Some of the nicest, kindest and most resilient people I’ve been lucky enough to meet in my life, were Maritimers. There is a kinship amongst them, much like you’d expect from family. The film, Still the Water addresses the reason they are able to live healthy peaceful lives as friends, neighbours and family. This film shines a light on family issues, on hockey and mental health. Although the story takes place in Prince Edward Island, the message is the same across the country – don’t burn bridges and forgive one another when we falter.
Susan Rodgers is a very accomplished author that believes in squeezing the bone marrow out of life! She has written the 15 book Drifter series and is currently writing the Dallas White series. Although she’s written, directed and produced short films and the feature documentary, The Healing Place, Still the Water is Susan’s directorial debut for a scripted feature film. It’s a captivating film that spares no expense nor brilliant visuals to convey the story. Susan is a very visual storyteller that truly pampers her audience by capturing the best images while looking like a veteran filmmaker. She was meant to make films and she is extremely comfortable on a film set. The story unfolds through lead characters Ry Barrett, Colin Price, Spencer Graham and Christina McInulty. Their performances are award winning and offer a realistic look inside a family driven to the brink of enemies… before they find the clarity it takes to put family first and before everything else.
Susan Rodgers says, “I wanted to capture a snapshot of rural life in a small Prince Edward Island fishing community. Still the Water is about small-town brothers who need to forgive each other as well as themselves,” she said.
I had the extreme privilege of speaking with Susan through the magic of Zoom and this is how it went…
HNM “What inspired this film?”
SUSAN “The idea came to me when I started taking my son to hockey games. I’m a single mom and felt like I had to fill the dad role and bring him to watch hockey. It was when I was sitting there, watching the hockey players – my mind had drifted off and I began to wonder what their lives must be like behind the scenes.
HNM “Did you grow up in a hockey family?”
SUSAN “I didn’t, but I had a good friend, whose dad was a hockey coach and when I was in high school, they would drag me to a lot of games. I was also a figure skater, so I’d see a lot of hockey players at the rink – it’s a whole other world. I don’t skate anymore but when I did, I would compete in synchronized skating and we were on the National team. Those are some good memories.”
HNM “When did you write this screenplay?”
SUSAN “I had originally written it about 20 years ago but it’s changed a lot. I put it aside and wrote novels for a long time. I’ve written 17 or 18 novels since Vancouver Film School in 2013. A friend of mine was putting on a screenwriting workshop and I really wanted to get back into film, so I applied and was accepted. I then went back to the screenplay in earnest, which was about 5 years ago – I had some good mentors.”
HNM “Is this your first feature film?”
SUSAN “It is the first scripted feature film. When I came home (P.E.I.) from film school, I bought a camera and started making films for my clients. They were documentaries and unscripted and a couple of them were full length unscripted client documentaries. It’s great training – to get behind the camera and do your own editing. This is my first scripted feature film.”
HNM “How did you finance the film?”
SUSAN “We went a little rogue, you could say. I met a lady that had read all my novels and liked my storytelling. She and her friends were all addicted to them. She was a well-known business woman in town, so we had a coffee and I told her I’d love to make a movie. She got behind me and we were able to raise all the money through private equity using a program in Prince Edward Island that allowed us to give generous tax credits (35 %) to the investors. It mitigates the risk in case you don’t make your money back. It was an attractive way for people in the community to support the local filmmaking culture. There was no Telefilm.”
HNM “Did you have to go outside the province to find the cast?”
SUSAN “Because we’re a small province with only a fledgling film industry, at this time – I did have to go outside the province for the main cast. I had a casting director through Toronto and together, we looked through a lot of self-tapes and then I had to travel to Toronto and Vancouver to do call-backs in person. We ended up casting two actors from Vancouver (Spencer Graham and Christina McInulty) and two actors from Toronto (Ry Barret and Colin Price) – the rest were all islanders.”
HNM “A lot of this film takes place inside a hockey arena. Was it difficult to persuade them to allow you to film there?”
