When covid-19 hit, David Findlay, like everyone else, was forced to stay inside. Without the chance to explore the world, he found himself looking inward - recalling the memories of losing a friend to an accident in high school. It was here that he discovered there was perhaps something unresolved for him, as well as a story worth sharing. The result of this self-exploration? ‘Lay Me by the Shore’.
Shot on 70mm film, and featuring a young cast of non-actors, David’s work follows a week in the life of Noah, a high school senior in his final days of class as he comes to terms with his best friend’s passing. It’s sensitive, thoughtful, and has received critical acclaim, having played at Berlinale 2022, TIFF 2022, and on Vimeo - where it recently received a Staff Pick Premiere.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt caught up with David to find out more about the writing process, why non-actors were the right choice, and why it’s important for films to leave room for the viewer.
LBB> How did you come up with the idea for ‘Lay Me by the Shore’?
David> The inspiration for ‘Lay Me by the Shore’ (‘LMBTS’) came during April 2020 - the very start of the pandemic. During that month, aside from editing ‘Found Me’, which I had wrapped just in time before lockdown, I, like everyone else, wasn’t out experiencing the world (which is usually how I find inspiration). Inadvertently, I ended up looking inward, and I realised that it had been 10 years since I lost a friend to an accident, which had happened when I was in high school. The realisation just sent me right back to that period. I began remembering things very vividly and found there was perhaps something unresolved for me, but also worthwhile sharing. After about two months of very slow writing, I found the piece of music ‘Lay Me by the Shore’ by The White Birch, and that’s where it all clicked. I knew I wanted to tell the story - subtly from the perspective of the recently departed - and the song not only supported that POV, but its tone was exactly what I envisioned. From there, the music was woven into the film’s DNA and heavily inspired the rest of the writing process.
LBB> What was the writing process like?
David> I write pretty slowly at the start. I write down ideas for scenes, or simply settings - just in my Notes app - and then eventually these scenes begin to make sense together. Then, again very slowly, I'll put together a treatment/deck/mood board (a pretty extensive one), all while building a library of musical references. While I'm doing this, it allows for the idea to crystallise.
When I'm done with the deck, usually the script will happen very fast (roughly over a week or two). Then I'll start prep, without revisiting it too often. I think there is something very important about holding on to initial impulses. I leave lots of room for my actors to contribute in the rehearsals, and during the shoot also. Despite all that, it feels like I am still writing when my editor (Alex) and I finally piece it all together.
LBB> Did you fully flesh out the characters and their feelings before you started shooting?
David> I definitely established the general feelings they should feel and give off, but I also am sure to let the actors bring a lot of themselves to the characters too. It helps make something that feels grounded and real, and I value being able to let go, both of myself, and of rigid preconceived ideas of who this character might be.
LBB> Let’s talk about Noah. Is he based on anyone in particular?
David> I lived through similar events at that age for sure, but the character is an amalgamation of me, my friends, people close to me, and then in a very large part Isla, who brought the character to life.
LBB> Tell us more about this! What went into Isla bringing Noah to life?
David> Just spending a bunch of time with Isla - skating, hanging out - getting to know each other, and making sure we developed a shorthand and a clear and open line of communication (which is the most important part). The story is largely told visually, so what his bedroom looks like, his wardrobe - all of that helped paint as precise a portrait as possible.
LBB> You shot on 70mm film for this - please tell us about this decision! Why was that the right choice?
David> Subtly, I wanted to capture moments and scenes of everyday life, but from the point of view of an ethereal, benevolent presence. In scenes where this was most felt, we used large format film. The format is so beautiful and renders images completely free of grain. As such, the images convey this feeling of lucidity, like a window through which to see the world from ‘the beyond’.
LBB> What were your goals for the aesthetic and colour of the film?
David> The themes and the song which supports the film are a bit on the sombre scope of things. So, I wanted to shoot the film in the most colourful, vibrant, and lush way possible. This sort of juxtaposition excites me and creates… not a clash, but certainly an opposition within each frame and each scene where I believe viewers can access these nuances: shades of grey we overlook on a daily basis, complex sentiments our protagonist is experiencing, etc.
LBB> The opening of the film is quite ambiguous. Why was this the approach you wanted to take?
