Accessibility has always been an issue when telling a story involving the death penalty and the first thing you notice about “My Days of Mercy” is how inviting it is. Knowing the importance of disarming audiences that might raise their defenses at the mere mention of the subject, writer Joe Barton and director Tali Shalom-Ezer have meticulously calibrated a warm, engaging drama that comes to you, most immediately by bathing the film in vibrant oranges and reds and catching one’s ear with the tangy repartee between sisters Lucy (Ellen Page) and Martha Moro (Amy Seimetz), along with their younger brother Ben (Charlie Shotwell), as they make their way to dutifully attend a protest against the lethal injection at a state prison in Eddysville, Kentucky. The family’s reasons for being there aren’t entirely selfless, as the film is slow to reveal the details of their mother’s death, but in using the mystery around what drives to them to gas up their RV to show their support at every execution happening within driving distance of their home in Ohio when they can barely make ends meet as well as Lucy’s attraction to a young woman she often sees on the other side of the protest line (Kate Mara), “My Days of Mercy” is unusually effective in getting at the heart of an issue through one’s actual heart.
Given that the object of Lucy’s affections is actually named Mercy, “My Days of Mercy” isn’t above being a bit on the nose, but it’s indicative of an emotional directness throughout Shalom-Ezer’s American feature debut, following her devastating 2014 Israeli drama “Princess,” that proves refreshing as the film dives headfirst into a torrid romance that develops between the two in spite of their opposing ideologies. With a natural intimacy forged in real life between friends Page and Mara, who co-produced the movie together, radiating on screen, “My Days of Mercy” finds the pair taking comfort in each other’s arms as they live their lives outside the protests in equally untenable positions. While Lucy grapples with what would be a satisfactory measure of justice in a case that has torn apart her family, Mercy’s involvement in her first lesbian relationship would surely put her at odds with her conservative clan, if only they knew. Shortly before “My Days of Mercy” premiered to an enthusiastic reception at the Toronto Film Festival, Shalom-Ezer spoke about the great care that went into taking on such sensitive subjects in the film, personalizing a scenario that geographically took place so far away and finding prisons to shoot at.
How did you get involved in this?
Right after I premiered my previous movie at Sundance, I signed to an agency and my agent sent me many scripts. After I read [“My Days of Mercy”], I felt wow, I can really envision the story and I feel such a strong connection to the characters. I knew already that Ellen Page and Kate Mara were attached as the leads but also as producers, so then I had a Skype meeting with them for like 20 minutes and we had like a really nice dynamic. Five minutes after the Skype meeting, I got a official request to direct this movie.
That was like, wow, for me too. [laughs]
Was that an interesting scenario to walk into since Kate and Ellen go back aways?
It was huge advantage, because they are so close to each other, so we didn’t have to build the dynamic from scratch – the fact that they love each other, they care about each other, and they are so supportive. That was the most special thing for me, actually, from the very beginning. When I saw them, the way that they talk about each other, how they, they are very supportive to one another. This is something that I could use, you know, to build a real truthful dynamic on screen.
Did you actually have rehearsals?
Yeah, we had an intense week of rehearsals. At first, we spent a few days in LA at Ellen’s house – me, the DP Radek [Ladczuk], and Ellen and Kate – and we did a lot of improvisation and had a lot of discussions about the characters and the mood that we’re trying to create. Then we had a few days in Cincinnati before the shoot, which was more [with] the family, Amy Seimetz and Charlie Shotwell, the boy, and the father [played by Elias Koteas].
Did Kate and Ellen immediately know which role they wanted to play?
They had like a second of discussion about that, but what’s funny is when Joe Barton wrote the script years ago, he had Ellen Page in mind, even before she approached him with [making it], so this is very special, and he only told her that while we were on set. She didn’t know.
When you’re making a film involving a subject like the death penalty, how conscious was it to disarm the audience stylistically?
The focal point for me was always Lucy’s character, because I really wanted to know and understand her as much as I can. When I read the script, I always had the feeling that her life is frozen. When she was 14, she had this trauma of finding her mother’s body when she was like half-alive, half-dead, and since then everything stopped – for her, for her sister, for this family – and I really wanted to express that, the feeling that this family is stuck in the past. That’s the way we created the house [where] it’s kind of broken and messy and everything is a bit old, and also [it’s in] the colors that we used. Radek and I looked a lot at Kodachrome photos from the ’70’s, and we really liked the colors and the feeling when you look at these, because for me in my heart, when I imagine the past, I think about Kodachrome pictures.
