ED GASS-DONNELLY, “SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS”
One of Canada’s hottest filmmaking prospects for much of the aughts, Toronto-based Ed Gass-Donnelly made a reputation for himself as a prolific short filmmaker, making the festival rounds with several shorts during the first half of the decade. He broke through as a feature director with his 2007 drama This Beautiful City, a look at five disparate citizens of Ontario’s largest metropolis that is at once a sprawling ensemble piece and an intimate investigation into ordinary lives intertwined by extraordinary events. A favorite at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it went on to be nominated for four Genie Awards (Canada’s equivalent to the Oscars).
Gass-Donnelly was back at TIFF last year with Small Town Murder Songs, an eerie, impeccably acted film that is both an incisive character study and a portrait of a community whose values are embattled by modernity and a ghastly killing. Featuring what may become thought of as a career-defining performance by Peter Stormare (Fargo, Armageddon) and sturdy supporting work by people as seemingly far flung as Jill Hennessy (NBC’s Law & Order and Crossing Jordan) and Martha Plimpton (The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty), Small Town Murder Songs follows a solemn police officer, an outcast in his own Mennonite farming community for his own sordid past, who finds himself in over his head after a young woman’s body is found by a rural riverbank with all clues pointing to his ex-girlfriend’s drunken, violent boyfriend. After a festival run that included stops in Turin, Krakow, Palm Springs and Munich, the film opens domestically at Brooklyn’s ReRun Gastropub Theater this Friday.
Filmmaker: You grew up not far from the Mennonite communities depicted in your film. Is that how the inspiration to make a film within this specific community took hold?
Gass-Donnelly: It was a bit of an odd process. The whole thing happened over such a short period of time. I started writing it in January of 2009. We were shooting by October of the same year. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for self-reflection. I was initially inspired by the idea of writing a movie about the ripple effects of a murder on a small community. I also wanted to structurally base a movie around a record, a specific album. The irony is, by the time I finished the movie, all of the music ended up being not from the album that inspired me to make the film in the first place. [Laughs]
When I started writing I thought it was going to be more of a Jim Jarmusch-esque collection of scenes that were not necessarily going to follow the same characters. I thought it was going to be a lot artier. As I started writing it I would realize things like, “Oh fuck, if we combine these characters it makes an arc,” or “What I really want to write is a story about a guy with a history of violence who’s trying to redeem himself within a small community.” Two of my close friends grew up Mennonite. I’ve been really influenced by their music. Anyways, thinking about that community got me thinking about the conundrum of being both a pacifist and a police officer or of being known for violence within a community of pacifists and being shunned for it. These just became ideas and questions I was fascinated by. I started writing [the script] I explored them deeper and deeper. By the time I had finished the movie and slapped the whole soundtrack [I was initially inspired by] onto it, it no longer felt that it was creating any conflict between the image and the audio. It was gently hugging the movie instead of challenging it or pushing it further. I ended up going in a bit of a 180 and picking an entirely different sounding record and different sounding bands. Ironically that band became one of the real central characters in the film because the music plays such a significant part. I had always intended the music to be that prominent within the film. It was just a funny process where the very thing that inspired you in the first place is the thing that you must let go.
Filmmaker: How did you hook up with The Bruce Peninsula, who ultimately provided the soaring folksy, neo-gospel in the film?
Gass-Donnelly: I always seem to have these weird magical moments with musicians. Here’s a funny story. I went to go see the original band whose album the film has been based on and the opening band was the one with my two Mennonite friends — they were originally a two-piece band, and I was like, “Oh my God, these guys are amazing.” We became close friends after that. Playing in the front room of that bar that very same night was The Bruce Peninsula’s very first show and seeing them, I said, “Oh, these guys are neat.”
Fast forward three years later and that band had put out their first record. It got flipped to me during pre-production and I said, “Cool this is that guy we saw way back when.” Their sound had completely evolved, and they had created a really unique record. I got inspired by the idea of having them do a track that would be sort of a bookend to this other soundtrack — to have the same song at the beginning and the end of the movie. It became like a virus. As I began experimenting with different music of theirs, I would go back to them and ask to get any demos, any stuff that they were working on because it adds such an eclectic sound to the movie in a way. One of those tracks was recorded off of a microphone built into a laptop. It was meant to be the rawest of raw demos. They wanted to re-record it, and I was like, “If you can guarantee it’s going to sound exactly like this you can re-record it, otherwise I want this [because] it just has such a unique sound.” It had no professional-quality recording to it — it must have been recorded in a cave or some strange space because it had this echoing, haunting sound. Something about the sound just felt right for the movie. They would write me stuff as well, and then I would just go and find material that they had already recorded. So I just created the soundtrack by putting all these bits and pieces into a completed whole.