SUSAN “No, we just had to time it right. They remove the ice in the spring at the end of the hockey season, when the ice isn’t being used as much. So we filmed before the ice came out. We had a very small window, but we managed to make it work.”
HNM “How long did it take to shoot the film?”
SUSAN “We shot for 23 days in total. It might seem like a long time for an indie feature, but we wanted a cushion, so we wouldn’t feel so rushed… although the days felt rushed anyways (laughing).”
HNM “Who did you see as your audience demographic for this film?”
SUSAN “I already had somewhat of a built-in audience from my book/Drifter series and they’re familiar with my storytelling. The readers were the first ones to jump on and watch it. It’s a pretty wide demographic, I hoped that the women would identify with the love story and the men would identify with the hockey, so it could be a couple’s film.”
HNM “Is there a message in this film, you want people to walk away with?”
SUSAN “There is, I believe that we live in a very disconnected and lonely world these days… and sometimes it’s hard to get past old hurts. The main message is that you don’t have to live your life alone – you can reconnect with family, with friends or with people from your past. You can come together in a circle and be embraced and be happy. It’s really about forgiveness and healing past the hurt to find that connection again. I always feel like it’s my personal mission to tell stories about hope and healing. Maybe it can help people and cause a paradigm shift in their thinking that allows them to heal past the hurt.”
HNM “How has the film been doing since its premiere at Whistler?”
SUSAN “The two times that I’ve seen the rankings come out, it’s number three. I think it’s doing well, partly due to the music – it makes it feel more commercial. Most of the music is from P.E.I. which I’m most proud of… my books are all about music and singers. I know that I’m a storyteller and a filmmaker that likes to tell stories that have very intense emotion and passion. I’ve been told that I write pain very well, which makes me laugh because I’m a happy person (laughing). As a writer and filmmaker, when you really connect with a story, it can really stay with you… that Aura of sadness and pain that you’re writing about and crafting. It can make for an interesting ride.”
HNM “How did you find directing in comparison to writing your story?”
SUSAN “It’s similar, I feel so at home on a film set; it’s absolutely magical. You do have your days – your challenges that you have to work through, but in terms of putting a scene together and blocking it – all the way to the fine tuning at the end… is pretty magical. You have those moments, where you just know that this is where I’m meant to be. I feel so real and so authentic when I’m directing on set. I love the challenge of crafting all of the elements from the set dec, the props, the wardrobe, your story and your cast into what you visualize in your head. I’m just astounded by the images – they’re exactly as I envisioned them, it makes me incredibly pleased. Our DP, Christopher Ball was an amazing and calm presence on set, and very talented.”
HNM “There’s a scene where the main character, played by Ry Barrett had a rope wrapped around his ankle and was drowning. Was that difficult to shoot?”
SUSAN “I actually get into that scene so much, that I often forget that we shot it in 3 separate locations. We went out on the fishing boat and it was freezing rain and a father and son had just died the day before from the cold. It was on my mind the entire time we were going out onto the water, but it turned out to be such a magical day. We were out on the water for 12 hours before coming back and docking at the wharf. We had people in the water, which is also scary but we had a safety diver and safety suits and were cautious and careful. One of the reasons we hired the DP was because he was accustomed to filming in the water. We did the shots of him in the water, looking up at the boat. The water wasn’t very deep there, which was also for safety. We shot the rope around the leg with the trap attached, in a swimming pool. We added chocolate milk to muddy up the water. It looks pretty good and I sometimes forget about the 3 different locations (laughing).”
HNM “Would you say it’s advantageous to be the writer and director?”
SUSAN “I would say yes because you’re able to bring your own vision to the screen. If I had given it to someone else to direct, they wouldn’t have seen it the same way as me – I’m a fairly visual person. I initially shopped it around a little to see if anyone wanted to take it on but everyone is so busy with their own projects. In my heart I think I always wanted to direct it. I love a challenge, as well as matching the music up with the image. I’m really glad that I stuck with it and found a way… but it was a team effort and I couldn’t have gotten it done without producers Rick Gibbs and Nicolle Morrison. They helped me to find the money and make it happen.”
