Just a few hours before the world premiere of Canadian drama Ashgrove at Glasgow Film Festival, I sat down with the cast and crew. In attendance were Jeremy LaLonde (director, writer, producer), Jonas Chernick (writer, producer and lead actor), Amanda Brugel (lead actor, writer) and Natalie Brown (actor).
Set during a pandemic that affects the world’s water supply, Amanda Brugel (The Handmaid’s Tale) is one of the world’s top scientists battling to find a cure. As the weight of the world takes its toll, she retreats to the countryside with her husband in a bid to clear her mind. However, it’s not all happiness on the home front and she soon begins to suspect that her husband isn’t being completely honest with her.
You can read our full Ashgrove review here. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this film!
Molly: This is your second film to premiere at GFF, what are you expecting this time around, in terms of audience reaction?
Jeremy: Oh, that’s interesting, we’re not sure because this will be the first time we’ve watched the film with an audience. Normally when Jonas and I are editing the film, we do test screenings to see how an audience is going to react, and that’s one of the things we enjoy the most. But we couldn’t really do that this time around due to COVID, and so tonight is the first time we’re going to watch the film with an actual audience, so we’re both terrified!
Jonas: Usually by this point in the process we’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, because we’re constantly making changes, showing it to a bunch of people, then making new changes and so on. So, we will be very very excited to be in that theatre tonight.
Molly: When I first read the synopsis of this film and saw it was about a pandemic, I had a very preconceived notion of what that might look like. I expected disaster scenes and post-apocalyptic imagery, but instead the brutality of the crisis is very much in the background throughout the film. Was that a very deliberate decision?
Jeremy: So we actually started conceiving this idea pre-covid, in 2019. We were actually slightly worried at the outset that people wouldn’t be able to understand or relate to this world, but when the pandemic started we soon realised that actually, they very much could. When Jonas and I were deciding what we wanted to do next, Jonas was very big on doing a very ‘actor-y’ piece, a small two-hander, and I said I was interested in that but only if we made the stakes the end of the world. Knowing that we wanted to do something of that nature, and that it wasn’t gonna be a big budget film, we had to ask ourselves what that could look like. So we devised this idea that the end of the world, and this water crisis was a metaphor for what was going on in the main characters’ relationship. Just like love, water is something we all desperately need, but they both can kill us or make us extremely toxic.
Molly: Yeah, and this individual and relationship focused approach makes the whole situation more believable and easier to relate to.
Jonas: We spent a lot of time asking ourselves if this had been a crisis for several years, what would people be doing everyday? And we came up with the idea that your skin would be dry, so you’d have to constantly reapply lip balm and moisturiser, and you’d have a machine to test for water toxicity, things you might not think about at first. We came up with these things before the covid pandemic actually happened, and so we soon got to see that in reality, there’s these various things you do everyday to adapt, like the way we wear masks. That was a weird, harrowing parallel that we found.
Molly: Moving on to the characters, I found Jennifer and Jason’s relationship to be very convincing due to the level of detail we learn about their backstory. Did you plan this all out beforehand or did it develop later?
Amanda: We painstakingly planned it over the course of a year. Because of the pandemic, we got together over zoom and really tried to beat out the relationship from when we first met to where we were now. We talked about our first date, what food we cooked together, little sayings, we even had lists of pet names. You don’t usually have the luxury to do that, especially for a small four-hander, to plan out years and years of back stories. We also wove our personal lives and relationships into these characters, and so you find that the moments of authenticity are pieces of us coming through, but it also leans on the amount of backstory and planning we did.
Molly: I thought the farm (the film’s main location) was so beautiful, and the beauty of the cinematography really contrasted with the idea of the world…
Jeremy: … falling apart!
Molly: Absolutely, falling apart. What was the motivation behind shooting there?
Jeremy: It was definitely a part of ensuring we did something small and intimate. For me I wanted to make sure we did it in a space that didn’t feel like it was a one room play. And actually the farm has been in my wife’s family for centuries, so from the get go I said we should shoot on the farm because the farm offers a lot of locations within itself, that don’t feel like you’re in a claustrophobic setting. And the river was right there too, and because water was such a big theme in the film, that was interesting to incorporate. To your earlier point, when you look at most disaster movies, you expect lots of greys, barren wastelands, and dirt. First of all, we didn’t have the budget for that kind of stuff. But also, as we continued to develop the film through all the negativity and sadness of the pandemic, there was something about the farm and how beautiful it is – we wanted to embrace the small beauties that we had within this time. Hopefully, by the end you walk away with a sense of hope.
Molly: And what was it like filming there?
Natalie: Oh it was beautiful!
