Heart to heart

Kim Albright and Anna Maguire discuss With Love And A Major Organ

by Jennie Kermode

With Love And A Major Organ
With Love And A Major Organ Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Falling in love is always fraught with danger. Perhaps more so for Anabel (Anna Maguire) because she refuses to do it through the app that everyone else is using. She wants to go out and find somebody. When she meets George (Hamza Haq) she is immediately smitten, but he, having no heart, is unable to reciprocate her feelings – so she rips out her heart, puts it in a box and sends it to him. As he discovers a new world of emotion, she embarks on a life of feeling nothing.

Since it screened at South By Southwest earlier this year, Kim Albright’s quirky but heartfelt film With Love And A Major Organ has been generating great word of mouth. Iit’s funny, intelligent and full of striking imagery. When I met Kim and Anna in the run-up to its screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival, I began by asking about those visual elements.

“I think it's just sort of a trait of my work,” says Kim. “I hope! The sequence when we dive into Anabel's imagination...I knew off the bat, in the very early days, that those were the scenes where I really wanted to play visually, with colour. I knew that I wanted the cinematography to be different, the music, the feel. I knew right away, that those sequences have to be treated differently and I can really have fun with them. So they were super appealing right from the start, even before we really dove into the script and made some changes and stuff. Those are the ones that really got me super excited.”

There’s a wonderful idea using red yarn which grabs our attention at the start and then, if I may be excused for putting it that way, returns at the end to tie the whole thing together.

“That’s an element that came later, I feel. And I totally loved it. I thought it would be a super visual element, like you say, to tie it together and bring us full circle towards the end – and a striking way to start the film. It’s quite intriguing. Like, what the heck's going on? What is this yarn? What? I like those questions, because it sort of draws you in.”

“I've been involved from the get go,” says Anna. “It's all about creative community for me. I think in cinema it’s becoming harder and harder to be an artist, so I'm really grateful that I have this amazing artistic community between the UK and Canada and even wider afield. I met Julia [Lederer], the writer, through a friend of mine, because I'd moved to Toronto to go to the Canadian Film Centre in 2014. A long time ago. I met her in 2014 and I started working with her on a short script called It's Nothing, which was her film, but I was directing. That took quite a long time just to get funding and to develop it. That came out in 2019. It premiered at TIFF in 2019. Throughout that, I really got to know Julia’s writing. And Kim and I had made a film together in London would be Moses in London initially in – was it 2014? I feel like it was later than that.”

“I think it was 2017,” puts in Kim. “It was just before I was moving to Canada.”

“Yeah. So we made a film together, written by another writer who made a short film for me, and so that came together. And then Kim moved to Canada, and I was telling her about the CFC, and she decided to come and apply and got in. She's brilliant, obviously. And then she was wondering if there were any other projects that I might know of, maybe the next thing we would work on, I was like, ‘Well, actually, I'm working with a writer who's got this really great play script, and she'd like to adapt it into a into a film.’ And so it kind of went from there.

“There’s something so heartening about building work with people through time and space and growing together. So I was involved from the get go, and Kim and Julia very kindly wanted me to play Anabel from the start. And that didn't waver, which I also am grateful for, because I also know it can be hard with cinema to commit to those things. So yeah, the rest is history.”

Anna has a background in directing as well. I ask how that affected the interplay of ideas within the team whilst the project was in development.

“I think we're lucky that Anna was involved, right?” Kim smiles. “From the early days, I think it helped massively that she knew Julia. It takes a little while at the start of a working relationship to get used to one another, and how each other ticks and all this, but Anna had that shorthand, which I thought was really useful. I was just getting to know Julia, but we started developing it in about 2017. It was really Julia and myself, Anna and Madeleine [Davis, producer], and it was quite intense for myself, Madeline and Julia. Over the years we got some development grants, and we would buckle down and really work on this.

“Julia would work on the script, with thoughts from myself and Madeline. And then over time, we would check in with Anna and say ‘Okay, here's, here's a new draft.’ And Anna would tell us her thoughts, and then we’d go back, with hopefully some more funding.

“Even now that the film is out there at festivals, because of Anna's writing and directing experience, and having had short films out there and knowing the festivals, she's also been super involved in terms of strategising our festival run, which has been great. So not just playing the lead, but also very involved in making and getting the film out there.”

