Exclusive Interview: Maverick Canadian Filmmaker Larry Kent Talks SHE WHO MUST BURN

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SHOCK catches up with Canadian indie cinema pioneer Larry Kent to discuss his first horror film, SHE WHO MUST BURN.

Larry Kent has been making movies and pissing people off since 1962.

He is Canada’s original independent filmmaker, an idiosyncratic provocateur whose early classics like THE BITTER ASH (1963) were chopped up, banned, lost, condemned, and even, in the case of HIGH (1969), the target of police raids. Kent’s late career renaissance began in the 2000s, with overdue career retrospectives in cinematheques across Canada and the release of 2005’s THE HAMSTER CAGE, a darkly hilarious and distressing family dysfunction ensemble that was a minor festival smash.

More recently, a teaching gig at Vancouver Film School connected Kent with a group of rising multi-hyphenate west coast talents, including filmmakers/actors Andrew Moxham, Shane Twerdun, and Andrew Dunbar (the team behind this year’s exceptional WHITE RAVEN, who became the core of Kent’s new cast & crew collective. Together they made EXLEY (2011), an improvised Kafkaesque nightmare about one man’s humiliating odyssey to scrape up $1000 for a cross-country flight to visit his dying mom.

Now at the spritely age of 82 (!), Larry Kent has yet again pounced and pummeled the polite reputation of Canadian cinema by making the most ferocious film of his career, the painful, bloody, incendiary SHE WHO MUST BURN. Emotional and intentionally baiting, soaked in classic genre tropes, it’s a horror-siege-witchhunt with no punches withheld, as Kent pits a hypocritical triumvirate of religious fanatics in a brutal assault on a women’s health counselor (played by Sarah Smyth) determined to provide support to marginalized women in their neglected community, no matter the cost.

The film was co-written with Shane Twerdun, who played the title role in EXLEY and stars in SHE WHO MUST BURN as dangerous evangelist Jeremiah Baarker, the de facto leader of the Baarker clan after his patriarch father Abraham is jailed for an abortion clinic double homicide. Jeremiah and his sister Rebecca (Missy Cross, who contributes some gorgeous folk-country, old time religion to the score) both flirt the edge of caricature in their roles as homicidal, deluded lunatics breeding toxicity among their congregation. Rebecca speaks in tongues, receives visions from a vengeful god, and drags her ineffectual husband Caleb (co-producer Andrew Dunbar) to commit an act of irreparable violence that begets ever worse.

The film opens with a brewing storm – the worst in decades – as we enter this unnamed American small town where economic opportunities are minimal to nil. The main employer is a coal factory knowingly putting workers’ lives at risk by shunning the extreme weather warnings. The factory’s constant pump of pollutants into the groundwater is also the cause for a localized spike in stillborn babies (the most recent belonging to Rebecca Baarker, which we witness in a particularly chilling sequence). An outsider, Angela (Sarah Smyth) has made her home here and is determined to hold on to her counseling practice, despite the loss of state funding and being threatened on a daily basis by anti-abortion rallies outside her house, which she shares with her partner, the town’s Deputy Sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham, editor of EXLEY and director of WHITE RAVEN).

Things start off pretty bad and take a plunge for the worse when Jeremiah rapes and assaults his wife Margaret (Jewel Staite), who flees to Angela for help to escape the clutches of her husband. From here things slide down, down, down as the Baarkers attempt to make the film live up to its title.

Kent’s film is spitting, spewing, punching angry, not offering the slightest wiggle room in its damning stance on extreme pro-lifers and the modern Christian Right (a nuanced look at the abortion debate, this ain’t!). Kent makes his point very clear: when we combine ruthless capitalism, indifferent government oversight, no social safety net, narrow economic options, and a fear mongering, manipulative and hostile church leadership, what we get is the destruction of women and families and a population that mistakes blind hate for community action.

