Based on Jean Heglund's 1998 book of the same name, Into the Forest (2016) is the intense, beautifully shot story of two sisters (Ellen Page; Evan Rachel Wood) and their struggle to survive in a remote country house after a continent-wide power outage. This gripping apocalyptic drama was directed by one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers, Patricia Rozema. Rozema's body of work includes I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), When Night Is Falling (1995), Mansfield Park (1999) and Grey Gardens (2009). Into the Forest premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was announced as part of TIFF’s annual Canada Top Ten screening series of the ten best Canadian films of the year.
ScreenPrism caught up with Rozema to talk about her experience directing Into the Forest and her desire to tell the stories of strong, complex women.
ScreenPrism: How did Into the Forest come to you?
Patricia Rozema: Ellen Page read the book, and we'd talked about working on something, a much larger project. Through the course of that, we discovered we both had a similar aesthetic for In the Forest and way of working in the world, so she suggested I read it, and I loved it. I thought there was something very simple and powerful about it and that it really reflects our times. It connects to a lot of people's worries and denial about what's happening in the world. And off we went.
SP: I think that's what made it so disturbing and effective.
PR: That’s the thing. So many of these end of time/end of the world movies are so fantastical that it’s actually comforting because they don’t seem like they would happen – aliens or asteroids – so you can leave the movie and say, "Oh, that won't happen." With this one, I feel like you actually could experience this. How would you deal with it? I was taking to my twelve-year-old daughter about it, and I was saying, "Well, maybe we don’t think we need the things we think we need." And she said, "Says the one who needs the new iPhone the minute it comes out!" I'm as dependent on technology as anyone.
It wouldn’t take much for us to be running around looking for each other. Those apocalypse movies always have people running around looking for their loved ones.
SP: In this film the apocalyptic trigger wasn't an invasion or something earth-shattering. It's as simple as losing power and communication.
PR: Right – we'd only have batteries or gas for a very short while, and then what? The very prepared might have a generator, but if you don't and have no gas, then good luck! I loved this idea that we all would say, "Well, it will be better any minute. Any minute, any minute, any minute." And then it isn't. I think that is what would happen if we lost power and communication.
SP: It makes you think about our families being spread out in different states or countries. If something happened, you might think, "How would I get to them?" It’s a scary thought.
PR: That fear is a good starting place for telling a story about family, how much it matters to us, and the way we cling to our plans. Nell and Eva are still dancing and studying for the SATs, even when the world has told them that it isn't going to work. Learning how to give up on the plans we have and learning how to adapt to a new reality is what this film is about.
SP: I think it showed that they needed to hold onto some part of their old lives.
PR: Yes, and the comfort in doing that.
SP: Where did you film?
PR: British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. The book is set in northern California, so nothing that happens couldn't happen there. It started out as an American independent film, but it turned out that we could get more money to make it in Canada and more time to craft it more lovingly. So we made it in Canada. Ellen is a producer on it, and so she was more involved in things like calling up Evan Rachel Wood to see if she was interested. I highly recommend having an actor as a producer if you can; it was helpful in getting things done. Casting is one of the most difficult parts of the process because of the barricades around these stars.
SP: When I saw that Callum Keith Rennie was involved – I'm familiar with him from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003 - 2009) and the X-Files movie I Want to Believe (2008) – I found it refreshing to see him as the father and not as the bad guy.
PR: I had actually cast him as the bad guy, as the rapist. I had another star as the dad, and he couldn’t do it, but the way Callum spoke about the father's character, I thought he really got it. He's such a consummate actor that I said, "Let's go with it." He really understands how this father was showing love for his girls. I have a great dad, so that was sort of my homage to great dads.
SP: I was not expecting what happened – chopping down a tree and then blood everywhere! It was a shocking moment. I liked that I couldn't predict where the movie was going.
PR: You probably knew that the bad guy was going to be bad, though.
SP: Yes, although I was taken aback when he showed up. He had no backpack, he had no transportation, he was wearing two different shoes – he just came out of the forest, raped her, and disappeared back into the forest.
PR: He's a nutbar! I think he represented the type of unstable person who is a great danger when there is no structure to society anymore. Lots of people are kept in control by social structure, but once that is gone it unleashes something. A mad dog roaming the planet.
SP: That scene was very brutal.
PR: I thought very long and hard about how to portray that responsibly. There are so many images of women being humiliated in so many movies, and we just accept it. And I didn't want to contribute to that. But I wanted to make it very, very tough. I just said, focus on her, stay on her.
SP: It is great to hear you say that, because I took issue with the rape scenes portrayed in Game of Thrones (2011 - ) last season. They had a rape scene that focused on the male spectator and not the woman being raped. It was pretty upsetting.
PR: There has been a lot of discussion about that. I think that you have to stay on the one who suffers; that is the most just thing you can do. In any kind of portrayal of injustice, stay on the one who suffers.
SP: You directed Mansfield Park and wrote Grey Gardens. You have a history of telling women's stories.
PR: It is not a surprise that people tend to gravitate to stories of their own gender. Men certainly do it. It is just so rare in our culture, western culture, to have two female leads. No man has ever stood in front of an audience after the screening of their movie and had people say, "Hmm, two male leads! How did you feel about that? Why did you want to do it?" It is just inconceivable to have two women, however. So I guess I'm just trying to rebalance history ever so slightly. It always makes me think, why do we even have to do gender at all? Male or female, there is this gender allegiance that isn't always fair. So I want to do complex, interesting female characters. I mean, why not?
SP: The film features some powerful dance routines. Do you have any experience with modern dance?
PR: Thank you for noticing that! I am just an admirer. I am a very big fan of modern dance. The choreographer, Crystal Pite, she recently won an Olivier Award [for Outstanding Achievement in Dance] and is at the heart of serious contemporary dance. We just saw eye to eye. She wanted something very visceral and animal, and once the music was taken away she made it kind of angular and harsh. When the music came back, she gave it soul and made it flow again. She crafted a routine for Evan Rachel Wood's character, who speaks through dance. She doesn't talk that much; she is a little inaccessible that way.
SP: Ellen Page's character struggles to communicate with her.
PR: When Evan Rachel Wood wanted to use the gas to play music to dance, I wanted the viewer to think she was nuts! But later, after she is damaged and they are lonely, I wanted the viewer to be happy that they are using the gas. To me, it is what makes art so valuable.
SP: I just attended a UN panel on that very topic: the role of the arts in creating awareness. Film is a medium that can communicate so much, often in ways that published studies and news cannot.
PR: I couldn't agree more, of course. I also think that we have to be careful not to just move on to the next movie, the next thing, so we can make a difference. We have to put our money where our mouth is. It has to be followed up with action.
SP: Is there anything else you'd like to share about the film?
PR: Well, Ellen has famously come out and has done so much for the LGBT community, but it is also important that someone gay can play someone straight, as she does in the movie. That is another step, or an unconscious bias, that the industry has. Otherwise, she worried it would limit her career. Openly gay actors can struggle with being seen as being able to portray straight characters. We applaud the so-called bravery of coming out, but then we can't limit them in their roles.
SP: I found Ellen's coming out speech incredibly moving. My brother is gay, and he was so worried about telling people, so it felt close to home when I watched it. I admire her so much.
PR: After that speech, I saw her blossom. I just saw her open up and breathe. She was terrified beforehand. That wave of love she got from the world was overwhelming for her. She thought it was going to be the end of her career.
SP: It's understandable that she was worried about that, but her previous work speaks for itself. She's so talented, and your sexual orientation shouldn't matter when you're being considered for roles.
PR: No, it shouldn't!
Into the Forest will be released nationwide July 22, 2016.