The Movie Waffler Waffling With... I FALL DOWN Writer-Director Christopher White | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With... I FALL DOWN Writer-Director Christopher White

TMW chats with the writer-director of the fantasy-horror tale I Fall Down.

Interview by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

I'd classify I Fall Down as exploring the classic horror theme of the outsider. The most poignant examples of the genre give us monsters that are as sympathetic as they 'horrifying'. I'm thinking of Seth in The Fly, or, perhaps more appropriately for I Fall Down, Frankenstein's lonely creation. What other films influenced you when you were making I Fall Down?

Definitely Frankenstein, though I'm talking about the original 1818 book and not the movie. Truth is, I've never seen the old Karloff film. What I love about the story is how the monster develops: he starts off as an innocent but as he grows he becomes hardened and dangerous. It ends with that wonderful soliloquy where he possesses a keen self-awareness but accepts his place as a monstrous abomination not fit for this world. If you go back and watch Charlie, you'll see his story roughly follows the same trajectory. It's something that you see throughout those classic monster stories, from the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Phantom of the Opera. They all possess a cruelty or at least an edge that's defined by their monstrous form. That's the tragedy to me, that someone who – through no fault of their own – can become marginalized and that causes them to lash out and like some mad dog they are eventually put down.
In the non-monster/horror canon, I love Terry Gilliam and his films. There's a common theme through most of his works of the little guy in his own imaginative world pushing against a cold, mechanical world defined by reason and logic. Visually as well, I shamlessly borrowed his use of wide angle lens to distort the audience's perception in a few key scenes. Deepa Mehta's films and her humanist cinema have also been an influence. I really appreciated her film Water and how there's so much that's said on screen, but the characters never verbalize. It demands a certain level of unpacking from the audience, like you'd expect from a novel. With I Fall Down, I wanted to let the audience figure a few things out, in particular some of the chronology surrounding Charlie's origins and Annessa's thoughts and feelings towards the other characters. I tried to tell it visually and let the actors convey it through their performances.

The theme of parents and children is pertinent to I Fall Down - there are Charlie's sad origins, and Annessa's equally horrific home life. As the film develops, it is almost as if Annessa is a parent to Charlie (and Rudy!). Even the bullies in Annessa's school seem to have had their worldview warped by the rabid politics of their parents. Is this an accurate reading of the film, that it's a criticism of those who don't fulfil their responsibilities?

I wanted Annessa and Charlie's relationship to be contextual, that is, its nature was changing from scene to scene. At some points she acts as almost a surrogate mother to Charlie, in others he's an older father figure. There's of course their friendship, and they flirt with the idea of a romantic connection. I think that's how many relationships exist in the real world. If you think through to the relationships you've had that have lasted for any length of time, you'll recognize different eras and dynamics within them. There isn't even a specific trajectory: things just happen and then they become something else.
The theme of parenthood goes back to the Frankenstein influence. It isn't just the parents, but it's Locke's idea of the Tabula Rasa, that we're all born a blank slate but it's our environment that shapes what we'll become. If you've got a situation where a parent is deliberately neglectful, abusive or fills their child's head full of crap, that's going to have an influence on them. The murder of the doctor creates a hole in Charlie's young life and you could see it as an abdication of sorts of the parental responsibility – just like Victor Frankenstein.

The aspect of I Fall Down that impressed me most was the balance of almost fairytale like imagery with hard hitting social issues. The film juxtaposes issues such as abortion and domestic abuse alongside dreamy sequences and traditional horror iconography, and never feels contrived in doing so. Does I Fall Down have a political message?

