Director Jordan Canning’s “Suck It Up” is slivers of sunlight over blanched blankets, the reverb of smashed glass against pallid rocks, and the incisor flashing, mercurial nature of grief. Dealing in the currency of friendship, love, and mourning, the Canadian filmmaker’s feature is a beautiful depiction of what it means to be human. Set against the ethereal ebb of music and nature, “Suck It Up” is both a comic adventure and an aching pirouette about mourning. We spoke with the fantastic director about the sea change of storytelling in cinema, the duality of humor and sorrow, and the importance of festivals in an ever-changing digital landscape.
Rob Patrick: Grieving is such an unpredictable thing. All of those nuances – from the sudden jolts of pain to the prolonged ones – are so authentically captured. What was important to you in illustrating these moments?
Jordan Canning: When I read the first draft of the script years ago – that was when [screenwriter] Julia Hoff, [and actors] Erin Carter and Grace Glowicki first got in touch with me – there were some of the elements, obviously, of what we did. But it was much more of a comedy. The grief, and the sort of freshness of that grief, wasn’t really as present as I thought it should be. And so we worked really hard to ground every scene and character in the fact that they have just lost this person, and that they’re both dealing with their feelings — or not dealing with their feelings, really. But they’re both lost in their grief and cant really find their way out of it. And so even though there’s fun, raunchiness and debauchery it was always important to me that the emotional truth of the story underline everything we did.
You touched on the humor in the film. It really complements the deeper, darker tones of the story. How did you and writer Julia Hoff find a happy medium between the two?
With a lot of work. I’m very lucky to have met Julia, because we hit it off and started working so closely together right from the get-go. She lives in Los Angeles and I lived in Newfoundland at the time, so we were very far apart, but we would talk everyday to keep pushing the characters and establish ways to find that balance. The tone I like to work in the most is salty and sweet. I’ve never made a project that was always sad. There has to be a glimmer of hope, because, frankly, life is too depressing as it is. I don’t want to make a movie like that. I think what’s weird about death, grief, cancer and going through cancer treatment is that you find that your humor changes; it gets darker. But you find humor in what you’re going through because that’s what it is to be human and to survive something so horrible as facing your own mortality and the mortality of those you love. To me, the film couldn’t always be sad and always be funny. There had to be a mix of both, because I think that’s what real people experience with something like that.
The use of music in “Suck It Up” underlines and expands the emotional geography of the film. How did you go about selecting songs?
We have a pretty badass soundtrack. This is the most licensed music that I’ve ever had in a film. It was a long process. We had amazing music supervisors here in Toronto who helped us find songs close to the temp music we were choosing. Our editor, Simone Smith, was quite instrumental in the way that she has great taste in music. She knows a lot of up-and-coming indie and Canadian bands, and so she put Dilly Dally in for the bowling montage. We fell in love with the music and got to license the songs, which was amazing. Some of the stuff was our friends. One of the songs is by a buddy of the producer. One of them is a by girl from Newfoundland. One of the cooler, more amazing things is that three of the songs in the film are by Alice and the Glass Lake. Randomly, we had met another amazing artist, named Kiesza, through our executive producer and we had thought maybe we can collaborate with her on the film. Maybe she would have a song that we could use. At one point she was in Toronto, and so me and Simone met her. We went through her new album and loved everything, but one of her best friends, who has Alice, had made this amazing album of music while she was dying of cancer. As she was going through treatment she was writing these songs and going into the studio to record them with this incredible voice. Ultimately, she passed away. The album, up until then, had never released. The music had been finished and the final production was done by both Kiesza and Alice’s boyfriend, the guitarist in her band. I’m not sure what their plan is — or if they’re going to release it — but, without even hearing that story, the music is so powerful. It’s so perfect, full and cinematic. And when you learn what’s behind and underneath the album it feels like such a cosmic thing that we found her, that we were able to showcase her incredible talent. We had Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out” as our final temp song. It was big, emphatic and powerful but we couldn’t afford it. But once we put an Alice and the Glass Lake song into the cut, we thought “this is even better than Florence.” To me, that’s something that’s amazing about our soundtrack.
There are quiet scenes in your film that are so full of muted rage and confusion. I think a lot of movies don’t know how to take time and address those very personal moments. Was that something that was important to you?
