Turning up the heat

Sean Garrity, Jonas Chernick and Sara Canning on The Burning Season

by Jennie Kermode

The Burning Season
The Burning Season

From their very first days, the movies have always been in love with love. Intense, passionate, obsessive love most of all – and often with little concern for what that means for supporting characters whose lives are left in disarray thanks to the central couple. The Burning Season – directed by Sean Garrity, written by Jonas Chernick and Diana Frances, starring Jonas himself opposite Sara Canning – takes a rather different approach. opening at a wedding and unfolding backwards in time, it explores a connection which both Jonas and Sara’s characters find damaging and try to resist.

Although we need to take care to avoid spoilers, there’s lots to explore here. Nonetheless, when I caught up with the team as preparations were underway for the film to screen at the Glasgow Film Festival, I couldn’t help but begin by wondering out loud why Jonas, whom I last spoke to in connection with romcom The End Of Sex, keeps ending up in the same kind of material.

“That's the director,” he claims. “Sean Garrity just keeps finding ways to take my clothes off and get me naked. I don't know what to say.”

“It's an unhealthy obsession,” says Sean. “There's nothing much I can do about it, aside from indulging it, obviously.”

So where did this story come from originally?

“This story actually came from my co-writer, Diana Frances,” Jonas explains. “We were trying to write something else, and it wasn't really working out. We couldn't crack the story. I knew we wanted to tell a story about a relationship, and we had a bunch of parameters. And we had a meeting one day. We put our heads together, and she came into the meeting and said, ‘I’ve got a pitch for you. It's totally not what we're doing, but I think it's interesting.’ She's like, ‘What about a love story told backwards?’

“I got really excited, and we just started incorporating ideas from the other thing we were trying to write into it, and started to figure out that we wanted to work backwards and end it with something that happened in their childhood. And for years, we were kind of trying to crack the heart of the story. I remember at the time giving the script to my good friend Sean Garrity, who was not attached to direct the movie at the time. And he read the script – this was years before we got it made – and he said ‘Oh, I really like it. There's something really great there, but you need something bigger to happen at the ending. We need to reveal a deeper layer of trauma between these characters.

“He actually pitched me on a couple of wacky ideas that we didn't end up using, but his word stuck with me. And then years later, when the script landed back on his desk and we were asking him to come on and direct it, he said ‘Yeah, of course, I'd love to direct it, but remember what I said about that ending?’ And so we worked together with Sean to try to figure out what the secret would be. Sean had this great idea and he pitched it at us, and then we wrote it and refined it pretty close to right before we started shooting it.

“Ultimately, he had identified years ago that the heart of the story was a secret between these two characters, that we were increasingly interested and curious to find out what it is, and that it should explain so much about their trauma bond.”

it’s interesting for him and Sara as actors, I suggest, because much of the sympathy for the characters comes kind of late on when people find out that there's a reason why they've been behaving as they have. How did you go about building sympathy for them initially, and getting people to stay with them whilst they find all that out?

“I completely agree with you that felt like an important piece of building who these people are,” says Sara. “I don't know if I ever really thought in those exact terms of making sure that there was sympathy, that we could still endear these characters to the audience even though they're doing something that is largely seen in our society as wrong. But with every character I play, I think it's really important to never, ever judge them, as the person who's playing them. It's just to know, why does this character need this? I try to find levity in every character that I play. And Sean was really great with me in building this trajectory where we ask how people deal with awful things and how people deal with grief.

“That's a pretty large spectrum. I think with Alena, it was always that there's this sort of dark, survivalist, dry humour. What is her lens on life, in order to march forward in life after this thing that happened? But for me, it was never really thinking about it. I was just really clear on who JB – Jonas's character – is to her, and why she needs what she needs. And to just make that as true as possible.”

She describes the feeling between their characters as an addiction, and I note that there are hints at various points in the film that JB has been an alcoholic as well. Did Jonas think of him as having an addictive personality?

“Absolutely, yeah,” he says. “I think the movie is exploring addiction in a number of ways. While he's struggling with a substance addiction, it's just replaced by this sort of human need, this connection to her. And I definitely looked at it as an addiction. In the scenes where we keep crashing against each other again and again, there's a frustration underneath it that coexists with the need and the desire and all that stuff swirls together.”

The big revelation comes at the end of the film, but with many films, I note, that would be all we’d get, and there would be no effort to address the consequences of it.

“Yeah, I would say I have to credit Sean with a lot of that because I think he really saw what the script needed to be. For him, it was very important that we're heading somewhere narratively that is surprising and satisfying, that we'd laid enough breadcrumbs, that it would enhance the psychological understanding of what you've seen these characters going through. And then it was important to him, too, that we ended on a particular kind of note.

“What note do we hit at the very end, once we've revealed this to the audience, once the characters have finally come to terms with or accepted or voiced this secret? Where does that leave them? And what does it suggest about the path that they're going to take now? So I credit him very much for guiding us in that direction, both in the writing and in the performance.”