HNM “Have you been able to work with some of the same people from past projects?”
SUSAN “I did work with a lot of the same people – you tend to call back the people that you trust. I had met some of them from the series, Emily of New Moon years ago when it was being shot in PEI. I knew they were familiar with a set and they understood the order of things and how they worked.”
HNM “You had mentioned that you have distribution for this film. When can we expect to see this film?”
SUSAN “We’re looking to release it in the spring. Avi Federgreen of Indiecan is taking care of the Canadian release and is also coordinating with Indie Rights, who has the US and the rest of the world covered. They’re planning to release them together in the spring, I just don’t know where yet.”
HNM “What was your biggest takeaway in writing and directing Still the Water?”
SUSAN “I learned that I absolutely love – love – love it and that I’m so comfortable on a film set. It made me hungry to want to learn more about the craft and the technical side of filmmaking. I’m very eager to learn more and I love it enough to keep working at it to keep getting better and to get to the next level – to make better films.”
HNM “How much do you miss attending film festivals in person?”
SUSAN “It’s been a dream for a long time and I was looking forward to walking the red carpet and experiencing all the hype – getting my hair done, wearing the dress and especially having the cast and crew there… and celebrating with everyone. It would’ve been magical to be able to attend Whistler.”
HNM “Have you been able to get together with the cast over zoom, since making the film?”
SUSAN “I’ve actually been working with my producing partner Rick (Gibbs) to see what our next move/next project is. We haven’t done that yet, I think it would be fun. The cast and crew became so close throughout the filming, they all gelled and bonded, so we set up a Facebook page. For the island people, it’s a pretty rare experience and it’s nice to see that the relationships are still there. I think the cast that came in from far away have a special place in their hearts for PEI and Ry Barret, who plays Jordie said that it was one of his most challenging roles to play, even though he’s been in over 35 features. It was the hockey playing, the under-water scenes and being on the boat that he found challenging, but he said it was his favourite film to be part of. It’s so immersive working on a film project, it becomes a family.”
HNM “When you’re writing a script with the intention of directing it, do you write it differently?”
SUSAN “I don’t think it’s a conscious decision when I’m writing. I’m just a very visual writer anyway, so I suppose the more visual clues I have down the road can be helpful.”
HNM “As a director – what do you do the day after the wrap on shooting, in terms of switching gears, exhaling, etc.?”
SUSAN “What did I do the day after wrap – hmmm, interesting question! Well, the work didn’t stop, at least not right away. I went into high gear handwriting thank-you cards, most of which I was able to hand deliver. I like to get those kinds of tasks done right away. It’s always important for me to recognize those who help me through my film journeys… oh and most importantly – the second day after wrap, I went to a tattoo parlour and got two new tattoos on my forearms! One reads ’Someone To Watch Over Me,’ and it’s for a character in my Drifters book series, a man that the main character thinks of as a sort-of angel (he’s her security, actually – she’s a singer and actor). It’s also the name of an old Ridley Scott film that sparked my desire to write in the first place. The second tattoo reads ‘Like A Song,’ and it’s the name of the last book I published, which I’m pitching for TV, and if that doesn’t happen it may very well become a feature film.”
Susan tells me that they had some advantages filming in PEI, such as not having to pay for the use of the homes in the film, as well as the vehicles in the film because they were donated. They also had accommodations donated to the tune of almost $35,000.00 by a local company that just wanted them to succeed.
A little trivia – Susan drove her little Pontiac Sunfire from PEI to Vancouver to pursue film school at VFS. She pulled her son out of grade 12 in Oct. to make the long journey. He wanted to play in a high-level pipe band, so they both had goals that took them to the West Coast. She moved back but her son still lives there.
Susan… “It’s important for me to tell stories that address issues such as the heartbreak of loneliness, which I truly believe is an epidemic in our disconnected world. We need reminders that healing and connection are possible, even when it seems all hope is lost.”
Incidentally, all of the novels from Susan’s Drifter book series have been based in Vancouver, BC. If you’d like more information on the Drifter series or on Susan’s career and to follow her, there are multiple links below.