SXSW 2023 Interview: Sophie Jarvis on Turning a Bug Into a Feature in “Until Branches Bend”

Unfortunately, Robin (Grace Glowicki) can relate all too much these days to the job she has in “Until Branches Bend,” canning freshly picked peaches from the glorious, sun-dappled valley in Western Canada as she’s feeling increasingly confined herself at a time when she should be flourishing. It was inevitable that she would fall into the local trade after her mother passed away all too young herself, leaving her to take care of her younger sister Laney (Alexandra Roberts), and though the small town is the kind of inviting place that it would seem no one would ever want to leave, the fear of trying to make it work anywhere else has made it untenable. Ironically, Laney is even more restless upon hitting her teenage years, looking to get out from under the thumb of her sister, yet neither feel they have the wherewithal to leave in spite of having little to stick around for but each other. An unhappy situation is made worse, or so one might think when Robin comes across an unusually rotten piece of fruit on the factory line, concerned that the same bug that once destroyed the crops on her family farm has reared its ugly head again, yet it is able to clarify how the she and her sister have started to see the community they were raised in when many turn against her as her reporting the big to the powers that be threatens a shutdown of the factory, putting everyone’s livelihoods in town at risk during the height of the season.

Well before Jarvis summons a swarm of beetles to overtake the town, the filmmaker stirs things up in her arresting debut feature when she’s able to lay bare Robin’s anxieties in parallel to the precarious economics that on which the agricultural region uneasily rests, ever beholden to the whims of nature yet also seemingly controlled by the worst human impulses from greed to racism when profit overrides safety and the chain of decision makers sees the indigenous in the fields having to report to your usual country club set that doesn’t miss an opportunity to get a few rounds in, even when they’re on the clock. Jarvis isn’t one to take her eye off the ball when Robin has a fascinating dilemma all her own in wondering whether she should put her own interests above those around her for once, but gracefully examine the entire world that she’s a product of and why it’s so hard for her to pull away. Not only is the filmmaker going places, but “Until Branches Bend” has as well, recently making its U.S. debut at SXSW in advance of its theatrical run across Canada and while in Austin, Jarvis spoke about her personal ties to the place she filmed in, working with her brother Kieran on the film’s evocative score and the texture added by the decision to film on 16mm.

This is an amazing location. How did you find the right place to set this?

We filmed in an area called the Okanagan, this area in the interior of [British Columbia] where my mom grew up and I grew up spending a lot of time there. As you can tell from the film, it’s a beautiful, idyllic-seeming space and I’ve just always wanted to make something very atmospheric. My grandfather lives next door to a family that has a peach orchard, just down this street from where my mom grew up and it’s a really wonderful family who were just happy to have us come in and film there. It’s such a small community, everyone was excited about the film and there’s a huge agricultural economy there and my mom actually used to work in a fruit-packing house, so I had heard a few stories about it in my childhood and I wanted to do a bit more research to find the story.

Did the story of these two sisters come with the territory?

I thought the sisters were an interesting dynamic because there’s such an age gap between them, so it was this idea that Robin was about the same age as Laney when she became the caregiver for Lainey [as their mother was to Robin], so there’s this parallel where she can see herself in her younger sister, but maybe there’s a divergence happening, so it’s this reflection helps with what she’s struggling with, which is wanting things to stay the same, but also needing to be a big change.

How did Grace and Alexandra come to mind for this as the sisters?

Grace is such a fantastic actor. She always brings something really unique to every role she does and [once] we decided to work with her, then we had a chance to look for someone to play her sister and we were casting during COVID, so of course everything was happening on Zoom, [where] the dynamic between different actors was really hard to figure out. We looked for a long, long time for the right Laney and it was Alexandra’s first role, but there was just something about her that felt really right. The tape that she sent in was really great and we did a bit of an unusual casting process [where she and Grace] spent a bit more time just on Zoom together, just chatting and doing a bit of improvisational stuff just to loosen things up a little and see if they could be a good fit. They really hit it off and it was really great to finally see them meet in person for the first time before we went to camera and it worked really well with them.

And I had to ask about your brother Kieran, who I only realized afterwards did the score, which seems foundational to this. How early are you talking about the music?

My brother is such a great composer and we’ve worked on other films together, and what I love about working with him is that he knows me and my sensibility super well, so we have a lot of great conversations, but there’s also just an innate understanding based on the fact that we have this existing relationship. And I’m so proud of the score, but we weren’t sure what instruments we were going to be using until we were in post. That was one of the really fun things for me in post — I love pre-production and production, but post has a special place in my heart because I find sometimes by then it’s good to get a shake up, so we were just talking about different ways that it could go. When we locked into the flute score, that’s when it really started to feel like the right tone — that playful, strange, surreal element that you wouldn’t think of first for this film and then the vocals came. We listened to a lot of voices, trying to try to keep it spare and seeing the vocals as being part of like the insect world and maybe something that only Robin can hear and punctuates her experience psychologically whereas the flute fills out the rest of the space as well.

There’s that great scene set in the dark late in the film where it all comes to a crescendo and you can see Robyn moving in silhouette, almost literally twisting herself into knots – it’s hard to think you didn’t have the music in mind before then.