David> I hate films that leave no room for me as a viewer - films that explain every single thing - because I like being challenged and engaged. This is a difficult task as a filmmaker, but I believe the outcome for the viewer can be so much more rewarding when a bit of engagement and investment has been put into watching the film. It creates a deeper connection and a more satisfying ‘payoff’, or a longer lasting emotional resonance. You never want to confuse the viewer to the point of alienation, but I'd rather run that risk slightly - dancing on the very edge - than bore them.
LBB> Where did you shoot, and what was the experience like?
David> We shot it in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was a super ambitious shoot with so many moving parts. I think the biggest challenge was to pack in so much in so little time. We shot for eight straight days, which was a bit exhausting, but it was made possible by an amazing cast and superhuman crew, led by producer extraordinaire Joaquin Cardoner. Together, we built a team of strictly close friends and collaborators who related to the script and its ambition, and eventually donated so much time and effort for very little in return; all for the love of stories and films, and for the love of its process. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. If anything, I think my only strength as a filmmaker is in building a team I can lean on heavily, in more ways than one.
LBB> The film features a cast of non-actors. What led to this decision, and what was casting like?
David> I met Isla and his partner Kai while making a short concept film called ‘Air’. We met each other the same day we shot, and they were the best part of this ‘vignette-y’ little film. While I was making ‘Air’, I was writing ‘LMBTS’, and I knew I wanted to cast strictly non-actors. Isla and Kai were just it, and I leaned into them very heavily to try and tell the story as much as possible from their perspective, enabling them - as much as I could - to tell us and show us what it’s like to be young today.
LBB> The fight at the party, and Noah biking away after were very memorable shots. How did you help the actors bring out their best performances, and what went into capturing these two scenes?
David> I always try to make a production schedule that makes sense and has some sort of build up and progression, and here with our young cast of first-timers, I knew I needed to implement that. This was the very last scene we shot, having rehearsed it before the start of production. It says a lot that at the end of the shoot, Isla had the confidence to give this great performance, all while performing a stunt.
LBB> What was the editing process like?
David> I knew from the start that the film would be impressionistic, and built as a sort of mosaic of moments. The moments are small ones, and they alone may appear insignificant, but they find their meaning and weight when added up. Maybe that’s because it’s how I remember things in my own life - never ‘headlines’, but rather very small and precise instances and scenes, which actually end up being the most telling. In doing so, it was my intention to put forth very subtle but evocative emotions by oscillating between moments of pure joy and levity, and more sombre ones: accessing the in-between and these incredibly nuanced shades of grey we overlook on a daily basis, but that comes to define who we are.
I was absolutely blessed to work with a gifted editor named Alexander Farah (who happens to be a talented director too). This was our fourth collaboration, and also our most successful. As you’ll have noticed, many of these scenes could have gone in various orders, so the editing was a fairly complex puzzle… and an emotional one. That said, Alex had given incredibly helpful notes at the script level, so his involvement was from a very early stage, and proved utterly invaluable.
Another first was that, where in the past, we had always edited remotely, this time we did it in person. Aside from being incredibly fun and likely speeding up the process a fair bit (‘Found Me’ was eight weeks of editing, ‘LMBTS’ was just under five), it became evident that this is how we want to work in the future: in a collaborative environment that nurtures a mindset of ‘there are no bad ideas, so let’s try everything’.
LBB> What is your favourite shot from the film, and why?
David> I think it's the shot of Isla and Kai walking down the suburban street at the start of the film. It wasn't scripted. We had about 30 minutes to spare and we decided to improvise something. I think their bond is so sweet, real and palpable, and you can really feel it.
LBB> ‘LMBTS’ won a Staff Pick Premiere on Vimeo and Nowness, and appeared at TIFF 2022. What do these accomplishments mean to you?
David> It's easy to say now, on the other side of these accolades, but honestly, the most rewarding moment throughout the entire process was getting to that first watchable cut after five weeks of editing. I had this overwhelming sense of having accomplished (or being close to) what I had set out to make, and in a way that felt like it was my own. This was only made better by the knowledge that I’d done it alongside my most beloved friends and collaborators. After that, the first news of Berlinale was pure joy - a thrill - but truthfully, never as sweet as the feeling of having made the film I had set out to make.