Starting Friday, November 10, Toronto movie goers can finally check out Poor Agnes, a Canadian thriller that was an award-winner at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival and this past month’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival. As someone who has seen the movie, I’m anticipating the release because I want to know if people will have the same reactions I had. Much like the unfortunate victim who falls for Agnes’ manipulative tricks, Poor Agnes sent me into a freaky frenzy as I experienced the film’s dread slowly unfold.
I had to talk to the film’s director, Navin Ramaswaran, about post-screening reactions. And even though Ramaswaran has dabbled in the horror/thriller genre previously, I wanted to know what attracted him to this particular project.
Addison Wylie: Coming off of the horror anthology Late Night Double Feature, was it easy slipping back into a longer form of storytelling with Poor Agnes?
Navin Ramaswaran: My segment in Late Night Double Feature had an arch very similar to a feature, so I approached it like a full-length film. The only difference was the fact that we had only 2.5 days to shoot it, and it was just under 30-minutes in length. So yes, slipping back into a longer form of storytelling with Poor Agnes felt very natural.
AW: What inspired you to direct Poor Agnes?
NR: I’m always looking for the next project; always reading screenplays and looking for stories that appeal to me creatively and emotionally. And when Poor Agnes came across my virtual desk, so to speak, it caught my attention. The quality of the writing was excellent and the screenplay had a good grasp of the genre, without falling into clichés. To me, it was a character study – which I’m always drawn to – masked as a horror/thriller. Beyond that, I was able to see the movie play out in my mind and that’s always a good sign. It was a combination of those elements that inspired me to direct Poor Agnes.
AW: Poor Agnes, I feel, is a film that sets out to subvert the horror/thriller slow burn. Some could even draw comparisons to Drew Goddard’s cult film The Cabin in the Woods in how the filmmaking wants to pull the rug out from underneath the audience. Poor Agnes certainly doesn’t teeter on satire like The Cabin in the Woods did, but is this a fair theory of the film’s intentions?
NR: I’ve never thought of comparing Poor Agnes to The Cabin in the Woods, but the way you put it does make sense. We certainly set out to make a movie that wasn’t predictable – we wanted to take the audience for a ride and give them a bit of a surprise. In that sense, and based on the reaction we’ve been receiving, I feel that we succeeded.
AW: Lora Burke is sensational in her breakout role as Agnes. What surprised you the most about her portrayal of Agnes as you were directing her?
NR: Lora and I really planned and crafted the Agnes character in advance, and she truly embodied it. On set, Lora would be completely focused on her role but when I yelled cut, she’d just snap out of it and goof around with us. It was quite the sight – almost like she had a split personality!
We certainly had an excellent working relationship and we’d talk everything out and challenge each other whenever a question would arise about the character and her motivations. James Ross, the screenwriter, was almost like the referee, and he would chime in if we needed another point of view. The three of us were very much in sync, and when things felt like they were getting slightly off track, we’d collectively regroup and stir things back towards the right direction.
AW: What has the general reaction been towards the film at the festivals you’ve screened at? Burke deservedly won Toronto After Dark’s award for Best Female Actor in a Leading Role, and the film won Best Canadian Feature at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, but how has the post-screening reception been?
NR: Watching audiences view my film is probably one of my favourite things to do as a filmmaker. Different markets react slightly differently to Poor Agnes – sometimes the subtle dark comedy gets the biggest reaction, and sometimes it’s the psychological violence. Overall though, the reaction has been spectacular. Audiences are always glued to their seats and the post-screening conversations are always stimulating. It seems to be the kind of movie that people want to discuss. People love the ending and have theories about it, and we often get into discussions about gender roles and stereotypes in film. I hope people are actually being honest, but so far I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback. Press reviews have also been very much in our favour, which is certainly nice.
You can shape a movie based on certain proven ingredients but, at the end of the day, you can never predict how a movie is going to engage with viewers. It’s certainly a good feeling to see all our hard work and passion being well-received.
AW: Are you finding people are leaving the theatre shook up? It definitely made me feel uneasy – intentionally so, mind you.
NR: I think people aren’t completely sure what to expect going into this movie. This in return makes the 96-minute ride that they’re taken on feel like a roller-coaster. I really feel that Poor Agnes grabs you from the opening and never really let’s go until the end. This certainly makes some people feel uneasy and perhaps shook up, but all in the way good cinema makes you react.
Poor Agnes opens at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema on Friday, November 10.
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