Ricky Church chats with Still The Water writer-director Susan Rodgers…
Writer and director Susan Rodgers made her directorial debut with Still The Water, a film she wrote about a family in Canada’s coastal province Prince Edward Island and the trauma they live through. When Jordie (Ry Barrett) moves back to his smalltown home and connects back with his estranged older brother Nicky (Colin Price), it forces the two to confront years of resentment toward each other borne out of a family trauma they lived through and attempt to heal from that. Along the way is also Abby, Nicky’s neighbour and local singer who befriends Jordie and is also dealing with a trauma of her own.
We were able to chat with Susan Rodgers about the film’s themes of family trauma and healing, living in small coastal towns and the experience of directing her first feature film. Check out her thoughts below…
Still The Water is a story about family trauma and attempting to heal from that with these three brothers as Jordie comes back home after a while and he and Nicky in particular deal with their issues. Why did you make family trauma such a central theme?
A good drama always enjoys a lot of conflict. That’s part of it, but I think that family trauma is so prevalent in so many different ways in our society but it’s not always front and centre and talked about. I think that part of the reason for making this film was to encourage some discussion around not just the trauma, but the healing that can come from the trauma. I really wanted to encourage dialogue and I wanted people to be able to see that these guys have had it pretty tough, but in the end they can come back together and recapture a little bit of that childhood magic. It takes a lot of courage to take that step toward forgiveness. I’m hoping that will help some people.
The characters live in a very small tightknit community which kind of makes their trauma bigger since it feels like everyone knows and is watching them. What did you want to explore about small towns? Do you live in one yourself on the coast?
Prince Edward Island is not a huge province. It’s not tremendously populated. I live in the second largest community in PEI. We’re called a city, but we have I think maybe around 15,000 people here. In the summer I live in Darnley, which is a really small rural community. In fact, that’s where we shot a lot of the film up by the water. You always have that small community feel here and you know a lot of people who live in even the smaller, more rural areas. I feel pretty, pretty small town, especially compared to, you know, Toronto or Vancouver. I feel like that real small town girl when I go to those cities.
One thing that I liked about the movie is the music and how music plays such a big part in the film. Both in the way it’s edited in in transition scenes, but also with Abby’s career. How did you choose the music and did you or anyone else write Abby songs?
As far as the music goes, I’m someone who back in my younger years, in university, I was a DJ and my summer jobs were always working for radio stations. I was a DJ in clubs and I play some piano and I started playing piano again after a while actually, which was awesome, and learning guitar. So music has always been really important to me. In fact, a lot of my writings, because I write a book series as well, and they’re about a singer and a number of singers actually, and a lot of my writing would take place on drives around the country here with the music cranked up. For some reason that always allows scenes to unfold for me in kind of a special way.
So I chose the songs. We did ask Lennie Gallant, who’s an Order of Canada winner and folksinger, quite well-known especially in these parts, but around the world, to write a song. So he wrote that song, ‘Blood Salt Water’ that opens the movie, just for us which like is incredibly humbling because he really is a very talented singer/songwriter. But then the others, most of them were from Prince Edward Island. I really wanted to use Prince Edward Island music. Some of them I know personally, some I don’t, and then some of Abby’s songs were actually chosen by our, uh, composer actually. He was connected to some of those musicians and sent me a list of songs that would be good for her and we chose them together. I wasn’t sure how people would take it, but so far I’ve had a really great response to the music in the film, a very strong response, because a lot of filmmakers don’t really use a lot of that kind of music. But to me I believe it helps sort of move the emotion along and it’s important to me it’s part of my brand.
You’re the writer and director of Still The Water. Was that a challenge for you to serve as both and direct your own script?
No. I think it’s a real gift to be able to direct your own script. I mean, you always have to be aware of the pitfalls that you could fall into and to be able to compromise and let go of some things, which can be really tough. But the thing about directing your own script is that, as the writer, I’m not sure if everybody writes this way, but myself, I’m a really visual writer. I really see the scenes play out in my head. It was a real gift to be able to try to transfer what I could see in my head rather than give it to somebody else. A lot of people told me, you know, “don’t even try to direct your own movie, like hire somebody else, find another director.” But I had such a strong vision and working with someone like Christopher Ball, our cinematographer, it just really helped fill in any sort of directing gaps that I had as I was trying to feel my way. I plan to direct more. It’s quite high. Every step of the process. Yeah.
This was your first feature, wasn’t it?
Yes, yes, it was. Yeah.
Was that a kind of daunting task to not only be directing your own script, but making it your first full feature film?
I mean, it was. With everything, there are different challenges along the way. With us, it took a little longer to raise the money because we raised it through private equity as opposed to going through the telefilm model. We were a year later starting so there was a lot of, you know, “is this ever going to happen?” and being discouraged, trying to raise the money and that kind of thing. Then I ended up having to take a full-time job. I ended up working with CRA actually for five months and going to work for 7 in the morning and finishing at 3:30 and then working on the movie till late at night and then doing it all again the next day.
