TIFF 2020 Interview: Hannah Cheesman on Revealing the Complexities of a Female Friendship Hiding in Plain Sight in “Succor”

“Online dating, that’s dark,” Abigail (Deragh Campbell) says at the start of “Succor,” when her friend Angie (Michaela Kurimsky) tells her that her mother is going to find a new partner before she ever does, thanks to an app. The two are commiserating over red wine when the idea emerges Angie should follow suit, first as a joke as these things always do, and then getting more serious as Abigail plugs in details for her friend on a dating profile, sneaking in qualities that she appreciates about her friend when the need comes up to describe her as Angie has to really think about what she wants in her perfect mate – someone who’s “tallish, hates to walk and has a car, and someone that doesn’t cheat.”

Whether or not Angie finds love when the profile goes live, writer/director Hannah Cheesman captures all the complexities of a true connection between Abigail and Angie as the excuse for the two to curate and quantify personality traits and wants and desires allows the filmmaker to reveal what they mean to each other in ways that are both lovely and slightly troubling at times. A year removed from when Cheesman could be seen as an actress in Karen Moore’s Toronto Film Festival selection “Volcano,” giving an arresting performance recounting a trip with her boyfriend that didn’t go as planned to a longtime pal, she delivers an equally compelling exploration of female friendship behind the camera, brilliantly reinventing “Cyrano de Bergerac” a bit for the modern age when digital disguises give way to the duo expressing themselves without the baggage of a long-term friendship.

With two of Canada’s most exciting actors in Campbell (“Anne at 13,000 Feet”) and Kurimsky (“Firecrackers”) as the central pair, “Succor” has an electricity about it that extends to its wily score and its beautiful camerawork that captures the warmth of Abigail and Angie’s friendship in unexpected places. On the eve of the short film’s premiere virtually as part of the Short Cuts Program 5 at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th, Cheesman spoke about how her latest directorial effort came together, cultivating such strong chemistry between her leads and finishing the film during the pandemic when it was impossible to collaborate in person on post-production, still making magic happen nonetheless.

How did this come about?

This came about in a pretty unexpected way because I had an experience with being catfished online. It’s one of those things you’ve heard about a lot, but you don’t know that it’s happening to you if it’s never happened before. It turned out I never found out who the person really was and I also never found out why they did it — they weren’t asking for money and it wasn’t one of those things where they were fishing for something. But when I was catfished, I had all of these feelings. I was upset, I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was shocked and surprised and honestly, when it happened, I wrote down all of those feelings because I knew it could be some kind of an interesting story because it was so perplexing to me why this person did it. Then I was talking to my sister and her boyfriend about it and he talked about how [someone] used his identity in their own cat fishing scheme, so those two things together made me think there’s a story here I want to tell.

From idea to shooting, it came together very, very quickly and I thought it was an interesting story and there were some actors I really wanted to work with who I hadn’t worked with before, namely Deragh Campbell and Michaela Kurimsky, so when they said yes, I’m like, “Yes, let’s make this.”

This is like the “Ocean’s 11” of recent Canadian cinema. Was it difficult to get Deragh and Michaela on board?

Deragh and I had been socially in contact for a little bit and I had run into her and one of her good friends on the street during Christmas, so she was just on my mind a lot. When this idea came to mind, she was actually the first person I reached out to, and she was just so game. Then thinking about who might be an interesting person to pair off of Deragh, I also met Michaela socially in the past as well and admired her work, and they also wanted to work together, so when I found out that they were keen to act together, it just felt to me like it was the perfect marriage. They’re talented and in some ways, they’re an unlikely pairing because they’re quite different performers, so it seemed exciting.

Is there anything you do for your actors that you’d want from a director yourself?

One of the things I like to do is before we shoot bring the people together, especially if we haven’t spent much time together, so we just went to the Drake and hung out for a few hours one night. They’re going to be pretending to be best friends, so that’s important for me and it’s just a gesture of thanks that they’re willing to come onboard and to show them I’m excited. And especially when it’s something I’ve written, I have a clear sense of rhythm and dynamic and quality of relationships within my pieces, so really I just try to be very clear about what I want for those while also really taking the gifts of these talented and interesting performers. I definitely want to get a few takes that are faithful to the script, but that’s not what it’s about. If there’s a way of saying something that feels more true and real, we do that [instead] and I’m an incredibly collaborative filmmaker.

I select my collaborators with care, so I really respect their opinions about a scene or the way something is said and I got a lot of feedback in particular from Deragh at script phase — I really brought them into that process too — and then on the day, the best idea always wins. There are beats that can come so magically if you trust those people do it. I don’t think with every single performer, I’d be so trusting necessarily, but certainly with these two, I did and was and there are some really nice things that came out of it as a result.

