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LBB Film Club: The Wake

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Director Luis Gerard on the short film which is “hard to put a label on” and has made its way into Oscars contention, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani

LBB Film Club: The Wake


It’s difficult to characterise director Luis Gerard’s latest short film ‘The Wake’, which explores the dynamic between brothers, touches on how children view guns in the US and ultimately, has a symbolism that nods back to the title of the piece. The intriguing nature of the spot means it’s had success at several festivals, now putting it in contention for a coveted Oscar. 

The director, who’s repped by Unit9, wrote the script after reading about mass shootings in the US, and perhaps that’s why it evokes an uncomfortable yet necessary tension for viewers. Starting with exploring a unique family dynamic, the bond between Walter and Martin – two very different brothers – evolves as the main character enlists his deaf-mute brother in unbecoming activities. As the film progresses, a sense of foreshadowing creeps in and the thriller-esque trailer starts to play on the audience’s mind, yet nothing could prepare viewers for the unexpected ending which takes place.

Speaking to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani, Luis explains the tricky casting process which ultimately gave us the characters we see on screen, how he shot the piece in Canada but made it feel American and why he still cringes at the ending of the spot.




LBB> How did you first come up with the premise for this short film? What was the initial starting point?


Luis> I wrote the script in 2017 after reading about several mass shootings in the US. I wanted to write a story that touched on the subject of guns and how kids perceive them without doing something I had seen before, like a school shooting. I was interested in writing a story that, on the surface, was simple yet not very black and white.
 
I started with a very basic idea: two brothers that grow up in a funeral home run by their parents. In my head, this made them different, perhaps a bit fearless, because they grew up seeing things most people feel uncomfortable with, death. When the deceased's family attends the wake of their loved one at the funeral home the brothers live in, they break into the house of the dead, counting on it being empty. Viewing his alcoholic father as profiting from the dead, the eldest son does him one better, leading to some unexpected consequences. I thought that would be an interesting and complex premise for a short film. 
 

LBB> Can you tell us about the genre of the piece and the feeling you wanted to create? What was the main message you wanted to convey and why did you feel it was an important message to share?


Luis> I don't know how to label this film. Some festivals, like Cleveland, consider it a drama and play it as part of their drama section; other festivals treat it as a thriller. Recently it was nominated for best drama at Cordillera International Film Festival, but right after that, it played at HollyShorts in the thriller block. Although at times I find that confusing, I like that it's hard to put a label on the movie.
 
I did want to create tension and keep the audience engaged, taking them on a rollercoaster ride without having to rely on cheap scares. I liked the audience to care for these kids even though what they do is wrong. I don't think they are bad kids, regardless of their actions in the film. Like many children, their perception of right and wrong isn't always correct. At their age, they are still very naïve. As I said earlier, the way they perceive guns is one of the film's central themes; they think of them as cool and not necessarily dangerous. Many kids probably know how to handle a gun without ever holding one. We grow up playing with plastic toy guns, watching people shoot each other in movies or spending hours in front of the TV shooting zombies in video games without necessarily considering the dangers that come into play whenever a weapon is in the equation. The message isn't about how you get a gun but more about what could happen if you do.




LBB> Who was the first character you cast and how did that impact the other actors who played the rest of the characters in the short film?


Luis> This was a tricky film to cast, mainly because we were using kids who most likely would be unprofessional actors, and one needed to be deaf. Early on, I decided I wouldn't shoot the movie unless I found the right pair to play brothers, so auditions went on for a while. Zander Colbeck-Bhola, who plays Martin, was the first one I saw in an audition. However, I couldn't commit to him until finding the older brother because he was the main character.
 
A few months after seeing Zander, Isaac Kragten came to an audition. Selecting him to play Walter was one of the best decisions I made. His role was very demanding as he had to learn all his dialogue in ASL (American Sign Language), which required a lot of studying on his own time. The role was also physical, as he needed to run and cycle a lot. More importantly, it required an actor with a particular charisma. Walter has the traits of a sociopath; he does plenty of questionable things, but I still wanted the audience to care for him. Despite the film's short length, I tried to make the character three-dimensional, but I needed to find someone with a particular angle, and that's not easy because it's something the actor has or doesn't have and not something I can write.
 
As for the parents, I had seen Robert Fulton and Patty Sullivan in early auditions and loved them, but I wanted to find the boys before locking the rest of the family. It was essential to put together a credible family. Robert Fulton plays Gary, the town's mortician, and Walter's father. He has a strenuous relationship with his son, constantly pushing him to live the life he hates. His screen time was considerably shorter than Walter's, but the relationship with his son is critical to the story. I wish I had more time to go deeper into their relationship, but I needed an actor who could be very telegraphic and say a lot without words, and Robert provided that. The funny thing is that his real-life personality couldn't be more different from the character he plays.
 
