A claustrophobic film with a small yet brilliant cast, The Oak Room takes you on a winding journey through stories within stories. Starring Breaking Bad’s R.J. Mitte, Orphan Black‘s Ari Millen and Peter Outerbridge, it drip-feeds the audience slivers of context and leaves you with new questions and answers with every scene.
We spoke to director Cody Calahan and producer Chad Archibald about the film ahead of its showing at Grimmfest 2020.
Kirstie: Tell us about your film The Oak Room.
Cody Calahan: It’s called The Oak Room and it’s a slow-burn story within stories, all told in bars. It’s up to the audience to decipher who’s who and what’s real and what’s not.
Kirstie: What inspired your story-within-a-story structure?
Cody Calahan: Ari, who plays Michael in the movie, was also in the play. The film is an adaptation. Ari brought it to us. We stayed pretty true to the original theatre production. So it was already a story within a story, and the script just gripped us from the beginning.
Kirstie: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to commit to keep, or alter from the original, in making your own version of it?
Cody Calaha: The cool thing about it is that we kept about 90% of the theatrical play. We had to tweak some dialogue and some scenes to suit the screen. But we kept pretty true to the content and we added a few little things to amp up the suspense. The adaptation wasn’t that severe. It took a while to figure out the balance and to be confident in the material and to keep it with that heavy dialogue.
Chad Archibald: We knew it was going to be fairly low budget. But having something that is so contained, but has an engaging story and compelling characters, that can be so hard to find. We read tons of scripts that are great but not within our budget range of whatnot. But this was contained but also so powerful as a play that, in trying to adapt it, the best thing was that we didn’t have to add too much. It was shorter, so we did have to add some elements, and there were some things we wanted to add that you couldn’t have in a play. For instance, you can’t have a car driving through a snowstorm in a play, and we wanted to show at least a little bit of this raging snowstorm outside to set the mood. So that was something we were able to do with the film that you wouldn’t be able to do in the theatre.
Kirstie: The containment of the story adds to the film’s great sense of tension. How did you approach deciding how much you want to add, compared to staying within the constraints the story has as a play?
Cody Calahan: In the play, it was just the two stories, The Spruce and The Oak Room going back and forth. In the play, the pig story is just a story – you don’t see it. I knew we wanted to see all the stories within stories, to the point that we actually shot the fishing story. But it’s the only one that felt like it broke the theme. With the main story between Paul and Steve, when they tell stories about something else, the people within that story have their story to tell and we would see it. However, with Paul’s fishing story, it broke that theme, so it’s the only one we didn’t use. From the get-go, we knew we wanted to see all the stories within the stories within the stories.
Chad Archibald: We had a lot of talks about this whole idea of whether they’re telling the truth or lying and what you can believe happened at The Oak Room. All those ideas make you wonder if Steve is lying or if the people within his stories are lying. Paul’s story was the only one where he says “I’m lying, I made it all up”, so the idea of showing that one made it feel like it makes the other stories more of a lie. There is a fine line of storytelling in this with what we wanted to show or not show, what was real or not real.
Kirstie: Your film leaves a lot unsaid, giving the viewer just enough information to piece together the characters’ backstories, while leaving a lot of mystery to the situation. What is your trick to striking that balance so effectively?
Cody Calahan: In approaching something like this, you always have to consider that less is more. I think, especially for the themes of the movie and thinking about storytelling, the more hints we could give and the more the audience had to put pieces together into their own story, the better. More than any movie that I’ve done, we’ve pulled back so far that there are people who have ideas for what happened that is completely different from other, which is awesome because that’s sort of the point of the movie. But from the get-go, we knew we wanted to hint at things but never outright say anything, just so we could leave the doors open.
Chad Archibald: With a movie like this, where there’s so much dialogue and so many characters just talking, it gives the audience something to do. That’s what makes this movie so great. We don’t give them everything and lay it all out. We make people work for it a little bit. That’s part of the fun of this film – there’s so much left unsaid. The more you watch the movie, the more little things you pick up. Even going into editing, we were watching back and wondering what else we could lose. It was a whole different journey, piecing everything together, taking things away, realising when we’d gone too far.
Kirstie: What was your thought process behind how to feed people each clue?
Cody Calahan: I think it was originally written in 2010 and then the play came out in 2013. Since then, the writer had been thinking about stuff he wanted to put in or lost, and hints he wanted to include. We mapped out all the different plausible stories and hints and then worked our way back. We knew what was true and where we were going with it, but we wanted to give enough roadblocks to certain ideas. We were working on it for so long that we knew exactly where everything needed to be. The only thing that changed on the day were some props. There are certain things that look similar enough that you can’t be sure they’re not the same. We added a few of those in that were’t in the script. But everything was mostly already there.
Kirstie: How did you go about balancing the stories and characterisation with the rich sense of tension?
Cody Calahan: When we went to shoot it, I approached each section as if it was a short film. I asked myself what I wanted that piece to say, and I wanted to give them all a beginning, a middle and an end. The audience might think they’re meandering, and that’s when I’d have Steve jump in and resume his story in The Oak Room. It’s about balancing each of those segments, not so that they could live on their own, but so that the tension within that moment could, so that when you put them all together, it ramps it up and amps up the pace.
Chad Archibald: Even when filming it, it felt like every day was a different short film, like we were making an anthology almost. We shot three days on The Oak Room set, then tore it all down and built a new one, and two new actors came in and shot their story. It felt like we were making all these different movies. Because of the dialogue-heavy format, when Cody called action, we’d be sitting there for fifteen minutes just watching them do the whole scene. Start to finish. The first take, you could be sitting there seeing what the final movie would look like. It was a really cool experience in that respect, and a great exercise in creating an arc through each day that we shot.
