Lance Edmands’ Whiteout is a stark thriller centring on an entitled couple’s car ride home after a boozy affair. It’s a film which cleverly reveals the pitfalls of dysfunctional relationships whilst never tipping over to a point of dishonest representation. Edmands boasts an acute talent for camera finesse as the entire film unfolds over one-take. However, with a clever use of zooming and panning, he consistently steers the viewpoint the right direction, never losing the tension at the core of the narrative. Twelve Cabins spoke with Edmands about how he executed his vision of a frosty nightmare without losing the characters at its centre.
How did you initially develop the concept for Whiteout?
The film was inspired by an imagined image: an old man, standing in the middle of the road, lit up in the headlights of a car. There was just something inherently spooky and unsettling about this vision. It was full of ambiguity and a vague sense of menace.
Did you always plan for it to be one-take? How did you find executing that? Easier or trickier than expected?
I’ve always wanted to make a film that was photographed in a single take. It forces you to concentrate on the timing of the performances and the precision of the blocking. You don’t have editing and camera trickery to fall back on, it all has to work within a single, unbroken shot. But I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of the gimmick. It needed to fit with the story we were trying to tell. Since so much of this particular film was about perspective, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine form and narrative. The camera is literally inside the bubble with our characters, experiencing the world from their point of view. This further exaggerates the idea of the “other” and forces the audience to be complicit with the characters, almost like a third passenger in the vehicle. Hopefully, this allows the audience to ask themselves how they might react in this situation and to examine their own relationship to fear in the face of ambiguity. With a single-shot film, if you screw up a line, or if there is even the tiniest bump in camera focus, you have to start all over again. In our case, this meant turning the vehicles around and driving three miles back up the road. All this while a blizzard swirled around us! So, it was definitely a tricky execution.
The performances of all three actors are great and really uncomfortable, did you do anything with them to get them in that space or was it something they brought after the casting process?
I co-wrote the film with my girlfriend, Sarah Tihany, who also plays the female lead. From that initial image of a man in the road, we began to ask ourselves questions to build out the story. Was this man lost? Was he hurt and in need of help? Or was he lying in wait, preying on innocent victims who happen to cross his path? How would we, as a couple, approach this situation? Would we get out to help the man, or would we drive on in an act of self-preservation? We mined a lot of our own arguments and insecurities and exaggerated them in these two characters, Lydia and Jake. Sarah wrote all the dialog and she’s great at it.
We needed the audience to understand who these people were in a short about of time, so every line had to tell you something. Even throw-away jokes mentioning “wine bars” give you an idea about the world of privilege these characters occupy. I did several rehearsals with the actors to get the timing right so the conflict built up naturally and allowed space for the tension to grow. Once we got the rhythm of the dialogue down, we went out and drove the streets around Brooklyn to work on the blocking. We had to figure out when they would get out of the car and the timing so we had a sense of how long the road needed to be. Then on set we combined the blocking of the actors with the blocking of the camera, which had its own marks for where the focus should be at any given time. There were a lot of different elements working in concert, so the hardest part of making the film was assembling the puzzle so that everything clicked.
I’m interested to know how audiences have reacted? The history behind the man in the road is hinted but never fully explained, have you had any wild theories thrown at you?
It was super fun to experience the film with an audience. There is a pretty big jump scare at the end and it’s quite satisfying to hear people scream. When you make something that is meant to be scary and funny, seeing it with a crowd is essential. You get that immediate feedback in a way you don’t necessarily get with a drama. I think the theater was great for this film because everyone feels trapped inside the car with our characters. There’s no escape. We’ve had great Q&As at the festivals where people seem to really respond to the moral quandary at the center of the film. Of course, a lot of people immediately assume they’d do the right thing and these are simply despicable, selfish characters. But we made the film because we’re interested in the gap between how people assume they would react, and how they actually do when confronted with fear. We have also seen a gender divide over who believes which character was at fault, especially in comments on the internet. We knew that we were poking fun at male and female gender roles in the film, but I was surprised how many people watch it exclusively through that lens. I’ve seen a lot of insecure men really telling on themselves!
What do you like about working in the horror genre?
Horror is one of the best uses of cinema because it plays into really base, corporal human emotions like our fear of death, the “other,” or even repulsion of our own bodies. Being a person is frequently an upsetting experience and horror films tap into the existential terror of your own mortality. What could be more basic that that? So, because the genre works on such a fundamental level, you have a lot of room to use the tools of cinema to play with expectations. I find that it’s also the most visual genre. If you look at which movies are really at the vanguard of image-making, its usually horror films. It can get downright experimental, despite being considered by some to be a “low” form of filmmaking. Think of Dario Argento or David Lynch. These are filmmakers that have pushed the frontier of the craft in a really special way.
Will you continue to work in the horror genre?
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
I have a feature that I have been developing for a while now called Brightwater. It’s a thriller set on a Maine island, and we are planning to shoot that in October. I also just finished a short documentary with Topic called The Seeker, which should hit the festival circuit next year. It’s super different from Whiteout. Sarah and I are also working on a feature length adaptation of Whiteout that plays on the themes of the short but expands the world and characters. At this point, I have a backlog of scripts I want to make! I also direct commercials, so I stay pretty busy traveling and shooting.
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