February 28, 2017 Interview – Ed Gass-Donnelly
Life can be like a puzzle, searching and seeking the right pieces to fit the frame. Filmmaking creates the exact same challenges, and award-winning Canadian Film Director/Screenwriter/Producer Ed Gass-Donnelly seeks to take his audience’s on a journey each time out. Nominated for four Genies at the 29th Genie Awards with his 2008 full-length debut This Beauty City, Gass-Donnelly was chosen by Variety Magazine back in 2010 as one of the top ten filmmakers to watch, and broke into the mainstream in 2013 with The Last Exorcism Part II.
Taking his vision to the next level, Gass-Donnelly returns with the Psychological Thriller Lavender in 2017. A film that keeps the audience guessing, Lavender is an essential Thriller set for release on VOD and theaters March 3rd. Gearing up for the film’s release, Gass-Donnelly sat down to talk the story behind his introduction to filmmaking, the lessons he has learned over the years, the work behind Lavender, and more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been in film for over a decade now as a director, writer, and producer. First, briefly tell us, what inspired you to get involved in film?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – I grew up in theater and always loved the movies, but they always seemed more technically daunting in how to make one. Around 12-15 years ago, before I started doing short films, the Canon XL1 just came out, it was a MiniDV camera that had a cinema mode that simulated 24 frames per second. It looked more film-like verses looking like video. A family friend got me a gig working as a director’s assistant on a movie. It demystified the technical approach and I thought, “I don’t need to know how to do all these things. People can do this job and so on.”
Suddenly it was a revolution starting where it became more feasible to financially make a movie. I was more inspired to try because it was not as if these things were out of reach. I dived in and used that technology, of course now anyone can just make a movie on their phone and the whole process is inherently demystified. In reality, you can make great theater with just some actors in a parking lot, but with movies you need gear.
CrypticRock.com – Of your main accolades as a young director, you have won awards at festivals for your films, and in 2011, Variety called you one of the 10 Directors to watch out for. In 2013, you made a big splash as director and co-writer for the popular The Last Exorcism Part II. What was it like working on that type of bigger budget project?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – There are going to be misconceptions, just because it is wide released, doesn’t mean it is big budget. It was a little more than Lavender, but not by a lot. The Last Exorcism Part II was a challenging experience. On one hand it was great, making and shooting the movie. I had so much creative freedom, I was editing the movie alone in my apartment initially. It hit me, “Oh my god, I am making a movie that will be seen on 3,000 screens!”
The challenge came with I was trying to make Rosemary’s Baby and trick teenagers into seeing it. That was my goal with that movie, I wanted to use demonic possession as a metaphor of discovering the taboo of sexuality. When CBS bought the movie off having just seeing the trailer, and not seeing the movie. I think once they saw the movie they thought “Oh shit, we bought this arty, weird movie, and we thought we are getting a more standard commercial Thriller.” They re-cut the movie, it was neither the movie I wanted or they wanted, because they didn’t have the footage to do it. So it went from “Yes, it is coming out on 3,000 screens,” to, “Oh my god, it is coming out on 3,000 screens.”
It was a learning lesson. The only real problem was if they had know my original intentions, I guess I wouldn’t have made the movie. I guess they could have watched the movie before buying it, that would have helped. There are highs and lows. On one hand, it is great to have a movie out where 8-10 million people see it, but I have to live with it. There are elements of that movie that are not my choice that have my name on it.
CrypticRock.com – Well, it was a learning experience. Your latest film, Lavender, is set for release on March 3rd. How did this project come about for you?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – I always come at things from a character’s perspective. I find the idea of missing memories and trying to solve the puzzle of that just to be fascinating. I love movies where the audience tries to piece them together on their own, rather than be fed a story.
It is also technically interesting once a character has a missing memory, I guess like Memento for example, the character and the audience are trying to solve the same mystery. In Memento, we always see the same tattoos, and it kind of solves the puzzle as the movie unfolds. The same with Lavender, once she finds these clues, she and the audience are trying to piece it together to get meaning. I find that to be an interesting and fun convention to work with.
I love commerical movies, but I love commerical movies that have strong character and make you think. I think that for me is the kind of Horror movies I love. I love Psychological Horror far more than violence or gore. The stuff that lingers for me are movies like The Others (2001) or The Shining (1980). As much as they might be visually cool, it is the psychological experience that kind of haunts you. That is what I was trying to set out to accomplish.
CrypticRock.com – There is something to be said for that style of Horror film. Lavender is certainly a tension builder where the truth is never really revealed throughout most of the film. Was it a challenge to provide just the right amount of clues without giving away too much?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – It is a constant struggle. In this film, there were only a handful of characters. It is a delicate balance of how do you manipulate people’s tension and expectations. To get tension as well you hold off delivery. People think, “When is the monster going to come? If you go too long, people get bored and think it is not going to happen. It is like an elastic, and if you stretch it too far it will eventually break. For me it is trial and error. There is a certain amount I write, direct, and plan to edit. There are more sequences that eventually end up on the editing room floor where I already established this beat. It is really all trial and error, and it is fun. It is experiences where you are trying to find the right balance.
CrypticRock.com – It has to be a challenge, it worked well with Lavender though. You teamed up with Cinematographer Brendan Steacy again for this film. He really does a wonderful job of capturing each scene in an artistic matter. Is it safe to say you have built an understanding of what you are looking for working together?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – Brendan is one of my closest friends, we went to university together. This was our third movie together as well. It is funny, there was one point in preparation where we were only a week or two away from shooting and Brendan said, “We never really discussed the look of this movie.” It is part of because we know each other well. For our first collaboration, we had a wall of photographs and we tried to figure what the movie was, because we hadn’t worked together.
Now, three times in, he knows my tastes and I know what I can expect from him. We discussed color of patel, but the bigger things are the more technical ones where how do we approach the slow motion photographs in the beginning of the movie and the car crash. We both were sort of struck by how little we actually talked about the look because he and I are always in sort of sympatico.
CrypticRock.com – Well you two seem to work well. Lavender has a great look to it. You had said you are a fan of more Psychological Horror. Could you tell us some of your favorite Horror films?
Ed Gass-Donnelly – I think The Others is what has inspired me to actually do something in the genre. It certainly was an influence for Lavender. Even though it is very different, from that open shot from when Nicole Kidman’s character pops into frame, it was so rooted in character. What I loved is there was this great story which was so exceptionally well acted. That kind of performance for me really sucks me in. It makes me believe and makes me fearful. When I believe them, it makes the whole thing seem more scary. If you have creepy sound effects and shitty acting, that doesn’t do anything for me and doesn’t scare me.
I do love commercial films, but the ones that have that elegance and sense of authenticity, those are the ones that get under my skin. The Shining, it is almost boring to bring it up as a reference, but it is one of those movies that is haunting. It is one of those movies, if you put it on, I can always watch it. It is not a movie that I can watch once or twice, praise, and not look at it again. I just find it always interesting to watch. Those two films are my favorites, or at least the top of my list at the moment.