TIFF 2023 Interview: Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan on a Celebration of Life in “The Passing”

“I’m so much better at this after I got reading glasses,” Dr. Michael Mullen says half joking, as he prepares a long syringe to give a dog a shot in “The Passing.” Brightening the mood is clearly as much a part of the veterinarian’s practice as any other skill he’s refined over the years, and as he comes to people’s homes to tend to their pets, he’s careful to calm the nerves of both. He gets the call he dreads the most in the latest film from Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas, asked over to administer end-of-life medication to an elderly dog named Fiona.

When Bresnan and Lucas have made sensitivity a hallmark of their work in such films as “Pahokee” and “Naked Gardens,” forming uncommonly close connections to their subjects and capturing them with profound grace, “The Passing” doesn’t bear witness to a death so much as to offer the kindness and compassion it brings out in others, from Fiona’s owner Cindy, who tenderly leaves no detail to chance before Dr. Mullen shows up, to the friends that comes out to support her as Fiona is laid to rest, surrounded by flowers and the beauty of community that sprouts up all around.

“The Passing” may last only 17 minutes, but it’s bound to last longer in its impact when it makes a difficult time a little bit easier for many in radiating such warmth, and it’s not entirely surprising to learn that it’s been in the works for over a year when it’s so finely tuned. Following its premiere at Locarno, it is making its North American debut at the Toronto Film Festival and in keeping with their generosity of sharing such stories, Bresnan and Lucas spared the time to speak a little about their latest film, finding a story almost literally in their backyard and the dog that’s found its way into all of their films.

How did this come about?

Patrick Bresnan: The doctor lived across the street from us and he was our veterinarian, and I knew that a lot of what he did was end-of-life care because he’s a house call vet and almost everybody in the neighborhood had a dog that he had put to sleep. During the pandemic, I just started thinking how profound it would be to film with him and because he lived across the street, I’d see him walking his dog every day, so I asked him if I could record him doing his veterinary practice.

Ivete Lucas: Yeah, he was across the street and then our other neighbor next door, Cindy, had a 17-year-old dog Fiona that she would wheel around the neighborhood. She knew we were filming with Michael and at one point, she said, “It’s time for Fiona to go and you guys should film it.” This is one of the most sincere films we’ve ever made because we had known each other for many years. We were all neighbors, and they knew us as the young couple who makes films and we all just did what we did together.

Did that make everyone comfortable from the start with chronicling such an obviously painful subject?

Patrick Bresnan: It’s harder than it sounds because you don’t want your neighbor to feel like you’re stalking them. I was asking Michael to film with him a good year before Cindy volunteered to be in the film and he just didn’t have any clients that were comfortable having the camera there. And because the veterinarian doesn’t have a cell phone, I would have to meet him on the street or knock on his door and say, “Michael, is there anything this week that we can film?” And he’d say, “Oh no, I don’t think these people would do it.”

Ivete Lucas: We also didn’t see Fiona [in decline]. She was old, but she was healthy for a while, and her decline was very slow, so we didn’t expect it. But we were all so comfortable with each other that things [would happen] like Cindy volunteered for the shoot, but then she would start digging the grave without telling us, but the good thing is we’re neighbors. So we saw her doing it and we just said, “I think I need to film this.”

It sounds like this was even more instinctual than usual and I know this comes naturally, but there’s such compassion in the framing. You’re often filming at a ground level with the dogs. Was there any foundational ideas for capturing this visually?

Patrick Bresnan: Yes, I wanted to film it very wide open. I had worked on “Boys State” and Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the directors of that film, had us shoot the film at fixed 2.40, and I really like like working on that film because we were able to get so close to people, yet not have their bodies or their heads take up the whole frame. I felt the same thing was necessary on this film, so you could really feel him doing his veterinary work and you could imagine yourself in the room or what the animals were thinking as he was working on them.

Did you always think you were going to follow one case, even after Cindy was on board when you were following Dr. Mullen on his rounds?

Patrick Bresnan: Once we filmed with Cindy and Fiona, we felt we had a short film. That [end] scene is so powerful you really can’t leave it and go anywhere else. And we had filmed a lot of regular checkups and vaccines and house visits, so Ivete was able to really get a good rhythm to prepare the viewer for just how intense that scene is.