I ask Sean how, with all this in mind, he approached the shooting order of the film.

“Mostly we shot it in the order reverse of what we see,” he says. “So we shot it in what would be the chronological order for the characters living the story, which was really important to me. When I have such talented actors, I like to engage them sometimes in going a little bit off page and improvising corners of things that maybe aren't fully explored in the script, just to see what's there. And sometimes stuff comes up and you kind of go ‘Oh, wow. If that came up here, we should pick up on it in the next chapter.’ Which, of course, looking at it backwards, will be the previous chapter.”

That might also have made it easier from a production standpoint, I suggest, because the location was going to change in subtle ways over that time.

“Yeah, in Canada, the summer is like the blink of an eye,” says Sean. “We were racing against leaves turning yellow. I think we actually made some references in some of the later chapters about ‘Oh, yes, you've come in autumn. It's a great time to come,’ because the leaves had changed and we had to add this extra dialogue.”

As well as dealing with what’s happening between their characters, Jonas and Sara have to deal with who those characters are in their other relationships, with partners who know nothing about their secret passion.

“Because we shot it chronologically, those relationships were also playing out and developing chronologically,” Jonas says. “So in my case, you get to see a relationship form from a work relationship that turns into a friendship, that turns into something intimate. It was very helpful that Sean insisted that we shoot it that way.”

“I keep saying that this film is probably top three in terms of the extracurricular time that we had,” says Sara. “It was just the most fun imaginable and it just felt like the group dynamic felt. It felt so easy and fun to play. I loved our group dinner scene, and I just love those scenes because they're both really beautiful actors [Joe Pingue and Tanisha Thammavongsa] and beautiful characters, too. I love that this script doesn't present like, ‘Oh, but here's an obvious issue with the core partner’. You know what I mean? I love that the script doesn't make things easy that way.

“That, I think was even more of a driving force for what is this thing? - that they can't just be content with these lovely people. Of course, no relationship is perfect. I'm sure there's utter shenanigans going on behind closed doors, that we didn't see, but I just love that we don't see any glaring, like, ‘Oh, this is clearly not the person for either of them.’ I think that just drives the complexity of the affair even more.”

They stayed close to the summer camp where they were shooting, Jonas says.

“We shot the movie at a summer camp that was quite remote, but we all stayed as close to that camp as we could. We didn't live on the camp because the cabins had no power and no heat, but we were very close by, so we had a summer camp experience. We were all living in the little tavern and little houses spread around this 3km area, and it was very intimate for everybody.”

With limited power on set, they had to drag a generator around with them, Sean reveals. “While there were three or four buildings that had power, we shot all over the place and had quite a masterful post sound team that removed the noisiest generators you've ever heard in your life completely from the soundtrack. It was incredible.”

Shooting a lot of the film out of doors also put them at the mercy of the weather.

“We just kind of went with it and added dialogue as it went,” says Jonas. “There's a whole bunch of dialogue around a sudden rainstorm that comes up in one chapter, which, of course, were not expecting. We would add improvised bits to make up for it, and let it be a character in its own right. A somewhat unpredictable one at that. And then in post sound, we had such great work to be able to keep all of the original dialogue. Personally, as a director, I really don't like dialogue that's recorded after the fact. It doesn't have the same kind of magic to it.”

Speaking of bringing magic to it, much of the relationship and the intense bond that we see between the characters is acted rather than presented in the form of sex scenes.

“Yeah. There's so much going on between them all the time,” says Sean. “And so much that is being left unsaid. I think leaving that space in a lot of those scenes for them to let stuff stew, but also to bring their own stuff as actors...both these guys, as well as the other actors in the film, brought all sorts of stuff that was not in the script to fill those spaces in and add layers and add complexity to those relationships.”

He tells me that the film’s opening scene – the last one chronologically – had to be changed at the last minute due to rain.

“We had to pull together this tent and move to a different location and kind of reimagine how that scene would come together. But it was marvellous. We got background performers from the nearby area, and they were very into what was happening. It was much easier with the interactions between the characters because we'd already shot basically the whole film, so they had a very clear idea, the actors did, of what the relationship between them was. I really wanted that sense, from an audience perspective, of having to catch up. I really wanted that sense of the audience being a visitor, an uninvited guest dropping in and trying to figure out who everyone is and what their relationships are.”

All three of them are excited about being at the festival.

“I've never been to Scotland, so I'm just thrilled,” says Sara. “I've heard such beautiful things about the film festival from Jonas. I know Jonas and Sean have been before, so I feel so lucky to join them.”

“This is my fourth trip to Glasgow for the film festival, and I just keep coming back because I'm so charmed,” says Jonas. “I do love it. It is a world class festival, but I also just love the city and the people, the food, and I'm as excited this time as the first time. So thank you to Glasgow for having us back.”

Sara and Jonas have just finished shooting another film together – Negative Capability, directed by Jesse Zigelstein – which will be out in the US later this year. Prolific as they are, Jonas is hoping for another visit to Glasgow next year.

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