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Interview: Director Emmanuel Shirinian talks It Was You Charlie

We spoke to Toronto director Emmanuel Shirinian about his first feature film It Was You Charlie. He told us about the challenges and pleasures of filmmaking, his dedicated cast and crew and why you are more likely to see a phone booth than an iPhone in his films.

It Was You Charlie, Will open at TIFF Bell Lightbox on August 15.

This is your first feature film. What was your inspiration for the story? Obviously there are some familiar themes but there are also lots of twists and turns.

People call it a dark comedy, although I’m not quite sure I’d be that quick to call it a dark comedy although I understand why people call it a dark comedy. I think it was important that the film have some moments of levity to it otherwise it is a pretty dark film. I think the catalyst for me was, it’s kind of an unrequited love story and a psychological thriller and kind of an amalgamation of those two genres or tone just really appealed to me.

The catalyst for the film was the car accident and from there I kind of worked backwards in peeling away the layers of our protagonist Abner and understanding who he was. In some ways it is the classic underdog story but there was something a lot deeper at play that appealed to me, especially the post traumatic stress of the accident and piecing together the memory. But at the core of it all really it’s about two brothers who are trying to reconcile and I had to never lose site of that element. I guess that theme of family is prevalent in my work so in that sense there was some familiarity.

Charlie was born out of having challenges trying to make another film. We were kind of on the cusp of making another feature film and casting fell through. It’s always good to have many projects on the go and Charlie was something that I was dying to make for many many years. We put together a really low budget and we were able to execute it over the course of a few weeks in December 2012.

Abner is a very unique character and also very complex. How did you craft his character? Was there anything specific that inspired you?

The actor Michael Cohen is an actor that I’ve worked with many times before and a dear friend. I didn’t write the part for him necessarily but the more I started to construct Abner as an archetype I thought of Michael Cohen. And the moment I thought of Michael Cohen and I thought of his physical stature it became very apparent that Abner would be unlike any other male lead. I liked the fact that this guy was once this art teacher, he was a sculptor, he had a beautiful apartment, and he was revered by his peers. He fell hard for his student and he quit his job to profess his love for her and she had been dating his brother behind the scenes and that absolutely tore him apart.

I think Abner is one of those characters that has to go right to the end before he can come out. You know how some people they don’t know how far they can go, how destructive they can be until they go to that level. That’s who Abner is.

You’re known for your short films (Les Softies, Song of Slomon). This is your first feature film. What was it like in terms of challenges and highlights?

I studied film history and criticism at Concordia in the mid 90s and I just love film and I thought I was going to teach film but I had a lot of stories to tell. I dabbled in filmmaking in my early 20s and I haven’t stopped really. It’s an obsession of mine. Making a first feature film, for anyone that has aspirations of being a filmmaker is the ultimate dream, the ultimate pinnacle. You’ve made your shorts but a feature film is just a different animal all together. Doing a bit of press leading up to this film people have been asking me about directing and it occurred to me that it’s really just negotiating. A good director is just a really good salesman. I say that to you because at the end of the day for a first feature film –  I’ve made a bunch of short films that were successful but I’ve never made a feature – my job is to sell people on this vision that I have.

It’s a complicated story. It’s not an accessible film. I was very aware writing it that I was asking the audience to be active participants in the viewing. It wasn’t a film that you could watch passively.

Everyday as a director you’re negotiating, for time, for the right shot, for the right piece of equipment. With this film I have to say it was a fairly easy sell in the sense that everyone just really kind of serendipitously got behind the story. It was really moving for me because it was a difficult film on the page. People went above and beyond to put everything they had onto the screen. It wasn’t about a pay cheque it was about delivering quality material.

Money was scarce but that’s OK it forces you to be creative. We shot 117 scenes in 17 days. It was a breakneck pace, very exhilarating.

Do you feel that making a Canadian film with a Canadian cast, that this is were a lot of the dedication came from?

There was a definite level of pride on this film. A lot of independent films get made in this country. Some of them succeed, some of them don’t. Everyone wants to champion Canadian films. We’re an industry that has a lot of talented people but unfortunately we don’t do a really good job of exposing our talent. I think people on this film in particular went above and beyond.

