Director of Canadian survivalist horror movie WHITE RAVEN speaks.
Two of the very best films Ive seen this year are set in the mountainous temperate rainforests of Canadas west coast, featuring lost and haunted men hiking unmarked trails to oblivion. The first is Trevor Juras supernatural terror/absurdist comedy THE INTERIOR and the second is Andrew Moxhams extremely stark exercise in anxiety WHITE RAVEN, which has its world premiere on Sunday, November 29th as part of Torontos Blood in the Snow Festival.
Made by and starring the same core crew behind the recent work of Canadas original indie film maverick Larry Kent (whos been making films since the early 1960s!), including the criminally underrated EXLEY (2011) and ferociously angry Barry Convex Award winner SHE WHO MUST BURN (2014), which just so happens to be playing back-to-back with WHITE RAVEN at Blood in the Snow. If youre in town for this superbly fun Can-Con horror fest, Im telling you, these are the ones you want to see…
Taking a page from DELIVERANCE (1972) and its little Canadian brother RITUALS (1977), WHITE RAVEN is a woodland band-of-brothers survivalist nightmare but without the external menace. The danger, instead, is the cracking sanity of one of the men in the gang, a worsening and obvious problem that the others hope will go away with just a little more beer-guzzling abandonment. Eventually theres a tipping point into real violence, and desperate action becomes the only possible response.
WHITE RAVEN is the story of four old friends: Dan (Shane Twerdun, the title character in EXLEY), a bar manager whos getting a bit long in the tooth to be bedding his 20-year-old coworkers (his latest score might be pregnant); Jake (Aaron Brooks), a pilot who lost his license after failing a drug & alcohol test, a fact hes been keeping from his wife Alice (Missy Cross, a standout in SHE WHO MUST BURN); Kevin (Andrew Dunbar), the clean cut suit and voice of reason with a reliable job, a baby and a wife who is cheating on him, and Pete (Steve Bradley), a rough-and-tumble woodsman who has long since retreated from human interaction, modern technology and urban living, apparently only entering city limits to stalk his ex, drink heavily (alone), and when we first meet him shove a loaded pistol into his mouth.
This foursome set out on their yearly boys-only camping trip, leaving their jobs, partners and problems behind to drown in beer and bro-mance. The film from here on out is confined to the woods. But dont expect any teen screams, nor is this quartet a band of chummy professionals, like the Atlanta businessmen of DELIVERANCE or the Canadian physicians of RITUALS. These are schoolyard friendships, all trying to hold on to this yearly ritual despite shifting life realities and the clear evidence that none of them are the same inseparable friends they once were. Speaking for myself, as a 30-something year old, newly married with a toddler, born and raised in the west coast burbs but escaped to the city, I find this film and these men so exceptionally relatable that the anxiety is cause for some pause button bathroom breaks.
In 2011, Moxham and co. – including Steve Bradley in a terrifyingly brutal role as a brain-damaged killer that prefigures his knock-out performance in WHITE RAVEN participated in the 10th edition of Vancouvers very popular Bloodshots 48-hour horror filmmaking competition. I was a member of the four-person jury that year, and we unanimously chose Moxhams unnerving MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS for the Best Film prize out of 25 submissions. So it was a bit shocking when this proved to be a resoundingly unpopular choice. The organizers of Bloodshots were promptly bombarded by hate mail from audience members and other competing filmmakers, appalled that we would reward such an ugly, challenging piece of work. Things got so bad (I read many of these emails most were nasty and anonymous) that it led to the permanent dissolution of the contest. I took from this experience two lessons: the Vancouver crowd is evidently all about teen werewolves and dick jokes and doesnt have a heart for horror that actually hurts (and both MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS and WHITE RAVEN most certainly do); and this Andrew Moxham character was obviously a man to watch.
WHITE RAVEN is a savagely honest thriller about dependency, aimless stunted manhood and the gasping illusion that a soul can be cleansed through isolation, alcohol and violence. Its a minor masterpiece from Canadas most serious and committed rising talents. Essential viewing that you will want to revisit. Shock Till You Drop chats with director/writer/editor Andrew Moxham on the eve of his films festival debut.
SHOCK: The White Buffalo production & acting team behind WHITE RAVEN has worked extensively with pioneering independent Canadian filmmaker Larry Kent and now you are sharing a double-bill of sorts with SHE WHO MUST BURN at the Blood in the Snow Festival this November. Can you discuss the processes and influences of working with Larry, what it has carried over to this film, and the major differences of working on your own?
