Aaron Wilson was expecting an older crowd for the premiere of “Canopy” at the Toronto Film Festival, thinking that he might be one of the few who didn’t live through the Battle of Singapore during World War II who might be interested in seeing his first feature. However, he was happy to be proved wrong.
“There was quite a spread of ages that was quite exciting,” says Wilson of his first time seeing the film with the public. “People would come up to me afterwards — this guy was 20 and I asked him how he liked it and he said, ‘This reminds me of a story my granddad told.’ I didn’t think a younger audience would like the film as much as maybe an older audience, but if you think about people around the world and these families that have been touched by war, how many haven’t? Probably not many.”
Yet one doesn’t need to know of war at all to appreciate what Wilson has done with “Canopy,” an experiential drama that plunges viewers deep into the rainforest with a stranded Australian fighter pilot (Khan Chittenden) and proves so tactile that one can almost feel the sweat dripping off his skin or the ants crawling up his leg. While dazzling the eyes with evocative shots of the local fauna and the reflections of bomber planes flying overhead in on the puddles on the ground, Wilson engages all the senses as he follows the soldier on his journey to escape the jungle, joined part-way through by a Chinese freedom fighter (Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi, who goes by the nickname Morning) who can’t share words with his travel companion but can share a common cause of survival.
Making the film was nearly as arduous as the journey taken onscreen for Wilson and Chittenden, who started filming in 2009 and continued to work on the labor of love throughout the past four years. Such dedication shows in the intricately designed film and shortly after the film’s debut, the two spoke about their personal connection to the material, how Chittenden communicated with his co-star without words, and giving the film over to an audience.
How did this come about?
Aaron Wilson: A seed was planted when I interviewed a lot of ex-POWs, and war survivors from the war in Singapore and there was a common thread to what they all were saying. There wasn’t so much talk about the big battles, they talked about the time in between the battles when they were left to their own devices and those moments seemed to stick with them a lot more than the big events. So I started to research more into that — [how] these individuals were now by themselves — and how could I weave that into a story that was in the context of war, but it wasn’t really about war.
It makes sense once you see it, but obviously few films use as little dialogue as this. Were you excited about that as a challenge?
AW: I was excited once we started filmmaking, but it wasn’t something they set up from the beginning. I made quite a few shorts, which aren’t free of dialogue, but they don’t rely on the narrative, so I was familiar with using that form of communication. But we let the environment dictate how the actors were going to communicate together.
Khan Chittenden: Yeah, the jungle with the expanse of where we were shooting, the atmosphere, the high humidity and all those things brought us in a presence within. Actually in our script, it was fairly descriptive to entry points and exits points [of a scene] in terms of what the action was. Our job was simply to breathe life into it and connect with one another to deliver that vision.
It also demands that you’re all present all the time. You don’t have the dialogue or plot points that you’re expressing or some point of view that you’re trying to get across to lean back on. But I liked having a chance to work expressively and communicate in the physicality. For me, it was a very fine and rare privilege to be able to be in a role like this.
AW: There are lots of shades, right? I imagine you work by feel and within a scene rather than some exact way of how things should be. Because of that, things change and you adjust as you go through the process of filming.
KC: Especially to work in that way and to have that chance to be that present with another actor sitting there also adds to the drama.
What was it like working with the Chinese actor who goes by the name of Morning? Were you actually able to speak to one another off-camera to figure things out?
KC: My Mandarin isn’t too hot. [laughs] But I think my performance wouldn’t have landed in the right spot for the Orient and Baron’s film if it wasn’t for Morning. I made sure I was ready for this thing before we went over to Singapore to shoot, but the way we worked together was something really special. I really valued the time [before a scene I’d spend with] Morning where I’d come down and just ask for a cigarette, and he’d give you a cigarette. I’m not really a smoker, but it was this kind of non-verbal exchange that happened early on. We’d stand there and share a cigarette and that kind of gave us an in somehow.
AW: I also kept them apart before they started filming for the most part, so they didn’t really interact. I wanted it to be fresh, so we ended up using means of communication that were nonverbal to create the film as well is what you’re seeing in the story.
Was the production as grueling as it looked like it might have been?
