Oliver Sherman finally hits theatres this weekend, at least in Canada. It opens in Toronto tomorrow, then in Vancouver on Feb. 18, and in Ottawa on Feb. 25 (says TwitchFilm). If you’re in Canada, you can check your local listings at Tribute.ca.
For a few hi-res production stills from the film like the one on the right, see: Oliver Sherman Image Gallery.
Eye Weekly talked to Garret about the film recently and they have an article up at http://www.eyeweekly.com/film/interview/article/110374
Here is a snippet or two:
It’s remarkable that Ryan Redford was able to get the cast that he did for a first-timer—how did you come to be involved with Oliver Sherman?
I think he was a big Deadwood fan, and he really wanted to work with us. It was Molly who first called me just saying, “Hey, there’s this kid up here—you should really take a look at this thing. And he wants it for us.” I was pleased and flattered. He came to New York, where I was doing a play at the time. I was between film jobs so it was perfect timing and I really liked him. When that kind of stuff happens, it’s exciting. This was one of those films you do that you always thought you would do when you aspired to be an actor. I hope that it finds a life outside of Canada because I think it’s one of the best films that I’ve ever been in, and that includes No Country and Assassination.
Are you pleased that the character of Sherman turned out to be so much more complex than the one-note villain he might’ve been?
Ryan really clung tenaciously to the story he wanted to tell with Oliver Sherman, and it was not a thriller by any means. A tragedy is what it is. It’s really about the war for Franklin’s soul, with his wife on one side and Sherman on the other. And it’s about these two soldiers and how they each came back and dealt with civilian life in completely different ways.
There is also an interesting interview with Ryan Redford at Canada.com.
And here is everything you need to know about the story and the production, from the press pack:
The story begins simply – with a man arriving by bus in a small, rural town. That man is Sherman Oliver. After suffering a head injury during battle, Sherman awoke in a hospital only to be told, mistakenly, that his name was “Oliver Sherman.”
For months afterward he believed this to be his identity, a reversal acknowledged in the film’s title – a nod to both the normalcy the character can never seem to grasp, and the damage the war has done to his life. A life which is about to spill over into the lives of his saviour, Franklin Page, and Franklin’s wife Irene.
The central figure in this tale is played by the widely-respected actor Garret Dillahunt. “It’s called Oliver Sherman for a reason,” comments producer Paul Stephens. “He’s the centre of the piece, and it’s his values that pose the main challenge to the viewer. He went off to war, he killed people, and he has a complete lack of hypocrisy about this. We tend to think of those wars as being someone else’s business, someone else’s values. He thinks killing is killing, and there’s a kind of simplicity and integrity about his value system, despite the fact that he’s an extreme and asocial individual.”
Says writer/director Ryan Redford, “For me, it’s about this man – an anti-hero of sorts – who’s had all his social filters removed by trauma and now questions things in a brutally honest way: how do I start a real life, given my past? What is a real life? How do I get there, to that – a family and kids. How do I become a proper adult, a proper citizen in this world? It’s all so baffling to him, Sherman. It’s all so baffling to me, too. That said, the character doesn’t really want that normalcy. Yet he does. Yet he doesn’t. That’s his struggle. He thinks violence and carousing make for a perfectly valid existence, and by God, he is intent on dragging Franklin back into that way of life, one way or another.”
Yet another thematic layer is unveiled through the contrast between Sherman’s response to his experiences in the war compared to Franklin’s. Comments actor Donal Logue, “It’s a movie about the way that men carry certain types of psychological baggage. These two men have a fairly similar experience in war and yet one is physically, emotionally and psychologically devastated by it and the other has made an attempt to compartmentalize it and just move on.”
Logue adds, “I’ve often wondered about how guys process their experiences coming from where they’ve come from. In this case one guy lives in his Jungian shadow and the other guy is just trying to keep his persona going and it’s interesting.”
While Oliver Sherman is undoubtedly topical, it is not at its core a political film. “I really tried to stay away of the politics of it all. As much as one can, anyway,” comments Redford. “My focus was the human, the emotional, the primal – hitting the gut, but in an earned and hopefully unique way. Among my greatest fears was to make ‘Another Iraq/Afghanistan Movie.’ And believe me, there were those who wanted this to become that. But I was aiming for something a bit harder to pin down, something more strange, mysterious, almost mythic. To that end, we never mention which war these men fought in, or where exactly the story takes place. If the movie ends up speaking with any success to the current state of things, it probably does so because it’s not trying to speak to the current state of things.”
The process of bringing Oliver Sherman to camera was inspired, serendipitous, and moved with remarkable velocity. “Many years ago I had read a script called Bone, which I thought was one of the best scripts I had read in a long time. I was really excited about it, until I discovered to my chagrin that the cover page was missing! I didn’t know who wrote it, I didn’t know how to contact them – it was incredibly frustrating,” says producer Paul Stephens.