That was important to me, especially when the characters are alone. The thing about grief is that when people are around, you put up a mask and get through your day and develop little ways of distracting yourself. But in moments alone, like when Faye is high on MDMA in the Mustang of her first true love, that’s when the full weight of everything can wash over her and the mask can come down without any distractions.
You received two outstanding performances from Erin and Grace. What were some things that the three of you discussed when bringing this story to life?
It’s such a rare thing to have your leads cast two years ahead of time. You can meet with them, rehearse with them, and talk about the characters with them on a regular basis. They worked their asses off for this. And for the six months leading up to the shoot I had them doing improv classes together. We did deep character script work. The three of us went through it together and talked about the backstory. We did a timeline of their entire friendship so that we knew these characters inside and out by the time we were shooting. Julia did a beautiful job of not over-telling stuff. I’m proud that the story reveals itself slowly. You don’t know right off the back where it’s going. You don’t know exactly who these women are to each other, who they’ve lost, and how it has affected them. Doing deep background work really helped with the girls’ performances, because they knew these characters. They knew and lived these lives. That really informed their performances, because you could really feel the history between these girls and the weight of what they had gone through, separately, over the past really fucked up year of their lives.
The movie’s location is largely set in this lush, green part of eastern British Columbia. What drew you to this specific location and how did colors play a part in illustrating the mood of the film?
The film was written for Invermere, in a pretty cool way, because Julia is an American who lives in LA and has never been to the location. Grace and Erin used to go to Invermere as kids — not together, but their parents both had cottages. The cottage we actually shot in is Grace’s family’s cottage. Julia wrote the script for Invermere. Grace and Erin sent her a list of places in the community. There were all of these great things that, if you’re inspired by them, would be great for the script. Julia took them all in and created this world. We really wanted to feature the town because the script was written for it and we weren’t pretending it was anything else. We were able to showcase every great thing about that town. And it really is a great place. It’s not only a beautiful rocky mountain location, but the town itself and the people are amazing and generous. Side note about the colors: Our production designer, Sarah Hayden Roy, created a color palette early on. She and our producer Jason [Levangie] had gone on an early location scout of the cottage, and she found these old, faded beach towels. They were these faded pastels: pinks, purples, blues, greens and rust. They became the basis for our color palette. There was a color palette for Ronnie and a color palette for Faye. There was even a color palette for Garrett. We stuck as closely to it as an indie budget will allow. When Guy [Godfree] came on board he added to that, obviously, with the cinematography and the color treatment that he did. We designed the colors from the get-go and I think we remained quite true to it.
A lot is said about big, loud, and over the top movie franchises, but I feel like more human stories are beginning to be made over the past few years. Do you see a sea change coming in regards to stories people want to see?
I hope so. There’s lots of big blockbusters that I love, but I do find that every trailer is some big, forgettable, huge franchise. They all just blend into this overwhelming sound design of bullets and explosions and screaming. I know they’re going to continue to be churned out, but I do feel like there is going to be a sea change. At TIFF this year, films like “Moonlight”, “La La Land” and “American Honey” had perspective. They weren’t simply about “well, we hope we make $500,000,000 dollars.” No, this is a point of view that nobody has seen before. That’s what people are hungry for. That’s not going to blend together with anything; that’s going to stand out.
I feel like directors, such as Barry Jenkins with “Moonlight” and even Kelly Reichardt with “Certain Women”, are making movies that are challenging people to both think and experience. People desperately need that in a time where politics are as over the top as Hollywood movies are. I hope that continues into the future.
Me too. It’s one of the few ways we can share other people’s experiences. One of the few ways we can grow empathy for people that are different from us. And, like you said, that is exactly what we need right now.
With moviegoers increasingly finding reasons and excuses to stay home, how important do you find film festivals in relation to building a healthy discourse with audiences?
It depends on the film festival. A lot of the people coming to Slamdance, here in Park City, are filmmakers. That’s exciting for me because I get to meet and become inspired by my peers. But then there’s a festival in St. John’s, called The St. John’s International Women’s Festival, where the audience is comprised of people who generally don’t get to see independent films. I think it’s a first access for a lot of people, and it helps filmmakers get a little bit of exposure so that we can hopefully find more ways to reach audiences. That’s the hardest thing right now. Making the film is the tip of the iceberg, and then you have to find a way to reach an audience and hopefully give it a bit of a life.