We had the honour of asking Newfoundland author and filmmaker Melanie Oates a few questions about her first-time feature Body & Bones, which stars Kelly Van der Burg and Joel Thomas Hynes. The film tells the story of Tess, a young woman stuck in a small town, and her uncontrollable longing for musician Danny Sharpe and his work. Melanie says that she drew inspiration from her own experiences, including that of being in “the kind of love where you want to shape-shift to be exactly who you think they want you to be.” Read on to find out more about the film, and what Melanie’s thoughts were while writing and directing it.
HC: Were there any major differences between how you originally envisioned the film and how it eventually turned out? If so, were these changes for the best, or hard to accept?
Melanie Oates: “The biggest changes happened during the script writing process. I worked on the script for a few years, and the most challenging thing for me was allowing Tess to be as desperate and vulnerable as she needed to be. In earlier drafts she's a lot tougher; she acts more confident, plays the wild child a bit more. Those types of representations of young women are something that we see a lot in coming-of-age films. But I really wanted to show all the messy, humiliating things we can do when we're obsessing over someone – having to drill down into that was an uncomfortable and difficult process and made me feel very exposed.”
HC: What was the hardest challenge in making the film?
Melanie: “Shooting the underwater and abstract sequences was a challenge both in the planning and the execution. For me, they were an opportunity to get inside Tess's head, to see how she feels and what she's dreaming about. She's young and has a naive, romantic view of love – the dream sequences reflect that, what she's craving. Thematically, water is very important: the ocean, the character that Newfoundland is in the film, and how it relates to her grief. Nevertheless, filming these tough scenes was incredibly exciting and challenging. We shot them in an underwater tank that is used for testing gear. Our cinematographer Jordan Kennington just happened to be a licensed diver, so he was able to operate the camera underwater which was so important because his instincts and style are what made the film what it is visually. For Kelly and Joel, being in the water was tough – because the tank was designed to mimic the ocean, it was quite buoyant, so they would jump in and pop right back up. Luckily, we were shooting in slow motion, so we managed to get enough footage. It was also quite cold, so it was pretty uncomfortable, but they gave it their all and were absolute champs.”
HC: You said that many people experience “the kind of love where you want to shape-shift to be exactly who you think they want you to be” in their youth; can you tell us more about that? Any advice that you’d give to someone who has been/is in a similar situation or in a similar type of relationship?
Melanie: “I don't really have advice because when someone is in that place, mentally, there's not much you can say to get through to them. They usually have to ride it out until they can see things for themselves. I will say, when we make the entire meaning of our lives about somebody else, that's a dangerous place to be. We have no control or agency. I think we all know that, even when we're in that position, that the all-consuming nature of the love, if it is love, doesn't actually feel good. It's sort of sickening. I hope that anyone who sees the film that has been in similar relationships or had similar experiences are able to see their own history with a bit more clarity and tenderness.”
HC: What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better, in your opinion? If so, which of these qualities (if any) were you sure to include in Body & Bones?
Melanie: “Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, and Sofia Coppola are all big influences of mine. When gearing up to make Body & Bones, Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold was a visual reference for me and my cinematographer, Jordan Kennington. We really admired the way the camera moved in that film and how it allowed the viewer to remain in the lead character's perspective. I'm in awe of the mastery of Lynne Ramsay's visual style, the subdued nature of the dialogue and characters, and how she allows subtext to speak volumes. Though her style is quite different from Arnold's and Ramsay's, what I love about Sofia Coppola is how she infuses her films with whimsical elements and the way she explores femininity. Those were all things we, humbly, aspired to in making this film.”
HC: Do you think that being Canadian influences what themes you choose to focus on in your films, or how you choose to portray certain elements?
Melanie: “I would say living in Newfoundland has an influence on my filmmaking. This is such an inspiring, unique place. I like to embrace Newfoundland for all its specificity in my storytelling. I have a hard time writing generic Canadian small town, or even North American small town, which is often recommended as a way to appeal to a ‘broader audience.’ I really don't believe that. In my experience, I love to watch films that are very of a place, like Ratcatcherwhich I mentioned above, or Winter's Bone comes to mind. Rooting your story in a specific place adds richness and texture, I think.”
HC: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life writing and/or creating film?
Melanie: “My advice would be to just start where you are. You don't need to know everything to begin. Start with something small and simple that feels doable. You'll learn what you need to know as you need to know it. You'll be surprised what you're capable of if you keep making things.”
So, if you want to watch something new and support a Canadian filmmaker, look no further: Body & Bones is a raw, emotional drama you’re sure to love! You can rent it now on the National Film Board for only $5.99!
Note: responses have been formatted for the purposes of this story.