April 5, 2012 | By

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Back in 1990, Darrell Wasyk made H, what could be called an ‘ultra low budget’ film for $20,000, shot on 16mm film and starring two people. The indie character piece earned critical praise, was picked up for distribution by Alliance in Canada, and won a Genie Award for Best Actress (Pascale Montpetit), and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Wasyk followed up with Mustard Bath (1993) starring Michael Riley and Martha Henry (Dancing in the Dark [M]), and then directed 5 episodes of TV’s The Hunger. The Girl in the White Coat [M] (2011) marks Wasyk’s return to feature filmmaking after 18 years, and reunites the filmic collaboration between the director and Montpetit.

In our discussion we touch upon translating Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” to contemporary Montreal, and H – a film that’s virtually vanished from distribution, but may soon emerge on DVD after its home video debut 22 years ago.









Mark R. Hasan: What attracted you to the Nikolai Gogol story?

Darrell Wasyk: I guess my whole interest in human nature sort of attracted me to his short story of “Diary of a Madman,” and after [that] I fell in love with his writing, and I started reading things like “The Nose,” and eventually I got to “The Overcoat,” and then I sort of put it away for a while, not really thinking of adapting it; just reading it for my own pleasure.

One day I picked up “The Overcoat” again and re-read it, and for some reason the character read to me as though it would be an interesting character for Pascal Montpetit and I to work on, even though the lead character is a male character. Just the sensitivity of the man and the whole sort of element of the Italian neo-classics: just a simple story told very simply, almost like a fable.

For some reason I just saw Pascale playing the part very clearly [and] doing a film version of it. Of course, there’s not enough material in the short story for her to play a feature film in, so I had to take great liberties and add parts to it and change different elements to make it relevant today. That’s why I don’t say it’s an adaptation; it was more ‘inspired by.’

MRH: I like some of the references you made to the original story, such as the character’s obsessiveness with paper stock, her meticulousness (fussing over the coin box, being highly protective of a disintegrating coat), and an allusion to the Russian setting by giving her a Russian landlord.

DW: I wanted to remain as faithful as I could, but at the same time I needed to take great liberties, so to be safe, I wanted to call it an inspiration.

MRH: Was this a more difficult film for you to write than your other two films, H (1990) and Mustard Bath (1993)?

DW: Mustard Bath was more difficult to write. H was probably the easiest to write, just because it was ready to come out of me. I sat down and wrote H in two weeks [and] shot it in two weeks; actually, I shot The Girl in the White Coat in two weeks. Mustard Bath had of course many characters, and you’re following many more plot lines, whereas in H we were dealing with two characters in one room, and in Girl in the White Coat we were basically dealing with one character who is very isolated, so [those two] were easier to focus on.

MRH: The sense of isolation in Pascale’s character is incredibly deep in the film, but there are things in your script that give us some psychological background which helps explain why she is such an introvert. One major clue comes up in her conversation in the coffee shop with the artists / prostitute / hustler and recalls the family farm she and her father lost. There’s also the coffee shop scene where he coat gets stolen, and we see how ill at ease she is around people.

DW: In the original story there’s a lot of political referencing to the time period, and I had to justify and come up with some other reason why she couldn’t afford to go out and purchase another coat. After my research, though, I actually ended up going into places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and found that you couldn’t buy a woman’s winter coat for under $50, which shocked the Hell out of me. I’m sure there are outlet stores where you can find something that’s suitable, but I needed something more for her to go to such lengths to get the coat back; there had to be a sentimental connection, so I tied that in with the father and the need to keep this particular coat, and also the reason why she was struggling financially on minimum wage. A lot of people who read the script felt that people don’t struggle so much, and I disagree with that.

MRH: No, I think it was quite true in showing people saving as much as they can to economize. It’s no different than turning down the thermostat and for months sleeping in a coat. I think almost everyone (myself included) has gone to extremes to either stay warm, spread out the food budget, or do whatever you can to get by because minimum wage is never enough to survive on, so to myself, her extremes come off as very truthful.

DW: A lot of her money went into protecting and giving her father the lifestyle outside of the institution, which here in Quebec aren’t the greatest. We shot in an actual home, and it was fairly expensive, and I was shocked that the amount it cost to put one of your relatives… can get quite expensive, so every penny that she had would end up going to pay for the comfort of her father.

