Keeping the wolf from the door

Perry Blackshear on working through hard times and When I Consume You

by Jennie Kermode

Evan Dumouchel and Libby Ewing in When I Consume You
Evan Dumouchel and Libby Ewing in When I Consume You Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

A consistent creator of interesting independent films, Perry Blackshear works with the same small team to tell stories about the sort of people who tend to go under the radar in mainstream cinema. His previous works They Look Like People and The Siren both did well on the festival circuit and attracted a lot of good word of mouth. Now he’s back with When I Consume You, which is screening as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

The story of brother and sister Wilson (Evan Dumouchel) and Daphne (Libby Ewing), who have survived a difficult past and try to look out for one another when threatened by a sinister stalker, the film is big on atmosphere and has the same elements of uncertainty that fans have come to expect from Perry’s films. Meeting up with him again, I ask him how he set about balancing the demands of the narrative with making us question what’s real, just as Wilson questions himself.

Standing by the one who matters most
Standing by the one who matters most Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“It was important for us to make sure the audience knew that some things were definitely real. Like, definitely, definitely, at the beginning,” he says, “but I really like subjective filmmaking in the sense of really putting yourself in the brain of someone going through something. And I think the danger with that is that then nothing seems real at all. But I think definitely feeling like you were really inside Wilson's mind for a while and that you couldn't quite know.”

I suggest that some of how he manages it is to give us a strong emotional sense of what's going on when he doesn't want to be too specific about events.

“Yes, I think that, I appreciate you saying that. I think that really trying to be true to the characters’ experience of things, even if that is a little bit work. I don't know if it's an aside, but some of my favourite literature is, as you know, Virginia Woolf and stuff where it feels like you're reading the thoughts of someone. And I don't know if that influences my filmmaking, but I really like it when you can, through sound or the way it's shot, feel like what it feels like to be this person.”

The film is also interesting because of the strong brother/sister relationship at its centre, which is still not very common as an emotional hook.

“I think so. It's funny because someone was pointing out that our first film was about friendship. The second was about romantic love. The third is about family in this way. So I don't know what that means. But yeah, I mean, I think it was so fun because I have a little sister and Evan has two older sisters. And Libby has a brother. And when we make films, you know, it's a tiny little crew, and I think one of the advantages of that is how personal it gets. I think it was very personal for both Evan and Libby as well. And I think that that comes through in their performances.

Watching for wolves
Watching for wolves Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“I guess this is another tangent, but now that I'm talking about that, something that Covid did for me is, you have a million relationships in your life – and I think when things get scary, many of the sort of sillier relationships melt away and you're left with the people that are most important to you in your life. You know, the people that who will come to your funeral, the people that come to your wedding, and I think that I definitely want to make movies about those, the biggest relationships in your life.”

So did he develop this one with his team or was it something that he started doing by himself?

“There was something that had been kicking around in my head for about a decade, under different forms that I think all have to do with the struggle of growing up, not knowing how to do that, and wanting to preserve the wonderful things about being a teenager and being a kid, while turning into adult and being able to fight for what you believe in. That struggle between the hardness of adulthood and the softness of childhood and how to navigate that, and how confusing it all is.

“Wilson never really grew up, to some degree, until the movie, but Wilson definitely is based off some people I know, and Daphne grew up way too fast. And it's sort of that confusing balance. So it came from that, I think, and also the feeling once that I was going through a tough time and I woke up feeling physically sort of bludgeoned. And I read that loneliness hits the same pain receptors as physical pain, and depression and things like this, I think, feel very tactile. They don't feel like they're in here.” He taps his head. “They feel like they're really in your body. And I think that I wanted to make a movie that felt like people were undergoing difficult things and it was very physical. And I think that worked its way into there.

Looking out at the world
Looking out at the world Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“So it came from me. But as I said, it was sort of like my unconscious. And then when it met my actors that suddenly became all of our collective unconscious, kind of mixed together. So it started from me and then, in the making of it, everybody brings their own thing to it. It definitely becomes a group effort.”

On the subject of mental health and pain, there's a lot in the film that seems to be about addiction.

“Yeah. I mean, it's so complicated. People in my life have gone through things like this, and I know a lot of people who struggle, maybe not with addiction that will kill you... But I think there's one train of thought, because I did a lot of research, and it came from experience, you can tell it's very hard to come back and talk about your own journey. But one train of thought is that everybody is a little bit of an addict. And the addicts that do hard drugs, you know, in some ways are facing it, but many of us are hooked on intimacy or food or, you know, feeling smart, or whatever.

“I think what draws me to it is that maybe addiction could be the symptom of much deeper things. Like emptiness, loneliness, a feeling of never, you know, I think David Foster Wallace talks about this constant sense of loss, like that you once had something wonderful that you don't now and you're just trying to get it back. So that sense of sense of deep longing for something to make you feel good. It really matters a lot to me, and whether that takes the form of that sort of normal addiction or just a kind of attempt to fill that void in some way. I think that is what feels very emotional to me about it. But yes, I think that that is a thread in there.”

After a brief interruption by Perry’s dog, we talk about Wilson and Daphne’s childhood and how difficult it can be to get away from trouble after a difficult start to life.

Wilson and Daphne as kids
Wilson and Daphne as kids Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“Yes, I think that it's complicated because I think a lot of movies sometimes use” – he hesitates – “I don't like being negative, but I think sometimes trauma or stuff can be used as a kind of shorthand. I think because some of this is personal to me and people I love, the way that it's depicted is sometimes kind of ugly... I think what what mattered to me that I realised as an adult is how many people I know who have so much buried pain and sadness and anger, that they just are walking around with. And they're mostly fine, and they function and they're adults, and they have jobs and lives. And then all of a sudden, you realise the thing about a friend you've had for so long, and how much they've been holding back. And they don't know how to deal with it.