I'm glad you felt it was balanced. I set out wanting to marry the lurid elements of a direct-to-video horror film with a grounded character story not to elevate one or the other but because I thought it'd be interesting. My first goal was to tell something that felt truthful, and any political or social statements were subservient to that. The truthfulness comes from the characters and their relationships with one another. In cases of abuse, particularly with children, there can be some very complex emotions; it isn't as black and white as we'd like to see as outsiders. That doesn't excuse it, but I think when we look at what happens in the real world, it can help to contextualize certain behaviours from survivors that we see but can't explain.
As for any political message, even now I'm not 100% comfortable when I have to mention that one of the characters is the survivor of a botched abortion. The reaction could go either way. It could be taken as a joke or else shamelessly exploitative of a very real political issue. I recognize that as a man telling this story, it's not something that I've had to experience first hand. Again, trying to tell it honestly is the best that I think I can do. Yes, there's an irony to be found in casting the pitchfork wielding denizens as pro-life protestors, but the film's message is more humanist than overly political. There are consequences for every decision and it's not always easy to predict what those outcomes will be. Most of life is just people doing what they can to get through the day hoping to find a meaningful connection with someone they can relate to.

Emma Houghton is wonderful. The role of Annessa, wise eyed, but with a palpable sorrow, is perfectly embodied by her. How was she discovered? I'm interested in your artistic relationship, and what you feel Emma brought to the role?

Emma was fantastic, which is great since she pretty much had to carry the film as it was Annessa's story. Initially though, I didn't want to cast her. When I was writing the film, I had the image of a grungy Ellen Page-like actress in the role. I was sitting around with a couple friends and they mentioned I should get in touch with this actress that they had cast in a project that never got off the ground. She came in, did a reading and she was great, but I couldn't reconcile the image in my head with her more elfin and fey appearance. She did a screen test with Tom Antoni (Charlie) where I had them act out the climactic scene in the river valley. After that – and some convincing from David Baron, my Director of Photography – I cast both her and Tom in the lead roles.
We shot the film over two and a half years and I think everyone's skills and comfort levels increased as we went on. Some of Emma's best scenes came from later in the shoot. It was just the small details in her reactions and the way she could emote. It gave me a lot of confidence when it came to the faux reconciliation scene between Annessa and her father. There was originally a lot more dialogue that I knew wasn't going to work. I sat down with Emma and Robert Beddow (Alvin) and tried to make sense of what they needed to say. Eventually, I just crossed out the entire page of dialogue and just let them tell the scene non-verbally. I think it's one of the most important scenes in the film and it really gets across the nature of their relationship. It came about by having the confidence in the skill of my actors to convey it all through performance rather than ham-fisted dialogue.

You've been involved in the administration of film festivals in the past, and made short films. How did you find the jump to a feature length movie? Due to your background in film festivals you must have seen lots of independent productions; did this prepare you I Fall Down? Also, what's next for Christopher White?

The only way my film festival experience helped was not taking it too personally when I got rejected from festivals. I remembered watching many fine films but schedule limitations, duplication in programming and many other seemingly arbitrary factors kept me from screening them.
While I Fall Down was a feature, it was shot like many of my short projects. I actually shot a short to prepare for the film back in 2010: It was a five minute adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart. We shot it on 16mm and Super8 and for the first time, I had a mini crew consisting of a couple DoPs, make-up and a composer. The I Fall Down shoot was very similar: I wrote a story that I knew I could shoot relatively cheaply in the style I knew how. I've never worked with an AD and I've always been the one staying up until 2 am getting costumes together and prepping lunches. It's nice in some ways, to know that at any time, I could put together another feature, so there's no excuse to sit around doing nothing.
While I'm fine doing it that way, I would like to scale up a bit with my next project with an actual budget and someone else to make the sandwiches. I've got a northern horror film that's been gestating for the last eight years since before I even thought up I Fall Down. It's a slow burn with J-horror sensibilities. I'm currently putting together a very unconventional biopic on Louis Riel. He was a man who lived during the time when Canada became a country and, depending on who you ask, he was either the Métis peoples' Moses or Canada's Benedict Arnold. It's based on a fantastic Fringe show and I hope to have something to announce in the coming months.

Make no bones about it, I liked I Fall Down a great deal, as I've stated in my review. But here's your chance: why should TMW readers take a chance on I Fall Down?

It was great reading your review because it validated everything that I was trying to do with the movie. You can have a very simple story, but it's the way you tell it, including the visuals, the performances and the tone that can set it apart. It's a gritty little film and a little frayed on the edges, but if you want to support genuinely independent film and the people behind it, I Fall Down is worth checking out.

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