There’s nothing more tragic and horrifying than the loss of a child, which may be why filmmaker Gaby Dellal (On a Clear Day) decided to explore it in her new drama Angels Crest.
Based on the book of the same name by Leslie Schwartz, it stars Thomas Dekker (A Nightmare on Elm Street) as Ethan, the young father of 3-year-old son Nate, who vanishes when alone in the car in the wilderness outside their small Rocky Mountain town. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is the boy’s absent mother Cindy, an alcoholic always in trouble whose grief is overwhelming when she learns the son she had to give up custody of is now dead. Over the course of the film, we see how the two of them react and place blame for Nate’s death and how the rest of the community starts to take sides on the matter. Things get more serious when a prosecutor played by Jeremy Piven comes to town to investigate the boy’s death. Dellal’s ensemble cast also includes Mira Sorvino, Kate Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern and Joseph Morgan.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Ms. Dellal and the lovely Lynn Collins to discuss making the movie.
ComingSoon.net: I didn’t realize you made “On a Clear Day,” which was a rather uplifting, optimistic movie, so what made you interested in doing a movie on this subject?
Gaby Dellal: Well, “On a Clear Day” also has a child that died, but you may not remember that. I think I have a running theme, which is exploring what it is to lose a child. Happily it’s never happened to me, but I think it’s always intrigued me. I think it’s the nature of grief but also the nature of parenting, so really this film is about all of us trying to be the best parents we possibly can, and we all do it by the skin of our teeth and there’s no manual, so it’s really exploring different ways of parenting in this small community.
CS: And was this a location you were interested in setting a movie?
Dellal: Well, it’s adapted from a book which was set in Montana but we ended up shooting outside of Calgary. It was so beautiful and I explored many, many locations, and I had the happy, lucky opportunity to go across the Rockies and I found this particular town, and it was amazing. Didn’t see a bear…
CS: What interested you in playing Cindy, Lynn? She seems very different from some of the other characters you’ve played, damaged with many problems.
Lynn Collins: In my life, I have lost two siblings, and I never really feel like there’s a time in my life where I could figure out the grieving process, and I think Western society in particular has the funeral, but little else in ritual and support for grief and loss, and that’s what attracted me to it, ’cause I was like here’s this person going through this grieving and handling it in all the ways you shouldn’t or in all the ways that it would just make it emotionally worse. Hopefully, it answers something to the audiences, answers an emotional question perhaps, or inspires an emotional question of their own experience with loss and grief, or just to open the dialogue in general is very important.
CS: But the fact it’s a kid is especially tough, because you meet this kid at the beginning and he’s quite adorable and if you go in not knowing what’s going to happen, it’s pretty shocking.
Dellal: Yeah, and it happens in the first six minutes, and you think, “Oh my God, where is this film going? It can’t get even darker.” And it indeed does.
CS: Considering your own background, Lynn, is this something that’s tough to deal with or is it something you tap into and use as catharsis?
Collins: I kind of did both. I think I was very conscious to bless what I did. I’m not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person, but I wanted to make sure that when you’re dealing with something that is this spiritual, in a way. I don’t want to speak for you as a director, but for any artist dealing with this part of life, death, what we know not of, and what hurts us the most as the people who are left behind, I couldn’t help but bring myself to it, and then there were other times as an actor you can not be able to find the emotional nerve, the vein, and that I also experienced on the shoot where there was a moment feeling numb within the process, because it was so so so intense, so you’re always thinking about what it would be for the child to have died, for the partner to be away, to love the partner, to love the child, to feel responsible. It was a couple of times overloading me and I just shut down. But Gabby was amazing, because I think you were able to sense with all of your actors when they needed pushing and pulling, because to helm something that is so emotional, you have to be emotionally sensitive human being and you certainly were.
CS: I also want to ask about the casting because there were a few actors in this, including you, Lynn, who I didn’t recognize as I was watching this. Mira Sorvino, both times I’ve seen the movie, I completely didn’t realize that was her until the end. Maybe that’s because you’re wearing more make-up than usual and they’re wearing less, but could you talk about the casting for roles like Thomas and others?
Dellal: It was really hard to find the perfect Ethan, and I really did comb the country, and I saw English actors and Welsh actors and American actors and actually, Thomas (Dekker) was the last person that I met, and in fact, Lynn was already on board and auditioned with him, and there was just an amazing chemistry between the two of them and there was just something that… I mean, he’s an amazing young boy. What I was really keen on was youth and innocence and naivety, and I think we got that in spades with him, not only visually, but he had to imagine what it was like to have his own child, which is a really hard thing to imagine.
CS: How old is he?
