WITH THE MAKERS OF ASHGROVE
Ashgrove follows a scientist who is battling against the clock to solve a world-wide water pandemic while struggling to save a marriage in crisis.
The morning before their World Premiere in Glasgow, I caught up with Jeremy LaLonde (Director, Producer, Writer), Jonas Chernick (Producer, Writer, Actor), Amanda Brugel (Writer, Lead Actress) and Natalie Brown (Actress) as they talked me through their fascinating process crafting the scarily familiar dystopian world of Ashgrove.
Jeremy and Jonas you were here two years ago with your film James vs His Future Self. Why did you decide to return to Glasgow for the world premiere of Ashgrove?
Jonas Chernick: As we were flying back from Glasgow two years ago were kind of just in a daze with how amazing the city was, and the festival and the people, and we just said to each other if we ever have another chance to make another show lets target it and try to build our rollout around Glasgow. At the time we were in pre-production for Ashgrove so we were already thinking about it, so it worked out beautifully for the film and they welcomed us with open arms.
This is a very different film to James vs His Future Self. What made you decide to go down the drama/thriller route for this film?
Jeremy Lalonde: Jonas and I, in the Fall of 2019, we were travelling between different festivals in Canada and we started talking about what we would do if we were to make another film together. We are both very comfortable doing comedy, that’s kind of what we’re known for, and I kind of said ‘that’s interesting, we’ve done that and it’s not as much of a challenge so what can we do that would be a challenge and kind of be scary in a way but equally exciting and rewarding?’ So that was the challenge we started off with and so I asked Jonas, what would you like to do? How would you want to work?
JC: So then as an actor/writer I was like ‘Oh we should just do a two-hander. Just two actors, one location and just dig in and be really raw and honest, like a Scenes from a Marriage kind of drama, and really investigate these characters really intensely.’ I got really excited.
JL: And I said, ‘that sounds like a really boring play! But I am interested in the concept if we make the stakes the end of the world.’ If we went really big with that and that would be the hook. And Jonas was like, that’s not what I’m going for!
JC: Yeah I was like that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about. But then of course Jeremy is very convincing and very bright and when we got into it I realised what he was saying. No that is what the movie is about. (The pandemic) is outside and you don’t see it.
JL: It’s a metaphor.
JC: It’s a metaphor. This idea that water, this thing that we need as humanity to survive, is the very thing that becomes toxic to us, that’s killing us. And we love the metaphor of love and relationships and toxicity being tied in. That was the springboard of how we go to this idea.
There’s that parallel of the macro level and the micro level crisis
JL: Yeah! And Me and Jonas tend to work our scripts to the bone and in depth. We’re really anal as writers. And I was like I don’t want to do that this time. We’ve both made five or more films independently or together. We know how to do structure, we understand story to our core. Let’s throw that away and just embrace and kind of build something as we go. We’ll work the character, we’ll come up with the story, and build an outline but we’re going to give ourselves freedom to change and pivot as we go. So, we made a very short list of characters we think it would be interesting to play with in this world, but with this idea we are going to try and shoot the film chronologically, build a lot of it but also leave some room for some surprises. We knew we needed someone to play opposite Jonas, Amanda was the first person on the list.
There’s quite the sense of the paranoia which builds throughout the film. Did you feel it at all on set?
Amanda Brugel: All the time! All the time. Jeremy was interesting. I had worked with Jeremy before and he didn’t do this on the comedy we worked on years ago (Sex After Kids, 2013) but he had different hand signals for each cast member. Still to this day I don’t know what they meant! But it would change the way that the scene felt, it would change the tone, it would change the pace sometimes. So, he would give a hand signal to someone and I knew something was coming but I didn’t know what. I keep saying it’s the thing that has ruined working on other projects for me because it was scary at the time but it forced me to be present and it forced me to really be truthful in my responses and present and listening. It was scary and I had to let go of a lot of control. At the same time that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s the job. And sometimes you get tired, complacent or lazy. I was never complacent. I was always present. Almost too involved. I just didn’t know who or what was going to come through the door and yeah that’s exciting.
So that means there must have been quite a bit of improvisation.
JC: Well yeah, Jeremy knew exactly where the story was going to go and where the story points. There were times where we would just go off script and try the scenes in a different way. In particular with Amanda’s character there were secrets that were being kept from her character and so Jeremy was able to structure the shoot in such a way that secrets were also kept from Amanda the actor. So the paranoia you’re feeling is real as we move through this weekend Amanda is becoming acutely aware there’s something going on that she doesn’t understand and as her character. And so there are revelations that happen in the movie that we won’t talk about because we don’t want to spoil it! But they become revelations for Amanda as well.
AB: Yes because we shot chronologically we were able to do that. We wouldn’t have been able to do that had we not shot that way.
So, you’re kind of with the audience in that you didn’t really know how some things would play out?
AB: Well we did develop these characters together and the story together, it’s just there were moments I was thrown twists. For example, the game scene.
JC: Yes, the game scene. The ‘How well do you know your spouse game.’
AB: We all filled out those answers as our characters and exchanged the responses, or so i thought! I didn’t realise that Jeremy messed with us a bit and withheld some of the answers or switched them up on us.
