Cycles of Dependency: An Interview with Ashley McKenzie

Discussing "Werewolf," a tale of addiction and dependency—and one of the most accomplished and acclaimed Canadian debut features.
Adam Cook

Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf is one of the most accomplished and acclaimed Canadian debut features in recent memory. Set on Cape Breton Island off the East Coast of Nova Scotia, the story follows a methadone addicted couple, Nessa (Bhreagh MacNeil) and Blaise (Andrew Gillis), who are struggling to survive. McKenzie looks at the cycles of dependency that trap these characters in an environment that offers them few escape routes. Living in the woods, waiting for housing support, getting daily methadone doses, and unsuccessfully trying to make ends meet by going door to door mowing people’s lawns, it becomes clear that their relationship is part of what perpetuates their situation. Slowly, Nessa tries to break free. McKenzie’s acute sense of the milieu of her native Cape Breton is reflected in both the authenticity of the performances and the film’s assured formal language that captures the marginal space—figurative and literal—through which Nessa and Blaise uneasily navigate. A film of sparse details where small gestures and a limited set of elements take on power and significance, Werewolf is a humanistic and stylistic triumph.

I spoke to Ashley McKenzie about the film over a year after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, just before picking up the TFCA’s coveted Best Canadian Film award, and looking ahead to its US release from Factory 25 beginning this week with a run at Anthology Film Archives.

NOTEBOOK: For many viewers, particularly outside of Canada, this will be their first exposure to Cape Breton Island. Can you talk about where you’re from and where this film is set?

MCKENZIE: The Cape Breton I really knew most of my life was the one that was just a little over a hundred years old with all these little towns that popped up around coal mines and the steel industry, which was booming. Whitney Pier was the largest producer of steel in the world in the 20s. Workers came from all over the world to work. I grew up in New Waterford, which is a small coal mining town. They’re all company towns with this labor history of working class culture dependent on external forces, and one entity that owned your home, and the store you shopped in and controlled your electricity. That history definitely seeped into the film.

I recently read a paper called Cape Breton Gothic about the history of trauma of the danger of working in the mines and steel plants, and how people dealt with it by self-medicating. It’s an inter-generational history we’re still dealing with.

NOTEBOOK: And you witnessed this manifest in a way amongst people your age in your community?

MCKENZIE: As a filmmaker there are stories of people in my community that are overlooked. Werewolf emerged at a time when I was moving back to Cape Breton from Halifax after a few years, and friends of mine we’re all talking about wanting to leave. One friend was saying he wanted to leave, but never did, and I started to think about this people who seem to be stuck and can’t escape. Some people in these small industrial towns I know haven’t even been able to drive elsewhere on the island. For me as a young person to decide to live on Cape Breton is unconventional because it has the highest outmigration in Canada. So I started to focus on the struggle I was seeing around me there, a lot of darkness, mental illness, and suicide, and I wanted to understand what was happening in my community.

NOTEBOOK: The symbol of the lawnmower is quite poignant; in a way it reflects this immobility.

MCKENZIE: It’s the image that really inspired the film. My producer Nelson MacDonald and I saw this young couple on the street pushing a lawnmower down the road with this kind of energy where you can tell they're on a mission. We didn't really recognize them, and it's a small community so it caught our eye. We saw them go to my neighbor's house and knock aggressively on the door and they each went to different doors. And then they walk into the house and there was an altercation. Going around offering to cut grass. You can see they needed money fast, it stuck with us and we talked to people about it and they were like, “oh yeah they’re the lawnmower crackheads and they live in the woods,” and someone was like, “they stole my friend’s daughter’s tent from their backyard.” There were all these stories about this couple. We didn’t know that was happening around us and wanted to know more about their life.

NOTEBOOK: In Werewolf, there are two cycles the characters are caught in, addiction and co-dependency.

MCKENZIE: I wasn't really thinking of making a film about drug addiction. I wasn't seeing it in a specific way. I was thinking about it as dependency because I could see the broader influence of dependency, the many shapes the takes.  

There's this spectrum of dependency and addiction is really just a set up of behavioral patterns that repeat themselves in a certain way and it could be a street drug or methadone or alcohol or sex or a relationship, whatever it is. I wanted to try to understand it better and I didn’t necessarily find solutions or answers, but that was driving force.

NOTEBOOK: There’s no position of judgment, even if the film is more behind Nessa and distances itself from Blaise.

MCKENZIE: It’s an intuitive thing. I had people in my life I really cared about that I saw going through through these sorts of struggles. It felt very real I had a lot of empathy when I thought about the trajectory I saw happening with those individuals I saw the complexity. It never felt like something I was constructing. It was a way for me to cope with what I was witnessing.

