WFF: Sean Garrity Ignites THE BURNING SEASON

We typically go to movies to witness a story unfold and what keeps us in our seats is the anticipation and thrill of what will happen next. But what of a story that not only starts at the end, but proceeds to narratively unfurl in reverse? Sure, it makes a nice gag for a show like Seinfeld, but can such an unorthodox approach sustain a tragic romantic drama?

Veteran director Sean Garrity certainly thinks so. Teaming up with longtime collaborator writer/actor Jonas Chernick, Garrity is about to unleash The Burning Season on audiences at Whistler this year. The film zeroes in on Alena (Sara Canning) and JB (Chernick) who have struggled to keep their ongoing and increasingly unstable love affair from their respective spouses while also sharing a dark secret.

I connected with the Winnipeg-based Garrity over Zoom to talk about all things Burning Season from its running the shoot as a summer camp to its ample test screenings.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity

What was the genesis of The Burning Season?

The genesis came from the writer and producer Jonas Chernick and co-writer Diana Frances. They wrote and developed it for many years and actually came to me with it years ago. A lot of my friends and colleagues in the film industry, we share scripts and we share ideas and get feedback from each other.

Jonas and I, this is our seventh film together. I was in Toronto finishing post on a movie that Jonas and I had just done called The End of Sex. I was just wrapping up the final sound mix and VFX and we went out for dinner and he was like “Hey man, I got this show and it would be perfect for you, you’re my favourite director, would you do it?”. He gave me the script, I made some changes to it and away we went!


Was the non-linear narrative structure there from the start?

Yes, I think that was the genesis of their project. In fact, the script that I received from them I felt relied a little too much on that device and so a lot of the changes that I put into place were about adding more story, especially at the backend story that we could still discover, even though we were going backwards.

It is a tricky proposal. I didn’t say yes to them right away. I read the script and I was like “Huh…it seems to me that as the guy who is overseeing pacing of this movie, they’re kind of taking away my main tool to create pacing!”. What happens next? That central engine in a film, by writing it backwards, it’s kind of gone!

So I did have some concerns about how do we keep the audience engaged which is where the story changes I made came from.

The backwards structure reminded me of that one episode of Seinfeld.

Yeah and I was very inspired by one of my favourite Korean films, Peppermint Candy, which also famously goes backwards.

While I assume Jonas was attached early on, how did you approach casting for the rest of the roles?

In the usual way. I wish I had a really interesting casting story, but really, we reached out to people who would do it for the tiny price that we could pay. Something that’s kind of different and better, but different about making a film and casting now is that you used to audition people for a role and then when someone was about to get a role, you’d say “By the way, there’s some nudity in this movie”. This put them in a difficult position because you’d be offering them the gig and then saying “But wait, you’ll have to agree to nudity”, which is unfair.Now you just have to put it in the breakdown. 

So we put out this very unpopular breakdown of a movie that pays little money, plus you have to be naked for it! We still got a lot of people who really wanted to do it, which was great, and there were a lot to work through.

Like Sara Canning?

Man, Sara Canning! There were a lot of great actors, but I watched Sara’s audition and right away I thought “Ok, that’s obviously the high watermark!”. It’s hard to imagine that someone could be more Alena than her. She just really embodied everything I thought that role would be.

And the casting process as we do it, because Jonas is also a producer and the writer Diana also chimes in, is that they would wait until the director came to a decision. Then they would chime in and say “Oh, I thought that too” or whatever.

In the case of Sara, I was like “For the role of Elena, obviously Sara Canning” and Jonas was like “That’s exactly who I thought should get that role!”. Hilariously, Diana was like “After you watched her audition, why did you keep watching other auditions?? I would have hired her on the spot!”. She completely embodied that character.

I was impressed at how closely the teenage actors resembled their adult counterparts, particularly Christian Meer as young JB. 

There was a lot of discussion about that. We were just very lucky because in the end, I was a real curmudgeon about it and where production was like “We have to find somebody who looks like Jonas”, I was like “No”. My policy in directing is to always hire the best actor period. No matter what.

So I said that I would not be bound by that and I’m just gonna hire the best actor who shows up for the role and we lucked out! He happened to look a lot like Jonas! We did do a little bit of work with his hair and some other stuff to make him look a little more like Jonas but yeah, that was quite a lucky break.

Any fun stories from the set? Challenges to overcome?

We were shooting at a place that is normally a summer camp for rich kids and their previous campers included such famous rich kids as Justin Trudeau! Jonas came up with this concept of: we’re very low budget, we’re asking people to do a lot of work for not very much money, and the departments are all very small so they’re doing more work than they would normally be doing within their departments. How do we make a trade-off that will convince people to come out and do a lot of work for very little money?

His concept was “Why don’t we make a summer camp for adults?”. We’ll bring everybody out and we’ll put them in cabins and we’ll cover their breakfast, lunch, and dinner in this big dining hall. We’ll arrange activities on the weekend, hikes and other stuff. In the evenings, there was this place that hosted a jam session around a fire.

So we really built the experience of shooting it like a summer camp. What did I do on my summer vacation? I went to camp and I made a movie.

It worked in spades, man! A lot of the cast and most of the crew went away saying to us that they felt that this was one of the most positive and rewarding experiences that they had ever

had making a movie. That was 100% on Jonas, his psychological trick to get people to work for very little dough. It was lovely.

Any interesting discoveries made in the editing room?

Oh my God, yeah. I am of the belief that when shooting a movie, you’re basically just on a scavenger hunt. Wide shots, medium shots, you’re collecting the pieces that the editor will need to actually make the movie. The actual movie is made in editing.

I have a process that I have always followed with all of my films which is: tons and tons and tons of test screenings. I absolutely abuse every family member and friend that I have to come and watch. So we’ll do a cut, we’ll do two or three screenings with small groups of ten people-ish. We’ll get feedback from the groups. Usually anything that’s really egregious, we’ll track through all groups. Everyone will be like “I didn’t get this” or “The ending’s not satisfying”.

We re-cut it, re-test it, and we just keep doing that until the feedback just kinda starts to scatter and people are all giving different pieces of feedback, then we go “ok, the movie’s now close to being whatever it’s gonna be”.

One of the things that we discovered very early when I was in the edit suite, the beginning of the film where we give a teaser of those kids by the fire originally was not supposed to be there in the script. I added it in the edit because I felt that we needed to give the audience a sense of the story going somewhere dark and sinister and you should stick around because we’re gonna let you know what it is.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

It’s interesting. When you go backwards, it’s a very different kind of movie isn’t it? So as opposed to getting the audience to come along with us on a journey of “what happens next?”, when you go backwards you’re asking the audience to analyse and re-contextualize and judge joists. When you see somebody make a choice, you know where that choice leads. 

So as an audience member, you’re really invited to look deeper into these characters. I think there is a way of involving the audience deeper in character in this movie than in a movie that goes the other way, forwards.

That leaves them with a bit of a series of questions at the end about the ethical choices these characters made and how culpable they are and where it goes from here. We noticed in our screening groups that there were lots of very spirited discussions after the movie about what the characters had decided to do and what would happen next, which direction the story would go. I think that’s a great thing to leave audiences with.

The Burning Season screens as part of WFF at Maury Young Arts Centre on Thurs Nov 30 @8:30pm

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