That also showed the side of how big her heart was, and is: that she would put other peoples’ needs first before her own, and by doing that, that sort of justified and earned me the right to be able to make it plausible that she would get up at 11 o’clock in the middle of the night and travel probably not as far as she thought she was going to go. (She ended up going way out to the outsides of the city.) [After she steals a coat from someone] I needed for her to deliver the coat to the rightful owner…She needed to correct her wrong, because that was the kind of person that she was.

MRH: How much did you work with Pascale in terms of developing the character, because I found her performance to be very nuanced. There’s so much going in her face and behind her eyes that it really helps the character.

DW: Well, Pascale and I have known each other for twenty years… When we started working on Girl in the White Coat it became very easy to communicate to her in just a few simple words or a very simple direction, and she knew exactly what the character was going through, and what she needed to do… We both understood the character so well that if she was ever to go beyond the character’s believability I would be able to pull it back, and if something was too obvious I could easily pull that back and ask her to make it more internal so that a lot of it happened like you said behind the eyes, so you could see the subtext.

I was a bit worried at first because she had done a lot of theatre and a lot of television just prior to working on the film, and a lot of that work was very external. We had a week of rehearsal, and… she quickly fell into the quiet subtext of the character. She really understood the character so well that we were able to create [Elise] fairly easily, because of our working relationship in the past.

MRH: Was this film more difficult to make than your prior two, because there are inherent problems in getting financing and a distributor in Canada.

Certainly one of the things I notice in reviewing films on home video is a film will come out theatrically, and then completely disappears save for periodic appearances on television. Neither H or Mustard Bath are currently available on DVD and / or are very hard to track down, and I wonder, knowing what can happen to a film after its been released, does that make it harder to find a producer or distributor to go with a storyline which is not overtly commercial, and is a more personal and meticulously designed character piece?

DW: It is very difficult to get a film like this, to try to sell it to distributors or theatre owners because it’s so bleak. Once an audience sits down and sees the film, they can appreciate it. I find audiences’ response to it is extremely positive, but getting them into the theatres is the problem… and a lot of that has to do with (I really believe) the theatre owners. There are some theatre owners that are very sympathetic to these kinds of films, but if you’re not a huge director or have an American star in your film, you’re practically swimming upstream.

MRH: Do you find H was a really unusual situation, in which audiences were surprised by how much quality could be wrought from a combination of great care in spite of an extremely low budget?

DW: I think I was more surprised than anybody because I had made it shortly after my parents had passed away and I was sort of smacked with my own mortality, and knew that if I was going to do what I had always wanted to do, I’d better do it now because there’s not very much time. Life is short.

I had worked in theatre for years and years which gave me a great background to deal with the world of actors, so [in the case of Mustard Bath] I had no problem working with people like Martha Henry. I was never intimidated because I felt very comfortable with my theatre background.

MRH: When someone makes a personal film, they don’t expect it to be a commercial success and a huge critical success – they just need to get the film made.

DW: I certainly felt that. I was living in Toronto at the time and I tried to go through Telefilm and the Ontario Film Development Corporation and both turned it down. So then I applied for an arts council grant and I got one. Canada Council had a program where if you want to change your career or take your career in a different direction, they had a certain amount of money that you could live off of to do that. That amount was $15,000, and so with that and deferrals I managed to scrape together $20,000.

With two people in one room, it was a struggle, but it was doable, and even though my producing partner told me it wasn’t, I sat down and showed him on paper that it was absolutely possible.

Then once it was made I didn’t really expect it to do anything except maybe show it to a few of my friends and family and that would be it – then it would disappear. And then suddenly it started getting recognition, and invited to festivals and winning prizes and getting critical acclaim, and I was absolutely shocked. I was in Switzerland with the film, and going to the screening I expect maybe 200 people, and there were like 2000 people sitting in the theatre watching this film, and it was completely surreal, so I was more surprised that anybody else.

MRH: Is there a chance that with the distribution of your current film the other two might come out on video?

DW: Mustard Bath is available on DVD. I know you can buy it on the Domino Film & Television website, and in terms of H, Domino owns the foreign rights, and Alliance Releasing owns the domestic rights, and so what [we’re] going to do is we’re going to put out a foreign release of H and make it available at Amazon.com or wherever, but we can’t sell it [in Canada]. I don’t think Alliance has any interest in doing it because it’s not commercially to their advantage, and justify the cost of releasing it on DVD.


KQEK.com would like to thank Darrell Wasyk for discussing his latest work, and Lina Rodriguez and Katia Houde at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for facilitating this interview.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2012 by Mark R. Hasan


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