I’m so happy you brought that scene up. One thing I was really happy we did in this film was to hire a movement director Kara Hornland, who has this really great background in dance and choreography and [has] the understanding of trying to create art through movement, so that scene was a very much a collaboration between Kara and Grace and myself. We did have some music to play for it, but it was never quite exactly right. We more used it as something to move to, and we wanted to feel a heartbeat, like a coaxing to happen, but we really composed that later on in post. That was a really great experience.

Although I imagine some of the bug scenes also had to be done in post, I understand all that grew out of deep research. What was it like to figure out?

It’s not a real bug, and I knew it had to be fictional because it is a speculative story. This is not something that actually happened, but it’s based in the research I did. I talked to a lot of scientists at the research lab and farmers in the area, just to figure out what the impact of something like this would be and what was important to me was that the bugs echo a lot of the other themes in the film, which is to say something that’s under the surface then has to come to light. So I wanted to find a bug that would be able to lay eggs on the roots of trees, and that it would be a rotting from the ground up rather than seeing it visibly and we had to devise a bug had chewing properties and could fly, and was big enough to be surprising, but also not so shocking that people would totally disregard it.

The bug that we actually wound up using was [modeled on] something called the darkening beetle, which is a real black beetle. It’s very common and not a dangerous bug. Again, it’s not one that can become invasive really, it’s quite controlled and based on that, we then had a pre-vis artist design the markings you see on its shell and we were able to create molds, so we had a ton of fake bugs [for] when the bugs are dead, you have these things that look quite real. It was really important to me that we did as much practically as we could because it just looks better and the whole film rides on the believability of this bug and how it culminates, so we were pretty careful with that, but then we also worked with the visual effects artists very closely in order to create the moving bugs, putting the markings right on the shells.

There’s a scene when you sit there long enough with a rotting peach that you know the factory is closing. Did that take extreme patience?

Yeah, that’s a funny story. We wanted to have this image of a peach on the ground, slowly rotting in the sun and we wanted to have a bug come in because of course, we had to throw in as many as we could in there. When you have a peach sitting out in the sun, bugs will [generally] come anyways, but on this day, they just didn’t come, and we did have a bug wrangler, but our sweet art team went around with a little net and a cup and a piece of paper and found a little bug just flitting about and caught it. Right when we were rolling, they released it and the bug luckily went straight to the juice.

You only have a limited amount of takes when you’re filming on 16mm, which really puts the pressure on. What was it like making that decision for the film?

It just felt right, and of course, it’s an expensive [process], but we were lucky to be able to do so. My [director of photography] Jeremy Cox have worked together on lots of other projects together, including a few short films and music videos, and [16] just marries the visual language that we both really connect to. Also the location we were shooting in was just begging for it — the quality of the [16mm celluloid] really brings out that very dusty, pastel palette of this hot summer place and 16 has that extra bit of texture which really helps underline just the tone of the film itself, so it felt like a no-brainer.

Was there anything that happened you might not have expected, but could embrace?

For a long time we were looking for a dog to play Rupert, the [sisters’] dog and we just weren’t finding the right guy. One day we were location scouting and we wound up at this great house and the people there were so kind — their names are James and Megan — and there was this incredible labradoodle who was so friendly. There was a whole crew scouting and this dog just was so unfazed by all these people, so we asked James and Megan if they would be interested in diverting their careers to include having a dog wrangling position on the film. They were really keen on it and Rupert became part of the movie and was everyone’s favorite. He was just such a joy to have around. We wound up filming at [James and Megan’s] place as well and they were so supportive. It was just a really great small town kind of place [where] everyone opened their doors to us. We were so lucky.

Was doing a feature any different than your shorts? I know you’ve actually been keeping busy with both.

It’s a lot harder to get a feature off the ground, of course, especially when it’s your first feature and there was a lot of due diligence that gets done to make sure that it’s really going to go off without a hitch, so a lot of patience comes into it whereas with my shorts, I’ve been very lucky to just be able to throw them together once in a while and go for it with my [team]. But I think it was worth the wait for this one. Our script really got better over the years of waiting, so that was good. And it’s funny [because I was simultaneously working on the short] “Zeb’s Spider,” a start-motion animation that we created with the National Film Board of Canada, which was such an amazing thing because they were able to fund it properly and it really had the same timeline as the feature, so I was doing both at the same time.

[“Zeb’s Spider”] is only a 10-minute short, but it takes a year to film because you’re only getting two to three seconds a day of footage, and then [you also have] the year before that of building all the sets and all the puppets, so I had a very strange parallel experience of being in a studio all the time, working with puppets and doing this very incremental process. Whereas with a feature you’re just under fire — you’re running, running, running. So I actually had to take a break from the stop-motion. We were well on our way by then, and Alicia Eisen, our animator and co-director, was still animating while I went to shoot my feature, so when I was gone for those six weeks, I think she filmed about 20 seconds of footage on our short film and we shot a whole feature in the same amount of time, so they’re just very, very opposite processes, but still very rewarding and a nice balance because of the differences.

What’s this week like with SXSW and the Canadian release of “Until Branches Bend” approaching?

I feel very, very lucky. It’s my first time here at South By and so far it’s been a ton of fun. It’s been so great to just go see movies in theaters [with] people who are really excited about seeing films and our U.S. premiere at South By is one week from our Canadian theatrical release on March 20th, so it all feels very serendipitous in a good way.

“Until Branches Bend” will open at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver on March 24th, the Winnipeg Cinematheque starting March 29th, and the Revue Cinema in Toronto starting April 14th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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