So the biggest challenge for me was just trying to work full time and that level of exhaustion and not feeling like I had enough time to really get back and work on the script again. That’s a luxury, I guess. I had moments when I thought “Oh, what am I doing? Am I really ready for this?” But I think everybody goes through that. I did have such a strong vision too that I felt working with someone like Christopher Ball would help a lot, but I also had my book series behind me. So I had a sense of confidence in terms of knowing that people liked my storytelling because I do have a lot of readers. So that really gave me the confidence to go out on set and face everybody and shoot that film with. I have to say I’m really, really pleased with just the whole experience. I mean it was just surreal. It’s still surreal looking back, you know, shooting and putting it all together and seeing it. It’s pretty surreal. It’s pretty awesome.
Your two main characters, Jordie and Nicky, they have pretty interesting parallel journeys where Jordie starts getting his life back together when he moves back home, but it also causes Nicky’s life to unravel. How did you approach as writer and director their character arcs and getting them back together as a brotherly unit?
I remember watching the movie Crash and somewhere along the line reading that the film, it was really about sort of the white hats turning black and the black hats turning white. That kind of stuck with me. I thought that was so interesting. When I approached Still The Water, I sort of had that in mind at the beginning when you’re thinking about these arcs that these guys are going to walk. I just thought it’d be really interesting to have one start to unravel while the other one starts to pull his life back together. I felt like it was a very natural progression too. In terms of writing it, I didn’t feel like I had to really stop and think about how Nicky was going to unravel this. They just felt like such real people to me that it just felt very natural. Sometimes it happens that I find in writing the characters sometimes will take you on a journey too and these guys kind of did. They kind of led the way. I never forgot that the white hats turned black and the black hats turned white and it just a great place to start that kind of a journey.
Abby is a pretty interesting character herself in how she deals with her own pain or tries to run from her own problems. What were you looking for in her character and Christina McInulty’s performance?
I think everybody’s got a love story and she’s part of the catalyst for the tension. She definitely provides some of the tension between the boys, but she also had to be somebody who, in order to really connect with these two boys who have lived through so much pain, she had to be somebody who understood them on a very sort of visceral painful level. Her character actually came, came out of something that happened to me a long time ago. I was a single mother for a long time and I used to have to put my son at a very young age on the airplane to go out to see his father out west. To this day, my son is traumatized from those trips because he didn’t want to go and, you know, he’s five, six years old.
And I hated sending him. I remember watching him walk down away from me with a flight attendant at one time with a backpack and a little Dalmatian stuffed animal out of the bag. I never forgot that. And that’s actually one of the visuals that seeded this entire film. I just thought what would it be like if your child never came back to you? That’s where Abby came from. So she was somebody who initially, her child in the original script was going to be taken by the father and then the father wasn’t going to return him or didn’t return him. But in the end, we changed that storyline a little bit. But yeah, Abby felt very real to me. I guess in some ways she’s a little bit of myself in a way, but I just felt that she really had to have that pain in order for those relationships to feel real.
One of the things I found interesting is how you leave some things open for the audience to interpret themselves such as the specific accident that happened with Abby’s family or some of the abuse Nicky, Jordie and Noah suffered through. Is creating that level of engagement with the audience important to you to allow them to fill in certain aspects of the story themselves?
Well, yes because I think that it helps people connect with the story in a very personal way for them. I’ve had people come back to me and say “this experience was my experience as a child” and “this is what it was like in my own” but they’re filling in the blanks in a way that makes the story more personal for them. I also believe that you don’t want to give too much away. I don’t want to spoonfeed the audience and give them every little detail. I think a mature, modern audience can fill in those blanks in a way that you couldn’t back when you were making films in the 1940s or 50s. You had to spoonfeed them a little more. But yeah, I think it makes it more personal. I think that makes the story more personal for each person who watches it, giving them a little bit to think about. I wanted them to go away and about it and wonder about a few things. I think we gave them enough clues, but there’s probably a balance there. There’s a fine line in terms of, “did we give them enough clues?” But yeah, I think we did according to what’s coming back to me. I hope we did anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, this was your first feature film. Do you have any kind of advice for new filmmakers looking out to write or direct their first features? What kind of parting words would you say to them?
I would say if you have, I mean, everyone’s going to have doubts, you know, “can I do this?” I would say approach it like a ski hill. Maybe you’re not a black diamond skier and you’re terrified to look at the whole hill, but you can get down the first 10 feet. I would say take it a little at a time. It can feel very overwhelming, but at the same time if you take it slowly you’ll get there eventually. The other thing I would say is try to be a leader onset. Even if you’re scared, it’s that old thing, ‘never let them see you sweat’. Just sort of step aside and think through the problem. As Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, would say ‘work the problem’ basically a little at a time. So basically just don’t let it overwhelm you, take it a bit at a time and get out there and do it. Most of all find the joy in it and just love the experience because it’s magical and not everybody gets to do it and believe in yourself and get out there and do it and have fun while you’re doing it.
Many thanks to Susan Rodgers for taking the time for this interview. You can read our review of Still the Water here.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.