SHE WHO MUST BURN won the inauguralBarry Convex Award for Best Canadian Feature at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival (“That really was wonderful!” says Kent) and it’s easy to see why. Rarely does Canadian cinema swing with bare knuckles quite like this. SHE WHO MUST BURN just concluded its American debut at Another Hole in the Head Film Festival in San Francisco, and plays next weekend at Toronto’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival at 2:00 PM on Sunday, November 29th (Kent will be in attendance). The screening will be followed at 4:00 PM by the World Premiere of Andrew Moxham’s WHITE RAVEN, made by many of the SHE WHO MUST BURN cast & crew (sans Kent). In my opinion, these are the two best – certainly the most gut-punching – films of the festival.

SHOCK speaks to the wonderfully cheery and off-the-cuff Larry Kent from his home in Montreal, as he reflects on SHE WHO MUST BURN and complains regularly about memory loss (“I’m 82 years old! I can’t remember yesterday!”).

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SHOCK: How did you end up making such a ferociously angry movie at this point in your career?

KENT: I don’t know. The word “angry” kind of surprises me. I just thought I made a thriller, that’s all. You’re about the fourth or fifth critic that has said that. I didn’t realize that I was angry at all.

SHOCK: Oh come on. You must be a very calm man, then, Larry.

KENT: Fuck you! I’m okay, how are you doin’, you prick?

SHOCK: It’s usually the young guy making the violent, brutal, ferocious movie and then softening with age. But as for you…

KENT: …more violent and more brutal as I get older! I love the idea that it’s angry, because I’m really pissed off at everything that’s been said about taking away a woman’s right to choose. It pisses me off, and I thought, nobody’s really talking about it in a “what the fuck is this about?” way.

SHOCK: That’s what I find so compelling about the movie. It follows a particular mindset to its ultimate, terrible conclusion. It just says: “This is horrible. Look at this.”

KENT: That’s absolutely true. To me, why would you deny a woman their right to health because you don’t agree with abortion? I mean, the whole abortion issue is just terrible, and it happens in BC too, where they have… what do you call it? Where a man of my age can marry a fourteen-year-old as his 35th wife.

SHOCK: Oh, you mean the Polygamists in Bountiful, BC?

KENT: They sell wives. I mean, I thought slavery would be absolutely verboten. But it’s not. These guys are terrible, just terrible.

SHOCK: My takeaway message from SHE WHO MUST BURN is that if you’re stuck in a situation with people of this mindset, just get out while you’ve got the chance. Angela’s (Sarah Smyth) failing was thinking she could stay and make a difference.

KENT: That’s absolutely correct. Well, she was committed. She was committed to the women there. And there was only one answer for her. Shane (playing Jeremiah Baarker) had one answer (the title of the movie), that’s it. And he did it.

SHOCK: You’ve worked with a similar team on a few projects now, and they have made other projects without you. But there is a continual creative overlap. Can you tell me how you first met this group of actors and filmmakers, and how that team came to be?

KENT: Meeting those guys was not only fortuitous, but it was very simple. I was invited to go teach at Vancouver Film School. I was then introduced to Shane and Andrew Moxham, who were at the school while I was there. Andrew Dunbar came and went – he wasn’t as tied to the school as those two. And while teaching, they were a great, great help to me, and when I did EXLEY (2011), they were very involved in it. Andrew Moxham was the editor. It was a totally improvised movie, and Shane was the lead, which he did marvelously. This relationship has continued, even today. The problem with SHE WHO MUST BURN really lay in finding a crew for shooting and editing and everything else while we had Moxham and Andrew and Shane as actors. I’ve also worked with Missy Cross very much. She was at the school when I was teaching. I’ve always thought that she had terrific talent.

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SHOCK: Yeah, Missy’s amazing. I worked with her on a few projects a few years ago. She also did some incredible music for SHE WHO MUST BURN, with the folk-country blues of her band Wooden Horsemen. Beautiful stuff, it fits gorgeously in the movie.

KENT: Oh, yeah. They did really good music. Composer Alex Hauka was also great. And of course, Missy has another woman she does music with, Brittany Willacy (as The Cross Legged Willies). We had everything going, but we didn’t have a cameraman.

SHOCK: Your DOP Stirling Bancroft’s work is superb. He’s a great guy. I worked with him on the Bruce Sweeney film EXCITED (2009).

