Anna sits down with writer, producer and star of Canadian drama Ashgrove, Jonas Chernick to discuss the creative process, the film’s premiere and its messaging.
The Glasgow Guardian was lucky enough to be invited to the Glasgow Film Festival’s Industry Hub to interview the cast of Ashgrove, the latest project of Canadian filmmakers Jeremy LaLonde and Jonas Chernick, following their world premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Ashgrove takes place during a health crisis affecting the world’s water supply, with The Handmaid’s Tale star Amanda Brugel taking the role of Jennifer Ashgrove, a leading scientist in search of a cure. In an attempt to clear her mind amidst the chaos, she and her husband retreat to the countryside. However, tranquillity does not last long between the couple as Ashgrove begins to suspect her husband is hiding things from her.
The Glasgow Guardian: I was surprised to find out that this film was conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic started, when I was given the pitch I kind of thought “oh, it’s a pandemic film, it must’ve been inspired by Covid-19”. So, can you talk a bit about the actual inspiration?
Jonas Chernick: Sure, yeah. It was four months before [the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic] – September 2019. My co-writer, Jeremy LaLonde and I were driving from one city we had a film festival in, to another. In the car we said “let’s challenge ourselves” to do something totally different for our next film – outside of the box, unlike anything we’ve done before… and we came up with this! I wanted to do a chamber piece, an intimate story about a relationship.
GG: That’s something I really wanted to talk about. For the duration of Covid-19, we’ve obviously experienced a lot of our relationships being challenged. Although we’ve established the film isn’t based on the current pandemic, do you think the relationship depicted in the film could be illustrative of the issues that, globally, people faced in their relationships during lockdown?
JC: Accidentally! We came up with this idea of a relationship in crisis and then Jeremy, who always has big ideas, said he was only interested in telling that story if the world is ending outside… So we started to figure out, what does that look like for us? That’s when we came up with the idea of this water crisis – we didn’t use the word “pandemic”.
GG: Yeah! That’s interesting because I noticed the word “pandemic” is really being used in the marketing (now).
JC: Right! Which I don’t like, I don’t want it in the marketing… because I don’t want to see a “pandemic movie”!
GG: Do you think that the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that you have to do a bit more to ‘sell’ the film?
JC: Yeah, yeah. There has to be something else about the movie, which is why we’ve focused on other things. It’s surprising, twisty, turny… It has really heartfelt, intense performances. The crisis in the movie is in the background. You never see anybody sick… you don’t really see a health crisis.
GG: I was definitely expecting a crisis on a large scale, but it’s very much an intimate film. Another thing I was going to ask you about is the score. Again, when you think of a “crisis movie”, you expect a sort of thriller-esque soundtrack. However, Ashgrove’s soundtrack was so calm. I wasn’t familiar with the artist…
JC: The composer’s name is Ian Lefeurve, he was actually nominated for a Canadian Academy Award for our last film. We invited him to really be creative with the music… Amanda saw the film along with the soundtrack for the first time at our world premiere the other night! We kept telling her the music is not what you’re expecting.
GG: (to Amanda Brugel and Natalie Brown) So, what inspired you two to become involved in the project? Were you approached?
Amanda Brugel: Jeremy and Jonas approached me, this was before anything was really set in stone for our characters. We really developed the characters together, and our backstories.
GG: Did you find it easy to slot into the world that Jonas and Amanda had already began creating?
Natalie Brown: I did, because I’ve known Amanda for a long time, and I’d worked with Jeremy and Jonas before. It took a lot of pressure off. This was a chance to really dive in with people I really admire, a chance to explore and play.
GG: You definitely all know each other well! It seems like the film was made by a genuine group of friends, which is really cool. It doesn’t eliminate potential on-set challenges though, did any arise?
JC: No, no. I think I’m right in saying that you definitely want to work with your friends [in the film industry].
GG: I didn’t realise how much improvisation techniques were used in the writing and production. How was it for you acting out the words you’d written for yourself in the screenplay?
JC: There was a lot of freedom. Normally as an actor you read a script, and learn it word for word. We were experimenting, trying to find out what would happen if you didn’t know exactly what was going to be said. So, we would play the scenes out in experimental, exploratory ways. We actually kept secrets from Amanda…
GG: In real life?
JC: In real life! That way we could really see her react. So, many times in the movie when we see Jennifer Ashgrove reacting, responding, confused or questioning – that’s as much Amanda Brugel as it is the character.
GG: I love that. So how did you manage to actually wrap the film up, given the production style?
JC: Well, the key thing to understand is that Jeremy knew the bigger picture, he knew the ending, and he knew how the characters’ stories would come together.
GG: In terms of production, how was that impacted by Covid-19?
AB: Production began right after the initial lockdown ended, so this was the first time we were all coming together outside of our own homes, really. We lived together and quarantined in a hotel together. The filming took place on a farm which was owned by a member of the director’s family, and we were in there with a very small, skeleton, crew. After a day on set, it felt completely normal again.
GG: What about funding?
JC: There were private investors, we also received funding from the Canada Media Fund. We also found an amazing partner called Hollywood Suite, a Canadian TV channel who believed in this idea so much that all we had to do was pitch them the basic idea, and tell them the film’s big twist. That’s the first time in my career that anyone has invested money in a project that was really just an idea. Usually they want to see a script, some evidence. We just said “you have to trust us”, and they did! It certainly didn’t hurt that Amanda is a superstar in Canada.
GG: That’s interesting. So why was the world premiere in Glasgow rather than Toronto?
JC: The reason we had it in Glasgow is that Jeremy and I were here with our last film a few years ago, the last in-person GFF. We loved it! We loved the city, we loved the festival. I thought the festival had very good taste – obviously! We left and said to ourselves “imagine we had a chance to premiere a film here”, so we already had it in our sights.
GG: That’s so nice. I think the atmosphere of the GFF really suits the intimacy of Ashgrove.
JC: It was nice to be able to have the event in person and see the film for the first time in the cinema – maybe the only time, who knows?!
GG: (to Amanda and Natalie) Is it your first time in Glasgow or have you visited before? Have you had much time to look around?
NB: It’s our first visit! It’s my first visit to the UK, I’m embarrassed to say. We’ve done a lot of press for the GFF but we went to Edinburgh yesterday – what a day we had! And I didn’t realise that the motto for Glasgow is “People Make Glasgow” and I get it.
GG: Well that’s lovely, I’m glad you’ve had enough free time to see a bit of Scotland. Do you think you’ll be back?
NB: I hope so.
AB: It would be great to come back and do the things we haven’t had a chance to do, since we leave tomorrow morning.
GG: We’re nearly out of time, but is there anything you’d really like to push in the last couple of minutes?
JC: I mean, stay tuned. Ashgrove could potentially, and hopefully will, become available in the UK. GG: I hope so! Thank you so much for your time, it was lovely to meet you all.