Best intentions aside, very few relationships are perfectly balanced – so what do you do when you love someone deeply but it’s clear you give much more than you take? Ringing painfully true, Alison from Director David Lester and Actor/Writer Jessica Rose, asks that very question as it depicts a night of excess for one and patient caretaking for another. I spoke to David about capturing the doubts of long-term love in this intimate story of a romance teetered on the brink.
You’ve mentioned that raising finance in Canada is especially hard, why do you think that is comparatively? How did you pull together the resources needed to make Alison.
Truthfully, we just dug into our pockets on this one. We are fortunate to work in the industry and have access to an extremely talented community of filmmakers, and we all take turns helping each other out on our various projects. We had been rejected for grants for other projects we wanted to do, and that process can take months of applying and waiting around only to end up with nothing. We felt like if we didn’t just make something, we would never make anything. So Alison was a bit of an experiment to see if we could shoot this little short with no financing and see what we could pull off.
People started to assume that this is our story — we swear it isn’t!
To be clear, we’re sure that funding your movie is difficult anywhere, especially for short films. But Canada has a very different industry than in the States. We don’t want to sound bleak about it, but we’re a smaller country, and there are less funds and opportunities in place to help filmmakers. We don’t have a billion dollar film industry, or any kind of star system, and Canadian films tend to be low budget and funded through a few government sources. Private investors are harder to come by — it’s difficult to make your money back. There are a few funding sources for Canadian short films but they are extremely competitive. And two of those key sources are currently being threatened, so we may lose them entirely.
What prompted you to tell this story of relationship dysfunction? Did you draw directly from relationships you’ve known?
We’re actually married, and Kris Turner looks a little David-ish, so people started to assume that this is our story — we swear it isn’t! But we’ve been together for eleven years, so we do understand a few things about the joys and challenges of long-term relationships. We had seen lots of movies about breakups or happy endings, but hadn’t seen a film that explored those in-between moments the way we understood them, with two people who are trying to love each other through their dysfunction. When choosing who we want to be with, in a way we’re also kind of choosing the baggage we’re willing to tolerate. Relationships can teach us a lot about ourselves but sometimes learning sucks. I think both of us have taken turns being Jay and Alison at various points in our relationships…but less intoxicated.
I can imagine that Alison’s wild child antics are precisely what attracted Jay to her in the first place. How far into their relationship’s history did you delve when providing context for the events of this night?
To be honest, we didn’t discuss their history too much. At first we thought identifying a specific, underlying reason for the events of the night was important, but the more we started working on it the more we kind of let that go. As artists, I think we want to make sense of what we’re creating, or make it feel important. But sometimes the work needs space to be bigger than your ideas…it needs some space to be its own thing and to allow audiences to make their own interpretations and connections. We worked from our own truths, and then this film taught us what it was. And we really enjoy that people project their own life experiences onto this and it changes how they feel about what they see.
Jay’s steadfast caretaking of Alison is heartbreaking in the face of his doubt. How did you all work together to get the performances to the correct emotional place? What role did discovery play on set?
I think I was lucky to work with two extraordinary actors who just got it and brought it, take after take. Jess and Kris had never worked together before and the tub scene was first up — so it just shows you how immediately they were able to develop a very special intimacy and chemistry with one another. Kris has a long-term partner as well, so he just showed up understanding what we were doing. I did my best to give them a safe, fearless space to work and explore, and sometimes would come in and give gentle suggestions to give myself options. I did allow some takes to roll longer than scripted in case they felt inclined to do some improvisation or try something new. It was very collaborative and playful. I think when you’re working with professionals like Kris and Jess, you just stand back and let them do their work. If they understand the characters and the script, things take care of themselves most of the time. My job is to think about the overall structure, to shape it and make adjustments, and to encourage them to take risks.
We did have some beautiful moments of discovery on the day. Jessica says she wishes she could take credit for this because it’s so damn perfect, but Kris improvised the song in bed on the spot. We knew he had to sing but we didn’t have rights to a specific song, so he just made one up. Also, his “thank you” (spoiler!) at the very end was also spontaneous — it just slipped out of Kris’ mouth as Jess was holding him. That moment was so lovely and strange and authentic that it changed the way we ended the film. It added something that we didn’t even know we needed.
Robert Brunton’s cinematography has an intimacy which places us squarely inside their relationship.
