It’s telling that one of the moments that feels safest in Kazik Radwanski’s third feature “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” is when the title character, played by the magnetic Deragh Campbell, can be seen jumping out of a plane in the film’s opening moments. Around her is freedom as far as the eye can see as she may be tethered to a professional skydiver, but the all the anxiety that weighs her down on the ground as readily as gravity does dissipates in the sky and she looks most at ease and natural taking flight.
Back on earth is another story entirely, as Radwanski and Campbell join forces in the most dynamic of ways to tell the harrowing story of Anne as she heads back into fraught situations at both at home, where her sister Sarah is preparing to get married, and work at a daycare center where the twentysomething would appear to have more in common with the wild children she’s entrusted to watch than her co-workers, who bristle at her ambivalence towards workplace etiquette. In both respects, Anne is apt to throw caution to the wind, burrowing through life with a restless energy that manifests itself into the very fabric of the film as every scene carries a sense of danger when it seems she approaches every encounter she has as if it’s a war she needs to win. Things could change upon meeting Matt (Matt Johnson of “Operation Avalanche” and “The Dirties” fame), a guest at Sarah’s wedding who appears at first to complement Anne’s playful disposition, yet it becomes just one in a series of relationships that the young woman, fiercely protective of her independence, needs to learn how to navigate and perhaps open herself up to more than she’s currently comfortable with.
While “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” makes an immediate and indelible impression, it is the result of two years of careful cultivation, methodically making the most of a limited budget and the narrative depth that can come over time to let audiences into Anne’s mind in such a way that it won’t leave yours anytime soon. A fearless performance from Campbell, who has thrown herself into films with Nathan Silver (“Stinking Heaven”) and Matthew Porterfield (“I Used to Be Darker”) with similar abandon, makes the film impossible to look away from, even as Anne makes decisions that might leave you cringing, at times in horror and in other moments in laughter, thanks to both the actress’ and Radwanski’s wonderfully humane sensibilities. A day after the film’s hometown premiere at the Toronto Film Festival en route to the Vancouver Film Festival where it will be debuting this weekend, the star and director shared how the longitudinal approach to the character study took shape, preparing for the part of a daycare professional and filming in a real children’s center as well as how they managed to film that arresting plane scene.
How did this come about? I was surprised to hear you filmed over two years.
Kazik Radwanski: Deragh actually has a cameo in [“How Heavy This Hammer,” my previous film], playing the daycare teacher and that was sort of a screen test for this film – one of the first things that we did to [develop that sense of] does this feel right? Deragh moved to Toronto back in 2015, so that’s when we started thinking, maybe we can make a film together and then it was an ongoing conversation for a while. All my films take a while to shoot. “Hammer” took about a year-and-a-half. My short films would take three months to make, and we’re working with very limited funds and you work around people’s schedules. But [that process] is something I fell in love with, having that freedom to shoot something and then think about it, show it to the editor, cut it, and then just keep shooting.
Part of it is intentionally that long so we can grow the character. Deragh and I did a lot of backstory research, and planned it out a lot – we almost overthought it, but it really was crucial for us to have that time to learn from the character. Deragh volunteered at that daycare and worked a few shifts, and we started incorporating more and more of the teachers into the film, and their stories, and when that happened, the film came to life.
Is there a base for the character that you work out beforehand that evolves over time?
Kazik Radwanski: That’s a good way to think about it. That was the case with [my previous features] “Hammer” and Tower” – I learned to think of characters almost abstractly, knowing that it would change when I would meet the actor. And if there really is a base, or somewhere these films come from, I’m a very introspective person – almost painfully so, with these sort of angsty teen thoughts – that’s when I fell in love with cinema, was when I was in high school, so to a certain extent, maybe that’s still what I’m doing. But that process of having these ideas and then meeting a person like Derek [Bogart, the lead of “Tower”] or Erwin [Van Cottham, the lead of “How Heavy This Hammer”] and then translating those ideas, testing them, and then growing something new, was something that would always give me a lot of confidence.
This was different because it’s working with Deragh, and I almost feel like she’s doing a similar thing [where] not only am I testing the character, but so is she, and it just exponentially grew even more as we were both searching.
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, the base would be this idea that [Anne] wants to have a real life and she wants to have experiences, and friends, and love, but she easily destabilized, so there was this idea that, in the different scenarios, you’d have to remember that she has this drive to be close to people, but very quickly feels overwhelmed, so that will guide us in the scenes. Then, rather than making a decision about who the character was, it was seeing how she reacts in these different scenarios, so we would grow our understanding of her, even understanding her less.
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, I like that. It’s these dynamics that really inform the character – when she’s confronted with these conflicts or choices to make, [we ask] why is there apprehension? Or why is she going about it so boldly? Or why is she being so defensive? It’s these questions orbiting.
Deragh Campbell: Sometimes anxiety becomes a sort of narcissism. You can’t actually really think about anything beyond yourself and how you’re behaving, and [wondering] do people think you’re behaving strangely? It isolates you from other people because you realize you’re not actually paying attention to them and learning about who they are, so it’s a little bit tragic that she really prevents herself from being able to actually be close to anyone.
Deragh, you’ve worked with Nathan Silver, who I know employs a similar methodology on his films. Is that a process you enjoy, being thrown into things, and making those kinds of decisions on the fly?
