Since there are moments that feel dreamlike in “No Stranger Than Love,” perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Nick Wernham didn’t get any sleep while making it.
“I slept 90 minutes to two hours a night for six weeks,” says Wernham, who made his feature debut on “No Stranger Than Love.” “It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re excited from shooting, and nervous about the next day, and going through dailies, and making sure everything is in order for the next day.”
He had reason to be excited. Assembling a cast that includes Alison Brie, Justin Chatwin and Colin Hanks, among others, “No Stranger Than Love” may appear at first to be an ordinary comedy, just as its setting of Spot Valley appears to be an ordinary town which would seem to revolve around Lucy (Brie), a comely schoolteacher who is hit on by everyone from her students (noting the age difference between Napoleon and his betrothed) to her trash collectors who flex their muscles in front of her house. However, her heart belongs to the school’s married gym teacher Clint (Hanks), whose plan to slip into her side door one evening ends horribly under surreal circumstances, leading to a search involving the entire town, as well as a stranger named Rydell (Chatwin), who are deceived by Lucy about his true whereabouts for fear of revealing he’s having an affair.
Although Wernham and screenwriter Steve Adams go down a familiar path watching Lucy begin to reevaluate her feelings for the absent Clint as she strikes up a relationship with Rydell, they delve deeper than most romantic comedies, gently investigating the idea of the personas that are constructed for us by others and the anxiety of living up to certain expectations, especially for someone considered as perfect as Lucy. The surreal nature of how the film gets there leads to more direct emotions on the part of its cast, who uniformally handle the film’s lighter and heavier scenes with grace, as does its director Wernham, who only hours before the film’s world premiere as the closing night film of the Newport Beach Film Festival, spoke about how he found the right tone for “No Stranger Than Love,” his path into the movie business and experiencing moviemaking anew on the set of his first feature.
What got you interested in the film?
I was a [production assistant] back in spring 2008 on the first feature that my friend Paul Fler produced. We became quite close and I went away to film school in Toronto, and after coming back and doing a few shorts, he knew I was looking for a project to do as my first feature. He brought me the script [“No Stranger Than Love”] and I just loved it right away. The themes really mean a lot to me – how odd love is and the ways that you need to grow as a person to be ready to really love. It’s so inspiring. It also just seemed like the kind of thing that I understood how to tell visually and that actors would be really interested in doing because the characters are so rich. It felt different from other romantic comedies because of the structure and because of the themes it deals with.
What was it like to build this slightly surreal world?
That was really fun. I spent about three months with our production designer Adam Wilson and our cinematographer Michael LeBlanc going through every single scene. Well in advance of shooting, we did story boards and we scouted the locations with those in mind. Obviously, things needed to be adapted.
The story to me is very much like a folktale, so I wanted the movie to feel like a cinematic expression of the tradition of old storytelling. You can picture someone around a campfire minus the narrator aspect of it, as if they were doing it with a camera instead of with their voice. When you think of folk tales, you think of [books with] these beautiful illustrations that have bright colors and a kind of flatness to them. Because of that flatness, we had to shoot most of the film with a rather deep depth of field compared with other of modern films, which often use a shallow depth of feel as a way of creating a separation between the stuff in the background and making them pop out. We used color and light as a way of creating that separation too and it fits with that illustrated style and because we needed to in order to create three-dimensional depth in the image.
Was it difficult to keep it grounded when you’ve got a premise that involves the audience to take a little leap of faith with the way Clint disappears?
The trickiest things were actually the logistical things. It makes it a lot easier when you’ve got a really, really great cast. Not just the leads but the supporting actors too. That makes you feel really confident that once you’re ready to go and you have everything set up, they’re going to deliver. There’s nothing worse than everything being great and then the performance just doesn’t cut it. I’ve observed it on other people’s sets and fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with that during my career up to this point.
My favorite comedies are often the ones that play things very sincerely and frankly, I think sincerity is a little underrepresented in movies, especially in comedies these days. I like the idea that yes, the characters can be silly and the circumstances can be unusual, but that it’s an honest kind of silliness [where] the silliness emerges from the writing rather than from the actor mugging for the camera or expecting the audience to laugh in a way that a laugh track might.
There are certainly great examples of comedy where an actor’s performance emphasizes the humor of the scene, but I don’t think it would have worked with this story. It would have felt dishonest and it would have diminished the feeling in it as we’re going for something that gets pretty big at the end on an emotional level. At least, that’s what I hope the effect is.
Was making a feature a different experience than you had making shorts?
It was. Every day, I was encountering firsts. I was working with people in nearly every position who were more experienced at their job than me, which in itself was intimidating, but also very positive in that I felt really confident that everyone else would do a wonderful job and they did.
But honestly, I was a little bit of a nervous wreck through a lot of it. It had nothing to do with the story, more just the fact that I was anxious about doing my first feature. It means a lot to me. Happily, we worked so hard in prep, and I had such a patient, caring group of people to work with who I had already established positive relationships with, particularly on the crew side. I didn’t meet our cast until just before we started shooting, aside from auditions for the supporting roles.
How did you actually get interested in filmmaking?
I was studying English Lit and cinema studies at the University of Toronto, but I’m not really an academic. I was never too passionate about that, so I decided to drop it and go to film school. In California, I went to the [L.A. branch of the] New York Film Academy and did a one-year program there and really learned a lot. More than anything else, it convinced me that this is absolutely what I want to do with the rest of my life professionally. You get an opportunity to make a lot of mistakes, to do a lot of little projects that aren’t very good and try things that you don’t really understand how to do so you can work out what doesn’t work. That gave me a lot of confidence.
I went back home to Toronto and made a couple of shorts with my brother Simon, who a filmmaker too, very talented. He’s also in the film as one of the garbagemen [who tries to impress Brie’s character Lucy]. After the experience of making those shorts, the next logical step is to do a feature and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work with Paul and to do this script specifically. It’s just been great.
Now that you’re about to release it into the world, is the film different than you thought it would be when you first read it?
It’s different and the experience of making a feature was different than I thought it would be too. There are moments in the film that I wish I had another crack at, but there’s also happy accidents that are really better than I imagined them being. I felt confident that we would have good performances – I feel like if you can have two things be great in the film and everything else be just okay, you’d easily pick the story and the performances. That’s what engages an audience more than anything else. But I think those are better than I expected.