Uncovering the true horrors of a person’s mind, particularly after they determinedly bury their most daunting memories in order to heal, can be a truly traumatizing experience for anyone. The sudden and unexpected remembrance of a terrifying and deeply unsettling past can at times become even more agonizing as the situation itself. Co-writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly’s new tense psychological thriller, ‘Lavender,’ alluringly shows how even with the power of the subconscious to forget past pain, that previous stress can still haunt people in the present.
‘Lavender’ follows Jane (Abbie Cornish), a photographer who has captured the images of old and abandoned farmhouses for as long as she can remember. Jane’s former hobby, which has bordered on obsession, has transformed into a successful career. Her seemingly ideal life unexpectedly changes, however, after she photographs a particular house, and is involved in a tragic car accident that leaves her with severe memory loss. She’s then forced to come to terms with her mysterious and tragic past, as strange boxes begin appearing on her doorstep with clues to events she doesn’t remember.
With the help of her husband (Diego Klattenhoff), her estranged uncle (Dermot Mulroney) and her psychiatrist (Justin Long), Jane must weave together scattered strands of memory, in order to once again take control of her life, and solve a mystery hiding 20 years in her past. As Jane must confront a mysterious lurking force and grapple with a history that continues to haunt her, she’ll soon learn that some things are worth forgetting.
Gass-Donnelly and Cornish generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview in New York City on the afternoon after ‘Lavender’ had its World Premiere during the Viewpoints section of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. The drama’s co-scribe-helmer and lead actress discussed the process of crafting the emotionally-driven character and story arcs of Jane struggling to decipher her limited memories, and how she and the audience discover the actual, frightening truth of her past together as it unfolds onscreen.
The writer-director began the conversation by explaining the genesis of the story, as well as the process of co-scribing the script, for the psychological thriller. “There was an original script that my friend, Colin Frizzell, had written that had the overall arc and reveal of the character. But I felt that there wasn’t a character that was truly meaningful to me yet,” the filmmaker revealed.
“So far, I have written everything I have directed,” Gass-Donnelly also noted while further explaining why he was interested in collaborating with Frizzell on the script. “Personally, I see filmmaking as three different stages. First, there’s the actual writing stage, and then the directing process is like rewriting what I had done as a writer. Then I go into the editing room and think, what have I done,” an idea that the filmmaker and actress shared a laugh over. “During that last process, I’m writing the whole film again. I don’t necessarily separate those jobs. For me, they’re all part of the filmmaking process.”
But the scribe-helmer added that he has recently been thinking that “it may be fun at some point to have someone else direct a script that I have written. I would like see how the process is different, and how the film would evolve. At some point, I would also like to direct a script for which I wasn’t involved in the writing process at all. But so far, that just hasn’t been the way I have worked. I just see each job as an extension of the other.”
While further discussing the lead character and story arc in ‘Lavender,’ Gass-Donnelly explained that “The biggest questions that we were asking were, who is this person, and why are these events happening to her now? That took us a very long time to answer.” In exploring that query, he realized that in a lot of genre movies, a tragic occurrence is explained to be happening because it’s marking the anniversary of another meaningful event. “There’s a seemingly arbitrary reason why something’s happening in most films. But I think chance is a good reason to have a turning point in a movie.”
Gass-Donnelly added that the psychological thriller’s protagonist has been subconsciously struggling to find answers for a long time. But he added that he thinks that “Jane’s in a place in her life where she’s trying to deal, and reconcile, with her trauma. That’s probably the single biggest thing we contended with over the course of development.”
Cornish also delved into the reasons why she was interested in portraying Jane in the drama, and bringing her emotional struggles to the screen. “The though of playing (the lead role) in a genre movie that’s very story and character-driven was very exciting to me. The idea of playing a character who lost their memory and is seeing ghosts, and exploring the psychological implications of that, was appealing,” the actress revealed. “I felt like it had a really strong vision for a movie that was bordering the lines of certain genres.”
In addition to signing Cornish to play the protagonist, ‘Lavender’ features an intriguing supporting cast, including Klattenhoff, Mulroney and Long. Gass-Donnelly discussed the process of casting the rest of the actors in the thriller. He revealed that “the trickiest thing from a casting perspective for this movie is that there are a lot of twists and turns that I don’t want to give away” through the actors who signed on to star in the drama.
So the director felt that “manipulating audiences’ expectations, and how they’re going to perceive certain actors within the scope of this genre, required a lot of thought. So if we cast someone who always plays a bad guy as the villain in this film, audiences would automatically know that he’s playing the bad guy.” As a result of that thought, Gass-Donnelly felt it was important to cast actors against type in ‘Lavender.’
As a result, the casting process “was really about trying to find a palette in which I could use what the actors naturally bring to the table, by either who they are or how they look. These were all of the questions that went into the casting process,” the filmmaker explained. “There wasn’t any kind of secret formula. Once we found Abbie, we tried to find other actors who would not only be believable in their roles, but also work well with her. We also wanted to find a way in which we could bait and switch the audience’s expectations of who did what.”
Gass-Donnelly added that one thing he likes in ‘Lavender’ is that “both the protagonist and the audience know about the same amount of information. So as Jane is pursuing answers, so are we alongside of her.”
After signing on to portray Jane in the thriller, Cornish had to find a way to connect with, and understand, her character’s emotional struggle of trying to uncover her past, like the director mentioned. “At first, I think (that process) was just about going back to two things-one was being an artist, and the other was being a mother,” the performer explained. “So I had to think about what those two things mean. If you strip all of that away, and go on a journey that’s much deeper and more violent, gruesome and messy (than what you’re used to,) you might want to bury that away. But you’re forced to deal with, and overcome, it. So I was thinking about that process.”
Once Cornish and the supporting actors were cast in ‘Lavender,’ Gass-Donnelly revealed that they didn’t have much rehearsal time together. “We did spend some time reading the script together. One of the helpful things that Abbie suggested that we do was read the script out loud together. That was hugely beneficial.” The director and actress both laughed as he then said, “I obviously had read the script. But once I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I thought, wow, that was terrible dialogue!” The filmmaker also admitted that “as beneficial as it was to hear the words, it was great to have to say them. As much as I have ideas of who the characters are, my initial choices of how I developed them weren’t always right.”
After explaining the process of building Jane’s emotional struggles throughout ‘Lavender,’ Cornish also spoke about the process of also approaching the character’s physicality, and creating the way her quest to regain her memories physically affects her. “I wanted her to feel open and feminine. But at the same time, I wanted her to carry a weight that she may not have known existed,” the actress divulged.
Cornish then began discussing the process of working with ‘Lavender’s costume designer, Anne Dixon. “We really collaborated on what colors and prints” Jane would wear throughout the course of the film. They also discussed what the character’s feel was as she embarked on her journey. So the two decided to have Jane wear such clothes as “skirts with the boots, which created a timeless, but also poetic, feel for her. She was walking in her own world, which needed to be busted open, so that she could really grow.”
Further speaking of how the physical aspects of making the drama influenced their filmmaking approach, Gass-Donnelly also discussed the experience of shooting ‘Lavender’ on location in Canada. “It was more of a budgetary thing, frankly,” he revealed. “We would have preferred to film all of the interior scenes on sets, but we couldn’t afford to build them to the quality that we wanted.” If the crew did build the sets the way they had envisioned them, “we would have had to cut off three shooting days. So we filmed the majority of the scenes in practical locations.”
Following up on the shooting schedule for the thriller, the director said he felt like ‘Lavender’ had an average number of shooting days for a movie of its size. He asked Cornish about how the schedule felt for her as the lead actress, and she revealed that at times, it felt short and compressed. “There were moments when I thought it would have been nice to have had more shooting days,” Cornish revealed. Gass-Donnelly then inquired, “We had what-about 26 or 27 days?” The performer agreed, saying they had about four weeks for the drama’s principal photography.
“But (the schedule) didn’t hinder us. There’s something about that momentum that’s beneficial, because it pushes you to work,” Cornish divulged. “Although, it would have been lovely to not have always been thinking about how we had to run away from this scene to get to that scene.”
Gass-Donnelly then added that “It’s all relative. I’m remembering now that it was 27 days. During the shoot, we were trying to accomplish quite a bit, and at times, it was difficult. So I would have liked to have a few more days.”
Cornish agreed with her director, saying “Yes, having even just five more days would have been helpful. It would have been nice to have those weekends to rest and recuperate. On smaller films, everyone works so hard, because there are less people to do the work. So it can be slightly exhausting, but it can also drive you.
The actress then discussed her experience of bringing the psychological thriller to the Tribeca Film Festival, once the movie’s production was completed. “I always like the process of letting the film go, and knowing that there can be nothing else that can be done,” Cornish divulged. “Like using the metaphor of the helium balloon, you let it go, and where ever it ends up, it ends up.”
Gass-Donnelly revealed that he has a “love-hate relationship with festivals. I love sharing the movie, but I don’t like being in the theater and watching it with other people. That’s just my own personal anxiety, and I’ve been that way for everything I have ever done.”
But the filmmaker added that “you don’t make movies to put in a shoe box and keep them hidden. You make them to share with an audience. This process is when the experience gets real. Before the film is released, it’s feels like it’s a hobby that I’ve been tinkering with, but now it’s truly real.”
Watch the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival trailer for ‘Lavender’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello