Crafting a culturally relevant film that emotionally and relatably contemplates social media’s impact on modern culture, while also drawing both compassion and contempt for the young protagonist, is no easy feat. But writers-directors-producers Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas have just that with their latest movie collaboration, ‘White Lie,’ in which both manipulation and falsehood have become the norm for the main character.
Viewers will surely empathize with, and shun, the protagonist as she does the unthinkable to her community. The filmmakers’ unprecedented success in creating an equally relatable and despised lead character made ‘White Lie’ one of the most fearless and emotionally affecting movies at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
‘White Lie,’ which had its World Premiere on September 7 at TIFF, marks Lewis and Thomas’ fourth feature film together, after they previously collaborated on the movies ‘Amy George,’ ‘The Oxbow Cure’ and ‘Spice It Up.’ Their new drama was shot on 35mm film near their hometown of Toronto, in the Ontario port city of Hamilton.
TIFF 2019 Rising Star, Kacey Rohl plays the protagonist of Katie in ‘White Lie.’ The story follows the young woman as she become a literal poster child on her university campus, as she tells everyone that she was recently diagnosed with cancer. Following her self-proclaimed diagonals, she’s the focal point of an online funding campaign for both herself and other cancer-related causes.
The only problem is, Katie’s proclamation that she has cancer is all built on a lie; she isn’t really sick, and never has been. Even as her story slowly begins to unravel, and the truth is revealed, she’s still unable to give up the fantasy world she has constructed for herself.
Lewis and Thomas generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview in Toronto during TIFF to talk about co-writing and directing ‘White Lie’ after its premiere. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that they were drawn to tell a story about a young woman who pretends to have cancer after they heard about people doing the same thing in real life about 10 years ago, and they were instantly intrigued by the people’s motivations to do so. The helmers also mentioned that they heavily prepare before they begin filming, so that they can easily adapt to any circumstance that arises on the set.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new drama, ‘White Lie.’ What was the inspiration in telling this story, and what was the process of penning the screenplay together?
Yonah Lewis (YL): We first heard about people doing this about a decade ago. We heard about a couple of different cases about people faking cancer, and we thought it was an insane thing to do.
But we were instantly intrigued by the people who were doing this. There wasn’t a great financial incentive; they weren’t making a ton of money. So we wanted to know what they felt they were getting out of it. So we thought about the idea for awhile…
Calvin Thomas (CT): …as well as the character of Katie.
YL: We didn’t have much of an idea of how we were going to write the story in the beginning. We were working on other projects at the time, but it was always in the back of our brains. Then in about 2015, we wrote the first draft.
CT: Finding the entry point was the key. We had to decide on how much of her world to share, as well as how long to show the whole rise and fall of this, from her benefiting from this to the scheme collapsing. We then had to focus on finding the most dramatic points of her story.
So the story is set over five days, as everything starts to fall apart. We thought coming in very late into her lie, and the world that she has built for herself, was the most exciting way to start. Since it takes place over five days, it was a challenge, but also fun, to choose what to tell. We had to find a balance of not telling too much and telling just enough that you have enough insight into what happened over the past couple months of her life.
SY: One of the interesting aspects of the story is that Katie’s the focal point of an online funding campaign for both herself and other cancer-related causes. What was the process of incorporating that plot point into the screenplay?
YL: We knew that things like this happened online, on sites like GoFundMe, so we forced to tackle that head-on. So we knew right away that there was this social media aspect. As the script and years wore on, that became more important in the film’s world, and how the characters react to things. So that became a bigger element of the story.
I don’t know how much we thought about that in the beginning stages of the project, though. In the early stages of the script, she went from person to person, after she was outed, and apologized and returned the money she had taken.
CT: We never wrote that…
YL:…but it was something we played around with at the beginning. So that was us avoiding technology all together-she literally went from person to person in real life, instead of dealing with them online, or indirectly. But once we embraced social media, it really impacted the backlash she received during the second half of the film.
SY: Once you decided to pen the script, did you do any research into real documented cases, to help inform the plot’s development?
YL: We did a little bit of research, but we didn’t want to take one person’s story, because we didn’t have the rights to any one particular story. I think we were just interested in the overall phenomenon, and picked little bits and pieces from several different stories. Not all of the information we found was directly related to faking cancer; we also found the ways in which they’re shamed online.