Luckily, the writer of that script was later the recipient of the Writers Guild of Canada Jim Burt Award, given to the best unproduced Canadian screenplay of the year. In an announcement in Playback Magazine, Stephens discovered the name of the writer he had been searching for – Ryan Redford. Stephens contacted Redford immediately and the pair agreed to develop Bone together.
As they continued their work on that project, Redford also began considering other options – namely, adaptation. “I’d started reading short stories by the boatload, looking for something to rile me up,” shares Redford. “Eventually, I happened upon this one collection, Times Like These by Rachel Ingalls. A really wonderful, wildly-underappreciated writer. One story in particular caught my attention – not because it was a ready-made film or lent itself immediately to cinema, but because it had a relentless and ferocious forward motion to it, utilizing a very spare, minimalistic approach within a very mythic milieu. Which is all right up my alley, and very much in keeping with the kind of movies I want to make. So I dove in quickly, trying to find ways to dramatize the ideas and interiority of the short story, and trying to figure out how to make the thing my own.”
In January of 2009, Stephens optioned the story Veterans, and Redford went away to write the screenplay. “Inevitably, the movie and short story ended up being very different beasts,” comments Redford. “The short story leans a lot more toward slow-burning dread, while the movie – though very tense at points – leans more toward sadness, awkwardness, the tragic. The main character is more remote and harder to get a handle on in the short story; there’s a coldness and something we don’t ever quite connect with. While here I’ve tried to make him someone who – for all his foibles and threat – we can sympathize with: an endearing disaster, deeply unsettling yet still human.”
Not long after locking himself away to write, Redford presented Stephens with a first draft of the script for Oliver Sherman. “You know a script works really well when you can’t put it down,” says Stephens. “From start to finish I couldn’t put Oliver Sherman down and just about everybody’s reaction to it was the same. When we sent it to Molly Parker, she loved it. Garret Dillahunt phoned me the same day he got the script and said he wanted to do the film – people just loved Ryan’s writing.” From January of 2009, when Redford began to pen the script, it took just shy of ten months to get the script complete, the project funded, and the film cast and crewed. “It’s unheard of,” says Stephens. “Most films take five years or more to get off the ground. But every person who has come across this script has loved it and so it just came together very easily. It was like it was destined to be.”
“I’m used to things taking forever, my own writing included,” says Redford. “And I’m admittedly leery of the whole romanticization of shotgun-style filmmaking. I’m leery of this movie being considered that, because despite the speed with which it came together, it’s not that at all. These days, there seems almost a competition to see who can rifle a project off more quickly, with the fewest resources. I’m not really interested in that approach. I’m not lo-fi. I’ve waited a long time to make my first feature the boring, old-fashioned way. And I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to do that here. It certainly came together in something a burst, but part of me hopes that that has allowed me less time to over-think things, and hopefully that’ll lend something organic to an otherwise pretty precisely-composed movie.”
The film was shot in and around North Bay throughout October and November of 2009, under wide, grey skies. “I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to location, and I spent more than three months on the road scouting, scouring Northern Ontario,” says Redford. “In the end, we shot the majority of the movie, maybe eighty-percent, just outside of North Bay, in the municipality of Powassan. It’s a place that seems almost removed from the rest of the world – full of storybook landscapes and people living pretty simple, unhurried lives. It really is the kind location that allows a filmmaker to strip everything away. There’s so little out there that the seemingly smallest thing takes on great weight. And that’s the kind of filmmaking that I’ve always enjoyed the most: filmmaking in which every little detail – every shot, every cut, every glance, every gesture – means the world.”
The process of casting the film was no less fortuitous than its development. The first role cast was Irene, a role that Redford had written with iconic Canadian star Molly Parker in mind.
“Molly has this inherent warmth that’s rarely exploited in her movies, and really should be exploited more,” comments Redford. “I knew that she was recently a mother herself, so I hoped that that would bring something to the role and it was definitely the case. Even on set, dealing with the kids, keeping them comfortable – it was mostly her. In addition to all that, she very obviously has a timeless, classic quality to her and this story is set in a very timeless, classic world. She fits right into that, slips into it so gracefully.”
Parker was attracted to the script and by the chance to work so intimately within a small ensemble. “This script is small in a certain kind of way, there’s only really three characters in it and the story is quite simple. I knew when I read it that if we could get really strong actors it could be great because it’s very much a character piece and it would be an amazing opportunity for me to work intimately and intensively with other actors,” says Parker. “I think it is a fascinating exercise in tension. It’s very suspenseful and sort of mysterious.”
