When I reviewed a sci-fi flick named Ashgrove at this year’s Canadian Film Fest, I sensed that it was a different type of movie for its director Jeremy Lalonde. It was significantly more dramatic than his previous work, which have either been ensemble comedies (Sex After Kids, How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town) or high-concept projects (The Go-Getters, James vs. His Future Self), and I felt like he was challenging himself as a storyteller to look at character studies from a different angle.
Fascinated with his latest effort, I got to talk with Lalonde about Ashgrove and find out more about how the movie was made. His answers made my jaw drop, and made me want to revisit the film immediately.
Addison Wylie: When I spoke with Jonas Chernick at the this year’s Canadian Film Fest, he broke down how the conception of the film began as a challenge for both of you, and how each piece fell into place over the course of travelling from Calgary to Edmonton between film festivals. As a filmmaker and storyteller, what’s it like collaborating with your actors on projects that are being built from the ground up?
Jeremy Lalonde: As much as I am a writer on my own, I feel like I’m generally happiest as a creator when I’m collaborating with others. There’s magic that happens when you start bouncing off of others and sharing ideas and things from your own lives that you can steal and mine. I’ve never been a big fan of “a film by…” credit because I think films are a collection of work from a lot of different artists coming together. The director’s job in that collaboration is to funnel all of those ideas so that they’re cohesive and all fit together – but even if someone is the sole author of a script – unless you’re doing every single job on a film set – playing every single role – no film is made by a single person. It’s collaborative and that’s why it’s such a great medium, because it relies on various people coming together to share parts of themselves to create something that’s, hopefully, universal.
AW: After you craft a story, are there specific steps that you take to tighten up the narrative? Or, did you leave some loose ends for your production to explore during the making of this movie? I understand there was an element of improvisation to Ashgrove.
JL: This film was ALL loose ends. What we did was I worked with everyone in the cast to create their character and backstory, and we worked in groups to create the relationships of all these characters and the backstories that they shared – and in some cases their own thoughts on those shared moments and how they might differ. I took that and created an outline that none of the actors got to see. We shot the film in chronological order and all that the actors knew going into each scene was what happened in the scene before that. So, I worked from an outline that I was constantly revising – but the actors improvised all of their dialogue, aided by motivations and goals that I gave them throughout. And then sometimes, I would change them in the next take. It created an environment where every single actor had no choice but to be entirely present at every moment they were on screen – they never quite knew what would be coming at them next.
AW: What was the most challenging aspect of bringing Ashgrove from that conceptual period to the big screen? What was the most exciting part behind making this movie?
JL: The most exciting part was the whole shooting of it. It was two weeks of pure collaboration and exploration with smart and talented actors as well as crew. It was terrifying and thrilling all at once. The most challenging aspect was just keeping all of the various secrets together and making sure only the right people knew what they should know. I had documents and charts to keep track of it, and also had an awesome assistant named Spencer Giese who was the other keeper of the secrets and would help me keep things straight as they changed and shifted throughout the shoot.
AW: Ashgrove has such a different “look” to it than your previous films. There are times when the movie resembles a dream that’s teetering on personal nightmares for its characters. How did you attain this visual style with your cinematographer Robert Scarborough? How important is communication between a director and their cinematographer?
JL: Wow! Thank you so much. I’m really proud of how the look of the film evolved. Similar to how I worked with the actors in prep is how I worked with Rob in developing the look. We had lots of conversations about it, about the thematic things we wanted the look to convey – about the element of water and how we could incorporate that. There was just a few specific moments where I had sketched out how I wanted it to be shot but, otherwise, we went through each scene beat-by-beat to decide how best to shoot it.
Because of the improvised nature of the film we knew that we might never get some moments again, and I told Rob he couldn’t let that get into his head. He had to trust his instincts as a visual storyteller, and if he felt compelled to move the camera at any point during a scene, that he should do so and follow his gut. The number one rule on this film for everyone involved, cast and crew, was that they had to come into this project and be willing to risk failing. So, I’d chalk it up to a lot of conversations in advance and then trusting Rob to have good instincts and I would shift him as needed. Just like I wanted the actors to have ownership over their characters choices while performing the scenes, I wanted Rob to have that same feeling over the look – and I would be there to collaborate with and reshape as needed.
AW: With Ashgrove being a dramatic work, do you have an immediate desire to revisit comedies as your next project? Or, are you itching to make another drama?
I actually shot a comedy feature just a few months after wrapping Ashgrove. It’s called Daniel’s Gotta Die and it’s just starting to travel to festivals now. It’s a dark family comedy with thriller-esque aspects. I love all genres of film, but I certainly never wanted to only be thought of as a filmmaker that only does one type of film. I love comedy and I’m sure I’ll do lots of work in it throughout the rest of my career, but there’s so many other genres that I want to play in. I’m also a big fan of genre mash-ups so stay tuned for that sort of stuff from me moving forward.
I’m excited by stories that focus on human relationships that have big, fun, and exciting hooks that let us examine humanity through a story vehicle we haven’t seen before – and then it’s about which genre makes the most sense to tell that story. Because of its experimental natural, we didn’t set out to make Ashgrove a drama – it just happened to be that’s what it wanted to be to tell the story it wanted to tell.
Ashgrove is currently screening in Toronto. The film is also available on VOD and Digital HD.
Read Addison Wylie review of Ashgrove here!
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie