Jason Lapeyre is a Canadian filmmaker with blood on his hands…in a good way. A romantic of crime films and novels, Lapeyre, like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, depicts his lurid film worlds with equal affection and scorn for the brutality and corruption they breed.
A York University-graduate, Lapeyre hurdled headlong into the film industry by helping out on sets and directing music videos for several years. He even made a funny short film that parodies the opening text crawl credits of “Star Wars”. His low-budget feature debut “Cold Blooded” is also funny, I suppose, but the humour springs from the audience’s discomfort. This is the Hitchcock rule: laughter is the reflex of our unconscious fears and desires.
“Cold Blooded” is about an idealistic cop, Frances Jane (Zoie Palmer), who is assigned by her precinct to guard an injured prisoner (Ryan Robbins). Soon, Frances finds herself trapped in the hospital with nefarious thugs, including the stoic, Anton Chigurh-like Louis Holland (William MacDonald). All this amounts to a suspenseful yarn that takes extraordinary measures to unsettle its audience.
“Cold Blooded” premiered back in March at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, where I first met Lapeyre. His film gained notoriety instantly when a man had a seizure during the screening. That didn’t stop “Cold Blooded”, however, from earning acclaim. It reaped awards at several film festivals, such as the audience pick for Best Canadian Feature at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.
After seeing “Cold Blooded” a second time at the Mississauga Film Festival, I have grown to really appreciate its technical skill and creative set pieces. Above all, I realized that – beneath the artifice of its violence and fatal schemings – there was a core, one literally sprayed on Frances’s face. Blood here isn’t just titular; it represents the splatter of amorality that taints Frances’s idealisms on crime and the force. Her experiences in this film encompass a twisted morality tale.
A few months back I managed to interview Lapeyre. We had a really intriguing talk on “Cold Blooded”, violence in cinema, creating strong characters, the purpose of the homage, etc. Recently, Lapeyre’s sophomore piece “I Declare War”, which he wrote and co-directed with Robert Wilson, was accepted into the Vanguard program at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. He produced a short film by Jovanka Vuckovic called “The Captured Bird”, winner of Best Short Film at Fantasia and, to boot, executive produced by “Pan’s Labyrinth” auteur Guillermo del Toro! I was fortunate to have seen and reviewed it.
But now… I give you “Cold Blooded” and the zany mind of Jason Lapeyre!
Parker Mott: So…“Cold Blooded”. It’s a pretty insane movie. How did this get off the ground?
Jason Lapeyre: This was a project almost entirely instigated by a producer in Toronto named Tim Merkel. He had access to a location, an abandoned hospital. He was at the stage in his career where he wanted to produce his first feature, so he actually gathered a group of writers and took us on a tour of this abandoned hospital, which was spooky and very inspirational. After, he said: “okay, I need you guys to come up with a low-budget film set entirely in this hospital.” Then, the 5 writers went away and came up with ideas. I guess I won the lottery.
PM: I wouldn’t say “lottery”. You bested everyone!
JL: (laughs) It was a writer’s beat down! You know, something us writers really like are restrictions. We like assignments that are specific, and with the entire story set in the hospital it was easier to come up with ideas.
PM: And you graduated at York University. How did you break into the industry from there?
JL: Well, I started at the bottom, where everyone probably should start. I started PA-ing on commercials through a friend. For a couple years, it was commercials, music videos, and MOWs (Movies of the Week). It was brutal work and grueling, pretty well-paid. But it’s great, because everyday you’re floating on every part of set. You’re learning what everyone does. If you, like me, wanna make your own films you get to learn oh that’s what the camera department is responsible for, that’s what the catering department is responsible for. It may not sound important to know what the catering guy does, but when you’re figuring out the logistics it all helps.
PM: For me, “Cold Blooded” is the embodiment of a nightmare you love to be stuck in. It’s apocalyptic, surreal – like you’re stuck in this place. The violence in it is very interesting, like how it is used to serve both horror and humor. How do you use violence effectively?
JL: I don’t know man, I wanna make the audience squirm.
PM: I definitely squirmed!
JL: Good! Mission accomplished. I never really over-intellectualize my relationship with violence. I don’t know exactly how it works, or why I am so attracted to it. There’s something very primal and powerful. I love some of the uses of violence in films. “Reservoir Dogs” is a huge film for me; you can see that in “Cold Blooded”.
PM: I find it really interesting when violence breaches into the thematic.
JL: Yeah, like I don’t wanna deny what people get from “Cold Blooded”, but for me it was really important to have that violence because that’s what the whole story was about. It wasn’t me bleakly going “okay, let’s chop some people up.” Although, to be honest, it kinda was… (laughs) but there are reasons for extreme violence.
PM: It was funny you mentioned “Reservoir Dogs”, because the opening of “Cold Blooded” calls to mind a scene in that film by Tarantino when Steve Buscemi’s character, Mr. Pink, flees hectically from some cops. So, I guess you are in favour of the homage? You aspire to other filmmakers?
JL: I think that’s all you can do. What hasn’t been done at this point? Yeah, when I try to dream up my own version of a story, I literally called up that scene [from “Reservoir Dogs”] on Youtube and thought “yes, that’s the intensity that I want.” I worked very closely with my cinematographer, Alwyn Kumst. He had been shooting for like 40 years, so he was an amazing resource. So, yeah, I won’t lie. I homage. But as artists, that’s all you can do. No idea is original.
PM: Especially now. I think they’re out there, but tough to find.
JL: You know, one of my favorite quotes of all time was…when I was a writer for [horror publication] Rue Morgue Magazine a few years ago – which is another reason “Cold Blooded” is so violent, I was still writing for them at the time – I interviewed John Landis for a cover story on “An American Werewolf in London”. He is one of my heroes. He told me: “it’s all in the execution”. It’s a hilariously ironic quote for someone who makes horror films but I think what he was getting at was it doesn’t matter if the idea is original. I mean there are an endless amount of werewolf movies. But “An American Werewolf in London” is the greatest one of all time for its execution. You can recycle an idea, but do it well!
PM: Where is that hospital in “Cold Blooded” located?
JL: It’s in Toronto, on Eglinton and Keele. It’s called Humber River Regional Hospital. What’s great about that hospital is it has a basement that is a permanent standing hospital set. Almost every TV show shot in Toronto that requires a hospital shoots there on rotation – getting, two, three, four weeks to shoot their scenes. We were booked in there for 3 weeks.
PM: What were the advantages and disadvantages filming in that one location?
JL: The core advantage was the whole raison d’etre of the film: it was cheap. We never had to move the crew or equipment. I mean, this is the reason people make these kinds of films; they’re called “container films”. You set up shop around this location and milk it for everything you can. The disadvantage of course was to be imaginative in such a limited location. So many of the hallways in the film are reused, shot from a different angle, lit differently. You had to be creative, but that’s the magic of film.
PM: Speaking of lighting, I liked the grotesqueness of the blues and greens, colors that normally light a hospital. It gets back to my argument about the nightmarish quality. So, how did you have the lighting serve the mood of the story?
JL: Well, at the risk of sounding simplistic, I said to my cinematographer “the movie is called Cold Blooded”. The entire cast of characters were treating each other extremely coldly. When it comes to color temperature, we use blue for a certain reason. Like “Terminator 2” is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s full of blue to represent the robotic and emotionless. We wanted a chilliness of mood. That took shape in the camera movement as well; it’s very much a characteristic of contemporary filmmaking to have handheld cameras. The “Vimeo Look” as I call it…handheld DSLRs. I wanted this to be like a ‘70s French crime movie, with very controlled compositions.
PM: Now, I want to talk about the performances. There were some that really stuck out. For example, William MacDonald, who starred in a film I’ve seen called “Slither”, plays a villain here, Louis Holland, with great restraint. It was a contained performance. I was wondering when he was gonna pounce! How did you direct him?
JL: Funny you point out him. He was a total wildcard. He auditioned for a different role, but I was so impressed I said to the producers that we should make this guy the antagonist. He was an enigma, difficult to read. I mean, “Cold Blooded”’s also very literary. I love Elmore Leonard’s writing. The film adaptations of his books, like Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight”, Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”, and – even though I’m not a fan of the director – I really like “Get Shorty”. The thing about Leonard’s characters is there aren’t simply good guys and bad guys. Just human beings, professionals. So with Bill, I told him: “Look, you’re a career criminal but you’re also a father figure. You feel like your son has been killed and you want to figure out why and how.” I think that’s how you get the audience on board, creating those deep characters.
PM: Zoie Palmer, who is…sort of the main character. You do play with the definition of the protagonist in this movie. But she won an award at the Bare Bones Film Festival for her performance as the police officer Frances Jane…
JL: Yeah, she killed it! I was so happy for her, because we put her through so much! (laughs) She was super intense. But directing Zoie was different than directing the other actors, because Zoie came to the film with the strongest ideas about what her character was. I didn’t necessarily agree with all her ideas, but that was very rewarding because we…argued (laughs). We argued as artists, as people searching for the best solution instead of just defending our ideas. There were a lot of discussions. Zoie might ask me a question, I’d respond, and she’d say “no, I don’t think so” (laughs) and I’d say “well, then what about…?”
PM: That’s a blessing in disguise. You have two creative brains coming together.
JL: Yeah, that’s something I think a lot of directors have to really learn: directing is not about control. It’s not about getting people to do what you say. In almost every case, directing is about surrendering control. The single best professional workshop I ever took was a course on acting for directors with Judith Weston. She said that sometimes when an actor asks you a question, the best possible answer is “I dunno…what do you think?” because that’s how you get an actor on board. You want them to come up with their own idea and get invested. The director doesn’t have to have all the answers. You’re not a dictator. You want to find the collaborators who spark that creativity from you. That’s how you get Scorsese and DeNiro, Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly. They do that for each other.
PM: And you shot a documentary called “Faceless” at an inpatient psychiatric unit?
JL: Yes, it’s a place where people with mental illnesses go and stay. In some cases, they have their civil rights suspended and they have to stay there.
PM: What were your experiences making a documentary versus fiction like “Cold Blooded”?
JL: Completely different! I really enjoyed making “Faceless”, because it was less stressful. One of the reasons was because I had a much smaller crew. It was more intimate, I connected with the patients on camera. Everything wasn’t scheduled down to the last minute. We weren’t constantly fighting the clock. It was organic. Sometimes we weren’t shooting, we were waiting for something to happen. It encouraged our creativity.
PM: Before we finish, I want to throw a curveball your way with this question – brace yourself: where do you see the Canadian film industry going and how does one become successful in it?
JL: Oh my god… (laughs) I don’t know. You know, I’ve been at this seriously for like 6 years. Trying to meet the Telefilm people, all the production companies, and producers and I still don’t feel like I know 15 percent of the industry. It’s a huge and complicated bureaucratic machine. I don’t think I feel qualified to say where it is going. And what’s the second part of that question? I was equally baffled by that. (laughs)
PM: Success in the Canadian film industry, or really just the film industry in general.
JL: Oh, well what I told a lot of the people at the career day [at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival] was just networking, getting to meet and talk to people. Doing what we’re doing now. Forming relationships because it’s a relationship-based industry. Filmmaking is a relationship-based art form. I had this amazing opportunity a couple months ago to go to the Berlinale Talent Campus. There were 350 filmmakers from 99 different countries who came to this thing. It just blew my mind how incredible these people were. I met another Canadian filmmaker who I didn’t know beforehand; since returning, we’ve already collaborated on two films. Now we’re talking about a feature. So yes, networking is a key element to the whole game.
PM: What about talent?
JL: Talent, I think, is a bit of a myth. Hard work is more important.
A U.S. DVD release date for “Cold Blooded” is TBA.
Special Thanks to Sebastian Diaz for contributing to the interview.