Bhreagh MacNeil in "Werewolf"

When Ashley McKenzie and her producing partner Nelson MacDonald went to pitch the story of her debut feature “Werewolf” around their hometown of New Waterford in Cape Breton, a task that had them talking to everyone from their neighbors to their elementary school principal to get permission to shoot around the community and even give some of them roles in the film, they occasionally had to soft pedal the plot.

“At some point, our producer was saying it was a love story,” laughs McKenzie. “And then we’d start shooting somewhere and start talking to people and we’d find out in telling people it was [actually] about a couple on methadone, the people we’d be talking to would say, ‘I’m on methadone’ or ‘my sister is.’ Everywhere we went, we realized how pervasive methadone use is and it ended up being a unifying thing.”

It’s hard to imagine the makers of “Werewolf” ever stretching the truth since their film is unsparingly honest in its depiction of Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Bhreagh McNeil), a pair of homeless twentysomethings who offer their lawnmower services around town to help pay for their addiction. Pockmarked and radiating an air of desperation wherever they go, they struggle to find takers in the suburbs, but their hustle is fascinating in its detail, and perhaps not nearly as much as how they navigate the maze of treatment centers and social services that they rely on to persist, but always at risk of losing any goodwill they build to Blaise’s quick, ferocious temper.

For characters living on the edge, McKenzie’s evocative framing precisely captures the couple’s precarious condition, distinctive in the askew angles deployed and yet true to the raw, unvarnished performances given by her two leads Gillis and McNeil, whose characters balance each other out temperamentally, but can barely walk a straight line together, so you can’t even imagine them alone. It’s an arresting feature debut and shortly before McKenzie unveils “Werewolf” at the Toronto Film Festival, she spoke about her tight-knit creative team, some of whom have been together since high school, the revelation of drug use in her backyard and the discipline required to get the perfect shot for each frame of the film.

Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil in "Werewolf"How did this come about?

About five years ago in my hometown, my producer and I saw a young couple pushing a lawnmower down the street. They went to my neighbor’s house and the guy knocked on the front door, the girl knocked on the side door and then the guy just walked in and we could see some altercation with the people inside. Because we live in a small town, we tend to know everybody, but we were just really curious who these people were — what they were doing in that moment, what they were doing in the moments after that, and what their lives were like. We told a few people about it and as soon as we did, everyone would say, “Oh yeah, they’re the lawnmower crackheads,” which are really just a group of young people in our town struggling with opiate addiction.

Normally, it’s more behind closed doors, but this particular summer, they were going out to try to make money by cutting grass and knocking on people’s doors, so it felt like the first time we were forced to look at these struggles in our community and I was just really intrigued by that. So I wanted to make a film that focused on the everyday life of a couple like that and focus more on their recovery from methadone as opposed to when they’re on street drugs, a narrative which I think we’re more familiar with in cinema, and to look at what happens after that.

You’ve said the nurses and counselors they encounter are mostly real. How did reality and fiction collide in this?

A basic approach we had was to put our lead actors — Bhreagh [MacNeil], a 19-year-old studying theater but she had never [been in a film before], and Andrew, who had acted in a short film I made prior to this, but he’s not a trained actor — into live environments as much as possible. Like when Nessa went to the Tasty Treats Ice Cream Shop, [in real life] the shop was open at the time, and while it was, we had her in the kitchen, we had [the employees] train her, and we just filmed it. We’re always searching for authenticity and on a micro-budget and shooting with this skeleton crew that we shot with, we’re blending documentary and fiction out of necessity. But also it’s the most interesting direction to go I find because you get a lot of really poignant stuff that you wouldn’t really get [otherwise].

For instance, with Blaise’s friend Mark, we just met [the actor] when we were shooting around his house and I don’t think we ever would’ve found him if we put a casting call out. Once we met him, we just tried him in a scene where he’s playing video games [that’s in the film] and he seemed like a natural, so we wrote even more scenes for him. So there’s no real recipe for it. We were always trying to find the best kind of people and just work them into the film in whatever way we could. Everywhere we’d go, we were attuned to everything because you never know where you’re going to discover talent.

There is a bleak beauty to the film — it’s composed beautifully, but often from obscure angles and there’s a grey tint to the picture that suggests a darkness no matter how bright it may be outside. How did that visual style come about?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the author Alistair McLeod, but he’s a Cape Breton author who wrote the book “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” and I feel like I remember someone referring to his writing as “dreadful beauty,” so what you just said reminded me of that. With the visual style, I was thinking about working with a micro-budget, so I wanted to focus on mastering what I was imagining as small pictures. There’s the John Ford quote that there are a hundred places to put a camera, but only one right place, so instead of trying to make an epic film, I wanted to find what is the right frame for the scene – the one frame, the singular frame – and commit to it rather than doing all this traditional coverage because that just wouldn’t have worked well for our production model.