NOTEBOOK: Blaise is a sinking ship that Nessa needs to jump off of and her need to separate from him is their only chance even if the consequences are different for both of them.

MCKENZIE: I’ve seen people who can survive and endure, and that’s how I saw Nessa, and some who can’t and that’s how I saw Blaise. I wanted to make sure her strength came through and Blaise is very loud and takes a lot of space and Nessa is silenced by him. I care for both of the characters, and I didn’t necessarily like how it naturally took shape but it’s what felt right and honest. Nessa having to jump ship was important. In a scene a therapist says to her it’s hard for couples to get clean together. I was trying to understand how to break that cycle.  

NOTEBOOK: You speak about the script in a way that sounds like it takes on a life of its own.

MCKENZIE: Yeah, it was a strange process. The separation between the film and my real life really started to break down at points and there was this eerie intersection. I lost a friend in a similar way as in the script. Things started to happen in real life that I had written and vice versa.

NOTEBOOK: Nessa is scared of separating from Blaise.

MCKENZIE: I think that’s a very common issue in situations of addiction or toxic relationships. I think they're just confounded when you're in an environment of isolation and I think about that, about Cape Breton, about how being on an island can maybe feel more vulnerable to those dynamics. They don’t have any balance and it’s scary to step away from each other. When you are in a situation without many opportunities you are prone to rely on things. She takes a job in an ice cream parlor and even just being exposed to the young women in that work environment and other lives starts to open things up and break down the myopic tunnel they’re in out of survival. She has to escape in small steps.

NOTEBOOK: When you’re writing are you already designing the film visually in your mind? You have such a precise formal approach and there are very striking symbols and objects throughout.

MCKENZIE: Yeah, and I struggle with the writing because I mostly think in images and patterns and the structure emerges. I always saw specific images: Nessa in the beginning getting a methadone dose from a partitioning window and a shot at the end that rhymes with that, the summit and the lawnmower, but then the shooting environment opens things up and new imagery presents itself. Things would speak to me while we were shooting: Nessa’s hair net at the ice cream parlor for example. Graphical elements would emerge that connected to the ideas of the film and when I’d see them I would just know. The shot of the cookie grinder gave me goosebumps when I saw it in the monitor, I knew it was a potent image. I would be compelled to film certain things and they felt charged with meaning.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the approach to style and composition? The formal abstraction feels really conceived but the world within the frame feels natural and spontaneous.

MCKENZIE: We had enough space on set to allow ourselves to be rigorous in formally designing the film but not in a way where we just executing a plan. For us there is such a blending of real life and fiction we can't predict to not let real life in and not let it seep in and in effect what we're doing and let it evolve. We worked with a really small team so that we could have more time and space on set to change and go in new directions but still be rigorous about it. I spent years writing the script and thinking about this subject matter and really lived with it. I had it in my body and mind so it made sense that when I was on set and we're in an environment and saw a certain image, like the back of a hair net, that I would know that I wanted this, a shot of that and knew what to respond to.

The visual style I had mapped out for the film revolved around what I was describing as poetic portraiture, thinking of it like a small rather than large canvas. I like to tell my story more with film language and visual elements and a system of understatement makes sense for me.

I really care about having a unified, organic, world and aesthetic and that means mastering the mise en scène and all those details. But when you don't have a lot of money and you only have a tiny crew you can't necessarily control things. Being selective in your environment is essential when you can’t construct everything. It's not like we can build a set or paint things or move certain things out of the frame. Our creativity is in being selective in what we decide to put the frame.  

We committed to singular takes from a singular vantage point on all of the scenes. And that is again, just a certain aesthetic that I like but is also being aware of the reality that we're going to be working with non-professional actors and that their strengths are going to be to respond to things in their own way and not overly prescribing that. So that meant that continuity is not going to be the priority at all. John Ford said that there's 100 places you can put the camera, but there's only one right place. Scott Moore, the DP, and I would not start shooting until we found a frame that felt like the right place. Sometimes we would take a long time and Scott or I would have a camera in our hands and we'd just be moving around the scene on the search for something that felt right. And sometimes it was unconventional.

NOTEBOOK: I like what you said before about being selective. I think when people might think of a low budget indie film being shot in a person's hometown they maybe make assumptions like, “they're just rolling a camera everywhere or whatever.” But there are very specific choices and you’re abstracting this environment. You could easily show a completely different version of the same place.  