Ivy, the mother, is played by Patty Sullivan, a TV star in Canada. Many there know her as the female version of Mr. Rogers. Her background working with kids in television added a depth that I love. Her expressions said way more than words, which is cinema.  




LBB> The dynamic of the brothers is dysfunctional yet endearing, in a way that only siblings could characterise. How did you create this feeling between the actors and how did that dynamic impact the mood of the piece?


Luis> One of the biggest challenges was building a believable chemistry between two kids who didn't know each other and couldn't communicate since one was deaf and the other couldn't speak ASL. On top of that, at nine years old, Zander was still a boy, and Isaac was a teenager (15); kids that age don't hang out together, so building that on-screen chemistry during prep was essential for the movie to work. I had to find ways to help them develop a connection in the most organic way possible. For this, I held many rehearsals with just the two of them, which helped immensely. I also had them go out with a translator to escape rooms and arcade rooms in their free time and without me. I wanted them to have fun together and build a rapport off set, which eventually came through on the screen, or so I hope.


LBB> Can you talk us through the use of sign language in this film and the choice to incorporate Martin as a deaf-mute character? 


Luis> The curious thing is that when I came up with the idea for 'The Wake', Zander's character was not deaf. In fact, when I started writing the script, his character spoke quite a bit. I came up with the idea entirely out of the blue as I wrote the very last scene of the movie. I don't want to give any spoilers but adding deafness into that scene impacted it considerably.
 
And the more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it, not only because of what it did for the movie dramatically. I thought having a lead I wasn't used to seeing in movies would make it a fresher film. I must note that I wrote 'The Wake' in early 2017 and shot it in early 2019, so 'Coda,' 'Sound of Metal,' [films which include hearing impared characters] and a few others had not been made or released. Unfortunately, 'The Wake' wasn't finished until early this year due to the pandemic and other factors, so maybe it lost some of that freshness, but I think it made it a better movie regardless.
 
As for Zander, this was his first time in front of a camera. He is deaf in real life and comes from a family not too different from the one portrayed in 'Coda.' His parents are deaf, and he has four brothers and sisters who are all deaf; only the youngest sister can hear and speak. I spent time at Zander's home, which was an enlightening experience. I witnessed the family dynamics, for example, how they switch the lights on and off or stomp on the floor to get each other's attention. I eventually incorporated some of these things into the film to add realism.

 


LBB> As a viewer, we can tell that the film is set in suburban America. Where did you shoot the film to get this feeling? And how much of the set was crafted to your specification?


Luis> Most of the film was shot in Milton, Ontario, a small town in Canada. Because Canada doesn't have the problem that America has with guns, the story needed to take place in the USA.
 
I spent a long time on the road, searching for the locations as I had a concrete idea of what I wanted. When I wrote the script, I was pretty specific in describing the locations and the geography inside each home. Because I didn't have the budget to build sets that fit my vision, I scouted until I found what I had in mind. In some cases, I mixed multiple locations and made them look like one to have the geography or the look I had envisaged. The search went on for a while, partly because we were shooting in a town that was not used to filming; therefore, there wasn't a location library that a location manager could rely on. We drove around for weeks in the dead of winter, knocking on those doors where I thought the interior could work. I could probably write a film about that part of the journey. 


LBB> And what other filmmaking and editing techniques did you use to create this particular style of film? There’s a sense of blues and yellows being significant colours, what impact did this have on the final piece?


Luis> The atmosphere certainly plays a role and sets the tone I wanted for the film. It reflects the characters’ emotional state. The story takes place in the fall deliberately; the trees are bare, and everything looks cold and grey.
 
I’ve heard people say that the film feels way shorter than it is, which is a complement to the work of my editor, Adam Schwartz. Adam comes from commercials, so just like me, he knows how to be practical and tell big stories in little time. The pace keeps you on edge from the beginning for the entire 30 minutes. 

The visual style is voyeuristic, which adds to the tension. From a physiological standpoint, it makes the audience feel like these kids are being watched every time they break into a house and could be caught at any moment.




LBB> The music and sound helps create an ambience for the film and the viewer senses something foreboding is impending. What were some of the sound decisions you were conscious of making to create this tension and why were you keen to have music play a significant part in it?


