Interview – Penelope Buitenhuis, director of A Wake
– by Clinton Hallahan
A cross between the 2009 dark comedy 44 Inch Chest and an alternate reality Royal Tenenbaums, Penelope Buitenhuis’s A Wake is one of the more daring Canadian film productions of the last decade.
Eschewing hockey musicals for real drama and acting talent, A Wake tells the story of a tight knit group of theatre types and the effect the life – and death – of director Gabor Zazlov had and has on them. It’s a high-strung family reunion that rides high on some stellar performances and a few key third-act twists, one of which is that the dialogue is entirely improvised.
On the eve of the film’s April 29 Vancouver release, Buitenhuis talked improv and backstage drama with Guttersnipe. She will also be on hand to answer audience questions at the 7:10 and 9:15 screenings of A Wake April 29 and 30 and May 1 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver.
Clinton Hallahan: The dialogue in this film is completely improvised? What was the motivation behind using this technique?
Penelope Buitenhuis: I had done a show called Train 48 that aired on Global for a few years and it was this remarkable show that aired the same day it was shot. I did, like, a hundred episodes, and it was a daily show. I just loved all the gems and the creative stuff that came out of it and the realness of it. That rawness of what life is, just in the moment, is what improv brings. That intensity and wittiness that happens when you’re in the moment. I think I wanted that reality.
CH: What kind of directorial challenges crop up with that lack of predictability?
PB: One of the tendencies in improv is that people talk a lot. For me, what I believe about humans is that they actually don’t always say what they think, that they actually keep a lot back, so I was a lot more interested in what wasn’t being said. The story is a lot about secrets and things you don’t know, I didn’t want to give a lot away all the time. It was about trying to be honest about how humans are.
CH: Would you do another film in the same vein?
PB: It’s a real challenge to get funding for this kind of movie because people don’t know exactly what it will turn out to be like with no dialogue. They’re not used to that. The only reason that Telefilm let me do this was because they knew I had done Train 48 and had confidence that I had experience in directing it. But it was also a low-budget movie with not a lot at stake.
CH: The heightened emotion of a passing and a wake seems like something that could easily ring false. How much of your inspiration for A Wake came from past experiences?
PB: Yeah, my father and my mother both died within three months, so before I had started writing that film I spent a lot of time around death. I think when people are faced with someone passing they are more truthful with themselves. I think in a way I wanted a story that had high stakes in terms of “We’re all mortal; what does that mean?” Whereas if it were just a birthday party it’s not as important.
CH: This film focuses on a ton of backstage drama among people involved in the dramatic arts, which seems to be a pervasive stereotype. Have any of your productions suffered any of this intense drama backstage?
PB: I wrote this with Krista Sutton and she was a theatre actress and had worked with a German director who was super intense. Everybody loved him but he was very demanding. So a lot of this story was based on what she had experienced, which was almost this cultishness in terms of how much people almost revere a director and are scared by a director. So she brought in a lot of that content.
In terms of my productions? You know, actors are very sensitive beings. I think crews forget that they’re the ones putting their face forward and their life forward on screen, so there’s always drama with actors because they have to be vulnerable. I do lots of scenes where actors break down. There’s always such personal stuff that gets in the way of acting.