Each time we would set up a scene, we would search and search and keep searching until we found the frame that felt most interesting. It always ended up being close [to the actors], because I’m drawn more to a more minimalist look — more negative space and different anti-framing — and I was finding that more in the tighter frames because I could control that more. I was trusting my instincts, but at times, it was scary. We’d be shooting someone’s ear lobe and my producer would be like, “I’m not sure what kind of film we’re making here, but it’s definitely different than what anybody else is making.” But I think it worked out. We didn’t shortlist or storyboard. It was just a very intuitive process that was trying to find the poetry in small pictures, in small gestures and focusing on all of the textures that were around me. I just felt obsessed a bit at times – with hair and hairnets [for example], they just seemed so interesting to me and they seemed to say a lot — and I don’t like to say a lot narratively. I like to say more with framing and with sound, so I just went for it.

Andrew Gillis in "Werewolf"On your production company’s Twitter page, there actually is a picture of a mic set up in the middle of a wooded area to pick up sound. Was it an interesting process to create the soundscape for this film?

We definitely tried to get as much wild sound as possible while we were shooting. That picture you saw would’ve been from when we were shooting in the woods, where the camper [the couple lives in] was located, which happened to be an abandoned camper that our cinematographer had in the woods. Diegetic sound – sound from within the story – is always really important to me because typically, I don’t use musical score — although I do here — and I tend to rely on sound from locations to give a certain emotionality to the film. We had a really excellent sound designer Andreas Mendritzki and almost along the same lines as getting those really close-up shots and framing to the film, we wanted those textures and details of touch so we could really feel like we’re close to Nessa and Blaise. With our sound design, we ended up invested in getting Foley done, which is always like, should we budget it? But we wanted all the movements of Nessa and Blaise to be really precise and to really pop, and also to evoke the offscreen space and the environments as well because in committing to just focus on the characters as much as we do, we chose to fill the broader world more with the sound.

It was interesting to discover a lot of the core creative team for this film go way back — in some cases high school. How did you start collaborating to make movies?

Yeah, I’ve been working with Nelson [MacDonald], my producer, ever since I was in grade 11. I met him in drama class and we ended up going to school together and studying literature and film. Then we moved back home to Cape Breton after university with an intention that we wanted to be filmmakers, but there were no filmmakers here or resources, so we ended up reconnecting with people on the island who were from our town and maybe doing photography or painting — these other art forms that don’t require the infrastructure that filmmaking does. Eventually, we had to move away again to make our first two films, but once we had a few films under our belt and we had connections, we moved back because we wanted to tell stories in Cape Breton.

It didn’t work [at first] when we tried to transplant our production model that we used in the city, in Halifax, to Cape Breton. We would bring gear and crew from Montreal and Halifax to shoot in Cape Breton, but our shooting schedule would have to be chopped in half because you’re putting all these people up and eventually, we [realized] we wanted more time to explore the characters and the story because that’s what it’s all about and we didn’t want to be rushed. So with “Werewolf” and a short film we made before “Werewolf,” we chose to work with people who had no filmmaking experience, but people who were our friends who we know have artistic sensibilities and know the characters and stories better than anyone because chances are them or someone they know have gone through these [same] struggles as Nessa and Blaise. There’s just a history there, so we we worked with an art director who never did art direction before and a cinematographer who does video work, but had never worked on a fiction film before. It actually worked out really, really great. It felt very collaborative, more like a family, and we were more at ease. It felt true to ourselves and true to the film we were trying to make to take that approach.

Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil in "Werewolf"Was making a feature any different than your shorts?

That was the most satisfying thing about the experience was how different it did feel from making a short film. Development on a short film is very similar to development on a feature. You have to do all the same casting work, which especially [when] casting nonprofessionals is a really long process, and you have to find all the locations and get all the costumes and the props. But after doing all that work, instead of shooting three days, you shoot for 26 days. And it’s just way more satisfying after getting all those pieces of the puzzle together to then be able to explore those characters and locations. In the first week of shooting, we actually discovered who these people are now that we cast [actors] and they’ve inhabited them and as we’re in these locations and meeting different people, things are changing. Because it’s a feature shoot, we actually had time to discover more what the film was, who the characters were and what their journey was and then over the final weeks of shooting, reshoot or rewrite scenes or add new scenes. We ended up changing the film a lot through the process, which was something I was never able to do on a short film, but the film went to a much more interesting place because of that. It was just way more exciting and creative. Every day it felt like everyone was really elevating things to new places and it was great.

“Werewolf” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th at 8:45 pm at the Scotiabank Theater 9, September 10th at 8:30 pm at the Scotiabank Theater 8 and September 17th at 9:15 am at the Scotiabank Theater 13.