There’s a certain golden glow that emanates from the films of Ruba Nadda, so when you see it at the beginning of “October Gale” for just a moment before the skies turn grey, you know something is amiss. After the Canadian filmmaker guided the gentle unrequited romance between an Egyptian man (Alexander Siddig) and the wife of a UN diplomat (Patricia Clarkson) in 2009’s “Cairo Time,” Nadda has shown a yen for mysteries, staying elusive as a filmmaker in the genres she’s explored while doing so with distinct hallmarks, whether in the way she captures the light or the actors she’s returned to in the two films that followed.
First casting Siddig as a revenge-minded intelligence officer who returns to his native Syria to track down the whereabouts of his daughter in her 2012 followup “Inescapable,” Nadda has reteamed with Clarkson in her latest film, with the luminous actress playing Helen, a recent widow who returns to the lake house she once shared with her husband to grieve, only to be visited by a stranger named William (Scott Speedman) with a nasty bullet wound to his shoulder. It’s clear William is on the run from something, but it’s up to Helen to find out what, requiring a shotgun to fend off the intruders that follow while continuing to mourn her husband.
Simultaneously showing strength for another that she can’t entirely summon for herself, Helen becomes one of more unusual action heroines you’ll see and Nadda embraces the classical structure of thrillers past, setting the action mostly in a single location on a dark and stormy night, to show just how unique it is when the obstacles she must overcome are as emotionally fraught as they are physically. Shortly before the film hits American shores, Nadda spoke about the wet and wild production that was inspired by Nadda’s own experience of being on a remote island when all communication was lost during a torrential downpour, how she incorporated the bad weather when it came and what she learned from the disappointment of her last film.
After “Cairo Time,” did you promise each of the leads a film of their own?
Yes, kind of. [laughs] Here’s the thing – as a filmmaker, when you find actors that are that good and that talented, you want to hang onto them. So I did. The irony is that with Patty, we’re hooking up for a third time. I’m working on a series with HBO that she will star in [called “Elisabeth”], so I’m very excited. If you can work with Patricia, you don’t want to let that go. She just makes you look so good.
Did you know from the start you’d be working with her on “October Gale”?
I wanted to write something for her and I remember telling her this idea that I had about a woman who was going through grief and I needed someone who could embody that. And not like movie grief. So she said, “Yeah, I’m game. I like this idea.” And I told her, “Look, this is going to be an independent movie. For it to look real, you’re going to have to do everything” and she said, “Yeah, I can do it.” And she did. It was crazy the amount of stuff that I threw at her. I thought at the end of this movie, “She’s never going to want to talk to me again.” [laughs] But she is. She’s talking to me.
One of the things that’s impressive to me is that it’s a serious movie about grief and yet it’s tucked into a very docile, action-oriented thriller, which is a combination of tones similar to your last film “Inescapable.” Do you like having that balance?
The problem with my last movie was that it was supposed to be more balanced. Here’s the problem with independent movies. At the very last minute, you end up losing all this money. With [“Inescapable”], I couldn’t shoot the script I had, so you end up losing all these scenes and it was a nightmare. With this one, I was like okay, I just have to make sure I can pull off what’s on the page. For me, [“October Gale”] was always a movie about grief and about a woman who had been with this man for her entire life and now faced with being alone. She’s not in her eighties where she’s just been through this. She’s still quite young and looking forward to the next stage of her life with this man. All of a sudden, that’s not going to happen anymore, so what does that life look like?
It’s always first and foremost about the character, so for this character going through grief, there was a part of me where I [wondered], is all [the action] happening in her head? Is this Shakespearean? With the storm, it becomes a representation of something else, so is she putting herself through this? She’s not a damsel in distress and she doesn’t need to be rescued. She saves herself, which you see so rarely see in cinema these days. Then of course, it’s a drama with thriller elements on top of it, so it’s a hard balance to pull off.
Each of the characters suffers loss in their own way – did you build them as reflections of one another or did you look into the grieving process?
Honestly, no, Because I studied literature I know when you write, you’re not writing at a conscious level, so only afterwards do you realize [how certain things connect]. As someone [recently] pointed out to me, “Cairo Time” was about an absentee husband and I’ve done it again here, so Patricia needs to constantly embody the tension of that. And I thought, oh my God, that’s a great observation and loss is the same way. All three characters are going through it and that’s why at some point as a writer, I thought, “Huh, is this happening for real? Is the man showing up a representation of the husband that she couldn’t save? And is [the second man who shows up] the anger and the frustration of the inability of saving her husband? Is the storm her internal embodiment?” You don’t know.
But I always start with my main character, which is Helen and what she’s going through. I’m also always interested in an ordinary person being caught up in an extraordinary situation. I also knew that there’s this area two hours outside of Toronto that’s quite treacherous, so nature and the storm could turn into a character of its own.
Was finding a location that could accommodate this kind of shoot – with its single setting and inclement weather – difficult?
This area is very well-known to people of Toronto. It’s incredibly remote and you’re 40 minutes away from a marina, so your cell phones don’t work. When a storm hits, you’re stuck. But when we were shooting this, it actually was like a nightmare. I remember telling Patricia, “We survived Cairo, this is going to be so easy [in comparison]. We’re in North America, it’s going to be fine.”
I wrote the script not realizing that we would actually be in the worst winter in 100 years. It was crazy. It was so cold. The lake was so dense [with ice] until two days before we were supposed to shoot on it. So at some point, I said, listen, we might as well make this work for us because we were having rain storms every single day and because it’s an independent movie to make it look as authentic as possible, we decided to shoot in the storm. When we saw storms coming, we’d drop everything we were doing and go outside and capture it, capture the fog and thunder and rain and lightning. It worked out for us because that would’ve been incredibly expensive for us to do in post and not as effective.
“October Gale” opens in limited release on March 6th. It is also available on VOD.