One of the things I loved about it was how you used lighting throughout to express the closeness of their relationship. What was it like figuring that out?

My [director of photography] on this was John Ker and he and I talked a lot about [how this] has a lot of dark scenes and John wanted to try something that was quite gritty in moments, like the bar scene was almost lit entirely by candles, which I think was a learning curve for him as well. Like Kubrick can do it, but when you’re on a shoestring budget, it can be a little harder. We definitely planned things like being outside for magic hour with the two girls walking down the street, arm in arm, if it was possible. That was important to us and we both like French cinema and “Personal Shopper” was a reference. It’s this odd thriller/ghost story that’s very dark and Deragh had talked about this feeling like “Phantom Thread,” and it’s not that we took cues [specifically] from “Phantom Thread,” but it very clearly for me was like a bit of a psychological thriller [involving] friends, so that was one of the ways of building the look of this.

When you had this idea about the catfishing, did the idea of exploring female friendships specifically come to mind? [SPOILERS ARE BLURRED]

What I actually found most thrilling about doing this was it’s not so interesting to me if it’s a story about a romantic heterosexual relationship. It is more interesting if it is two friends, that it throws into question what is the quality of their friendship. What’s the quality of the way that they depend on each other? What are the things they need out of one another as female friends? I’ve never seen that between two women quite like this, so it was a very exciting domain for me to jump into. Some people have asked, “Why does she do it?” And I don’t think I have a very clear answer for that, but that’s one of the very nice bits of this. It’s like it gets you to wonder why would somebody do this to her friend? Because she obviously cares about her friend and wants her to be okay, but then it’s sort of this problematic thing she ends up doing. So as you can probably tell by this, I find female friendship very important, and has an interesting dynamic that’s sometimes fraught and sometimes not and also such a source of joy and pleasure and humor and comfort. But I do like looking at the dark edges of things too, so it was an interesting way to look at female friendship.

It’s now two years in a row with this and “Volcano.” And it’s got such a great score. How did you put music to it?

We had an amazing editor named Lindsay Allikas and we actually ended up giving her an associate producer credit because she was so integral to making this. She introduced me to Alaska B, a drummer and part of this band Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, this unusual mixture of First Nations and metal and they do such incredible performances with face paint and costumes. I knew some other work [Alaska B] had done and I was already a fan because of the Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, so when [Lindsay] brought her onboard, we actually referenced some of the other work she’s done. And the big cue at the end, which has this culmination into silence, my reference for that was this amazing choral scene around the fire with all these women in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” I just asked Lindsay to lift that and put it as the temp music and then asked Alaska is there a way to do something like this [where] there’s a lot of syncopated rhythm and women’s voices. She riffed on that and she’s an amazing professional drummer, but she has a lot of piano training as well, so she made this amazing piece that weirdly also feels a little bit like “Birdman.” She just did a great job of bringing that sound in and it’s just really unusual and creates this kind of culmination that I find it really unexpected and therefore interesting and beautiful and creative.

This is premiering at a Toronto Film Fest unlike any other. What’s it like bringing this into the world?

It feels so good. When we shot it, I already knew from the get go that the script and the performers were special. I’ve had a longstanding friendship and collaborative professional relationship with Coral Aiken, the producer, and John Ker, I had just shot a commercial with, and I brought these people together for something I felt special and important to me and I knew after we shot it, I thought this is going to be one of the best things I’ve ever made. It was the first time in my experience as a filmmaker where my taste and my skill set really met and that’s the goal moving forward, so I was excited through the entire process of this. But we shot this in late February for two days and then we did all of the post online through the pandemic. I had one sit-down in person with Lindsay Allikas on the assembly, and then we did everything back and forth online. Same with Alaska and with the colorist, and doing a mobile ADR session for Deragh — that was all in my closet in my bedroom. It was bizarre and it moved quickly to begin with, we wanted to complete it.

We did one in-person color session because different computers have different color settings, so all of it was done online except for that when [John] went to go clean up, but I’m honestly brimming with pride about this one. I really wish we were going [to TIFF] in person because I’ve been supported by TIFF as an actor for some time, but not as a filmmaker. It feels like a real win and I also feel like this project deserves it because everybody brought such good work to it. We’re trying to do an outdoor backyard projector screening with all of the people involved and that will feel great and I’m so happy that so many great people are featured in this. As I’m working the feature version of this now since it was such a great experience, my hope is that maybe TIFF will be the right platform to meet the partners to eventually help see that through.

“Succor” will screen online at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th at 6 pm as part of Short Cuts Programme 5.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.