“I'm really grateful to find people to collaborate with where you aren't just an actor,” says Anna. “I've been acting since I was seven. My first film was Saving Private Ryan. I knew I loved to act when I was a child, much to my parents’ dismay.” She laughs. “They're very supportive. They were like, ‘Oh, no, you're really, really good.’ But I think as I got older, and as I started making my own work, I realised that I really love to collaborate, and not all collaboration is the same. Sometimes it's really lovely to just be an actor and serve someone else's vision, and then sometimes it's great when you all come together and build something.”

Did the design of the hearts come from that core team or from a separate unit?

“It actually came from the core team,” says Kim. “I wanted to keep the hearts quite simple. I didn't want it to be this big flashy element with all these special effects. I knew I wanted the depiction of the hearts. and how we see them to be quite simple. Because as much as it is about the heart, it also isn't really about the heart. It's more just like, ‘Okay, it's a lantern,’ we see it from kind of a bit of a distance and we kind of get it and get that it glows, and there's blood on it. It's just come out of his or her chest.

“It was basically our production designer Megan MacAulay and her team that helped with those objects – and the DP, Leo [Harim]. And the gaffer, Yannie [Yu], because we needed to find a way for these objects to be lit, and to glow and have a pulse to them. We needed to fit a little light in the lantern, and that was a mission in itself. It needed to be controlled by the gaffer, to make it the glow come off. So as complicated as that sounds, we did try to keep it very simple, because it could be this whole can of worms.”

I tell her that i think the simplicity of the film is a big asset, making room for its big ideas. I like the continually dull, grey weather for a similar reason. Was that intentional?

Kim nods. “It was very intentional. We knew we were filming in Vancouver. I'd only been living in Vancouver for a few years but one thing that did strike me was that the weather is miserable nine months of the year. I thought ‘Okay, I'm moving from the UK, surely the weather cannot get any worse. Surely there is no country that experiences more rain than the UK.’ And I was so wrong. I think Vancouver gets four times the amount of rain as the UK.

“Anyhow, I thought, ‘Okay, we're going to lean into the grey, into the bleak, into the cold, into the miserable, rainy wet weather Vancouver for the majority of the film, apart from when we're with Anabel. Then we can lean into the wonderful emotions that she's experiencing. The visuals and the lighting and everything is different for those scenes. But for everything else, yes, it was very intentional. And thankfully Vancouver cooperated in February.”

Anna and I discuss the process of playing Anabel both with and without a heart.

“t was really a galvanising challenge,” says Anna. “I knew from reading it that it was going to be a creative challenge. I think it was just about trying to really tap into the base reality of how she actually feels, so that it comes from a really grounded place. Obviously living without a heart is impossible. Probably one day it will be possible, but there is this sense that it it drains you of something. And so we really did a lot of work in terms of the different levels of where Annabel is at as she begins to ‘die’. And the sense of draining away.

I think underneath Anabel's joy or hopefulness, or whatever that is, at the start, there is a real fear and a real sadness and a real yearning, which is what leads her to remove her heart and to go ‘This is too much for me, actually. I just can't deal with the world as it is, and my life as it is.’ It's sort of playing on a binary, which is quite interesting. It’s really counterintuitive, I think, as an actor. So it's like trying to find ways to convey that binary, but without it being cartoonish.”

I ask if she knew, when she took on the role, that she was going to end up with her mouth full of sand.

“Oh, gosh, no!” she says, as Kim laughs. “I mean, those are elements that came in late in the day. We did another little pass at the script before we started shooting and added some ideas. We started really playing with some of these different elements of the world. That sand was was definitely a late blooming element, but really, really fun and actually quite delicious. It was actually just smashed up graham crackers, so pretty great.”

“There's actually another sad scene, which we cut because it didn't really make sense,” says Kim. “There’s this room where Anna comes out and she just covered in sand and it’s in her mouth. And she just comes down and coughs up all the sand. It’s in the outtakes, but we couldn't sadly couldn't use it.”

I ask about Hamza Haq and how he came on board.

“I knew I wanted George to be an Asian actor, and Mona as well,” says Kim. “I've seen a lot of East Asian actors and there were a few that I really had my eye on. And then the casting directors came back and said, ‘Oh, yes, you had Hamza Haq on your list, and just so you know, he probably won't read for the part. He would have to have an outright offer.’ And I thought ‘Oh, it's just too risky. I don't know.’ And then a day or two later, he actually just sent in a tape he had recorded himself. He had read the script, was super into the role and just decided to record and send it.

“I watched it and thought, ‘Hey, there's something really interesting here, he's drawn me in.’ I kept thinking about it, and I thought, ‘Okay, you know what? This is just too interesting to not pursue.’ We had organised some table reads with Anna, and I thought ‘Let's add Hamza into the mix. Let's just see what happens.’ And after those table reads, I thought ‘There's something here.’ I really felt it in terms of how Anna responded as well. I felt like Anna was the most on her toes, or the most like she seemed like she didn't know what was going to happen when she was with Hamza.

