If you were to randomly drive by it, you wouldn’t think much of the strip mall that serves as the setting for “Wexford Plaza,” but for Joyce Wong, it meant the world. For months, the writer/director had looked around the outskirts of her native Toronto to find the kind of modest marketplace that once brought out people in droves on the weekend, requiring a mall that had both fallen on hard times – not so difficult – but also was far enough from a major thoroughfare so there wouldn’t be much noise during filming – far harder. Wong and producer Matt Greyson had gone so far as to draw a grid over a map of Toronto to go on what amounted to a safari through the city, but a friend had mentioned that he lived by one that might fit the bill.
“We had two things that we needed to be perfect before we could shoot — the actors and then the strip mall because we knew that if those two things weren’t perfect in terms of matching the tone of the script, the film would flop,” recalled Wong. “[And the mall] embodied the perfect element of isolation and loneliness — it was run-down, but it had several stores that were still in operation, so aesthetically, it fit perfectly creatively.”
You might describe the film’s flesh-and-blood leads Betty and Danny (Reid Asselstine and Darrel Gamotin) the same way as the building, despite their youth. Only 20 and 31, respectively, Betty and Danny already look worse for wear, floundering in dead-end jobs doing security patrol and tending bar. While one would expect the two to forge a connection as their paths start to cross, Wong has something considerably more interesting up her sleeve as she cleverly structures the film in such a way to show how Betty and Danny spend time together without truly knowing what happens in the other’s life. Exacerbated by the specious form of expression that is social media, the duo’s assumptions about one another lead to trouble when they start to act on their misapprehensions, resulting in both hilariously awkward situations and the painfully authentic impression that Betty and Danny feel lonelier than ever when what they think they know proves untrue.
Nearly a year after it first premiered at the Torino Film Festival last fall, “Wexford Plaza” arrives on American shores in theaters and on VOD and Wong spoke about why she was drawn to telling a story about places of pent-up emotions, whether it be strip malls or people in the midst of quarter life crises, as well as the inspiration for the film’s ‘60s-themed soundtrack and set design and finding her compelling leads.
How did the story come about?
A couple things came together. The first was I grew up in Scarborough and a couple of years ago, I was driving around [there] and the strip malls were all getting turned into big box stores like Best Buy. My heart broke a bit, [because] these beautiful, lonely strip malls I spent so much time at in my youth were getting turned into these homogenous shopping boxes. I [also] remembered a good friend of mine from high school used to work as a security guard and she would tell me the most ridiculous stories about the things that she encountered, so that plus wanting to make a love letter to the loneliness and isolation of growing up besides these strip malls started the initial conception of writing the script.
There’s music that reminds of what must’ve been the heyday of these malls during the ‘60s, as well as some of the colors used. Did the past inform the style for you?
Yeah, because the ongoing theme is the loss of this idealism where these two characters are struggling to succeed, but their struggle causes them to spin their wheels in the mud almost because they’re trying to go by the rules of the ‘60s idealism. You work hard and then you’ll succeed, but now it’s gotten a lot more complicated with late stage capitalism, so stylistically I I wanted to show that the remnants of that kind of ‘50s and ‘60s idealism in everything, from the music to the backdrop and then a bit of Betty’s house.
Did the structure of this – seeing Betty’s life and then Danny’s — come immediately or did that take some time to figure out?
It took a while to figure out. At first, I built the structure as a back-and-forth kind of story, like first Betty, then Danny, then Betty, but then I realized it would be a lot more powerful if I told Betty’s side first with gaps and then Danny’s because I really wanted to show the reason why Betty and Danny are doing the things they’re doing is because there are gaps in what they know. They’re not stupid people, they’re just missing vital information that allows them to connect the dots, so the easiest way I felt to show it [was] to make the audience not have access to those scenes as well.
How did you come to cast Reid Asselstine and Darrel Gamotin as Betty and Danny?
