Lindsay MacKay on “Wet Bum,” “Clear Blue”

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As soon as the end credits began to roll on “Wet Bum,” a 2014 coming-of-age drama available on Netflix, I realized that I had just discovered one of my new favorite filmmakers. Her name is Lindsay MacKay, a Canadian writer/director whose command of tone and nuance is just extraordinary. “Wet Bum” is her feature debut, and it contains an unforgettable performance from Julia Sarah Stone as Sam, an awkward teen tasked with working at a retirement home run by her mother (Leah Pinsent). There she meets Ed (Kenneth Welsh), an embittered widower, and Judith (Diana Leblanc), a woman who spends much of her days looking out her window. During swimming lessons at school, Sam becomes an easy target for bullies, yet she finds friendship—and potential romance—with her instructor, Lukas (Craig Arnold). I noted some intriguing thematic similarities between this picture and MacKay’s acclaimed 2010 short film, “Clear Blue,” about a young lifeguard, Simon (Chris Sheffield), who becomes transfixed by Flova (Nancy Linehan Charles), an older swimmer with a startling penchant for remaining underwater.

MacKay spoke with Indie Outlook about her approach to directing young actors, her love of “Let the Right One In,” and how personal experiences from her youth have inspired her work.

Your films convey so much without the need for dialogue. What first attracted you to the art of visual storytelling?

Oh wow, that’s a good question. I wasn’t super-into filmmaking while growing up, I was more of a math/science kid. It was during my undergrad that I began to learn the visual language of filmmaking. I went to a summer program at FAMU in the Czech Republic, and they spoke about filmmaking like it was grammar. They likened the use of close-ups, mediums and wide shots to forming a basic sentence. The greatest thing they ever told us was once you learn the basic grammar, start to write poetry. That blew my mind. For me, that process became about expressing emotion and using the language of cinema in a different way.

Many scenes in both “Clear Blue” and “Wet Bum” take place in a swimming pool. 

It’s actually the same pool. [laughs] Both films were set at a high school pool, and I created a name, logo and sweater for the school. Now if I have high schools or pools in a movie, I’m just going to continue to use those. I think that the reverberation of echoes in the space [housing an indoor pool] is really beautiful. I’m obviously drawn to water, and it’s incredible how it both provides life and can take life. Like every young girl, I had body issues and still do, and I find that those change rooms exude sexuality in a way that can make some people feel uncomfortable. Just exploring feelings and spaces is something that I really enjoy doing.

I also like how you portray the private space that lies underwater.

Yeah, in “Clear Blue,” there’s a sense that you can be someone else when you’re underwater. You lose a sense of your body, and you feel like you’re floating. You’re closed off and you can hear your heartbeat because of the way the water isolates you. As humans, we can only experience that for the duration that we can hold our breath, and then we’re forced back into reality, which is something that I liked exploring. The pool is a safe space for Sam as long as she can hold her breath, and then she has to face reality again.

What I love about “Clear Blue” is how it takes a premise we’ve seen in broad comedies like “Splash” and brings it to a level of realism akin to “Let the Right One In.”

I love “Let the Right One In”! That’s one of my favorite films. I love when people take myths and folklore and bring it into a place where it’s real, which is kind of what I was trying to do in “Clear Blue.” It’s less about the folklore and more about people connecting. What I loved about “Let the Right One In” is that it’s really just a love story between two kids, but they have a complicated situation. [laughs] It’s about how these two outsiders gravitate towards each other. I like taking something mythical and putting it in the real world, because part of me secretly believes that all of those things exist.

“Clear Blue” was your thesis film at the American Film Institute. How did AFI help you evolve as an artist?

I had done an undergrad in film at York University in Canada, and it laid a great groundwork for me, since I wasn’t a film person in any way. I didn’t know what Super 8 film was, and I used to think that films were shot in order. My undergrad gave me the basics, but then I chose to go to AFI because I had been making movies for four years with the same people, and I wanted to see if this was something that I could actually do. My time at AFI was a great two-year experience. I met other people who were insanely passionate about what they were doing. I had room and space to try things and fail at them, as well as try things and succeed at them, while developing my own voice in the process. It made me figure out what kind of storyteller I wanted to be.

You are very gifted at eliciting great performances from fresh faces like Chris Sheffield and Julia Sarah Stone. How do you approach working with young talent? 

I haven’t thought about it before. I auditioned both of them a lot. With Chris, I had him come in twice with a casting director. Then I had him come in a third time, and just spent a half-hour with him trying extremes of different things. We’d have him go to an extreme place, and then bring it down to almost nothing. Seeing that range made me know that he could do it, and the same was true of Julia. She was based in Vancouver and we were auditioning people in Toronto. She sent in a tape two or three times, and then she flew out for a callback. It was the same kind of thing, just exercising range in the audition process.

What I enjoy doing with my lead actors—and any actor if I have the time—is getting to know them really well. Before we shot “Wet Bum,” I requested two rehearsal periods with Julia. It was just the two of us, and we sat for three hours and hung out while talking about the script. I explained to her where I was and how I connected to the character, she explained where she was and how she connected to it. In both cases, once I knew that the actors could get where they needed to be, I didn’t want to overwork them. I just wanted to make sure that we both kind of got it, that they understood me, and that I care about how they’re feeling. Then I just trust them to do their best. I don’t write that much dialogue as you can tell, so I think that they get where they need to be if we’ve talked about it enough.

What’s important is that you never overwrite a scene to the point where themes are needlessly being spelled out.

The role of a writer and the role of a director are very different, which is why being a writer/director is kind of funny to me. I was rewriting “Wet Bum” right up until we began shooting. While performing a scene on the day of filming, the actors would bump on a line, and I would constantly joke, “Who is the writer? Who wrote this?” Everyone would laugh and then we would just cut the line. Maybe as a writer, you do overwrite, and then when you see it onset, you realize that your actors can handle a scene without the need for a particular line. It’s a balance between writer and director that I haven’t figured out 100 percent as a writer, but thank god I can figure it out as a director.

How difficult is it to direct an underwater scene?

I was so intimidated by directing underwater at first, but after my experience on “Clear Blue,” I felt super-confident. Honestly, I can say that the one thing I know how to do really well is direct underwater. [laughs] Since we shot a lot more underwater in “Clear Blue,” we had a much better setup than we did on “Wet Bum.” We basically had the actors tied to the bottom of the pool, and they were on air. We had a safety diver with both of them and in between takes, they would get air. We did a scuba training session with the actors, and I had an underwater speaker system onset. They could hear me, but they couldn’t talk back. I gave them direction, and then we worked out lingo through hand gestures that enabled them to respond. We’d count to three, the air would come out and we’d shoot, and the air would come immediately back in after we cut. If they ever needed the air before then, they could signal for someone to come in. Because most of the underwater scenes in “Wet Bum” were surface-level, we didn’t do any scuba training, but it was really tough on the actors in both cases.

Julia is incredible because her job was basically like training for a marathon. She stayed in the water for three long, insanely full days. It’s grueling because even though the water is warm, you can still get cold, as we all do in water. She was just amazing in how she powered through it. I don’t even know if I could do it. Since most of her scenes took place on the surface of the water, we would be able to talk between takes. A lot of it was about feeling the space, enjoying the space, and trying to hit some marks. Because my cinematographer was on a snorkel, he could move and get in her face as he needed to. During my research for both films, I realized that people tend to use a lot of wide shots while shooting at a pool, in order to show off the location. I like to be really up close and personal in order to capture a sense of isolation. The underwater camera operators that I worked with on each film both said to me, “I’ve never shot underwater like this,” because I would force them to get super-close to the actors. I think the footage looks really great, and in both cases, I slowed down the movement a little bit just to add to the lyrical feeling of the water.

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I mentioned in my review of “Wet Bum” that tension is established from the moment Lukas first calls out to Sam after class. I love how you and Craig Arnold balanced the character’s sweetness with his more unsettling behavior.

That was a really important thread in the story, because how boring would the movie have been if you just hated him from the get-go? One thing that I talked about a lot with Craig and Julia was that I never wanted Lukas to be a villain, and I never wanted him to think that he was a villain. He pushes it too far during his last scene in the car, and he’s obviously in the wrong. But before then, I didn’t want anyone to think of him as a villain. It’s a confusing situation for both characters. He’s into a younger girl, he wants something that she’s unsure of and he kind of feels like she’s leading him on. We would always talk about that balance and how we’d play that out.

I kept making sure Craig knew that I never thought he was a villain, and it’s interesting to hear him talk about it at Q&A’s. Though he affirms that his character went too far, he also points out that Lukas is the one person in the film, other than Judith, who is paying attention to Sam, caring about her feelings, being slightly protective of her and helping her along this journey before it turns. Part of you wants them to work it out, and the thing that I kind of based their relationship on was Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.” The relationship between Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis in that film was so amazing, and I remember oddly wanting it to work out because she wants it so bad, even though you know it’s wrong.

I also like how you portray the bonds forged between people from different generations. The young people often want to be helpful, while the old people simply want their space. 

“Wet Bum” is actually somewhat based on my own experiences. I grew up with parents that run and own a nursing home, and I worked there as a cleaning woman like Sam. I had a lot of experiences at a young age where I would be confronted with people who were towards the end of their life. It rocked me to my core, in terms of understanding that my young adolescent life is not the most important thing. I also realized that old people aren’t just sweet grandmas and grandpas who are going to give you Werther’s all the time. Their lives are super-complicated and they are going through some really tough things. Even if they aren’t, it doesn’t mean that they are just grandparents waiting for you to arrive to make their lives better. What I experienced through that job and what I’ve learned from an older generation is really important to me and obviously influences my work on all levels.

“Clear Blue” is a mythical tale, but it’s also about our bodies and how age can isolate us from others. Underwater, Flova’s a beautiful young woman, and above water, she’s an old woman that no one would pay attention to. The film was about the way in which we put those barriers up through life. What I really loved about “Wet Bum” was how both Sam and Ed are going through a big life change and they are coming into their new selves. Ed lost his wife and he’s trying to figure out who he is without her. Sam is becoming a woman and trying to figure out who she is in that situation. They are both going through transitions that are similar and not similar at the same time, but both are experiencing change and can find a connection with each other and support each other through that.

After my mother’s recent experience at an underfunded rehab center, I really understood Ed’s frustration with his circumstances.

I knew a couple who moved to my parents’ retirement home, and their story is similar to Ed’s. They moved there because the wife wasn’t able to take care of herself anymore and her husband wasn’t able to take care of her anymore either. They lived on a farm and he was forced to move into the retirement home with his wife. After she passed away, the farm was sold, and the guy couldn’t go back home. For your whole life, you feel like you can do certain things, and that you can go back to that space where you’ve always been. Suddenly, it’s very obvious that you can’t be there anymore, and so then it’s like, “What is this new life and how do you function within it?” You don’t know who you are anymore. Your identity and sense of belonging and daily routine are gone. That was what interested me about Ed’s character. After the loss of his wife, he’s trying to go back to his farmhouse to regain a sense of self, and then he gets there and realizes that it’s not what it used to be.

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I want to talk a bit more about Julia, who gave such an astonishing performance as Sam. 

Julia knew that this movie was about my experience. I really wanted to make it clear to her, and it’s funny because in a lot of interviews, she’ll get asked, “Is it intimidating to act out a story that your director wrote about her life?” It’s insanely intimidating, and so I said to her, “This is your character, this is your experience, you bring to it what you want and don’t ever feel that you’re trying to be me.” In the rehearsal process, we’d find the ways in which she connected to the material. Onset, it’s not about me bringing my own experience into it, but about me referencing back to what she told me about her experiences. Then I can meld the two in a way that makes sense for her.

Honestly, Julia can handle it on her own. She would get there every time, and sometimes she would get there so quickly, I would be like, “Woah, let’s try one where you didn’t get there.” I have never met anyone that young with that talent. She’s very professional and she does her research. I think she wrote a journal as Sam and she also had a playlist of music that her character would listen to. My job is to lay the groundwork and then she kind of does her own thing. Then it was just a matter of onset tweaking, but because she had such a good base, she was able to immediately get there. We called her the one-take wonder because she would kill it and I’d be like, “Well, I should at least do two takes, just in case.” [laughs] She was basically in every scene of that movie, and did such a great job.

Many female filmmakers have told me about the obstacles they’ve faced in getting a personal story realized onscreen. Did you encounter industry sexism while making “Wet Bum”?

I have to say I’ve been extremely fortunate. I realize this is a huge issue, and I am a big supporter of females in the film industry. I’m part of Film Fatales in both L.A. and Toronto. There are a lot of exceptional females out there who aren’t getting the opportunities that they should. But I’ve found a great group of people that support the kind of work I do. Every so often, you wonder, “Why didn’t I get that job?” or, “Why isn’t somebody putting me forward for that?” At the same time, I’m creating my own work and my own content. This industry is so competitive and so horrible that my mindset is, “They didn’t choose me because I’m not the right person for that,” or, “I have my own path and this is what I’m going to do.”

I actually just got hired on a thriller/drama set in northern Ontario and the whole team is men—dare I say, dudes. [laughs] They picked me out of all the people they were interviewing, and I remember asking them, “Why did you hire me?” I’ve made an intimate coming-of-age film about a young woman, and this is a thriller about two guys who accidentally killed a girl when they were 17 and now the place where they buried her body is being dug up. It’s about them trying to keep the secret and prevent the body from being found. I’m really excited that they picked me, and I think they made the right call since I’ll be able to bring some sensitivity to the project. There are strong women in the script, but it’s mostly a male-oriented cast. I feel like I’ll be able to pull it off in a way that’s more interesting than the approach taken by a guy who’s just interested in gunfights and car crashes.

Are you also planning to make a feature version of “Clear Blue”?

Yeah, I am doing that as well. We’re hoping to shoot it next year, and it’s different from the short in a lot of ways. It’s still about an elderly woman who is a young woman when underwater, but the world expands itself beyond that pool. It takes place in a small oceanside community, and there’s a bit of ocean mythology woven into the story.

Here’s hoping that high school pool makes a return appearance.

That pool is called the Trueman J. Thomasson Swimming Center, and I named it after my late grandfather, who I never met.  My production designer on “Clear Blue” created an amazing logo for it, and I really loved the color palette. I asked her to give me the rights to it so I could basically use it for everything. [laughs]

“Clear Blue” can be viewed on Lindsay MacKay’s Vimeo page. “Wet Bum” is currently available for streaming on Netflix Instant.

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