AW: It was pretty grueling. Did I let you shower?
KC: Yeah. [laughs] It was tough.
AW: Look, were stuck in that jungle for most of the time, and it was night, and it was damp, and it was really humid. The mangroves are particularly quite humid. So I remember we were hanging from trees and swinging off things and doing a lot of running, so it was quite physical, but we had a camera crew quite running around in the mud too, so the crew and the cast were quite interactive with that space.
There were shots in this film that I have no idea how you got, particularly some of the overhead views. Was it difficult to place a camera in those kinds of situations?
AW: Yes, it was. We just had to get inventive when you’ve got a low budget. The jungle is a character. You have to give it a presence from different angles. All I’ll say about how we got those shots is that Singapore has some wonderful infrastructure that they’ve constructed and we were very fortunate to utilize it.
If you were already doing research on the war, what was it about this specific area that interested you?
AW: For me, it’s a familial connection. My grandfather’s brother was in that region of war and a lot of stories about what happened to him when he was there, but also I grew up in this old country town in rural Australia that was really affected by the experience — the men going to war, coming back, and the effect it had on families. There’s quite a legacy of that war.
Singapore is also our neighboring region and I’m excited as an Australian to explore our place in the world. I don’t have as much of a connection with Europe, but we’ve got a 60-year war history with Singapore, where Australians were interned during the war. So there’s a strong connection between the Singapore, the Chinese and the Australians and I really wanted to make something that explored that connection.
It’s also symbolic in the film as how we we’ve had this history and how we connect as a people. In the case of our two characters, if you strip away the dialogue, then you strip away race, and their backgrounds, then you’re left with two characters who could otherwise be brothers. That was quite intriguing for me.
Khan, did you actually have any personal connection to the material?
KC: My grandparents were from Glasgow and I grew up listening to my grandma tell the stories of the war, about when they were bombing and the air raids there. My granddad served in the war and his brother Robert was a commander in the D-Day forces in Normandy and he lost both of his legs eventually after the war, so it was difficult for him. And my auntie’s husband gave me this set of really old comic books that he used to read as a kid, all of these stories of English heroes of the war, whether it was the First World War or the Second World War, so I pored over those incessantly and I think that coupled with these stories, and these images, and this imagination that were passed on to me from my grandma, it’s always been a fascinating subject to me.
You actually started this project in 2009, so was this something that you’d return to from time to time to work on it when you could?
AW: By the nature our of budget and keeping it small, we got a lot of support and in order to get that support, we’d have people do our work among their paid work, so we would shoot the film, then we’d stop and we’d have to wait until we could get our editor available or we’d have to stop and wait until we got time for the sound guys to do the sound. So it was very piecemeal and it kept me looking forward, but it was always whenever we’d get a little bit of money whenever someone was available to jump in. The effects work for a long time, and there’s not a lot of effects, but we were very particular about how they looked. And it took seven months to do our sound, so, I guess by nature or fitting things in, in and around each other, it took a while to get there.
It seems like it paid off, particularly in regards to the sound. How did you go about getting that ambiance?
AW: We wanted to use sounds from Singapore because often you hear nature and you think, “Well, it’s just a jungle sound,” and you hear it again and again. So we wanted to create something Singaporeans would hear it and go, “Oh, that’s from Singapore.”
We recorded stems of particular birds and frogs and wild boars, then the mangroves in the jungle, so we’d have a range of textures that reflect the different areas that these characters move through. I went back on three separate trips after we shot, sometimes down in the forest at three in the morning, and we put those into the film and manipulated those sounds to create more of spiritual sound mixture.
What was the premiere like?
KC: Pretty incredible. My face was so huge! But I just thought it was great.
AW: It was exciting but nervewracking. Seeing the film with the audience for the first time was very exciting for me and you often just want to just turn around and watch their faces, because you made this film with little bunches of people for so many years. Once you finish it, you give it to audiences and it’s theirs. It’s no longer yours, so it’s just interesting to see where they take it.
“Canopy” will open in New York at the Eleanor Bunin Monroe Film Center on August 29th and in Los Angeles on September 12th at the Music Hall 3. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.