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, or being thrown out of the plane. [laughs]
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, there’s definitely similarities between the way that Nathan and Kaz work in terms of orchestrating scenarios, and then the character has to react within them. Maybe the difference in Kaz’s process is that Kaz and I very much talked about what the goals were in [each] scene, and I never felt like he was throwing something at me that I didn’t expect. We were both working toward the same thing, just from different angles, and to have that kind of communication with a director is unusual and nice.
Kazik Radwanski: Also, Deragh is a filmmaker too, and so is Matt Johnson…
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, you work with actors for the first time, and they’re also filmmakers. That’s funny, I never really thought about that. And working with Matt was a real treat because it’s one thing to be a character, but to produce content, to say things, and for a conversation and dialogue to develop is a challenge. And Matt is just the ultimate producer of content. The things that he says are so brilliant, and so funny. I’ve known him for a long time, and was [thinking], “Well, he’s so funny that he’s just going to take the scene and I’ll just say nothing and watch him,” but he’s actually an extremely generous co-star. He gave me a ton of space to be able to talk, but he also brought up the energy level so much that he really changed my performance once we started working with him, because things got a little bit more frenetic from playing with him.
The camera really picks up that energy – is the camerawork intuitive or is it pretty planned out?
Kazik Radwanski: Intuitive might be the right word because I’ve worked with Nikolay [Michaylov, the cinematographer] for so long, and Nikolay does everything – he doesn’t have a grip, or an assistant camera. He comes and he sets up all the lights in a way that they won’t interfere, and then he’s so comfortable with the camera – we own the camera, so it’s always that camera, and just the four or five of us create this intimate scenario. Then on top of that, Nikolay is a master of not interfering with the action and having the instincts of when to adjust. So much is unspoken, and a lot of times, I’m not there. If Deragh is wandering into a classroom, I’m not going to go in too. And I couldn’t fit in the plane when she jumped out, so a lot of times it is Nikolay and his intuition.
Was that actually your first time jumping out of a plane?
Deragh Campbell: Oh yeah. Definitely not something that I had any desire to do beforehand.
What was it like to figure out how to film? You actually get coverage because you see the iPhone footage.
Kazik Radwanski: We had to get a bit creative, and we shot it a bunch of times. The first thing we shot was Deragh jumping out of the plane, which was great motivationally, but when Nikolay and I looked at the footage, we thought it could be better, and we didn’t have the heart to ask Deragh to jump again, so we decided I would stand in for Deragh. So I jumped out of the plane for the first time and we tested multiple cameras on me and it looked good, so then we convinced Deragh to jump out again.
And that scene where she’s in mid-air, floating, we had this idea of her fainting and waking up, and not only did Deragh try that, but she did four takes of that in mid-air – she’s directing her own scene that she’s acting in, in mid-air, fainting, waking up with a jumper. And it was great working with the jumpers. Every skydiver is a filmmaker. GoPro has made it so central [to the experience that] their jumps are all about, what can they film in mid-air? How can they share their jumps? So it was great collaborating with them as actors – some of them even made it into the film [in additional scenes].
While that’s harrowing, the daycare center looks equally tense. What was it like filming there?
Kazik Radwanski: I always write for locations I know, and my mom has worked at that daycare for 40 years, and she appears in the film – she plays the supervisor. I went there as a child, so it was always that daycare and there were a few different processes of how we did those [scenes].
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, there are actually two sets of kids that go to the daycare, so with permission forms, [we could get coverage] would be used for a lot more of the getting the real atmosphere of the daycare, then there was a set of child actors that are more the kids that you get to know. So those were shot separately, and then in the film, they’re combined.
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, so Deragh could just drop into a classroom and be the teacher, and we would literally follow her like a documentary, and she would just improvise with children in the room on the spot.
Deragh Campbell: And in terms of working with the kids, I was doing some training shifts at the daycare, and the people at Children Circle are amazing. You realize to have to pay that much attention at all times is really exhausting, and you learn the ways that they pace themselves. They don’t behave like hosts of a children’s television show, engaging with the kids like, “Hey, what are you doing?” They’re very respectful and they really treat them like people, but they’re also very casual about it. So that was important for me to learn in terms of realistically portraying someone that works in a daycare center.
Was the subject of sharks expected to become such a big topic of conversation amongst the children as it ends up being?
Deragh Campbell: The sharks were not planned – that was all Oliver [the young boy obsessed with sharks].
Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, only Oliver could write that. His interest in sharks never wavered over the two-year period of shooting, it was always the first topic of conversation, and he always had a stuffed shark with him. He is an expert in the field.
What was the hometown premiere like for you?
Kazik Radwanski: Good. Cathartic. Yeah, it feels like a culmination of a lot of things and it was emotional too, just having so many friends and family [at the premiere] and just how much they’re intertwined with the film. Seeing my mom, my sister, my girlfriend there, and then the same with Deragh, whose sibling is in the film or just having your mom there [at the premiere]…
Deragh Campbell: Yeah, both my parents were there. And my dad is a classical theater actor, and my mom is a theater director, so it was really important for me to get their reactions on the performance because I mean, they know so much about acting and I’m pretty hard on myself. There were times [during filming] where I was like, I could be doing more, I could be giving more, showing more, and it was really nice, when watching the film, to [see] there was more going on in my face and my body than I had thought, and that actually makes me more excited about acting than I’ve ever been before and for my parents to be excited and impressed by the performance was very moving.
“Anne at 13,000 Ft.” will open in New York on September 3rd at the Quad Cinema and September 10th at the Laemmle Royal.