A scene from Rachel Lambert's "In the Radiant City"

When perusing the 400-film strong schedule for the Toronto Film Festival, it is easy for the kind of low-simmering, distinctly American drama like “In the Radiant City” to get lost in the shuffle, particularly when director Rachel Lambert’s background offered scant hints as to what her narrative debut might look like. Then again, a glance at the cast she assembled for the film about a family upended by a decades’ old crime, including actor’s actors Marin Ireland, Celia Weston and Paul Sparks, is certainly one way to make an impression.

“That’s what I was trying to tell people!” Lambert says of just trying to make the film, the morning after the film’s premiere. “I can make everyone think I know what I’m doing by hiring these fine folks – just swindle them, get them to say ‘yes’ and throw them into Kentucky.”

To go by “In the Radiant City,” it’ll be the last time anyone will wonder if Lambert knows what she’s doing. With writing partner Nathan Gregorski, the director crafts a searing study of a fisherman (Michael Abbott Jr.) who returns home to a one-bar town outside Louisville where his sister Laura (Ireland) is none too pleased to see him and he is forced to confront the incident that pushed him out to sea as his brother (Paul Sparks) is coming up for parole. Details about what actually went down between the three all those years ago, which has since spiralled out to affect Laura’s daughter Beth (Madisen Beaty) and the family matriarch (Weston), is judiciously parsed out to keep an air of mystery, but Lambert and crew realize these characters so thoroughly that the eventual reckoning may seem anticlimactic -given the sparks that fly throughout, with the difference in perspectives not limited to what they believed happened in the past but how the incident shaped their worldview in the years since. (Scratch that, the finale is a doozy.)

One doesn’t leave “In the Radiant City” so much as stagger out of it, the film trembling with raw power. It’s no wonder that Abbott Jr. was convinced to not only take on the film’s leading role, but became evangelical in recruiting others, handing the script to his old friend and “Mud” director Jeff Nichols, who became a producer on the film. With striking visuals provided by cinematographer Zoe White and perhaps even more indelible performances from its cast, the drama was one of the true discoveries of this year’s TIFF and the obviously tight-knit team behind it took the time to talk about pouring their blood, sweat and tears – often literally – into an experience they’re unlikely to shake any time soon, nor will audiences.

Michael Abbott Jr. in "In the Radiant City"How did this come about?

Rachel Lambert: I read an article in the New York Times profiling families of serial killers and murderers that carried notoriety with their act and from there, I began [to do] research and spend time getting to know this emotional landscape with my co-writer Nathan. Once we knew we were ready to start writing a fictional piece that would allow us to touch on these themes and ask the questions we wanted to ask as a result of this research that we were doing, that was really when the film could start. We started first sketching out the characters and the story and then we did a weeklong retreat that Mike Abbott, our lead actor, and Zoe [White], our cinematographer were able to participate in and there, we started putting some of the ideas on its feet. Our actors did improvs and table work and we got a sense of who these people are and the dynamics of the family. That’s really when the script came alive.

If Michael was the first involved, did you really build it around him?

Rachel Lambert: Well, his voice was very integral to not only creating the story, but our central figure and from the ground floor, he was with us in developing the piece. As a result, he helped us figure out a lot of what we wanted to do next in terms of what should we really be thinking about and really [allowed] us to ricochet ideas off of someone who was intimate enough with the story that he could give us some outside insights that we could trust. That was really useful and once we got to set, he felt like a creative partner.

It really does seem like an actors’ piece. Was that part of the attraction for the cast?

Celia Weston: Well, the script was everything. I was delighted that Rachel found me – through North Carolina School of the Arts. It was through Michael, and two years before we got to shoot, and [Rachel] sent me a profile of herself, photographs — just a great introduction of the mise en scène, and what they wrote was so beautiful, so poetic. It was a juicy plum for an actor to get to play those emotions and those relationships.

Rachel’s described this as a “ghost story,” so how much background were you given for the character you play?

Madisen Beaty: [Rachel] recommended “Paradise Lost” to me and we all watched it. She told me her process in deciding to write it and we connected over that — to know the background was really helpful, but it’s all on the page for me.

Marin Ireland: We talked a lot about where the story came from, but there’s something also about the fact that for each of the people involved, it’s a different story that they believe in terms of what the truth is. That became really important. That comes out in the big fight scene between all of us where we’re throwing our different narratives at each other and everybody’s clinging to what our idea of the truth is because that’s what’s getting them through and making them believe that they actually are making the right choices in their own life.

The fact that we all had a family chemistry is really special, but also the separations between us in terms of who knows what was really valuable too. The alchemy that we have is a big part of the story, but we had very little time together on screen and we got to know each other a little bit offscreen, but ultimately, it was kinda great that there was a sense of “I don’t know what this person does,” “I don’t know who he is,” “I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. in "In the Radiant City"Rachel Lambert: That’s why we put the fight scene as the first thing you guys ever did together. I think that was the first day you met, right?

Michael Abbott: We spoke very briefly at the grocery store.