Luis> This is a film with very little dialogue, and most of that dialogue is in sign language; therefore, ‘The Wake’ is a very quiet movie. Sound does play a vital role, and it did in the script as well. The film is quite faithful to the screenplay. For example, the scenes from Martin’s perspective were described as silent; the contrast between the world of sound and the world without it adds tension, especially in the context of those scenes.
 
As you said, the music helps create an ambiance that lets the viewer sense something foreboding is impending, which was by design. The film has a circular structure, so the audience knows from the opening frame that something foreboding is impending; the question is, what. Jay Wadley, my composer, did a fantastic job setting that tone. However, the brother’s theme is quite lyrical but sad at the same time. The same thing happens when the gun is at play. When the kids play with it, the score doesn’t turn dark or tense; it reflects their feelings and excitement about the weapon, which is an unexpected musical twist I find refreshing.


LBB> If viewers have seen the trailer, there may be some surprises in the full version of the film. What was the aim of the trailer and what different stylistic choices did you make between that and the full-length piece?


Luis> Most film festivals ask for trailers, which was one reason we made it. Cutting the trailer was fun. I approached it like a vignette commercial that doesn’t have a story because I didn’t want to give things away like it often happens with trailers. I tried to cut something that transmitted the movie’s overall tone and worked as a promotional tool without showing too much. After watching the trailer, people tend to believe that ‘The Wake’ is a horror movie, which isn’t the case at all. 


LBB> Talk us through the ending. How does it come full circle to embody the title of ‘The Wake’ and what was the message it conveyed?


Luis> It's hard to talk about that without writing spoilers, but 'The Wake' is a literal and symbolic title. It is not a ‘feel-good’ story; the ending is tough, and I still cringe when I watch it, but it was the only one that made sense considering the story and message behind the film.


 

LBB> Were there any small details we might have missed while watching the piece the first time around?


Luis> If I had to name details, the first is the use of the American flag. I want to believe that my approach was subtle, but every time you see the gun, an American flag is in the frame. It can be a sticker, a quilt, or an actual flag, but it’s somewhere in the background.
 
Another thing that comes to mind is the muffled conversation between the man in the basement and the boy. Without wanting to write spoilers, there is important information there.
 
There’s also a ton of foreshadowing, like the cowboy scene in the kid’s bedroom or the scene where Walter flips the binoculars back and forth from his window as he looks at the black-clad mourners gathered outside, suggesting death is closer than he thinks. For me, short films are about experimenting and trying out narrative tools that could be useful in the future. Foreshadowing was one of the things I experimented with the most.  You don’t need to notice these things to understand the movie; however, it’s nice to plant them in case someone detects them.
 

LBB> How has the audience reacted to The Wake so far? It won at the Cleveland International Film Festival; how did you feel about that?


Luis> Cleveland was a great experience because it was the film’s world premiere and my first time watching it on a big screen surrounded by an audience. It was also my first Q and A after a screening, which was an interesting process. Since then, the film has won at four other festivals, including last week, where it won Best Live Action Short at Tirana, another Oscar-qualifying festival.
 
For the most part, the feedback has been very positive, but these things are always subjective, so I try not to take anything to heart, good or bad. I appreciate every time the film gets recognised, whether with an award, a positive review, or someone who walks over after a screening to say that they loved it.


LBB> Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?


Luis> Making this film was a labour of love, but it was backbreaking. I could write a book on the challenges, but I won’t bore you with those details. However, they say it takes a village to make a film, and that was particularly true on this one. It is impossible to thank everyone that helped, but my DOP, Christopher Mably, was a key contributor. He was passionate about the script from the moment he read it and went far and beyond to help me make it a reality. He also acted as executive producer and pulled lots of favours for me, so I don’t think I could have made the film without Chris’ support.
 
Alex Sayapov was my production designer and another key contributor who worked his butt off to make this movie alongside his partner and art director, Arek Zientak. Josias Tapia, my first AD, and executive producer flew in for the shoot to save the day. I also had terrific partners during post production; Adam Schwartz was my editor and did a fantastic job. Like myself, he is a perfectionist who kept looking for ways to improve the cut.
 
Jay Wadley was my composer, another great partner, just like Wade Odlum, my colourist. Wade became more than the colourist as he helped with visual effects and was with me until the very end. These guys were vital in making this film; they donated their time and, on top of that, did a fantastic job, so I’ll never stop thanking them for it.


CREDITS

Agency / Creative
Production
Post Production / VFX
Editorial
Music / Sound
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UNIT9 London, Fri, 07 Oct 2022 16:07:00 GMT