“That, to me, is so sad. And there's so many people that feel like they can't talk about it or don't have a way to deal with it. And I think that's partly what motivated me to make the film. Daphne, especially, is holding so many things together through sheer force of will, and seems on the surface to be very highly functional. And I think that that tragedy of so many people walking around with so much pain was one of the motivations to make the movie.”

It doesn’t all feel negative, I say, because we can admire Daphne’s strength and we also see the love between her and Wilson.

“Yeah,” he says, but notes that parts of the film were difficult to shoot because these are hard times, and many people on his team felt a strong personal connection to the story. “It was almost necessary to have that. It wasn't like, ‘everything's great!’ You know, this isn't a fairy tale. But there's certainly enough nihilism going around, and the people that I do know that have struggled through things are” – pauses – “some made it, some didn't. But I really think that, like, to be okay through so much pain and adversity is very admirable.

Against the darkness
Against the darkness Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“On a small tangent, I think people in America like to celebrate heroes, you know, and the great people? But I know many people who are great, that struggle, that have lives now, you know, and managed to fight through so much. To me, those people are heroes, you know? And to me, Daphne and Wilson are heroes in that way.”

So when he started developing the story with his group, how did he decide who would play which role?

“It's tough,” he says with a shrug. “I mean, people at our age, we started having kids, and we all work full time jobs now, and I think that it's a balance between a lot of life things. And I want everybody to be the protagonist because I love all my actors so much, so I always have a sort of dual or triple protagonist if I can help it. I think based off timetables and stuff, this is what we sort of ended up with.

“I love my actors more than anything, and I want to write the thing for them to be the absolute best thing for them to do. And for Wilson, there was this giant transformation. And for Daphne, I mean, we hadn't worked with Libby before, and it was pretty scary, but she is so volcanic and yet totally human at the same time, and she brought things to Daphne that I didn't even know were there and I am so grateful to her.

“Then MacLeod [Andrews], he comes through about halfway through the movie but he hits the film like a lightning bolt and I knew that I wanted to do that. But my, it's so great to work with these actors! It feels like I give them an inch, give them this little platform, and then they take it to places I didn't even know were possible. So I'm just so happy to get to work with them, and for us to keep working together.”

There are a lot of deserted streets in the film. Were they shooting during the pandemic?

Perry laughs. “No, and this is funny, because everyone's like, ‘Oh, my God, this is such a pandemic film!’ And I actually shot it before. I think the reason that it feels like a pandemic film is that it feels so lonely and isolated. And Wilson's life is so interior, especially in the first half, it's so insular and claustrophobic.

“This knows no timetable, you know, so maybe that's part of it. It's actually funny, a lot of the places we shot in Greenpoint only looked like they looked for about a year. And now they're all beautiful high rises. The nice thing about living in that area for a decade is knowing all the places. I mean, the place under the bridge, and we almost shot this, there's a place where people feed cats, so there was a ton of cats everywhere. But then there was a gang of raccoons that was fighting the cats and the raccoons were winning. So there were these giant raccoons everywhere. They were like New York raccoons. They did not give a shit, like you came up to them and they were like, ‘What?’”

When I Consume You poster
When I Consume You poster Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

There’s a lingering sense of (non-raccoon related) threat in the film that perhaps also connects with the way that people feel about the pandemic.

“Yes, I think that that's a good way of saying that. And someone was describing this, the movie is the feeling of having a wolf at the door. And I thought that was great. I mean, some of my loved ones were in jeopardy during this time. And I think a lot of us have experienced the wolf at the door, ready to attack at any given moment. That sense of constant threat.”

So how does he feel about the film getting picked up by Fantasia?

“Oh, my gosh. Well, you know, our first film played there, and we had played Slamdance and a few other places, but we played non-genre festivals up until that point. So I experienced festivals as one thing, and Fantasia made me realise festivals were a totally different thing. And it was also the real launch pad of the movie in many ways. So it was so exciting.

“I love the team. I love Mitch. I love what they've carved out. I've never been in the theatre with fans like that. I think genre fans are some of the most passionate, empathetic, interested, tuned in and sort of, I mean, they're the best. It's so exciting. What an amazing institution. We're so happy to be back.”

He has quite a bit lined up ahead of him as well.

“About a year and a half ago, I sold a show to Netflix, and that's led to some things. I have a TV show in development and two features. And one is with a writer that isn't me, which was the first time that's happened. That has been amazing. And then I also – this is a total departure – have a film that I helped write that is in Fantastic Fest, and it's called Bingo Hell.” He laughs. “It's directed by Gigi [Saul Guerrero], and co-written by her and a guy called Shane [McKenzie]. And it's totally a different departure. It's like a Seventies riff about a group of elderly people in this town that then this evil asshole gentrifier comes and creates a supernatural bingo hall and starts destroying everything they love. And they have to band together just to like, fight this dude. And I just love what they made. And I helped write it.

“I like stories where people band together to fight evil, I think. And that's what this story was. And so it's different than anything I make. But I really love Gigi and Shane's vision, and I feel very happy and grateful to be a part of their their story there.”

He’s also planning to make another feature with his usual team, he says, and we’ll hear about that in due course.

When I Consume You screens at Fantasia on 18 and 20 August.

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