TIFF 2020 Interview: Sasha Leigh Henry on Building a Strong Vessel for a Difficult Conversation in “Sinking Ship”

It’s the dinner table conversation that no one wants to have when the unnamed man (Herschel Andoh) and woman (Jenny Brizard) sit down at a fancy restaurant in “Sinking Ship.” In a relationship that’s pushed past its expiration date, the two only have sour expressions to offer one another as they plod through a meal that not even the scotch — double, on the rocks — that she orders is making any easier, with the realization that middle age will soon be upon them emboldening each to come clean with their dissatisfaction towards one another.

As heavy a talk as the two may have, you can marvel even more at how it might be even more daunting for director Sasha Leigh Henry to stage, taking screenwriter Tania Thompson’s delicious war of words and making it every bit as juicy cinematically despite the couple never leaving their seats. With an ominous painting of the ocean for a backdrop, the pair hash out their differences as if they’re struggling to stay afloat when each barb about how one holds the other back threatens to plunge them into despair. They may not show restraint in detailing just how they’ve come to inhibit one another, but Henry does, allowing the passion that they’ve been withholding recently in their relationship to be put on blast with a masterful use of close-ups and editing choices that focus on what each is taking away from the conversation, listening and processing as much as they are talking.

Notably, as the two are describing their unfulfilled needs to each other, “Sinking Ship” offers audiences something they may not know they have needed before themselves with who it decides to give center stage to. Before the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Fest as part of the Short Cuts Program 5 on September 15th, Henry spoke about the importance of bringing a diversity of experiences to the screen, how being able to trust her actors opened up the cinematic opportunities of the film, and the longtime collaborations that have become the foundation for such exciting work.

How did this come about?

My longtime collaborator Tania Thompson reached out to me January of last year while we were both traveling and she said she wanted to write a script about a man and a woman, focusing on how the power dynamics start to change when attraction changes and the kind of power dynamics that are inherent in attraction. And we’ve collaborated in a number of different ways over the years, but this was the first time she was sitting exclusively in the writer role and I was exclusively in the director role.

From what I gather, you’re younger than the age of the characters in this film. Was it interesting to find your way into this kind of frank conversation that takes place?

It’s interesting because Tania and I often refer to ourselves as like the perfect Venn diagram. She is older and I’m Black and she’s Caucasian and my background is Jamaican. Her family background is Canadian, and where those things intersect in terms of sensibility on art, humor and feminism, the hustle of making things, lands in a place that offers a really unique perspective in the things that we make. In this one, I feel like people of my age might feel instinctively or have the thought of what’s happening in this conversation [that takes place in “Sinking Ship”] later down the line in the thirties or early forties, but we don’t quite have the vocabulary to refer to it yet, so there’s something relatable in what’s happening between the man and woman on screen, just the idea that you can see a couple, especially on the woman’s side, and have it called out that “I’m not going to change and you’re not going to change and that’s fine.” That we’re going to either let this relationship be or not be as the people that we are and that’s totally okay. There’s something in it for me that was there to be able to lean into while not necessarily being a nearly 40 woman that was faced with that. People grow at all stages. You might not have outgrown your partner, but you have grown or you might have seen yourself shift.

When Tania comes back with a script that’s set at a dinner table with two people talking, it’s that intimidating to make cinematic?

I knew that she wanted me to direct it and I was very open to that and we had as a reference the dinner table scene of “Unbreakable,” [because] we really wanted to just create a zoned in experience and it’s really the intro to a scene where they find them through the restaurant, but they [zoom in] very, very slowly until it’s them up close. It’s quite cinematic because they take up the entire screen and you slowly start to forget they’re in a restaurant, save for some noises, and I liked what that did because this conversation is a bit heady and wordy, so you really want to pay attention, especially because it is in French. I wanted to really give people not very much else to look at other than what they were saying and how it was registering for each of the characters.

Was it much of a decision to shoot in French? Your earlier short was in English, so it seemed like it might’ve been a choice.

It definitely was a choice. I’m always trying to direct and create what I feel like I’m not seeing and expanding what’s possible for women, especially black women, on screen. When I considered the possibility, we live in Canada and I hadn’t seen any Black French-speaking people in contemporary cinema period, having a conversation like this that was a bit untethered from the larger social or societal strife that comes with Blackness. So it was challenging to find, but I’m really so glad we held out and made the push for it and didn’t give in because Jenny [Brizard] and Herschel [Andoh] really knocked it out of the park.

How did you find them?