“I thought, ‘You know what? It's Hamza.’ He's a different kind of George than I had in my mind, but this is a good thing. I'm open to this, and I'm going to run with this. And anyhow, so that's how George came about. It was sort of a little bit last minute, a little bit unexpected, but I just kind of went with it and felt ‘Okay, this is going to be more interesting than what I had initially anticipated.’

“He's such a joy to work with,” adds Anna. “He's a really special person and a special actor as well. He's so open and present and receptive, and I think we both really responded to each other, we were really in play. We'd bounce off each other and really be in the moment, which is sort of the point. You let it go when you start to work with the other person. It was always like that, it always felt like we brought something new and we pushed each other and challenged each other in terms of who our characters were.

“Also, because he takes my heart and puts in his own body, there was an element of us needing to find some kind of complicity, some similarities in our ways of seeing the world. So we spent a lot of time together hanging out. He's a really unique and brilliant person, and it was such a joy to be able to spend that time with him and work on this kind of a project with him. I think Kim did a brilliant job casting the film.”

We talk about her experience during the shoot.

“Anabel is kind of the straight guy against all these more wacky or absurd or heightened characters,” she observes. I got to play across those axes with them. It was so fun to be able to do that and to hold that space as Anabel for them to bounce off, whatever they were bringing me. To try and bring some of that absurdity into the scene in that capacity. I think that was the best thing, working with Donna [Benedicto]. She's such a brilliant actor and we just had so much fun, we sort of played. And then with with Hamza, we got to have these really intimate moments that were about shared humanity on some level – I guess our shared hearts.

“It was like playing in an orchestra or something. I got to play with these different movements and in different ways, and then having to play heartless, and then having a heart and having to change all the different levels of where I was at in terms of my emotional space. It was quite technical actually. That was a great challenge – to work technically as an actor and and feel like ‘Okay, I can do this. This is something that I can do.’ It's a very nice feeling when you get to the end of something like that and you've had tunnel vision on and you've been really focused and you've been really prepped and you've been really in it, to come out the other side and look back and go ‘Oh gosh, I did that.’

“As an actor you don’t always get the opportunity to play really interesting and challenging roles. And so I'm very grateful for this part, to Anabel and to the team and to the film, that I got put through my paces a bit.”

As she noted earlier, however, acting is not the only thing in her portfolio.

“I've been writing my first feature for a while now and I’m finally at a point of starting casting. I’m hoping to be shooting next year, so we're just looking at different ways of financing. That's set in London, but it's got UK and Canadian elements. I call it a satirical tragedy. I've just done a couple of shorts this year, actually, which were really, really fun, so those are going to be coming out soonish, and then I have a couple of different projects down the line. So we'll just see what's next.”.

Kim explains that she’s now in development on a feature version of a short which Anna starred in, called The Director.

“It's about this woman who teamed up with a director to direct her life. The producers are still working on that. It would be a UK, Canada co-pro, so a bigger project to get off the ground. I’m also developing a feature film anthology with other Filipino filmmakers from around the world, and it's about the effects of martial law back in the Seventies and Eighties when Ferdinand Marcos was in power. It straddles narrative and documentary. That's something that we got some initial development funding for, but now we're trying to figure out how to get the feature off the ground. It's such a massive team.

“I’m also trying to kind of write something with a friend that I met at the Canadian Film Centre. It’s something episodic, and it’s comedy horror, and very early days. I’m just trying to figure that out. And I’m riding the wave with this film as well, and going to the festivals. It still feels like it's early on in terms of its festival circuit, so I'm excited to see where it ends up.”

“I love Montreal,” says Anna. “I lived here for a while. I've lived yet many places – I'm a nomadic soul. And so it's very nice to be here and be presenting the film in one of my homes. It’s this really special experience that the Canadian première is here. And so, so excited for Kim and Donna and Hamza and Julia to get here so that we can celebrate together. This feels like quite a special experience.”

Kim concurs. “I'm excited too, because I grew up in Montreal and I haven't been back for 20 years. And I've never been to Fantasia. But I feel like our team has a huge connection with Montreal. I grew up there. Hamza shoots Transplant out of Montreal, so that's effectively his home, and Anna spent so much time there recently. And Julie's in Toronto, so it's not that far away. I don't really know what to expect, but Montreal in the summertime I think is going to be a super vibrant and amazing place to be.”

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