JL: Yeah well, the trick for me with that game was the actors filled out the answers as their characters. So I took all that information and I made a little chart and I emailed them all back and I said ‘thank you all very much for your interest. Here’s all the answers that you know about the other characters.’ I didn’t say here are the right answers. So, when we played the game, Amanda for example, had a list of answers for all of Jonas’ questions but they weren’t all right. And part of that is the fact that they’ve been kind of estranged from each other for the last year or so and so some of these answers have changed. But she goes into that very confidently thinking she knows who her spouse is and has to realise during the game, ‘Oh I don’t.’ But there’s also that sense of shame or guilt or frustration that came out..
JL: Embarrassment. From going, ‘I thought I knew.’ And like Amanda says, you feel so present and there’s something so deliciously awkward and wonderful about that scene because I think the actors leaned into those feelings and that emotion of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing her and I thought I did.’ I think the one time the actors stopped, I think they had something to memorise in the script. They had to slowly realise it was being pulled from beneath them.
(To Natalie and Jonas) And did you guys feel that similar sense of paranoia?
Natalie Brown: Not to anywhere near the extent that Amanda did. But still sort of not always knowing where everything was going to go. There ultimately had to be a lot of trust beneath that. We had a safety net. So it was actually pretty fun to know you had a wizard behind the curtain (gestures to Jeremy) who knows exactly what’s happening. But Jeremy also, depending on how the scene would go, would sometimes reconsider, like ‘I thought it was going to go this way’ but then something was discovered in the scene and it gave him new ideas. Which left you questioning even more which way things were going to go! But ultimately it was one of the best experiences I’ve had on a set and kind of ruins you going forward as Amanda said. You actually have more say in your character and are involved in the development of the character. I actually had more input in other ways even though I had a lot less control.
And it gives you a lot more freedom to explore the character
AB: Yes! And who doesn’t want that? Freedom can be equally exhilarating and terrifying.
So, Amanda was saying the three of you developed the character (of Jennifer) together. What did that process look like?
JC: Jeremy really came up with just the basic structure for the story but we didn’t build the characters until Amanda came on. Then we built these characters independently with Jeremy and figured out the back stories and histories. Then we went together and we worked out over the course of many many months what the history and backstory was of this married couple. We tracked, how did they meet, what sort of relationship they have. We had all this backstory and then when Natalie was brought on. We offered her this part and we didn’t really know yet what the character was all about.
JL: Yeah we knew the function of her character and Shawn Doyle’s character, but I’m like who do you think she is? And so Natalie brought a lot to it.
NB: You had a lot of great ideas and I just really liked them. You said you can change the character name and I said ‘I really like Sam.’ You said ‘I kind of like the craft beer world’ and I said ‘So do I!’ And a Cicero is a type of craft beer connoisseur, and it’s something that’s really difficult to become. And it was really interesting the parallels, despite the movie being about a pandemic, you conceived it pre-pandemic. But being rendered useless in a pandemic, having been an actor who suddenly had no acting to be done. And you know this is a threat about a water crisis and water toxicity and my character works in a beverage business and suddenly I’m rendered useless and how do you navigate that? You know because my character’s husband (Elliott played by Shawn Doyle) and Amanda’s character, the fate of the world rests on their shoulders, whereas you and I (gesturing to Jonas) were left to figure out well what is our role in all of this? There were just so many parallels and the pandemic shone a light on the cracks in so many relationships, as did this one. So I think the parallels are very uncanny.
JC: The collaborative nature of figuring this whole world out and figuring these characters out was really exciting. And that’s what Jeremy was saying, from the very beginning we wanted to try to make a film and write a film in a way that we had never done before. For us it was really like the Wild West, where there were no rules, no right and wrong. We were just trusting in the process.
JL: But then honestly we just really dug in with the three of us with the relationship. We were like what are we most ashamed of in our own relationships? What are the things that are hard for us? Because that’s where the best stuff is. Like when you dig into your own shit.
AB: It almost became like therapy sessions because we started before Covid which started in…
JC: March. We’d already been working on it for about 5 months.
AB: And so in those moments when we were rendered useless, at the time it was almost like therapy for the three of us to really become quite candid and transparent and vulnerable about our personal relationships and how much that bled into what you see and the relationships between all of the characters.
You all have a wonderful chemistry on screen, which was probably fostered by that candidness. Did you also spend a lot of time together on set?
JC: No really
AB: Well we could only be together.
JC: That’s true. You’re right, we had all been in our homes for five or six months and so this was the first time we had any human interaction. Which was great. I’m sure you can remember when it was like when you first exchanged with people again? But also we all know each other.
JL: There’s a shorthand there.
JC: There’s a shorthand there. Including Shawn. All the actors in the film. We had all either worked together or travelled together at festivals or knew each other from the industry so there was a closeness there.
You’ve made a film about a fictional pandemic during a real life pandemic. To what extent did the real life events impact the film from the production side to your individual performances?
