Monday, May 30, 2011

"When you strip away enough manmade elements, places take on this grandiosity...": Ryan Redford on Oliver Sherman

Sherman Oliver (Garret Dillahunt) was shot in the head in an unnamed war. He survived, yet sustained a severe brain injury. During the months he was hospitalized he thought his name was Oliver Sherman because he couldn’t understand that his paperwork addressed him last name first. Everything in his life seems backward now. The first we see of him in
Oliver Sherman isn’t his face but the back of his head, the hair close-cropped so his scar remains visible. Sherman tracks down Franklin (Donal Logue), the solider who saved his life, at his rural home. In the seven years since they last saw each other Franklin got a job, married Irene (Molly Parker), and had kids. Sherman became a drifter and an alcoholic. He’s polite and unassuming, but it’s unclear how long he’s planning to stay with Franklin and his family, or what he plans to do besides taking Franklin out drinking every night. Based on Rachel Ingalls’ short story ‘Veterans,’ Oliver Sherman chronicles a troubled friendship between two vets. They weren’t really friends when they served together, but now seem inextricably bound by a shared trauma.

Oliver Sherman is the feature debut of writer/director Ryan Redford and is remarkably assured. Neither a word nor an image is wasted. Every scene accumulates in quiet portent, buoyed by immaculate performances from the three leads and the dusky photography of In the Bedroom’s Antonio Calvache. The story recalls Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, though Oliver Sherman also reminded me of Frankenstein: it concerns a sort of monster, stitched together yet somehow incomplete, who never asked for his life and now roams the earth, fundamentally apart from the civilized world, resembling other men yet never quite succeeding at assimilating their ways. (The only significant flaw in Oliver Sherman is that several characters’ don’t seem to catch on to the rather obvious fact that Sherman is severely mentally impaired.) This is one of the strongest Canadian films of recent years and deserves far more attention than it’s received since its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’s now available on DVD from Mongrel Media.

writer/director Ryan Redford

Redford first heard of Ingalls’
Times Like These, the collection that featured ‘Veterans,’ when it was published in 2005, but it wasn’t until after he’d spent four years developing what he thought would be his first feature, “a strange, violent western” that proved too ambitious and costly, that he came across the book and devoured ‘Veterans’ in one sitting. It wasn’t obviously cinematic, but possessed a “timeless, mythic element” that was right up Redford’s alley. “‘Veterans’ addressed these big life and death themes,” Redford explains, “the validity of violence, how one goes about becoming a proper citizen, and how difficult that can be.”

I spoke with Redford last February.

JB: I’m uncertain where this originates from culturally, but watching
Oliver Sherman I kept thinking about this old notion that when you save someone’s life you assume responsibility for it.

Ryan Redford: I think it’s Japanese.

JB: This seems to be at the heart of Franklin’s dilemma, his wondering if saving Sherman was a good deed or a kind of curse.

RR: That and the feeling that under slightly different circumstances he might have wound up like Sherman. For all Franklin knew Sherman might have died after they last saw each other, so when he shows up seven years later there’s this shock and horror that Franklin was the cause of this man’s fractured existence.

JB: Place plays an interesting role in
Oliver Sherman. Do you come from a rural community?

RR: Not really. My family moved us from Vancouver to Aurora, Ontario when I was 16. I lived there for five or six years and in that time Aurora went from being fairly rural to increasingly developed, with Starbucks, Blockbusters, and strip malls. But I’d always found myself drawn to Andrew Wyeth paintings. I like that poetic something that untouched environments have. When you strip away enough manmade elements, places take on this grandiosity that’s always appealed to me.

JB: Are there rural films that serve as touchstones for you?

RR: I’m not comparing this movie to anything of his in any way, but an obvious source of inspiration is Terrence Malick’s films. Malick has this very formal approach, very grounded in nature…

JB: And very philosophical.

RR: Yeah, there’s something mythic to his movies. I also had the crew watch Andrei Zvyaginstev’s
The Return, just to get them in the right frame of mind.

Oliver Sherman doesn’t concern itself with connective geography. We’re either at this very vulnerable looking house surrounded by fields and woods, a small, cramped public library, or this womb-like bar with no women, but there’s no sense of how these places fit together geographically.

RR: I hate establishing shots. I like big landscapes. I like pretty pictures. I hate starting in wide and then getting closer and closer. There’s something pleasingly disorienting about starting a scene and not knowing where you are. Only at the end of a scene will I maybe cut to a wide to finish it and underscore the isolation.

JB: The lack of orientation gave the film this vaguely dreamlike quality that seems to mirror Sherman’s experience of the world, given his cognitive deficiencies.

RR: I’m not always so wild about reflecting what’s going on with the character in the compositions, but I realize there are many shots where I’m making Sherman tiny and solitary within the frame. So I guess sometimes I was doing that on purpose. So much of the storytelling has to do with withholding, so maybe that’s part of it too.

JB: Can you say something about your decision to withhold a key act of violence?

RR: I don’t think we see any acts of violence in the film, but they’re alluded to. Some would argue that showing that scene you’re referring to might have provided more of a punch in the gut, but I always thought it would be too over the top in this kind of restrained, quiet movie.

JB: I think there are ways you could have pulled it off, but it would have supplied a catharsis inappropriate for that point in the story. It’s also nice that we only later discover what exactly happened after the fade to black.

RR: I think you’re right.

JB: There’s a photograph in Franklin’s house of a horse’s eye that seems to be keeping watch over he action. It caught my eye because by isolating the eye the horse seems so spooked, and because Sherman’s relationship with animals, whether its the barking dog he spits on or his story about how to kill a fox, seems antagonistic and important to the story.

RR: That was the production designer. I was initially resistant to it. I don’t like having art on walls in my movies. I don’t like referencing other artists. I don’t like art that’s supposed to be metaphorical. I concede that it is a pretty unsettling image, but I can’t take credit for it.

JB: What about the music box playing that Beethoven piano sonata?

RR: I was just searching for something with the right rhythm, given how we’d cut it. I’d seen
The Man Who Wasn’t There recently…

JB: I was going to ask you about that. Once you’ve seen that movie it’s hard to forget that tune.

RR: Yeah, and it just happened to be on this sound effects collection. I’d hated everything I’d heard until that point, and then I saw that movie on TV at 1.00 in the morning, tried it out, and it worked. We were actually going to replace it forever but never got around to it.

JB: The film has such a distinct sensibility. Were there certain elements that you wanted in your first feature regardless of what the story or genre was going to be?

RR: My friends make fun of me for it, but every one of my shorts—and I made plenty of them—had this timeless element and these rural settings, a sort of displaced or lyrical version of reality. So I’m sure that when I was reading stories and looking for adaptable material that I had that aesthetic I’d developed in the back of my mind. Having said that, I think it might be time to branch out a little.
Oliver Sherman was the period at the end of that sentence, so to speak.

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