Robert and I wanted to compose shots that created the stillness and intimacy of night, and it was important that the camera allowed us to quietly observe the relationship without judgement. The idea was to have almost portrait-like shots that included both cast in the frame as much as possible, which invites the audience to watch Alison and Jay in almost real-time and witness the subtleties of their dynamic with the least amount of cuts. You know when you stay up all night and things are emotional and you lose your sense of time? I was trying to create that fragmented feeling. We shot with prime lenses and used very minimal gear because of the tight quarters in the house. Robert planned to use practical as often as possible, but otherwise relied on a Kino and panel lights. Because of our budget and location availability, we shot the whole thing in one day (which included a unit move)… so we’re basically insane.
How difficult was it to compose the swing of emotions within and between scenes in the edit?
We actually had a lot of trouble with one scene in particular. For the bathtub scene, Jess and Kris were exploring one another for the first time and finding new things with each take. I let the camera roll for a while and encouraged them to keep looping it and trying out new things. In the end, we probably had twenty wildly different versions of it, plus some lovely improvised moments. Once we were in the editing room, we realized that scene was actually the emotional centre of the film and a very important transition into the next act. Each take we tested completely changed the rhythm, tone, and impact of the entire movie. Some versions made the whole film heavier, some were funnier, others meant we didn’t really earn the ending.
We sent out a few rough cuts for feedback and got completely mixed reactions depending on what version they saw. It drove us nuts. In the end, we kept being drawn back to the simplicity, vulnerability, and intimacy of the one that you see now in the film. It carries weight, but we also see the love between them, and it ends on the precisely right note to carry us into the bedroom — a small win for Kris’ character without any actual resolution. When people talk about having to kill their babies in the editing room, there were so many babies we had to kill in that scene… beautiful things we wish the world could see but just didn’t work in the final cut.
The film’s ending is powerfully downbeat, were you at all wary of exiting the couple’s lives at that point? How have audiences reacted?
Getting reactions from audiences has been the most gratifying part of this whole experience. At festivals, we found out we had a comedy. At least with a large crowd, the first half seems to be a comedy. At home alone in front of a computer screen, people seem to have a heavier experience. But at the festivals, people laughed so hard you could feel the whole room shaking and then it would get very silent at the end.
The most special moments are when people approach us afterwards with tears in their eyes, telling us what it made them realize about themselves or their past relationships. We’ve received some wonderful e-mails and messages from strangers sharing some really personal thoughts. We’ve also welcomed the criticism, because our favourite part of making films is the conversation around it. It’s okay if you don’t like it, we just love finding out why and having a dialogue.
It doesn’t matter how much money or time you have, just make things anyway.
The ending was always in the script and Jessica stood by it — she knew the film had to end this way. We could talk forever about the reasons why, but we feel that most people really get it. Oddly, the reaction from men tends to be the most mixed. We don’t want to make any large assumptions about why that is, but it’s possible that the amount of male vulnerability makes them uncomfortable. But we wrote that scene from our truth, our experience. Loving someone through thick and thin can be hard and confusing and emotionally taxing. There is some resolution at the end when they come together, but within that resolution is a whole whack of questions — and that’s life.
How did you come to premiere online with Canadian National Screen Institute? Has that or the subsequent Staff Pick given you an ‘in’ for future work?
We submitted our film to the Canadian National Screen Institute like any other festival and they accepted us. We were actually accepted much sooner than we expected, so we had to prepare to put it online much faster than we first planned. But the Vimeo Staff Pick was an enormous, mind-boggling gift. We are immensely grateful to them for taking notice of us. We’re trying not to have any expectations, but looking forward to seeing what happens.
You approached the creation of Alison as an experiment – what did it teach you?
Honestly? To just make work. To stop making excuses. It doesn’t matter how much money or time you have, just make things anyway. And make things that excite you and move you and scare you. As a director, I also learned to be more efficient. I actually had some speciality shots that ate up some really valuable time that never made the final cut, so I learned a lot about being specific about my setups and make sure I’m focused on telling the story, not being fancy for the sake of being fancy. Otherwise, it was actually exhilarating having no time to overthink things.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming short, A Beer With Ella?
We can tell you that it’s inspired by a true story, and that we have an incredible cast lined up. The problem is that it’s one of those shorts that actually does need real money to make it (it’s a bit of a period piece) so we’re working on securing that. We are also waiting to find out about a grant for a short that we plan to direct together. In the meantime, Jessica is working on a feature film script and I’m working on another music video. We’re only getting started!