Ivete Lucas: But we had also talked with Michael a lot. Because he’s a house call veterinarian, euthanasias are something that he does maybe much more than other veterinarians and that was what he was trying to process in his mind and in his body. He also had been writing a book. Every time he does a euthanasia he goes home at night and he writes the story of that animal down so that he can let it out of his system, so we knew that the only way we could make a movie about him is it had to have an end of life for an animal and when Cindy said it was time for Fiona, we realized that it was gonna be a film about her day as well as Michael’s.

Patrick touches on something I was so moved by in the film — the rhythm isn’t hurried, but at the same time doesn’t wallow in any moment. Was it tricky to figure out the pace to let the beauty of the scenes emerge?

Ivete Lucas: The story of the day was so strong that it wasn’t as tricky to know what the structure would be, but the emotional rhythm was what was very delicate because you have to earn the privilege of being there in that moment with Cindy and with Fiona, even as an audience member. You have to create a connection with the characters pretty pretty fast — and deep enough so that you don’t feel achy when you’re there. If you don’t feel that connection and you don’t understand them as people, then you’re just watching them in a very intimate moment and it could feel wrong, so it was making sure that all of those emotional beats and the emotional arc was very strong by the time you get to that point. And when we do get to the point where Fiona is going to go, you’ll notice I just let the footage play and it’s meant for us to just feel it as it’s happening.

Have you gotten to show it to the neighborhood yet? I know it had a big premiere in Locarno before it arrives in Toronto.

Patrick Bresnan: We sent a private link to the veterinarian and to Cindy and I get the feeling from the amount of watches on that link that they shared it with a lot of people. [laughs] So there wasn’t a neighborhood screening, but I think a lot of people in the neighborhood watched it and we’re looking forward to a premiere in Austin and I think it’s gonna be a big party because so many people know Cindy and so many people know Dr. Mullen. Everybody who has a pet and has had a relationship with him will want to go watch it, so it’ll be a real occasion.

Ivete Lucas: But we did go to Locarno. It was really well-received there by the audience and by the jury and we an award there which was really nice. And Dr. Mullen and Cindy came. Dr. Mullen and his wife.

You’ve always had a dog in your opening logo, but am I wrong to think that animation has gotten more ornate over time?

Patrick Bresnan: This logo we had it on “Naked Gardens” too, but we’re dog people. Our dog who’s now 11, when he was a puppy, he used to climb trees and we had someone animate an early video of our dog Archie climbing a tree as our new logo.

Ivete Lucas: And we’ve had to make the decision to end the life of two dogs. And it really is one of the hardest days you’ll experience, so being able to make a film about that, we hope we hope Cindy’s journey will really help other people who are in that same situation or still grieving or had a really bad end of life experience with their dog. Our company name is named after Patrick’s first dog, Otis, so we’re very much dog people.

You can just tell, and I know this had to be a tough experience, but I think seeing it will help a lot of people get through their own experiences.

Ivete Lucas: It’s interesting because it is such a hard thing to watch, and when we did it, we had it in our computers here and editing was really tough because every time I watched it, we weren’t sure how people were going to receive it. Then when we showed it for the first time for a big audience at Locarno, so many people from the audience were coming to us with completely different stories, whether it was that they had a traumatic experience with their dog or with a parent that was going through end of life for a very very long time.

Michael’s wife said to me this film gives the opportunity for people to have restorative grief, [which is] just like to go through their grief experience again and see a beautiful death in a way. Michael got on stage after [the screening] when we were doing the Q&A, and he just raised his hand and said, “I do have something to say and he went to the stage and grabbed the microphone and said something really beautiful about how the end of life does not have to be terrible if if we can just have that compassion for an animal. And that’s really true. So the magic of this thing is that we did it together, going and touching so many people, and to honor an actual life, the life of an animal that meant so much to Cindy and was her companion for 17 whole years, which is as long as people have with their children [before] sending them to college. To honor that part of the human existence and to do it well, that’s what we live for, I think.

“The Passing” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Program #4 on September 10th at 9:15 pm at Scotiabank 13 and September 14th at 9 pm at Scotiabank 14.

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