For me as a director and a writer it was beyond humbling.

You played a hitman in your short Les Softies. Do you plan on doing more acting in the future or are you going to stick solely to writing and directing?

The later. I’m definitely going to focus on the writing and directing. I also acted in a film directed by Mike Clattenburg (The Trailer Park Boys) called Afghan Luke. It was another wonderful opportunity but no, honestly, I leave the acting to the professionals.

I saw Michael perform and prepare for Abner in this film and I could never have the discipline.

In saying that, I began as an actor at a young age and I feel that if you want to be a director you should do a lot of things. You should edit, you should act. If not act you should at least learn about the craft of acting.

I get typecast all the time. I get typecast as a heavy or a terrorist and I’m the furthest thing from that. It’s very funny how people perceive me.

The score for the film and the cinematography really set the tone and draw viewers in emotionally. Could you give us some details on the composer and cinematographer?

Ryan Latham was the musician who composed the score for the film. He came to me and my producer. We had expressed mutual in the past an interest to work together and this film seemed to have worked out in respect to timing and our schedules.

He’s brilliant. He performed every instrument you hear in the film. The key to the score that we had I think was that I got him involved in the story early on. A lot of young directors make the mistake of finishing their film, they edit it and then, “Here you go composer this is my film.” The fact that Ryan had the script for the film and saw the footage, he was able to really let the style of the film seep into his bones. We wanted to find instruments that represented who Abner was. It’s kind of an unrequited love/psychological thriller so we wanted something that was kind of a little off key at times. We wanted something that at times was a little foreboding, something that leads you one way but is actually something else.

My cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, I’ve worked with him before in the past on a bunch of shorts and a documentary that I did. He’s brilliant. His resume speaks for itself. He brought so much to the table. We spent months leading up to the shoot. We talked about the characters and the season we were going to shoot in, we talked about colour pallets. We looked at a lot of Edward Hopper paintings. He’s about poetic realism. He really likes to paint with light in that if there’s one window in the room that is our light source. We wanted to give the film a timeless feel so that you’re not quite sure what era it’s in.

He taught me so much about composition and about how shots can tell the truth.

It was amazing they’re both brilliant I’m glad you picked out those two elements of the film.

I liked the wide shots. They accentuate Abner’s vulnerability. There’s a sense that something bad could happen to him at any moment. You kind of want to grab him and protect him in some way.

We shot it in a 2.3:5 aspect ratio. You’re right shooting with that wide angle it dwarfed Michael even more so. When you think about it wide frames, they’re usually reserved for action films or big sweeping epics but there was something nice about a character driven story that had a wide frame. The big influence on this film was Punch-Drunk Love. It stayed with me that frame. I spent a lot of time researching it.

Another key visual element to the film is Abner’s apartment building. It’s so central to the story that it is almost a character too in a way. Could you tell us a bit about filming locations?

Because the film references On the Waterfront we wanted to have kind of a working class feel so we shot a lot by the docks, by the water, by the beach boardwalk, we shot in Leslieville, we shot by the tracks. It was urban but it was also decaying. I love the fact that his apartment was this warm, insular haven for him. I think the apartment – which is a standing set by the way, it’s a home but it’s used for a lot of TV shows – I agree with you, is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture. What was great about Abner’s apartment was that we could design it in two ways. We had Abner’s apartment when he was on top of the world; he’s in love with Madeleine, he’s an artist hard at work, there’s life and vitality to the room. Then there was Abner post-Madeleine, post-car accident and the apartment is a mere shadow of what it once was.

I’m kind of stuck in a time warp. I feel that I should have been born in another era and that era is probably the 1940s. It seems to be – or at least it’s been pointed out to me – that there is a void of anything contemporary in my films – which I don’t necessarily entirely agree with – but as you can see there are no modern cell phones that kind of thing. I didn’t want to be distracted by that stuff. One of my favourite shots in the film is a shot of Abner on the phone on the boardwalk and it’s a beautiful wide tableau of the beach and there’s this payphone. No one uses pay phones nowadays but that’s so much more interesting to me than someone talking on a cell phone.