It’s a funny story. With Betty, I had a really hard time finding the right actress. We auditioned for months and we were getting really close to shooting. I was telling an old professor of mine about my casting problems and she was like, “I know the perfect actress! I have no idea what her name is, but I saw her in a student film.” So I wasn’t sure anything would come of it, but then a couple days later, she e-mailed me and said, “I asked the professor who asked the student and her name is Reid Asselstine and here’s her e-mail.” It turns out she originally went to Toronto for film school, but she left because of work reasons and was back in Kingston, a small town three hours east of Toronto, grooming dogs for a living. She still wanted to be an actress, but just didn’t have the opportunity come to her, so I called her and immediately when I started talking to her over Skype, she had this sincerity, but she also had this agency about her that was just perfect for the role. We interviewed a lot of actresses that played it a bit too harsh or a bit victimized, but Betty just had the perfect element of vulnerability and agency.
With Danny, Darrel Gamotin, I always knew he would be perfect for the role because another reason why I wrote Danny was because I wanted to write an Asian male because it’s just so rare to see an Asian guy as a heartthrob in this role, and not [be] whitewashed like this quarterback who is Asian [or] embodies a very culturally white kind of persona. I wanted to write a realistic character that I grew up with, like I would’ve had a crush on [Danny] had he existed in real life, but also say something about just the representation of Asian men in new media.
In those scenes where Danny goes up to people selling handcream in the park as an Avibon salesman, was Darrel really going up to strangers in public?
Yeah, that was improvised. I would say that 30% of the film is improvised and 70% of the film is scripted. We actually did [the hand cream selling] several times at several locations and the park was the best place where we were really able to engage people and get them to sign release forms. [laughs] The craziest part of that day was that everything was dependent on daylight, so our producer Matt Greyson gave us five hours to do all of the improvisational stuff, but if we don’t get it within these five hours, we’ll just have to either plan for reshoots, because we had a pretty tight schedule, or we’ll cut the scene. So not only did we have the pressure of trying to find these performances with strangers in that time, we also had to fight the weather and do it within that time constraint before the light went out. We had to actually shoot another scene that could not be lit at all, so it was very stressful. And I was out in the sun for most of the day because I had to block and scout, so I was sunburned and I think I had mild sunstroke just walking around and figuring out this improvisational stuff while making sure we still had time for the next scene we were shooting.
In general, did you use ambient light?
A lot of it was lit [with artificial sources] because the light center in the strip mall was really high up and they only cast top-down light, so we had two LEDs that we did a little bit of fill light and a bit of just either highlights or backlights to make it seem like it was strip mall lights. But some scenes were natural light and we wanted to keep it looking natural — we didn’t have the budget to light it extensively, but aesthetically we wanted to keep it low-key, so it looked a bit documentary just to add to the realism and the naturalism. My cinematographer Maya Bankovic, before going into features, had done a lot of documentary work and she had worked with this two LED set-up where we’re all moving around with free-flowing handheld camera at times, just getting the light to adjust to that in a very quick and mobile way.
Was making a narrative feature any different after working on shorts?
Yes and no. In terms of production, not really, because it’s like you’re shooting four to five shorts back to back. But having to take care of an 80- to 90-minute narrative, it’s a lot to make sure everything is right about it, so it was a great challenge. Now that I’ve done it once, I want to do it again because I know the format – how it’s supposed to feel at 20 minutes, and at the midpoint, how it’s supposed to feel, because in film school, you learn about this stuff watching [films] and reading books, but it’s not until you actually go into production and post for it that you actually know what the beats feel like, so it was challenging, but it wasn’t insurmountable.
What’s it been like traveling with it?
It’s really interesting. The first time I watched the film with an audience was in Torino in Italy, so I sat there watching it subtitled, and seeing how the element of humor landed was cool because it was dialogue-based, [you’d hear it] play out on screen, and then the subtitles would come up and there was a delay and it was a bit nerveracking. But it was really fun. It was also really great to see an audience that was in Northern Italy connect with a place that was in suburban Canada, and in the festival run in the States, it’s played at a lot of Southern festivals like New Orleans, Bentonville in Arkansas and Atlanta, so it’s really interesting how it’s found its home regionally at which festivals that have programmed and played it, and seeing the film resonate has been really awesome.