KENT: He had just been in New York doing something, and my editor suggested him. He’s a partner with the editor, Elad Tzadok, and it’s through him I got Stirling, and that was a great find. Stirling is terrific. That’s one thing I’ve got to say about BC, they have really good cameramen. Every film I’ve ever worked on in Vancouver, I’ve had great cameramen. I had Doug McKay in when WHEN TOMORROW DIES (1965), and I had Dick Bellamy on  THE BITTER ASH (1963) and SWEET SUBSTITUTE (1964). And Vince Arvidson on EXLEY (2011). He was really terrific. Every cameraman I’ve ever had in Vancouver has been fabulous.

SHOCK: Your last film EXLEY (which also premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival) was entirely improvised. Obviously, you had the general framework for the story in place, and then improvised the scenes as you went. But SHE WHO MUST BURN certainly feels a lot tighter.

KENT: This film is scripted. Completely scripted.

SHOCK: I assumed so. How did EXLEY develop?

KENT: Bill Marchant (actor, director, and professor at Vancouver Film School) wrote an outline of 14 pages and asked me to make a film. Shane was there and what we did is we took the whole film and broke it up into scenes. And then we asked all the actors to come in and see us, and we talked with them – this conversation was a week or two before the shoot. We didn’t get them to improvise [at that time], because I think in improvisation, you’ve got to go to the first take. The first improvisation is certainly the best. But we told them exactly what was going to happen and what we wanted from the scene, so they understood what the character was. Then when we shot, we did every scene with the actors improvising. The film was usually shot within two or three takes, each scene.

SHOCK: So the with SHE WHO MUST BURN, you and Shane wrote it together?

KENT: I wrote a story, and then we got together and we worked on the script. We knew all the actors, there wasn’t an actor we didn’t know. Which is a great help. I even got one of my early, early actresses into the film, Patricia Dahlquist. She played the nurse, which is fun. She’s been in every film that I’ve made in British Columbia; she was in THE BITTER ASH, SWEET SUBSTITUTE, WHEN TOMORROW DIES, all along the line. And then she was the mother in THE HAMSTER CAGE.

SHOCK: It’s a wonderful and fascinating career trajectory for you, over the last 5-6 years, to have this core group together with so many overlapping projects.

KENT: Absolutely. And they’re great guys. And I really, really like the article that you wrote because I really agree with it. I thought Moxham did a terrific film.

SHOCK: For the Blood in the Snow festival-goers, it’s going to be a heavy Sunday afternoon. WHITE RAVEN is going to feel like a nice, bright, uplifting twist after SHE WHO MUST BURN.

KENT: (BURSTS OUT LAUGHING) I’m sure Andrew Moxham is going to be upset at that. A nice, uplifting film is not what he thinks he made.

SHOCK: Another project made by the same crew is a 2014 remake of your first film HASTINGS STREET (1962), which sat on the shelf for 45 years, before sound was added and post-production finished in 2007 (well-known Vancouver actor Nicholas Lea voiced the lead role played by Alan Scarfe, star of THE BITTER ASH). Was the same crew involved in the restoration of that film and did that lead to their remake?

KENT: No, that was done with another crew. But they really liked the movie, and they thought it could be made again, and I think they were not incorrect. I think they did a really good job, but it’s so difficult to get an independent film shown. I think it’s getting a little better with the output of Netflix and all of the streaming options. But getting an independent film seen is so difficult. I like HASTINGS STREET. I really think it’s worth seeing.

SHOCK: But you weren’t involved with that production, aside from the fact that they were remaking your work?

KENT: No, I try to be hands off on their projects. They’re very talented! Why do they need me?

SHOCK: Because you make great movies together! SHE WHO MUST BURN being a perfect example.

KENT: Did you like the film?

SHOCK: Yeah, I love it. It’s an intense film. I felt… hurt at the end of it. I felt pained.

KENT: That’s good! That’s great!

The world needs people like Larry to keep us on edge, to keep the creative juices flowing, to remind us that age is no excuse for inaction. If you’re in Toronto, don’t miss SHE WHO MUST BURN at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival, screening 2:00 PM on Sunday, November 29th, with Larry Kent, Andrew Moxham, Shane Twerdun and possibly more cast & crew members present to answer your questions and possibly offend a few people.

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