On a dark and stormy night

Cody Calahan on storytelling and shooting The Oak Room

by Jennie Kermode

The Oak Room
The Oak Room

A film about a man who walks into a bar and offers to pay for his drink with a story might not sound especially compelling, but there's power in stories - the bedrock of cinema - and if you're willing to give The Oak Room your attention, you'll be chilled to the bone by the time the story ends. Every apparently familiar detail in Cody Calahan's cinematic riddle conceals something else. Nothing can be taken for granted .But just how does one go about constructing a film like this? Here's what Cody had to tell us.

Jennie Kermode: The Oak Room has an astonishing script but with such limited use of location and movement, it must have been a serious challenge to film. What persuaded you to take it on?

Cody Calahan: I think it was just that, the challenge. I was ready to really step outside my comfort zone and try something new. I find that’s where creativity really shines - when you’re both nervous and excited. I think that’s what draws me to choosing projects that are very different from one another.

JK: Making the plot work depends on distraction and detail. How did you get the balance right?

CC: Lots of finessing through the writing, shooting, and editing. Sometimes it was about mimicking shots to try and sway the audience, sometimes it was about changing certain props, so it tells two stories at once. A lot was decided in the script though. We really spent the time to get the balance right before we started shooting.

JK: How did you work with Jeff Maher and the production team to create the right atmosphere in the bar?

The Oak Room poster
The Oak Room poster

CC: I’ve been working with Jeff Maher for a long time and he’s an incredible cinematographer because he cares so much about the story. He’s not only thinking about camera moves and the overall look of the film but, he’s also watching the performances and making suggestions based on the characters. In the beginning we shared a lot of photography back and forth. We tested a bunch of different lenses up at a cabin in the middle of winter. We chose these old anamorphic lenses: Kowas. They have this very interesting look and some of the other options were just too clean. From there, we started working with production designer Justin Reu to really fill the bar with practical sources. We also wanted to light everything so we could move fast and let the actors move wherever they wanted. That was a challenge.

JK: How involved were you in the casting process and how did you work with the actors to get those very carefully balanced performances out of them?

CC: I had a pretty good idea of everyone I wanted to get for each role. What was great, and this usually never happens, was that all our number one picks for each role were available and loved the script. So, the casting process was pretty quick. Prior to shooting, I had a lot of meetings about the backstories of the characters and what happens when the screen cuts to black at the end. It wasn’t so much what was on the page but, what came before and after to really find the characters.

JK: There’s a lot of very close up camerawork in the film, capturing small nuances of expression. Did the detail and intimacy of that work require a lot of takes, and if so, how did it fit into your shooting schedule?

CC: We tried to light the set so we could move fast which gave us more time for individual takes. We were also doing really long takes, sometimes over 20 minutes each. When you roll that long you can really see the performances take on a life of their own and the actors really forget the camera is there at all. Since this film has this weird intimacy between characters, it was important to me to be with them, close to them, so we could see every twitch, every subtle change in expression, and in some cases, the glazing over of the eyes before they cry.

JK: I first caught The Oak Room at Fantasia last year. How did you feel about it screening there, and about the reaction it got?

CC: It was amazing, even as a virtual event. Mitch Davis and the whole team at Fantasia are fantastic. It’s one of my favourite festivals in Canada. Of course, we were blown away by the audience reaction and to walk away with the Gold Audience Award was confirmation that the film really connected with the viewers. That’s always really nice to know and it’s an experience that we won’t forget.

JK: You’ve since made Vicious Fun, which was one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Frightfest. What are your plans for that film?

CC: We are currently doing the festival circuit and then we’ll finish that off with a streaming premiere in June/July. I can’t say which platform at the moment but, we’re very excited.

JK:What’s next for you?

CC: I’ve got a few things in development, but Ontario is pretty locked-down right now with Covid so, I’m not sure exactly what we’ll be doing next. I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to go to camera on something by the end of summer.

The Oak Room is in cinemas now.

The Devil's in the details
The Devil's in the details

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