Marin Ireland: There was a little bit of a sense of like…

Rachel Lambert: …We don’t really want to interact.

Marin Ireland: …Because we did see each other the way I see [Michael’s character] in the movie where it was like, is this real? There wasn’t a whole lot of interacting that day and then we had the giant fight scene where it was like, “Who is this animal?” Which was thrilling. But we did trust each other very much. A lot of that came from [before filming] — Mike knew he wanted Paul [Sparks] to be in the movie and I’ve known Paul for a really long time…

“Sparrows Dance” is one of my favorite films.

Rachel Lambert: Oh my God. Isn’t it incredible? Paul and Marin are in this whole feature-length experience [where] it’s these two people and within that, it contains this entire universe of feelings. It’s insane they pulled that off.

Marin Ireland: So Paul wrote to me and said, “Hey, can I send you this movie? I’m just doing this little part and we wouldn’t have anything in it together, but I really love the script.” And I thought, “If you like it, I’m in.” So I didn’t read it…until we were shooting, basically. [laughs] I thought I’ll just wing it.

Rachel Lambert: I frankly hadn’t seen any of [Paul’s] work, so I went and watched “Boardwalk Empire” and thought “Wow, that’s an amazing actor, but I didn’t know what else he could do…

Michael Abbott: But he’s got a funny voice!

Rachel Lambert: [laughs] Ok, you said it! But I thought, “That’s an interesting voice,” so I went looking for something else and I saw he did a feature film and I saw that it had Marin Ireland. And I love her and [director] Noah Buschel, so I watched it and I didn’t even recognize [Paul]. He was like a different human being. So it was like, “You’re an idiot, Rachel. He’s amazing. Go get him.” And I just never thought I could get Marin.

Marin Ireland: I’m really fancy.

Rachel Lambert: She’s really fancy and out of my league, but I had brought her up when I was talking to Paul and he’s like, “On it.” And then the next day I had an e-mail – “She’s in.” So that’s a testament to the actors saying that they were willing to take a risk on us and take a chance on the material.

Paul Sparks and Michael Abbott Jr. in "In the Radiant City"Marin Ireland: That’s what we kept telling you – both of you [Rachel and Nathan], on set. Celia and I were always saying, “We’re so grateful to be a part of this. This script is so gorgeous and it’s all there for us.” It’s a rare thing, at least in my experience, [where] it’s poetic and it’s straightforward at the same time, so it’s easy to play. Yet it was so layered and deep that every time we got to do a scene again, it felt like something more was revealed to us. It was a special experience for all of us, I think.

Michael Abbott: And I got to break my hand! Totally worth it.

That leads into my next question, which is was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?

Madisen Beaty: I think when he broke his hand.

Rachel Lambert: Every single day had a different treasure.

Marin Ireland: Well, you’ve got to tell the hand-breaking story.

Michael Abbott: There’s a fight scene in the film where I am supposed to punch a young boy…

This sounds good out of context…

Michael Abbott: And we rehearsed several times and I thought for sure [the boy] knew where to stand and whatnot. I think one of us missed our mark by a couple of inches, but I made contact with a bookcase. My sister was actually on set in the scene as an extra that day because she lives in Louisville and she heard my hand crack.

Rachel Lambert: I heard it!

Michael Abbott: Yeah, I heard it happen and it was pretty gnarly, but I’m better now. But totally worth it. I’d do both hands!

For this, I’d say yeah.

Marin Ireland: We had a couple days in bars that were also a little wild and woolly. I know Deirdre [O’ Connell, who plays a barfly] had a crazy time.

Madisen Beaty: Weren’t they all locals [in the bars]?

Rachel Lambert: Yeah.

A scene from Rachel Lambert's "In the Radiant City"Marin Ireland: And it was one of those things where it was like, “You’ll be in the movie if you’re here tonight,” so we were at this roadside bar and people didn’t really get the idea because we weren’t really doing dialogue. We were just hanging out with Zoe [White, the cinematographer] and Rachel and they’d be like, “Do this” or “Take a shot.” People there didn’t always know when it was acting and when it wasn’t, so I was acting drunk and falling over people and there were a couple of guys in particular who thought something else was going on. That was a little bit of an intense experience. [laughs] By the time of the last shot where I was leaving the bar, I was like “I can’t go back in there. They’ll think I want to marry them.” It was an intense experience, but full immersion.

Celia Weston: When we shot the shower scene [where Weston’s character falls to the ground], I just protected that the day before. The night before, I did a lot of falling out of my hotel shower just as [preparation] and put down some bed pillows to break my fall. And the day that we did it, it was such a beautiful and emotional scene to find the roots of what brought the character there. Rachel and Nate were so appreciative of what we got and — I get choked up thinking about it —Rachel came in and we had a little cathartic cry together. That’s such a reward and I know I’ve said it’s such a joy to feel the reward from having the work and to come away with that kind of fulfillment for your effort. You can’t take that away from an actor and it’s just joyous to see [the filmmakers] are all getting a leg up from this. People know who Rachel and Nate are now.

“In the Radiant City” does not yet have U.S. distribution.