JL: What was really fascinating for us was like the little details that we wanted to try and sneak in. Like we knew all the big stuff, but what are the little weird ways our day to day has changed. We all wear masks, we put hand sanitiser on all the time. What does this look like in a world where you are limited in how much water you can drink? We all have our own custom water bottles, we measure them, we are probably constantly putting on hand sanitiser, lip balm or moisturiser. We never wanted to hang a lantern on it or really point it out. There’s a lot of small little moments like that where the characters are constantly doing those small things. What are the ways we can normalise it? Like Amanda wakes up one morning and breathes into a little app, just like how you might wake up and take your morning pills or step on the scale.
AB: Or do an antigen test.
JL: Right. We didn’t want to do it like “Oh I’ll be right down I’m just doing my CO2 test.” It was ways we could do it simply. Like how Jonas leaves a cup of coffee and says this is totally worth two ounces of water. It’s like a little love note.
JC: It was weird that we were coming up with these things before the world had found these things naturally through COVID. It’s interesting looking back and reflecting on it. Now there’s all these things we all take for granted whether it’s pulling a mask out of your pocket when you walk into a space or doing that test in the morning. It’s just second nature. But we were coming up with these before any of that was ever a thing.
JL: The parallels were surreal. I suppose it also adds that layer of authenticity. At least we hope.
JC: Yeah it just felt like it was interesting timing to make a film about a global crisis affecting our health.
The film centres around a scientist who is battling to find a cure for this worldwide crisis. How did you create the crisis so convincingly? Do any of you have any scientific background or where did you go for research?
JL: Was it convincing? Oh good!
JC: We had several consultants who worked with us. We had a water scientist and a chemistry consultant. The science behind the crisis, it would bore you to tears, but we actually understand molecularly what’s happening and we just didn’t put it in the movie because it didn’t fit.
JL: Yeah, Jonas and I aren’t very smart.
AB: You played a quantum physicist in your last movie!
JL: Same as with James (and his Future Self), we’re not that smart and we realised that and we’re ok with that, but we know what we want it to do for the movie. So, we come up with a big idea and then we try to find smart people to let us know where it doesn’t make sense and how to make it make sense. So we are very humble about going out and trying to find the best consultants we can that kind of get excited about working on a project like this, because it’s not normally what they get to do. It’s a way they don’t usually get to stretch their brain. We say ‘this is what we want to do, does this make sense, if not how can we make it make sense?’ So just like the time travel for James vs His Future Self. And they give us ideas we didn’t even think about. Like Shaun Doyle’s character is a different kind of scientist to Amanda’s so we found a different person for him to talk to and realised that his character would be more like an Indiana Jones type, where he’d live on top of mountains and collect samples there. But when I first started thinking about that character I had him as more of an academic. So, shifting that character that way all came from the research and the conversations Shaun had with his consultant. That’s kind of nerdy fun for us. We just try to put enough of it into the movie so that the audience can relate to it and understand it but not so much they can either start picking holes in it or just going I’m bored, I don’t need to know this.
JC: It’s a fine line.
JL: We just use enough of that stuff to trick people into getting hooked.
JC: You want to get the feeling that you’re in good hands and that your storytellers know what they are talking about, but at the same time you don’t want to much of it. So its a bit of a push and pull. It’s not about that it’s about the characters.
JL: It’s enough to make someone lean in but not so much that they are going “wait a minute…”
So what’s next for Ashgrove? Are you guys going to be doing the festival circuit?
JL: Yeah, so we’re just starting. Glasgow we’re so lucky to have this as our world premiere. We’re so happy that Jonas and I are returning and Amanda and Natalie are here for the first time. We have our Canadian premiere at the Canadian Film Fest and then we have a US premiere lined up but we aren’t allowed to mention it yet?
JC: Yes we have a US premiere coming up in April and it’s rolling out around the world and we will have other festivals and it will play theatrically in Canada and on television. We have all those deals set up and ready to go. So this is going to be a big year for the movie. It’s the beginning of a long, delightful journey.
And what are you guys working on at the minute? What do you have coming up next?
AB: The fifth season of the Handmaid’s Tale and then I just did a film with Brandon Cronenberg and Alexander Skarsgaard called Infinity Pool that’s coming out this year.
JC: I have a film that I shot in January, that I wrote and act in, called ‘The End of Sex’ which is a romantic comedy about what happens to our sex life when we are married and have kids. Which sounds a lot like a movie you guys made (gestures to Jeremy and Amanda) but it’s not! But yeah that’s coming out later this year.
JL: Just a couple of months after we shot Ashgrove I was whisked away to the Cayman Islands and I made a very different movie that’s more of a comedic thriller called ‘Daniel’s Gotta Die.’ It’s gonna be coming out sometime this year as well. They’re just starting to figure out the festival plan for it but it will be on the tail end of Ashgrove. It’ll be a second tier festival tour for me I’m sure.
NB: A horror movie. Not my favourite genre, but one I can’t seem to stop working in! It’s called ‘The Breach’ with Allan Hawko and executive produced and scored by Slash.
JC: Slash from Guns and Roses!
NB: Yes! He’s huge into the horror genre. I still don’t know when it’s coming out but it’ll be soon.
JC: So lot’s coming!