiting for the agent to call, and I felt like, "This is not a life I can live and feel like I have any control over, or any real creative expression." So, I thought, "While I'm waiting for my agent to call, I'll just try writing a script."

And I was doing that, but then when Sean and I started collaborating on the first feature, Inertia we realized that we had this interesting dynamic to the way we tell stories. So, Sean wrote it himself, but it was based on the improvisation by myself and a bunch of other actors. We enjoyed the process so much, that I threw Sean one of my rough drafts of a script that I had written and said, "Can you give this a look?"

And he read it and said, "Hey, I think that there's a great movie somewhere inside here. Let's try and find it together."

We co-wrote that script together, and since then, on all the films we've made, there's been this different kind of writing relationship that we have. We change it up a little bit each time, and sometimes Sean writes, and I story edit. Sometimes I write and Sean story edits. Sometimes we write together.

Marina: You guys have a really great balance of drama and comedy that obviously comes from working together for a long time, but it also comes through just in talking to you. How do you know if a script is sort of working with that balance, or if it's leaning too much one way or the other? Do you actually know while you're writing or does that come out while you're actually doing script readings?

Jonas: It's different for each project. With the last film we made, My Awkward Sexual Adventure we knew it was a comedy. We set out to write a high commercial, very marketable, very audience-friendly comedy so that one was pretty easy. The other one... you're right, that's a good observation, because we like to straddle the line a little bit, you know, Inertia, and like you said Borealis. We really believe that drama only works if there's laughter and comedy to the drama.

Sean: I've also felt as well that part of it has to do with being from Winnipeg, meaning we just don't really take ourselves that seriously. And so in really earnest projects you just find very hard to do because it seems to take issue with taking yourself very very seriously.

Having the writer on stet all the time, because he's there as an actor as well, do you guys go in with a final script and that's what you stick to? Or do you improvise as you go along? Is there ever the feeling that you can more easily make changes on the fly because the writer's right there?

Jonas: Yes, because we come from an improv background - both of us - we rely a lot on improv to give us alternatives and options when we're shooting. So we’ll have a lot in the dialogue and when we're shooting, so we do take 1, take 2. Once we feel like we got it we experiment with pushing material in different directions and getting a bunch of different options and that often relies on improv.

Borealis is a really fascinating road trip because it's a-typical. It's not really a buddy road trip but it's also not really a family road trip, it's kind of like a cyborg of the two. I'm really curious about where the idea for the story came from.

Sean: Well, originally I made a short film called Blind that was kind of a version of this story, a father daughter, she just went blind and the story across the country to the Rocky Mountains and Jonas kind of took it in a very different direction, expanded it into this, ultimately a different project. And it was interesting, I found, how the original short film was about my own relationship with my father, but Jonas being the outstanding writer he is obviously writes what he knows and re-made it. There was a real change in relationship between the daughter and the father there. It made it into a quite radically different project I think.

The performances in the movie are really outstanding. How difficult it was to cast the daughter because Joey King is brilliant and she and Jonas, you guys have this great chemistry together. Everything here is just such a fine balance, everything just works so well that I feel like, if it had gone too far in one direction or the other the whole thing would just fall apart.

Jonas: I wish I had some crazy story about how it took years to find her but the truth is, we sent the script to Joey King and she and her mom read it and they said yes, and it was that simple. And I thought we were shooting for the stars! I really felt that going for Joey King who had just come off of the Conjuring and White House Down and “Fargo” and all these kind of huge movies, I thought “there's no way she's going to come up to Winnipeg and shoot our Canadian film” but I thought I'd try anyway, and we got her. So it was kind of symbiotic. And then when she arrived for the shoot she and I - Sean facilitated the situation so that she and I could bond quickly and luckily the chemistry was just there. We really got lucky on that - that that happened that way.

Was there a back up plan if things didn't work out and the chemistry just wasn't there?

Sean: No, I mean, I don't think we really ever have to worry about that. Sometimes you do because you never know what can be a difficult personality, especially when you're dealing with stars, but we were very lucky with Joey and she was fantastic. Then there's a lot that happens before you shoot where I am the director and try to do my very best to make sure that Joey and Jonas are spending as much time together as possible, so that they always have a certain short hand in their relationship by the time we come down to shooting.

I also love that there are these two separate duos that are going at each other. You have Aurora and Jonas who are making this trip of a lifetime and then of course you have Kevin Pollak and Clé Bennett who are the greatest pair of bad guys I have seen in a long time. Pollak in particularly is just so great. How did you cast them? How did they come involved with the project? I noticed Pollak is also an executive producer on the movie.

Jonas I did a movie with Kevin about ten years ago in Winnipeg. I played his side kick who was a con artist and Sean was on the set shooting a behind the scenes video so he met Kevin and then Kevin kind of went out of my mind for 10 years as I wrote the script, and unbeknown to me I was writing a perfect Kevin Pollak role. It wasn't until Sean and I kind of sat down and said, "Okay, who do we want for this role?" and Sean said, "What about using Kevin Pollak?" and it all just made sense because Kevin is a known poker aficionado, and he loves cards, and he's played some gritty, semi-Mafia type characters. He loves the cards and he is hilarious. And he's also got some amazing dramatic chops. So what do we do? I called him on his cell phone.

The rest is history. It's such a great role and he's got some amazing lines. The pair of them [Kevin and Clé] are just the greatest. Every time they were on screen together it's just like things pop, lots of laughter, it was pretty great.

Sean I have a question for you specifically. So last year you made After the Ball, which I really like - it's fantastic - but it seems a little more off the beaten track of the stuff that you usually do. I'm curious about how you came to that project.

Sean: I came to that project because Canadian super producer saw My Awkward Sexual Adventure and thought it was really funny. He wanted some of that humour. So he basically called me up one day and said, "Are you interested in directing this movie?" And certainly the director, producer relationship on that movie was very different from the one that I'm used to but it was an awesome project. It had a lot of good people and I had a lot of fun.

So you guys, I was looking on IMDb and we all know it is the movie Bible and everything that's on IMDb is totally right all the time, and it says that you guys are working on a new project called The Spark. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Jonas: I can, but then I would have to send ninjas to your house to kill you.

Oh no!

Jonas: They're outside the door right now.

I will not open if they knock!

Jonas: The Spark - we had so much fun shooting My Awkward Sexual Adventure and just doing a full out comedy, that we said "We've got to do it again." So The Spark is the next chapter. It's completely different from My Awkward Sexual Adventure, it's a little bit more, I would say, sophisticated, and more mature. And it's based on the story of a couple that's been together for a long time, in their late 30s, who are a great couple except they don't have sex anymore, which I hear happens to couples after a long time.

Sean: Really?

Jonas: Yeah, I read that in a newspaper.

So they make a pact to give themselves a week leading up to their wedding to get the spark back or they're going to break off so it's comic hi-jinx.

Have you guys actually started on that?

Jonas: We are in what I think I would call the financing and packaging stage. So we're raising the money and putting all the pieces together and hopefully we'll be shooting it next year.

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, congratulations on Borealis, it's fantastic and best of luck with The Spark!

Jonas: Thank you! Borealis is screening at the Vancouver Film Festival on Monday and Wednesday. And then we're on for Calgary and then it will open across Canada in theatres in January and February.

Borealis plays at VIFF on September 28 and September 30.

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