Kirstie: That sounds like a really unique way to film. Did it stand out a lot from other films you’ve made?
Cody Calahan: What I really like about the way we did this is that there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s all the actors, and I think they did an amazing job. Usually with movies I’ve done, you don’t have a scene that’s more than two or three minutes, depending on what it is. You approach each of those scenes knowing what shots you need to do to tell the story. With this, we were in a location so long so I got to shoot linearly. Once we started the story, we took it all the way to end so the actors could really build their character. We were doing fifteen-minute takes. So I had all the actors memorise their lines so we could do these long takes. It was amazing because, the first few times, you can see maybe five minutes into a take how they forget the cameras are there. It kind of brings back that passion and creativity that comes out of an actor on stage in a theatre, but we caught it on film. There are times when I would yell “cut” and they’d look shocked.
The cinematographer approached it in the same way. We knew how we wanted to shoot it so everything looked a bit wider, and we tried to use lenses that meant we wouldn’t have to get right in anyone’s faces. Actors could move around and at least feel like there wasn’t a camera and lights in their face. Anything I’ve done prior was completely different. But I liked that I learned stuff by doing longer takes, that I’ve since brought to films I’ve done since that are completely different. Doing longer takes and letting actors play in the space and with the dialogue is so much fun.
Kirstie: How do you feel the actors responded to that different way of filming?
Cody Calahan: It was funny because, with all the conversations we had prior, we didn’t talk a lot about material. We mostly talked about characters and their backstories, where they had been, and for some of them what happens after it cuts to black. But we never talked about anything that was on the page. As we got closer to filming, I brought up the idea of shooting these long takes, and everybody seemed really excited about it. Some of them were more, “well, let’s try and see how it goes”. Obviously if it wasn’t working, we could break it up. I had ideas of how I would break up every scene if it didn’t work. But it just worked. I think I got lucky. The actors were really talented. We shot it the same way for everybody and everyone reacted really well to it.
Chad Archibald: Every movie that you do, you go in and tell your actors “you need to know your lines”, but you’re jumping around so many different scenes that sometimes they’ll get a little bit fuzzy or mixed up. Every actor is different. But with this, it was so intimidating, going in starting with fifteen pages, that I think everybody sat back and made the effort to really know their stuff. And they’re all great seasoned actors, a lot of them are Canadian legends. I think they all went in feeling like they need to represent themselves. They didn’t want to go in shooting a fifteen-page scene and stumbling after three pages when all the other actors know their full fifteen pages. I think it was a big challenge for the cast, but also that was something that drew them to the project. It was different. Each character was so juicy and pulpy. It’s not even about what’s on the page or on the screen, but everything they hide behind, the past and the history that gets revealed, the parts that aren’t in the dialogue but are in the tone and their reactions. Each one of those little things, in a mystery like this, gives you so much.
Kirstie: How much of what finally made it to the screen came out of the discussions you had about character and backstory compared to your initial plans?
Cody Calahan: Because it’s such a confined script, it does look almost exactly as I pictured it. There are only a couple of scenes that changed. One of my favourite scenes is when Steve goes into the washroom by himself, which is the only time in the movie when a character is alone and allowed to be themselves. On the page, it just said “Steve gets angry and goes into the washroom”. I knew I wanted to do something with that, and there was something about him being isolated at that point. But that was the only scene where I didn’t know what was going to happen. R.J. and I talked about everything leading up to that scene and then he went in and just did his thing. For me, that was one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from your film?
Cody Calahan: At its heart, it’s a family drama. It’s about lineage. This one is about fathers and sons, but really it’s about family and about passing down both the good and bad to your children. I hope, at its heart, people take away the subtext of the family relationships. For me, that was the most important part in making it, which is funny because I always usually drown myself in the drama and thriller aspect. It’s interesting the way people are calling it a horror, because I always thought of it as a drama with this graphic scene that may or may not have happened. It’s interesting the tone that it took on itself.
Kirstie: What are your post-Grimmfest plans and hopes for the film?
Cody Calahan: We’ve got a few more festivals coming up and hopefully we’ll get some good reviews and it’ll find a place where more people can see it, maybe on a streaming service or something. I think it would be great for a movie like this to get out there.
Chad Archibald: The biggest thing is getting it out there. We finished this before COVID hit, and we’ve had to sit on it for a while before taking it to festivals. It’s been a lot of sitting around. It’s so different from anything we’ve done before. We weren’t sure how to categorise it, or if we should submit it to horror festivals or not. It’s been really nice now we’ve had a premiere and have seen some great reactions and it’s finding its audience and its place in the world. We’re just happy to go on the journey with it.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into the kind of work you do?
Cody Calahan: The most important thing is the script. If the script doesn’t work, you can’t fix it. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned. Spend as much time on the script and story and characters as you can. It’s hard to spend the right amount of time – there’s always deadline and budget and whatever. But if you can make sure that that script is air-tight, that’s going to give you the best chance of making a good movie.
Chad Archibald: Yeah, me and Cody are in development as well. Aside from producing each other’s films, we read scripts and write concepts. Every day for us is about story, scripting, concept, characters, art, designing all that stuff well. You can really tell when you’ve got something special and when you’ve got a project you really want to do. Some filmmakers dive into a script because they just start writing and want to make something. We’ve written so many scripts that sometimes, as much as you’d like to just go shoot it and hope to fix it by making it, it might not turn out the way it is in your head. Write ten scripts and pick one. Think of your concepts and find something you really want to do. Don’t commit to a script just because you wrote it. A lot of films fizzle away like that, and it’s a lot of work and money and people’s time and effort going into that. Make sure it’s right on the page first.
The Oak Room is showing at Grimmfest 2020 from 7-11 October.