Filmmaker: Peter Stormare has over 100 credits, many in really recognizable movies, and is probably one of the most visually well known character actors most casual moviegoers couldn’t name. What compelled you to give him this role as your lead? He disappears into it. You didn’t have him in mind when you wrote the movie?
Gass-Donnelly: I wrote the movie based on an ex-girlfriend’s dad. [Laughs] Well, it was more about the physicality of the dad. He had one of those big mustaches and big glasses and I found that this look became a mask that made it really hard to tell if he was joking for instance. He had this stoic, restrained expression, so when it came to actually casting an actor, the only person I had ever visualized was the one particular man and Peter doesn’t look like him, although the mustache and glasses are sort of a tribute to that guy. I was treating the role as a bit of a blank slate. When I began casting we were jamming on a bunch of different ideas, and I had started watching that show Prison Break. Around that time my casting director brought up his name and I didn’t quite make the connection, and then Armageddon was on TV. I said, “Oh it’s the guy from Prison Break and Fargo.” He was so funny in that. I’m always really interested in casting actors against type and defying our expectations or just doing something that deepens what we think someone is capable of. When I saw Dancer in the Dark again that was really what sold it for me because he’s a supporting character in that but he just had such a gentle, beautiful innocence. He was so sweet and had none of the menace of some of the roles he’s more famous for.
So I just became really intrigued to meet this guy. We went for drinks in New York and over drinks I offered him the role. You just sort of go with a gut hunch based on the energy you get from people, and, frankly, a willingness to work when there isn’t very much money and still commit to the timeline. He was game, and it worked out beautifully.
Filmmaker: There’s very little traditional plot-driven material in the film for a police procedural. You seem more interested in what’s going on in the periphery of the narrative.
Gass-Donnelly: This might seem like a very odd reference, but structurally I was really influenced by the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs. [Laughs] What I like about the premise of that film is that the way that I interpreted it structurally, is that it’s a crisis-of-faith film set to the backdrop of an alien invasion. The procedure is the catalyst, but it’s not the meat. I like the idea of using an event that we assume we’re going to be following, but in many ways its just a red herring or the entry point to a very different film.
Filmmaker: Carlos Reygadas‘ Silent Light also touches on a man undergoing a crisis of faith within a Mennonite community, albeit in Mexico. Was that film in your mind at all?
Gass-Donnelly: I met Carlos when his film was at the Toronto International Film Festival when I was there with my first film, which had the same Canadian distributor as Silent Light. I saw his film and liked it a lot. The idea of that world did really intrigue me. Although my primary influence was certainly my musician friends, I would go to their family farm and hang out with them and get a sense of that world. They come from a very progressive, modern family despite their beliefs, and I sort of learned about this whole culture that I wasn’t aware of. The fact that Carlos’ film was set in Mexico really fascinated me. You have these religion-based agricultural colonies speaking their own language and they have this rich history of coming up to Canada for harvest season every year. The more I heard about it the more I was fascinated by it, and also the idea of having geographic specificity as a means of creating stories that have universality. If Silent Light was set in L.A., no one would have bothered to see it perhaps, but when you’re taking the audience somewhere that they don’t necessarily know, the film becomes part of a journey. So it was definitely an intentional choice to set it in a Mennonite community knowing that I’d be reaching the audience on more than one level. It becomes a little bit of a travelogue in that way. Whenever I’m a viewer, I find that sort of thing intriguing — going somewhere I didn’t know existed or rediscovering a place I only knew of superficially.
Filmmaker: Beyond the music, how much did the film change from your original conception of it during post-production?
Gass-Donnelly: I definitely found the movie in the edit. I made some mistakes while filming it. There were scenes I mishandled. So we just completely reinvented them in the process of post-production. I really see writing, directing and editing as existing on the same continuum. They are three different parts of the same process. The way I work editorially, it really is a form of rewriting. Whether that’s creating nuance or discovering nuance in performance or completely restructuring things. I find that I often overwrite things, I create the same beat more than once; you have the freedom in editing to get rid of those things. Or you can spin the meaning of a scene in a different context. By having such religiously infused music, I found that I was able to reduce the amount of time we actually talk about religion. I always worry about being earnest or on the nose, so I just decided to cut all references directly in the dialogue to religion from the movie. The title cards and the music and the setting give you the presence of religion, although it’s almost never spoken about in the entire film.