Dellal: When he shot it, he was 21, so he is a very young boy, but I think a bit like Lynn said, he had to go to those places, to find an emotional honesty, to fulfill character and the character’s journey that he was playing, and I think both with Lynn and with Thomas, they’re both such brittle, amazing actors, that you just have to touch them and their whole body flinches and exposes what’s going on inside. They’re both very bright and intuitive, so what was really hard was orchestrating the pain and knowing that this film just couldn’t be filled with endless tears, because there’s a limit to how much crying you can watch on screen. With all the actors, they were all imagining what it would be like, and even the characters around the main two characters, Lynn and Thomas, as characters they were empathizing to such an extent with a member of their community who was going through the worst possible tragedy, that you imagine its use, initially for the first few weeks where it’s raw, and so it was really hard and there was a lot in the editing process to take out. But I kind of knew it from when I started, when I wanted somebody to lose it and when I wanted the focus to be on somebody more outside. It’s just the nerves that get touched in everybody at different times when you just lose it, so Jeremy Piven, just right at the end. He’s just a bombastic, battling through. He’s like a klutz when he arrives; he drops things all the time. He’s completely not liked within the community because he’s there to stir things up, and right at the end, just when he realizes (something that’s a plot spoiler), he just dissolves, and it’s because he has a backstory which we never touch on, but it’s just orchestrating when everybody loses it, when each person loses it and giving enough space around them for us the audience to care when Lynn loses it. And the trajectory of their pain was really interesting, how to orchestrate it.
CS: Is it tough making a movie like that? When I talk to people who’ve made hugely dramatic films, they say that there’s more clowning around on set between takes than normal, just to keep from being completely dragged down by the drama. Was it tough being in Calgary dealing with so much emotion on set?
Dellal: It was cold.
Collins: It was cold. I had a really hard time. I feel like I was dealing with the grief situation, which I felt like I could pretty much handle, but then also, being an alcoholic and playing someone who’s an alcoholic was really difficult, that was harder than I thought and put me in a place that was darker than I thought. I felt like I would be able to jump in and jump out, but with this movie, there was no jumping out for me, and I felt it hard to socialize and hard to not feel the weight of it. I remember when it was done, for a week I had to adjust literally as if I’d been iced over by the process. I had to shake it off, because it was deep. Before even getting to Calgary, the journey to Calgary, I just felt it.
CS: I’ve never read the book but are a lot of these dramatic moments in the original story or did you get away from it for your movie?
Dellal: I think I streamlined the book a lot, and in fact. I read the book once and never looked at it again, to be honest, and just took away the absolutely amazing emotional journey of each character and there were many other characters and just kind of embodied them into the script, so I didn’t keep going back. It does go away from the book.
CS: I especially wanted to ask about Thomas’ character Ethan who is very young, and I was curious about that decision.
Dellal: He’s older in the book.
CS: I was wondering if there was any mention of how Ethan and Lynn’s character ended up having a kid together in the book because he’s so much younger. I expected she slept with him while she was drunk or something.
Dellal: He’s much older and I can’t even remember what happens between the two of them in the book. We made (the backstory) up for ourselves what happened, and I always had it in my head that she was a woman who came to town, seduced the most beautiful boy around, he actually fell very in love with her, and they had a huge connection. She gets pregnant and he then grows up before his time and has to take responsibility for the child, and I think that to already have your child taken away from you, however inebriated you are and however much in a fog, is like a knife in a woman’s heart, and then to have your child taken away again and you this time not being directly responsible. And she lost any potential love she had for this young boy. Lynn was going through such inordinate amounts of pain that you’re right. In the playing of it, she also went through a lot of hard soul-searching, like enormous amounts and it was very difficult to come through it.
Dellal: What I was intrigued by Thomas was the notion of a baby losing a baby and the idea of a father, and I thought people would think if you lose a child at 21, it’s not as bad, because you’re probably a bad father, and so it would’ve been much harder had he been a proper father. So then I thought, “What is a proper father? What is a proper mother?” There isn’t a proper anything. We’re animals and we have children and we look after our young and some of us do it really badly, some of us do it really well, too well and ruin the child, so that’s the circumstances. For me it was an analogy that there are no rules as to who can father and mother, so that’s why I wanted this very young boy, because I think the consensus then is really more interesting, because even though you shouldn’t diminish his pain because of his youth, even though you shouldn’t, you probably in a nonchalant way, do. You go, “Well, he’s a baby.” I have a scene where they’re playing PlayStation, because you just do the same things that you did and for Thomas or Ethan, it was on a Thursday night, all his mates came around and they played PlayStation and talked crap. But this guy was going through the worst possible agony he could ever, and in the end, it ruined him. Lynn Collins’ character is the only character that I believe in some way grew or strengthened as a result of the tragedy. She started off at the darkest possible part of her life, and then it felt like there was some sort of light for her, but I also think that Ethan, even though he comes to a dark ending, for me as the filmmaker and storyteller, I believe that was the only light he could seek.
Collins: I sort of went backwards and let the work… we had such an incredible audition experience with Thomas when he came in and I read with him. Gabby wasn’t there, and we just had this really attentive collaborative moment with each other, and it made everything that we did in the film super-easy, and made it work, and the sort of camaraderie we felt. The last thing I want to say about it from my perspective as an artist, is that I hope that as people watch this film that the sadness is transformative, that it’s not a blanket, that is something that will move people forward.
CS: You’ve been having an interesting career where you go between indies like this and “Uncertainty” and big studio movies like “Wolverine” or “John Carter” and I wondered how you balanced the two extremes?
Collins: Am I balancing them? (laughs)The truth for me is that I’ve been doing independent film since the get-go, so that’s a big passion of mine, but the big ones are really fun, too. I like my world to be eclectic. (laughs)