Of her character Irene Page, Parker says, “My take on her is that she’s a powerful woman. She’s really centered in her femininity and her motherhood. I think of her as a mother bear. She’s a woman who is strong and sensible and intuitive, and she’s the first one to pick up on the fact that something’s not quite
right about Sherman.”
Co-star Garret Dillahunt adds, “She’s in a real spot. How do you deal with someone like that? They’re not innately evil. He just can’t find his place in the world anymore. In a way it’s a real battle – Molly’s character and mine battling for Franklin’s soul. He’s really what we’re tugging over. And she has to win.
For the central role of Sherman Oliver, Redford had one actor in mind: Garret Dillahunt, who happened to be a recurring visitor to the show Deadwood, which Molly Parker had starred in through its three-season run. An admirer of Dillahunt’s, Parker offered to contact him on Redford’s behalf.
“Garret’s just an incredible actor,” says Parker. “He’s very skilled and beautiful to watch. I’ve seen him do so many different kinds of roles. In fact when we did Deadwood, he actually played two different characters on the show. He played a really rough sort of cowboy character in the first season who was killed off, but David Milch liked him so much that he brought him back as a different character in the second season. He is so skilled that he could actually play two different characters in one show and no one knew that it was the same actor.”
Dillahunt’s ability to disappear into duel roles on Deadwood impressed Redford as well, but another role convinced him he would be the perfect choice for Sherman. “The movie that really sold me on him for this was The Assassination of Jesse James. His character’s child-like naiveté mixed with the threat that this guy could take your head off at any moment. There’s one scene in particular where Brad Pitt comes to kill Garret – they both know he’s there to kill him but no one will admit to it – and Garret does essentially everything with his eyes. He just sits there in that chair and you know everything and then some. Rare is the actor who can do that, who’s confident enough in his chops and his presence to do that – to be still. He’s got a poetry about him, a melancholic edge and some uniquely terrifying thing that I thought would be really right for this movie.”
Producer Paul Stephens completely supported Redford’s desire to cast Dillahunt as their lead. “Garret is truly Sherman Oliver,” comments Stephens. “He has this ability to both be totally charming and strangely explosive. He has those gentle blue eyes and you’re just not sure what is going on behind them. He’s absolutely perfect casting.”
Dillahunt was attracted to both the script and the opportunity to work with Parker, with whom – despite their mutual appearances in Deadwood and The Road – he had never shared screen time. The character also posed challenges that appealed to him. Comments Dillahunt, “Sherman is a veteran who was wounded in the war and pulled from the field by Franklin. He’s grateful for that, but like a lot of other soldiers he has a brain injury and he suffers from it. He’s not as he used to be. So it’s hard for the Pages to deal with him.” Dillahunt continues, “This guy’s not just some crazy, murderous thug. I think there’s a lot of sympathy for Sherman, from both the characters and Ryan’s vision of the film. He’s not trying to be this way, he’s just not socially skilled anymore.”
To complete the triangle, the filmmakers approached Donal Logue, who had also been in projects with Dillahunt, but who, like Molly Parker, had yet to share screen time with him. “Strangely enough, the Franklin role was the most challenging to cast,” says Redford. “Casting an ‘everyman’ is tough – he has to be all things to all people, but without seeming bland. The warm, loveable husband to Irene; the father to their kids; the buddy to Sherman; and something private to himself. We had Molly and Garret in place, so it had to be someone who’d fit in with them, which is a tall order.” Redford continues, “At some point fairly early on, Donal’s name came up. Then it kept coming up, again and again. I asked the other actors what they thought of him and they were both admirers – he and Garret had recently been on the same show together. So I went to meet him. The first thing I noticed: he had a big beard he couldn’t shave off because of TV obligations, which made me worry he was too physically different than what I’d initially imagined, which was a more clean-cut, straight-laced-looking guy. But, the next day, it struck me that it might actually be more interesting if the Franklin character was the one who had let himself go and was now hiding behind a new look. And, well, wouldn’t that just irritate Sherman all the more?”
Like his colleagues, Logue loved the script and jumped at the chance to work with Dillahunt and Parker. “I loved the writing because it’s unflinching and unapologetic, and it addresses a lot of what I imagine to be a real life experience for veterans today.” He adds, “I needed to have a job whose requirement was to sit and have a kind of long and emotional scene with another human being and just listen, and that’s what we’ve been able to do. Molly and Garret are amazing actors that I have admired for a long time – it’s an honour to do this work with them.”
Regarding the character of Franklin, Logue says, “I think Franklin’s a good guy. I hate to describe him so simply, but ultimately I do think he’s a pretty altruistic man. He probably helps his neighbors, and he’s a decent husband and a good father. As far as Sherman is concerned, despite their differences, they went through an experience together that has forged a bond between them that Franklin can’t put aside. I feel for him because I understand what he’s gone through and it’s something that his wife can’t really understand.”
