TALENT ON TAP: Koumbie on Writing and Wrangling the BYSTANDERS

I had done plenty of filmmaker interviews for Hollywood North Magazine in the past, but this one was different. First of all, it took place in an empty Cineplex auditorium just before a screening and it was also for a film I had recently reviewed. Fortunately, that review had been a glowingly positive one, eliminating any potential awkwardness between interviewer and subject. The subject in this case was Koumbie, the mononym-ed director of Bystanders, an emotionally intense modern chamber drama centering on a group of friends who have their bonds tested when one of their number admits to have recently sexually abused a fellow student at his law school.

Based in Nova Scotia, Koumbie started off in front of the camera on shows such as Aquateam and Studio Black! before beginning to find her voice behind the camera on a steady series of shorts and episodic TV. She made her feature film debut with 2016’s Ariyah & Tristan’s Inevitable Break-Up, a millennial romantic drama co-written by her partner Taylor Olsen who also collaborated with her on Bystanders.

With theaters having long emerged from their COVID slump, Koumbie recently accompanied Bystanders on a cross-country theatrical tour and I was fortunate enough to chat with her about the process behind the making of her latest film on the Vancouver stop.

You’ve been taking this film on tour across the country. How’s that been?

Kind of incredible, a little bit like a fever dream. Halifax, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Vancouver, and Calgary, it’s wild!

The theatrical experience is a special one.

Well that’s the thing! Not only does it feel special that it’s even had a theatrical release at all, but the fact that I got to travel with it and get to talk to people afterwards with these Q&As. It’s kinda cool.

What was the genesis for Bystanders?

A couple of things. I had done a short film with Taylor before we really even knew each other called King’s Cup (where) a group of friends go camping. We filmed it on a cliff and I didn’t know anything and the audio was unusable. We did so much improv that we couldn’t even ADR it. So it never saw the light of day, but there was just something about the dynamic of these friends and I love ensemble pieces and found-family stories.

So that, plus this thing that just kept coming up in our lives of folks in the community hearing rumors or outright accusations where we weren’t involved directly, but these were people that we were working with or were friends with and just realizing (that) we had no tools about what to do.

Stories of this nature tend to focus on the victim and/or perpetrator, but this is the first time I’ve seen the focus turn on what usually would be supporting characters. What went into developing this screenplay?

So many drafts! (laughs) This was a hard one. Sometimes it just flows and sometimes you gotta go back over and over and that was definitely true for this one for a number of reasons.

We just wanted to get it right as much as we could. It’s a film that has no answers so it’s just full of questions and they were the questions that we had ourselves that we just wanted to explore.

But just many, many drafts and getting a lot of feedback was also really helpful.

Taylor Osten was co-writer on this project. Was it always the intention for him to be cast as Justin?

Yeah, I think he was always gonna be one of the characters. We have a production company together and we’re also partners, so usually when we’re working on something, whether I’m gonna act in it or he’s gonna direct it or vice versa, we know that from the beginning.

But which part was not set in stone. For a while, he was actually gonna play Zeke which now just seems completely absurd. But I think I really wanted him in the Justin role. That was the one that I felt like I really needed the right performer in there. I needed someone who really understood the script and where we were going with that character.

A strong script requires an even stronger cast to really pull it off. How did you approach casting for the other characters?

We were looking for talent, of course. We knew the film would live or die based on the performances (because) it’s six people in a cabin for the entire film. Bad actors would’ve made for a pretty painful film I think (laughs).

But also, to be totally honest, an incredible actor with a bad attitude I will not work with. It’s just not worth it to me. I was really lucky with the actors that we got. Not only were they amazing onscreen, but they were also amazing offscreen which was really important to me.

You shot Bystanders at a cabin in Nova Scotia. Can you tell us how production went and if there were any fun stories from the set?

Oh my gosh, you know what’s so funny? We would say that the worst thing that could happen was a snowstorm and then a snowstorm happened, so we lost a day of filming! But the film had always been written to be in the winter and because of COVID, it had gotten pushed and pushed. So we ended up shooting in April (2022) which is kind of winter, but mostly spring and I had always wanted this kind of winter-feeling for the film, specifically for the last scene.

So even though we lost a day, it just so happened that the snow was there exactly when we needed it and then it melted when we didn’t want it for all the continuity issues it would’ve brought. So that’s one of those things where the worst thing that could’ve happened happened, but then it totally worked out.

The other thing was one of the actors got COVID. I also tested positive for COVID so there were two days where I wasn’t able to be on set and everyone else was so I directed from the car where I had the walkie and the monitor! So it was really, really crazy (laughs).

I really have to shout out our team. It was one of those dreamy crews where the worst things kept happening and they were so good that within hours, it was actually totally fine.

Do you discover anything interesting during the editing process?

We had a really dreamy process where Amy Mielke, our editor, was assembling the film while we were shooting. So she would get scenes, and she was building them as we were going. I think there was one scene that because she was assembling it, we realised it wasn’t working so we re-shot it while we were filming. It’s pretty rare to be able to hop back and do reshoots on an indie set.

Amy’s so good and so talented. She’s done a number of features that have come out of Nova Scotia recently. I didn’t expect that the editing process would have that much re-writing. I’m totally on board with the idea where you write the script, you rewrite it on set, and then you re-write it in post. But I wasn’t expecting it (here) because the story is so linear and so I wasn’t sure how you’d really be able to change too much. But we did end up changing a fair amount of the film in post. It was a really fun process.

As an experienced director, is there anything you learned from this film that you could add to your toolbox going forward?

I felt like my mind was exploding every single day with what I was learning. With the shorts that we’ve done, it’s shooting on the weekend with our friends. So something this substantial where we were actually going every day to work essentially and getting to get into the meat of the actors as opposed to “Oh! We’ve got two hours and then everyone has to go back home!”.

Every single day, I was making tons of notes and would just love to do another one.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

The best ultimate feedback that we’ve gotten was where someone who had watched it with their daughter and their mother, so three generations (of women) and she said that they talked about it all the way home and also the next day. So for me, that’s it: the conversation, the reflection, that is such a win for me.

BYSTANDERS will be available to rent/download on all major VOD providers on May 26

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