#VIFF16: Interview with Ed Gass-Donnelly
The Toronto-based director takes a pry bar to the basement door of family secrets in Lavender, a psychological thriller starring Abbie Cornish, Dermot Mulroney and Justin Long
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER – The man who made The Last Exorcism Part II is marked. Ed Gass-Donnelly rolls up his right sleeve in the firelight, and reveals two words written in deep indigo capital letters: “Find Beauty.”
“I’m not doing this to pay the bills,” says the Toronto-born director of Lavender, a psychological thriller unspooling at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week as part of the Altered States program.
“I have to remind myself of that… after making [The Last Exorcism Part II] I think I found new perspective,” he says, sitting back in a leather couch at the Sutton Place lounge.
“I appreciated the experience of coming out on 3000 screens. It was like ‘WOW!’ – 3000 screens at once is what you dream of. And then, it was like ‘OH NO! 3000 screens at once!’ It didn’t really feel like my movie anymore. They re-edited the whole thing…. I came to understand the expression a death by a thousand cuts.”
That was back in 2013, shortly after the Toronto-born Gass-Donnelly found himself at the helm of a horror franchise studio picture produced, in part, by Eli Roth and released by CBS Films.
It was a logical move for the son of Toronto’s Factory Theatre founder Ken Gass. Variety named him a director to watch in 2011 on the heels of two Canadian successes, This Beautiful City and Small Town Murder Songs. The buzz opened doors in Los Angeles. Plus, Gas-Donnelly always intended to branch out as much as possible, greeting each film as a specific type of puzzle.
“I love puzzles. I love trying to fix things and problem-solve. Every film to me is a sort of puzzle.” Gass-Donnelly says that’s one of the reasons why he’s also a frequent editor as well as producer of his own work: It gives him greater access to the various cogs and springs that make up a movie machine.
“I love puzzles. I love trying to fix things and problem-solve. Every film to me is a sort of puzzle.”
“Look, I’m more concerned with the final product than my own ego. If an actor needs a carrot… I’ll apply the lube. I want to make the best movie possible every time, and I’ll do what it takes to make that happen. But I’m not a dick. I will offer a Dr.Phil quote, which I have a habit of quoting, and it’s ‘Do you want to be right? Or happy?’”
Gass-Donnelly says happy works best for him these days. He’s comfortable in his life with a young family and a little house in Toronto. He’s got numerous projects in the pipeline and he’s confident Lavender will get a good shot at audience.
Filmed in Ontario with stars Abbie Cornish, Dermot Mulroney and Justin Long, Lavender could be called a genre film, but it doesn’t quite fit into the mold. Gass-Donnelly uses longer takes and quieter moments. There’s stillness in his frames that fits the empty landscapes and abandoned farmhouses that house the plot.
Without unveiling too much of the mystery, Cornish plays a wife and mother who photographs old farmhouses and finds herself awash in flashbacks. Tortured by the violence of the imagery and her elusive connection to the events grinding at the gears in her mind, she hurls herself into the unknown.
Gass-Donnelly says he first read the script for Lavender years ago, passed on it, then read it again after substantial changes. “They took it in a different direction. The original featured a male lead character… I liked where it was going,” he says.
“And my dad grew up in Abbotsford [a largely agricultural community east of metro Vancouver]. The farmhouse imagery, that landscape has been part of my life.”
Coming on as producer as well as director, Gass-Donnelly pulled financing together and threw his editor into his laundry room. “He wasn’t happy about that part,” he says, laughing. “We’d been in a condo in the hippest part of Toronto… it was a step down, and he let me know it.”
The upside was a closer working relationship, and some money saved. “I’m cheap as a producer. I want to put the money on the screen. And financing some budgets is just harder than others. A $20-million or a micro-budget movie is almost easier. A five-million dollar movie is one of the hardest to make.”
Then again, he likes problems. He also loves board games. “I recently went to my first-ever board game convention, and it was unbelievable. There were, like, 70,000 people there. They were all into playing games, collecting games, demo-ing games. I really had no reason to go other than I wanted to see it.”
Another one of Gass-Donnelly’s random passions is cooking. “I love the challenge of preparing a seven-course meal for ten people. I’m obsessed with these British chefs, and their different approaches.”
Some chefs take a molecular and scientific approach to the chemical reactions in the kitchen, while others improvise with soul and instincts. Gass-Donnelly doesn’t fall on one side of the blade or the other, preferring to do the typically Canadian thing and pull inspiration from all sources.
The result is a hybrid filmography that includes a big studio picture such as The Last Exorcism Part II, as well as indie Canadian outings such as the Genie-nominated This Beautiful City.
“I can’t say like I really feel part of the Canadian filmmaking landscape,” he says. “I think I feel like a bit of an outsider. I don’t think of a specifically Canadian audience when I am making a movie. And the truth is, I wouldn’t be satisfied just making movies for Canada. You want to make work that can stand before the world,” he says.
“I can’t say like I really feel part of the Canadian filmmaking landscape… I think I feel like a bit of an outsider. I don’t think of a specifically Canadian audience when I am making a movie.”
“That said, I love coming to festivals like Vancouver,” says Gass-Donnelly, who also attended Tribeca and Shanghai tests with the film. “It’s not something I get the chance to do on a regular basis, and when you do get out, and meet other filmmakers, you start to share your experience… You feel engaged and you can feel the support…. and you don’t get that on a regular basis, so it feels special.”
Like all problem-solving and puzzling, Gass-Donnelly says it’s all about finding the right pieces at the right time, and having the bigger vision to see how it all fits together.
“I’ve got several projects in development, and they are all different,” he says, highlighting the idea of diversity as a key to survival in a changing environment. “I’m never going to pander, but I want to please an audience. I’m making movies for them… not to satisfy my own needs.”
Gass-Donnelly smiles, talks a little bit about plans for Lavender’s forthcoming release, then rolls up the sleeve on his left arm, where another message in serif script is inked into his forearm. “You are blessed,” it reads.
He smiles with a hint of a wink and a shrug. “I have a wonderful life, two beautiful girls, and a supportive partner. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t go to the toy store before I fly home. I’m not an idiot…. I take gratitude seriously. It’s a state of mind.”
Lavender screens as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 3:45 pm at International Village and will have a theatrical engagement at Cineplex theatres on November 4. Click here for tickets and more information. Or visit the official website: http://www.lavenderthemovie.com
Above: Ed Gass-Donnelly photographed at Vancouver’s Sutton Place, Gerard Lounge, October 2, 2016.
THE EX-PRESS, October 4, 2016