We also know that it’s a love story, so Radek and I tried to create this kind of atmosphere [by using] a lot of warm colors. Radek is a very close friend of mine – we’ve made three movies together – and he’s Polish, so he always likes to go in a cold direction with colors, so I told him, “Okay, no blue. We are not going to use blue.” That was a rule for us because we wanted to go in a different direction. When you’re in love, there is so much light inside of it. Even in [Lucy’s] circumstances, this is the most beautiful part of our life, so we feel inspired, we feel happy. You can laugh, even if you have horrible circumstances, and that was why it’s so beautiful in my perspective when they see each other at a protest, like in Missouri, for instance, the background is so crazy, but then they see each other and this is the focus. They feel these gentle emotions and they are so happy because their heart is open to each other. And to tackle this issue, it was always going to focus on Lucy, and the dynamic between her and Mercy.
You have a really diverse international crew. Is that an advantage in looking at the American Midwest in a new light?
I don’t know if this is advantage or not, but I always bring myself [to the story]. The reason why I wanted to tell this story is because I know that I grew up in a different country, but I also grew up as a queer in a very small town and I felt, in many ways, similarities from my life to [Lucy]. That was more when I was a teenager, but it felt a little lonely, in terms of feeling that you are different and that you have some intuitions about people that you cannot share, so you have this inner struggle. You want to express yourself and be who you are, but you know that you have to find a way to, so that’s the story that I tried to tell.
Of course, she grew up in the Midwest, and mostly I knew about it from movies, but I spent some few months there before the shoot in order to really to understand the details of her environment, but at the beginning of the process, this is something very personal for me that I feel this [emotional] connection.
I’m also very lucky to have Einat Glaser-Zarhin as my editor. She’s Israeli, and based in Tel Aviv, but she grew up in Cleveland, which is funny, so she always had very good intuitions on how to create the right pace [to get the rhythm of life there right]. Our goal was always to express Lucy or Mercy’s state of mind when they are together and we wanted to be as accurate as possible to her true emotions, so that took some time, and we looked at several rough cuts until we got to the right pace.
Did you actually shoot the different protests at different prisons?
Lucy is from Monroe, Ohio, and we shot everything around Cincinnati, Ohio. The old penitentiaries look a little bit similar, but the Lebanon Correctional Center is a maximum security prison that was like a complex, so they have three different prisons in the same space and they all looked a little bit different, so we used that.
Who came up with the brilliant idea of introducing each execution with the prisoner’s final meal?
It was in the script. I really liked the idea that there are chapters in the movie, because she tells her story in this very specific time in her life, you know, that in four months her father will be executed, probably, and she just meets this woman and falls in love with her, so it’s a very special time in Lucy’s life, and I kind of like it that it has these chapters, that every time that they meet, it’s like a new chapter.
I usually ask what days of shooting were the craziest, but was it those protests with all those extras?
We had a lot of crazy days of shooting because as you could see, it’s really emotional movie, and the challenge is, as actresses obviously, but also as a director, that you have to go through these emotions and you have to contain it. Even as a director, I have to be in this realm of dark, painful emotions, so it wasn’t easy, because sometimes when we shoot a scene, it obviously takes longer than the actual time in the movie, so like for a few hours you really have to experience these emotions. That was challenging. And the scenes outside of prison, we were lucky to have the most amazing extras. This is something very special for me in America all the extras are just the most professional. It was quite shocking because it was [completely] new to me.
Was it much of a transition for you to helm an American production?
I got a lot of freedom. I’m used to total freedom because in Israel the film funds are there to support artists, so directors always have the final cut, and here it’s a little bit different, but the reality was that [the producers] Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa are so pro-directors, I really felt that they were so respectful to my perspective. Even if they gave feedback, [it felt like], “Okay, this is your movie. We’ll give you our opinions from our experience” – and they’re well-experienced – “but it’s your call. You have to make the decision.” I was grateful for that because I know that it’s not all the time like that in the States, so it was special.
What’s it like to premiere in Toronto?
It’s quite overwhelming, because even though it’s a collaboration of so many people, for me still filmmaking is a very intimate process. It’s something very personal where we’re keeping ourselves isolated from the [outside], and when I’m with the DP, we build our own world, and then rejoin the actresses, and then we build our own world in the editing, so it’s such a private process and then you show it to everybody. But it’s really great. I feel so excited to present the movie. I love my characters and I love the people that I worked with, so I’m very proud to screen it here.