Amanda: Also we were one of the first productions up and running after the restrictions, so this was our first after 8 months of not being around other people, so it could have been shot in a wasteland and it would have been a wonderful experience because we’re all such close friends! But being on a farm, it felt like an incubator for family. It was the perfect time of year, the weather was gorgeous and because we were in a bubble with one another, it really did feel like it was us versus the world, which really helped with the themes of the film. We’ve also shot there before, so I’m used to it – I shot Sex After Kids there. It was like a different character returning home.
Jonas: It was the first time we’d been with other people, we’d been in our homes with our families for seven months, and suddenly we were back on set…
Molly: I suppose that added to the sense of the crisis in the film! I also wanted to ask about the science of Ashgrove, how did you go about that?
Jonas: That’s my favourite part! You don’t see it in the film because it would have been too much information, but we did extensive research on water chemistry. We had a water scientist we consulted with, we had a chemistry consultant, other academics and experts from the field. We spent a lot of time figuring out scientifically, what is this crisis. What is happening when you consume water? And we got it down, we then just had to decide how much of it you needed in the movie to tell the story…
Jeremy: …and to make it feel authentic.
Jonas: Authentic, exactly. So we understand the water crisis in a way that I’m not sure is relayed in the film, but hopefully you get the feeling when you watch it that there’s depth to it. It’s so terrifying, the idea that the one thing you need to survive is what’s killing you.
Jeremy: The concept we came up with is that it’s this slow-acting thing, by the time it kicked in, it already infected everybody.
Natalie: Kind of like the toxicity of a relationship, you don’t realise it’s dead until it’s too late!
Molly: Going back to the focus on a small band of characters, for me that really highlighted the high stakes of it all, the notion that it’s down to one person to save the world, whilst still dealing with their own personal problems.
Jeremy: The way I talked about the character of Jennifer Ashgrove to other people was that she would have been the least interesting person at a dinner party talking about her work, until today. And now, she’s the most interesting.
Molly: And the power dynamic between the couple is interesting , because now Jennifer has to save the world, even if that’s at the expense of her marriage.
Jonas: It’s this idea of a certain selfishness that Jason is battling against. He doesn’t want to constantly be going “what about me, I have needs too!”, when his partner is literally trying to save the world. But it’s very real, and on a smaller scale I feel like that’s what ends up failing a lot of relationships, that feeling of not being prioritised. That’s what’s happening in this relationship, to an exponential degree. We definitely pulled a lot from our own relationships and our own lives,especially that feeling of neglect or not being seen in the way you once were by your partner. That’s something a lot of people can relate to.
Jeremy: Knowing you’re not important in the grand scheme of things is a big part of the film. I’m a filmmaker, so obviously I think what I do is very important, but during the pandemic, my wife is a teacher so very quickly I realised ‘oh, what I do doesn’t matter at the moment. I have to put the focus on you, at the expense of my own ego, my own work’. I relate to Jason in that regard.
Amanda: I think you (Jonas) said it beautifully, the idea of being rendered irrelevant.
Natalie: Yeah, and for me, the backstory Jeremy was generous to co-create with me for my character Sammy was that she worked in a craft brewery and with distilled spirits. And all of a sudden you can’t consume liquids, and if you’re going to consume something that dehydrates you it’s not worth it, and so suddenly Sammy’s job is completely irrelevant. And during the real pandemic, as an actress in the film business I also suddenly felt less relevant. My boyfriend works in the food industry so his job became a little bit more important – he wasn’t saving lives but he was feeding doctors and hospitals that were – and so there was a lot to draw on from my own experiences that I was able to use in the film.
*** spoilers in the next question****
Molly: And then when we get to the big reveal at the end of the film, we realise that Jason and Sammy actually were more important than Jennifer for the past two days because they had the responsibility and the power and she doesn’t. I found that a really interesting concept and it made me completely rethink the power dynamics.
Amanda: I love that!
Natalie: Yeah we were tasked with saving the world too, thank you Molly!
Jonas: I like that, I’m gonna take that!
Jeremy: Yeah, and actually in the middle of the film when Jason is fighting with Jennifer in the kitchen, Jason says “you have no idea what i’m doing to help you” and she thinks she’s being ridiculous because it doesn’t seem like he’s doing anything. In retrospect though, when you watched the second time you realise that everything he’s doing is to help her, but she doesn’t understand, and he can’t tell her. It’s such a great moment when he’s like “I don’t wanna do this anymore”, meaning keep secrets from her, but you as an audience you infer what you really think is going on in that moment. So there’s a great duality to it, that i think is rewarding on a second viewing.
Molly: I’ll need to go back and watch it a second time!
Jonas: You’ll see a lot of things you didn’t notice the first time around! All of these characters are under an enormous amount of pressure, only Jennifer doesnt realise it.
Molly: Okay final question, are you (Jonas and Jeremy) going to continue working together?
Jeremy: We’re constantly asking “what can we do that’s different”. We’re at that point in our careers where we’ve got enough stuff that we’ve had some success with, that we want to shake it up. So we’re trying to figure out what that looks like.