Producer Stephens was thrilled with the talent Redford’s script was able to attract, a real coup for a first-time filmmaker. “We couldn’t have dreamed of better casting for this film, and certainly going into casting a first feature, you are asking these actors to take a leap of faith to trust this young director. It’s a testament to the strength of Ryan’s writing and the clarity of his vision that these incredible talents came together on the project. The entire film rests on this triangle of characters, and I think it works beautifully with the three of them.”
Ask anyone among the cast and crew of Oliver Sherman about what Ryan Redford is like as a director, and the consistent reply is that he has an impressively clear vision of what he wants and an aesthetic that inspires confidence within his team.
Producer Paul Stephens comments, “I think Ryan has been very clear about what he wants, and that is tough for a young director because there are so many forces pulling you in different directions on a film set. Obviously in low-budget filmmaking there are constraints and so he had to make some concessions. But he was strong on what he would not concede and that has been really critical for him and for the film.”
Star Molly Parker adds, “I think Ryan is one of the most talented new filmmakers in Canada. He has a very strong visual sensibility and he is very good at creating a sense of place and tone, which is a really hard thing to do. There’s so much shot on video and digital formats now that I think makes it too easy for young filmmakers to make films without learning some discipline. Ryan is the complete opposite of that. He has a very studied and intelligent approach to film and composition.”
Redford chose Spanish cinematographer Antonio Calvache – best known for his work with filmmaker Todd Field on In the Bedroom and Little Children – to help him realize the spare, restrained aesthetic he envisioned for the film. “Antonio Calvache was Ryan’s first choice for cinematographer,” says producer Stephens. “Frankly, his cinematography in Little Children and In the Bedroom was completely in line with the aesthetic of Oliver Sherman, so despite the fact that he isn’t Canadian we pursued him.”
Says Redford, “Watching those movies, I could tell that Antonio had an openness to very formal, classical filmmaking. The ‘let’s-shoot-things-six-ways-to-Sunday-and-decide-later’ approach doesn’t interest me a whole lot. I prefer, as much as possible, to decide upon a specific composition and let things play out in that composition, and the work Antonio did on In the Bedroom and Little Children suggested he was both a proponent of that and very good at that.” Continues Redford, “What I liked, additionally, about the look of those movies – and what I thought was applicable to our movie – was the strange combination of very naturalistic lighting within highly-composed, austere framing. The end result of that combination is something almost lyrical, a kind of “heightened naturalism” – that became our mantra of sorts, ‘heightened naturalism.’”
Redford, who had directed several short films prior to Oliver Sherman, found the difference between the formats eye-opening. “I’d only done short films before this, and with shorts you can get away with bloody murder in terms of stylization and show-offiness. With a feature – a feature that’s reaching for any kind of human quality, anyway – you can’t show off or lean heavily on style for 90 minutes without it becoming distracting or annoying. Antonio was helpful in navigating the divide between simplicity and stylization, especially in terms figuring out how to approach the more ‘everyday’ scenes. I find that an ‘everyday’ scene – like a family having a quiet dinner – is often far more challenging to design than an epic landscape shot or extravagant dolly move.”
Redford concludes, “The goal for us, constantly, was to remain spare and uncluttered without getting boring; to embrace simplicity while still conveying a distinct voice and feel.”
That same minimalistic approach extended to the film’s original score, composed by Benoît Charest, best known for his Academy-Award-nominated work on The Triplets of Belleville. Producer Paul Stephens and Redford, both impressed by Charest’s recent work on Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, approached the composer.
“I thought Polytechnique was pretty relevant to what we were looking to do,” says Redford. “That film’s soundtrack was affecting, but in a very stark, non-manipulative way that didn’t underline what was happening onscreen. It complemented, created a sense of mood and tone. We needed something that wouldn’t telegraph what the audience should be feeling, but something that still made the audience feel something – some subtle sense of sadness and tension, simultaneously. Benoît got that completely.”
Adds Redford, “There aren’t that many music cues in the film, so the few there are needed to count. And the film has a very particular rhythm to it that the score had to fall in line with. It was pretty painstaking, detailed work. Though I suppose everything on the movie has been. Simplicity is hard and takes time because there’s nothing to hide behind.”
Redford sees music, cinematography, casting and writing as being unified and part of a singular, overall process. “I mean, that’s my primary job as the director – to ensure that everything feels of the same world, the same universe. The music, the visuals, the acting, the sound design, the writing, you name it. They all have to coalesce. Which can be challenging, obviously, when money is involved, and weather, and a million other things that are out of your control or are conspiring against you. It’s my job to protect the movie against all of that, to make sure every little detail gets its due and feels like it’s part of the same film. And it’s certainly helped that I’ve had some very talented, committed people by my side, fighting that fight with me, for the past year and a half we’ve spent on this project.”