MOXHAM: Well, there is no question that Larry has inspired us from day one. Anyone who’s met him knows he’s full of creative energy at all times. As a director I’ve learned a lot from him, especially considering our styles do vary, but one thing Larry teaches you simply by watching his films is to be bold. Life is too short to be just like everyone else. Another thing I’ve picked up from him is perseverance. He’s been making indie films for over 50 years. Anyone in the indie scene can tell you that’s a hard road. But he’s still at it. As far as working on our own I’d say we had the luxury of cutting our teeth in the digital age so from a technical perspective, we’re much more independent. Larry, despite being innovative and original as far as his subject matter, is very much an old school guy. He thrives on the relationship between director and DP and then again in post with the editor. In the case of WHITE RAVEN, I was the Director/DP/Editor so it’s less of a collaborative style but definitely more efficient. Our largest crew was seven people including actors.
SHOCK: Can you elaborate on the tale of the White Raven, the Pacific Northwest Native legend that serves as fractured Petes self-justification for his terrible state of affairs and for doing the awful things he does?
MOXHAM: There are several versions of the White Raven legend. Many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere have varying versions in their history. Basically, it’s a creation myth, helping to explain how the world came to be. In some versions the White Raven is a noble creature who brings light to the world by freeing it from an old man’s clutches. In others the Raven is a mischievous character who deceives the old man by pretending to be his child and stealing the light. I found that interesting in the sense that we as people take what we want from these fables and stories. Not unlike the Bible and other religious texts.
SHOCK: This film, even though its often very fun with all the bro camaraderie, is thick with a sense of dread from beginning to end. We know from the earliest scenes that things are going to go badly because of Pete, we just dont know how, when, why, or exactly how bad. By not offering any cutaways, left field twists, or cinematic ambiguity to derail the steady drunken march to doom, the film works because of the obvious tightness of the acting team who embody their characters so brilliantly. Are they all playing extensions or exaggerations of themselves? Was the film written specifically with each actor in mind, and how did they shape the story and script?
MOXHAM: I wouldn’t say that these characters are exaggerations of the actors but rather glimpses of ourselves and people in our collective circle of friends. I wrote the film certainly with Andrew Dunbar and Shane Twerdun in mind and once Steve Bradley came on board it kind of cemented the casting as I couldn’t really see him as anyone but Pete. (He’s nothing like Pete in real life, not to worry.) At that point, I tailored the characters a bit towards each actor, but really it was the actors themselves who brought their personalities to the script. Aaron Brooks came on closer to shooting, to play Jake and really changed that character for the better. He added a humor and charisma that wasn’t originally there. We also did some rehearsals with our female leads and I went off and did rewrites based on some of the improvisations and ideas that those actors brought. I was pretty lucky to get the cast I did.
SHOCK: Can you tell me about the beautiful score, consisting predominantly of soft female choral voices? It was an unusual and pleasant choice to set the mood.
MOXHAM: The score was composed by Red Heartbreaker (EMBED LINK: https://soundcloud.com/red-heartbreaker). A stupidly talented composer on the up-and-up. I had this crazy idea to do a choral score and everybody was like, “How the hell are you going to pull that off on a no-budget feature?” I happened to be talking to another filmmaker, Darren Borrowman, about my struggles and he said, “You know Red can do that, right?” Red had contributed some blues music to my previous feature but I had no idea she could do this whole other genre. The rest is history. I wanted the score to be like the voices in Pete’s head. I wanted them to be almost Gothic in nature and Red nailed it and then some. There’s an epic and humbling feeling when you’re in a Pacific Northwest forest. Like a cathedral of trees. Red really captured that without making it overtly religious.
SHOCK: This movie is drowning in alcohol. Every character has either an alcohol problem, is in a relationship with someone who has an alcohol problem, has lost work because of alcohol, or works with alcohol in their profession. The process of making amends in the 12-step AA program is also a crucial bit of backstory the consequence of confessing to a bad decision made under the influence drastically affects the events of the film. Can you speak to the presence of booze in this film, in which at least one character at any given time is drunk or drinking onscreen for probably 80% of the film?
MOXHAM: Overall, I used it as a catalyst for things to get out of hand. As an indie filmmaker and actor I’ve had my fair share of restaurant and bar gigs and one thing that really stands out in that industry is how much people drink to deal with their problems. It doesn’t take you long to see why it doesn’t help. I also feel like it’s a bit of a generational thing. People are living increasingly urban lifestyles and having kids later and later or not at all. It’s very hedonistic. I wanted there to be a sense of entitlement with all these guys. That partying and drinking is like an essential part of life. They’re like man-children. I’ve never been into hard drugs nor do I hang with that crowd so for me it’s always been about what alcohol does to the mind. I’ve also seen friends get sober and that has an interesting effect on those who continue to drink.
The world premiere of WHITE RAVEN takes place on Sunday, November 29th at Torontos Carlton Cinema as part of the 4th annual Blood in the Snow Film Festival. SHE WHO MUST BURN featuring Andrew Moxham and WHITE RAVENs Steve Bradley, Andrew Dunbar, Shane Twerdun and Missy Cross, plus music from Shock Till You Drops own Chris Alexander plays at 2:00pm with WHITE RAVEN following at 4:00pm.