CT: We researched different obstacles for her to overcome. For instance, we looked into how she would go about trying to attempt faking her medical records. If she wasn’t going to do it herself, she would have to enlist the help of others around her. We also looked into the things she would need in order to protect herself, and keep the lie going.
When you start doing research into people who fake cancer, a lot of the stories are pretty carbon copy. There isn’t a lot of reporting or profiles on these people, but it seems to be a pretty common crime. The reasons why people do it, and the consequences they face, are often similar.
YL: But we were never able to find an article where someone who has done this sat down and said, ‘I faked cancer because…’
CT: But we did do a lot of research with lawyers and doctors, to help make the story feel real, because that was important to the story.
SY: In addition to co-scribing the screenplay, you also directed ‘White Lie’ together. What was the process of co-helming the film together, especially after you directed your three previous features as a duo?
YL: Well, we’ve worked together for 13 years, so we have a long working relationship together. We do a lot of prep, and are very prepared. Everything’s worked out, and the crew knows what they’re doing. We all know what the shots are, and our performers are also very well prepared. We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, so their work was done on their own.
I think that since we prepare as much as we do, things go very easily. We adapt quite well, because we know each scene. We also have a good eye for knowing how we’re going to edit. So we make sure that we get the coverage we need on set. So there’s never any conflict. We can all also easily adapt to any sudden, last-minute changes, and the lack of time we have on set.
SY: What was the casting process like for the drama, especially when you were looking to find the actress to play Katie?
CT: That was important to us from the beginning. One of the things that we were looking for was an actress who would be willing to shave her head. We told the other producers we were working with that we couldn’t fake that aspect, as it wouldn’t ring true if she was wearing a bald cap.
So once we started looking at people, we saw hundreds of actresses, both in person and on tape, from around (Canada). We saw a tape with Kacey, and she was really great. She went to extremes with it; she had her head covered, and I think she put some make-up on to make herself look sick. We really liked what she did, so we did another tape with her. We gave her some adjustments, and it was amazing how she was instantly able to change.
Kacey’s based in Vancouver, and we’re based here in Toronto, and we knew we would be filming the movie around here. So we didn’t actually meet her in person until about 24 hours before we began principal photography. She flew here, and then shaved her head instantly. We then spent time getting to know each other, and she was a thrill to work with.
SY: Once Kacey was cast, what was the process of working with her to create Katie’s physicality?
YL: We talked about the physicality early on, and I think she internalized her own choices of how she would move, and how anxious she would be. One of the only things we told her to avoid was the constant physical twitching and anxiousness that people are naturally drawn to do.
We wanted Katie to be a confident character. As a liar and con person, which she essentially is, we wanted her to be able to conceal her anxiety when things aren’t going well. In a few moments, she lets things slip, and I think those moments are exciting. But we wanted her to move through this world, especially in the beginning of the film, with a level of confidence and power, to show that she owns everyone around her.
CT: I think it would have been easy for Kacey to play the role in a jittery kind of way, where she was tapping her foot all of the time. But I think she did a great job of showing the character’s anxiety without those physical jitters, and she was really able to internalize it.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, ‘White Lie’ was shot here in the Toronto area. What was the experience of filming the movie on location?
CT: Originally, we were going to shoot completely here in Toronto, since the story’s set here. But then for several, non-exciting reasons, we ended up moving it to Hamilton, which is about an hour outside of Toronto.
We quickly fell in love with what Hamilton brought to the table. It’s an old industrial town, and there’s a great industrial vibe there that we love. There’s an obvious distinction between the richer and poorer areas, which we were able to play with in the film. Sometimes, in the more urban, metropolitan cities, it’s harder to tell how much a house costs; it may not look like a really expensive house, but it probably is, but you don’t always know. But you can really see the distinct areas in Hamilton, which we liked.
So we tried to take advantage of that, as much as possible, since the film is about someone who’s trying to get out of one world, and enter into another. Hamilton really spoke to that distinction.
SY: How do you both think the character of Katie changes throughout the story, and how will her experience faking the cancer change her as a person in the future?
YL: I think she changed very subtly, but after many missteps, and the feeling that consequences are imminent, she knows that she has to stop lying. She also knows that she has to get out of this mess, but she still wants to control how she does that; she doesn’t want other people to control it.
CT: Yes, she wants to control the crash.
YL: Yes, exactly. I think the movie ends at a great spot, because it’s over for her, for sure. I think there are many months, after where we finish the movie, where her life isn’t great. So there will be a lot of healing and consequences that she’ll have to deal with.