We worked with Millie Tom, who helped as a casting consultant, and I’m used to doing my own work while working with a casting consultant when searching for performers of color, especially for comedy, going to the job boards and things like that. I’m not afraid to watch a bunch of self-tapes. Jenny was one of the few Black women that was submitted by other agents for her, and she actually came in and read for English, but then I saw on [her resume] that she had French on there, so I asked her to do it in French and she was fantastic and had a beautiful French accent.

Then I wanted to find a counter to her and again, it really was important to try and keep it a black couple talking about love and dissecting that on its own and not be completely tied to their Blackness. We didn’t get nearly as many submissions for [the male] role, but the few that we did get didn’t quite work. And my deadline for casting was Wednesday and I hadn’t made a decision yet, and the goal was to go with someone of a different ethnicity or background, but very late on a Friday, we get a self-tape from Herschel and it’s friggin’ fantastic. I’m like “Dammit, there it is.” So we were behind by three days…or really five because of the weekend, but we got him in. And [Herschel’s] self-tape was great, but I needed to see them together and it was one week before we shot, when I met Jenny and Herschel and they came in and read together. It was absolutely on like gangbusters.

Did they bring something out in this that you may not have expected, just from seeing the script?

Where it landed is the ideal I could’ve hoped for, but [did I know] I would be able to get that in that kind of timeframe and with what were such big roles [for the actors]? That I wasn’t sure. I set up a plan as a director to try as much as possible to get that and I was very frank with the actors in saying, “I know this is big. I know this is a lot. And if we can really settle into and you can really own this conversation, it will come away as really natural.”

I think one of my strong suits as a director is that I love to sit with actors and create backstory and give them a wealth of information and emotional mapping to pull from and I think Jenny and Herschel were both in the space where as actors they were really feeling ready for a role like this and could receive what I had to offer really, really well. It feels like there’s so much more and they’re holding it back, so they had to know the history of this relationship, what had happened, what had started to change for him, why she started to care, where is she at – we did a lot of deep work on that, and we did rehearsals and Herschel credits Jenny with really pushing him to get to the place where he delivers on screen. The Saturday and Sunday before the shoot, they spent all day together until late in the night and they made little tweaks just to make sure they really had that dynamic between them. The first take, we were only going to do a third of the script, but I just let it keep going because they were just so in it and really doing such a great job.

What went into the painting that’s directly behind them?

It was always supposed to be this esoteric clinical conversation [going on] while there was something happening [with] the mural, and the way it moves is something we found in the VFX process. The limitations were quite interesting because the entire restaurant is VFX, save for the tables that they’re sitting at, and we did that so we could dictate what that photorealistic painting looked like from the very beginning. We did play with the idea of finding a reference and trying to play with that in post, but that had too many complications that we couldn’t reshoot for, so we just went with green screen for the whole thing, which was a bit of a nerve-racking layer, so until I was able to see a couple later drafts of VFX, it was hard to even see how it would come together.

But it completely did. What’s it like to get into the Toronto Film Fest and bring this out into the world?

It’s a huge and incredible feeling.. My first film “Bitches Love Brunch,” was very much the comedy it sounds like, so this is a bit different in terms of tone and even what we’ve attempted with the VFX is a quite a leap, so to get the high five from TIFF, which has been a huge part of my filmmaking career – I used to volunteer at the festival when I was in university to try and stay connected to the film community, is really nice. And the upside of having to watch from home is I feel I’ll get to watch more films than I ever did before without having to worry about downtime between venues or having to line up or where I can get free samples… [laughs]

I’ve been hoarding Lindt Truffles, trying to recapture the experience.

Yeah, I miss the Nespresso. [laughs]

I noticed Kelly Fyffe Marshall was an assistant director on this, and you were a producer on her film “Black Bodies,” which got into the Short Cuts as well. What was it like having two films in for you each?

It was the craziest 12 hours of our careers. I’m going to confidently say that for all of us. She, I and Tamar Bird have been collaborating for quite some time and it literally was like, “Oh my gosh…” I saw the e-mail and we got on the call and [starts screaming] and then literally an hour later, Tamar had gotten the news that we had gotten the Telefilm Funding for Kelly’s first feature, so we got on the call and [screaming] and then I went to bed and got up the next morning and saw “Sinking Ship” had gotten in and I called them again and [started screaming], so it was a very surreal 24 hours. When it rains, it pours, good and bad, and in such stark juxtaposition to everything that’s going on in the state of the world, it was a welcome reprieve, I must say, for those 24 hours.

“Sinking Ship” will screen online at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th at 6 pm as part of Short Cuts Programme 5.