MCKENZIE: I knew I wanted there to be a semblance between different worlds. The world of the pharmacy and the Methadone Clinic, between the machinery that dispenses doses of Methadone and in the ice cream parlor there are image I rely on with the style of filmmaking that I have to communicate a lot of what the film is about so it's really important that I find the right locations So it means just being a scavenger searching for all those textures that are already there and constructing around them.

NOTEBOOK: You often shoot in really tight on the actors, obscuring details.

MCKENZIE: I didn't expect the film to come out quite as claustrophobic. I knew that for the characters, the story I had written, my own feeling during the entire making of that film was one of feeling like I was on a short leash and that the characters were on a short leash. There's a point to which you have a very strong vision for the film and how it looks and feels. But there's a point when you're in the middle of that process that you're making so many each day that the overall makeup shifts when you actually get to the other side. The emotional logic of the film was very much about these two individuals and I wanted to be loyal to that. And so the idea of doing a shot reverse shot in a scene would just seem pointless.

NOTEBOOK: There isn’t a shortage of dramas about addiction or poverty that aim for a gritty naturalism, but to have this rigorous formal approach is rare. Those things usually don’t intersect.

MCKENZIE: Every scene we’d have a frame and a situation but literally I’d be looking at the monitor and then look up and see what's happening over to the left, at the house next door or people walk by in the street in the background or I see the young women working in the ice cream parlor and hear the way they talk to one another and we would adjust on the fly. People didn’t always know when we were shooting or had stopped shooting. We would shoot something how it was scripted, but sometimes I stopped yelling cut and let scenes run and that ended up in the film. I’d pull something off a wall that’s the wrong color or whisper during a shot to have someone move in or out of frame. Oftentimes we're putting Bhreagh and Andrew in these live environments and we're trying to make a movie without people realizing we’re making a movie.

NOTEBOOK: The strict parameters are very defined and you’re on the same page with a tightknit team and that allows you to let these variables enter and become part of the overall vision.

MCKENZIE: Absolutely, we started to develop these practices during the shoot, re-write scenes, work with people we met on location, be more liberal with running the camera. We hit this groove and it was mostly outspoken, and writing the film as it happened. I’d ask real people to enter scenes to say something to the characters. One time they were mowing lawns and while the camera was rolling I left the monitor, went to my car, got 20 dollars and asked this little boy to give the money to Blaise and Nessa and look at Scott and signal that was happening.

NOTEBOOK: You know what you want but follow your intuition to get there.

MCKENZIE: It seemed chaotic but we knew we were getting special things. It was like why are we using this backdoor way of like making a film and can we just make a film like normal people but no, we're not in a normal situation. We don't have all the resources, we're not working with professional actors.

NOTEBOOK: But then that begs the question that it would be very difficult to replicate this approach in different circumstances with more resources or a larger crew. Does that mean that you want to work on a similar scale or are you eager to adapt to different circumstances and make things in different ways?

MCKENZIE: There was no way he could've made it without shooting digital. I mean, unless we had a lot of money because we shot a hundred hours of footage over five weeks which is like an eighty to one shooting ratio. Every film has its own needs and requires a process that's very much catered to that project. I don't want to be doing the same thing over again because I think that means I'm probably not doing anything new. There's some continuity to my practice, some things will remain the same the way I see my next project in my mind is going to require different things. So much of the style is defined by what we had to work with.

NOTEBOOK: What do you want to do differently?

MCKENZIE: I'm really being pulled towards away from the elliptical style of filmmaking that I've been doing for awhile and so I know that's going to shape my needs and the process of shooting to some degree. I haven’t yet been able to build longer sequences that can expand and deepen. But there are lots of things we learned that we really want to hold onto.

NOTEBOOK: You started writing in 2012, shot in 2015, finished in 2016 and now it’s 2017.  It’s been a long journey.

MCKENZIE: When I was writing the script I kept including the hill where the characters had to push the lawnmower because I saw them trapped in this habitual cycle. I tried to figure out how do you find room for that and still find hope for agency and making things better. So I was building that in, but in this distant way where it hadn’t touched me, I didn’t recognize how personal it was but then as I kind of got lost in the film and got lost in my life, I sort of felt that same sense of being trapped.

It feels good to be on this side of it. There’s a Chantal Akerman interview where she says there's always a danger in creative pursuits or when we're passionate about something that we lose ourselves along the way. And I definitely lost myself in those years, which is really destabilizing. It's part of the process that you're going to get lost. Now I’ve come out of the film, I feel more grounded but am embarking on my next project and going down that road again. But it's kinda nice to feel a moment of repose.

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