TIFF ’17 Interview: Chandler Levack on Finding Harmony in “We Forgot to Break Up”

The Moveable Fest

Stephen Saito

Throughout college, Chandler Levack led a double life, learning how to make movies by day, under the tutelage of such filmmakers as “Into the Forest” director Patricia Rozema and “Mad Men” writer Semi Chellas, and dipping into clubs in the evenings where she was fast establishing herself as a music journalist. These two worlds rarely crossed, so when she got an e-mail from the guitarist of the Toronto-based punk band PUP, asking if she might know the name of a good director, she had just the person in mind.

“I was like, ‘Well, actually I want to direct it,” Levack says now with a laugh, about her first time behind the camera professionally. “So they really took a chance on me and my friend Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, who I co-directed the video with.”

The gamble paid off handsomely, as Levack and Schaulin-Rioux took a thousand-dollar budget and earned a nomination for a UK Music Video, and the filmmaker’s unique background also made her the ideal helmer for “We Forgot to Break Up,” an adaptation of Kayt Burgess’ novel “Heidigger Stairwell” that will be premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the shorts program. One suspects only Levack could authentically capture the backstage machinations before a big concert so effortlessly that the smell of liquor and sweat in the band Heidigger’s dressing room practically wafts off the screen. And there is plenty of the latter upon the arrival of Evan (Jesse Todd), a former member of the band who is nervous in seeing his old compadres after transitioning into a man. Well before the band performs the soaring title song, the short pulses with electricity as Evan approaches each of the band members, including the likes of Mark Rendall and Grace Glowicki, with trepidation and leaves surprised by their reaction to his new identity, for better or worse.

For a film about acceptance, it is beautiful to watch not only what happens onscreen, but off of it as Levack weaves together her two artistic passions so seamlessly without sacrificing the power of one for the other. Shortly before the film’s premiere, she spoke about literally putting on a show with “We Forgot to Break Up,” handling sensitive subject matter with great respect and how she was able to shape the characters’ moods with evocative lighting design.

How did this come about?

Canada has this short film grant program called BravoFACT where they fund short films and documentaries for emerging filmmakers. A day before the application was due, the producers Nicole and Matt Hilliard-Forde of Motel Pictures asked me if I wanted to come on board to direct adapt the novel “Heidigger Stairwell,” which was written by Kayt Burgess. It won the Amazon Three-Day novel writing contest, and I really enjoyed the premise of a former manager being friends with a Broken Social Scene-type rock band. My background is actually in music journalism and directing music videos, and there’s an interesting mythology with our own contribution to Canadian rock with these big, sprawling, complicated bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene [where] you have these people who have known each other for many years and have complicated lives that extend far and wide past the bands. [This story] also had a really great trans character at the heart of it, and a really interesting love story between a straight man and a trans man, which is something I’d never seen before.

Did your own experience with rock bands contribute to how authentic this feels?

I’ve actually been a music journalist since I was 17. I watched Cameron’s Crowe “Almost Famous” when I was 15 and I was like, “I want this to be my life. ” My degree is in Cinema Studies from University of Toronto, so I was taking film classes simultaneously while I started reviewing albums and interviewing bands for music publications in Toronto and then I interned at Spin Magazine in the summer of 2007 and started writing about music for the Village Voice and the Rolling Stone website. So I’ve just always been obsessed with music and developed some close friendships with people who have been musicians and when I started directing music videos, it blended my love of cinema and also my love of music together.

But because I was also writing so much for magazines and newspapers, I never thought of myself as a filmmaker. I always figured I would become a pop culture critic or a nonfiction writer like my favorite writers at the time, who were people like Chuck Klosterman, Joan Didion, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag. And I think I was scared to make films because of my education. It was so theoretical and academic that it made me feel like films are canon, things that can only be studied. I would watch all of these incredible films, like Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” or the early Maysles Brothers docs, and write long academic essays thinking, “How does anyone make a movie?”

At the same time, I always loved writing dialogue and have been obsessed with comedy and theatre my whole life. My whole education in being a filmmaker has been making these low-budget music videos with Jeremy [Schaulin-Rioux] and with PUP where I was encouraged to be ambitious and take a lot of artistic risks and just do really crazy beautiful things with no money. But I think every emerging filmmaker should try making music videos first. The song is like the narrative for the film, so it’s a really great way to find your voice and find your platform.

If “We Forgot to Break Up” started as a novel, did it naturally lend itself to a short or was it difficult to adapt?

It was really challenging. I’ve never adapted anyone else’s material before. The novel chronicles the band from when they’re teenagers to when they’re out on the road as famous rock stars. We were trying to tell a story in a short amount of time, with a lot of backstory and exposition, so I think the film works because we have a specific container – Evan seeing the band again backstage in the hour before they play a show. We can hint at their personal band dynamics and these complicated relationships without giving too much away. But it was a real challenge to find the individual voices and dynamics of all the characters.

My co-writer Steven McCarthy, who also plays Angus in the film, is a really talented actor and director in his own right who has an extensive background in theatre and dramaturgy. One of the most brilliant things he did was break down every character like they were in a family – who is the black sheep? Who is the mom? Who is the dad? Who is the younger brother and the bossy older sister? That helped immensely in figuring out what every character wanted and needed from each other. Then once the actors came in, we did a lot of rehearsals and talked a lot about their character’s backstories. Two of the scenes — with Lugh and with Will — were rewritten [based on] the actors improvising off each other while Steve and I recorded and transcribed the workshop. So we used the book as a foundation to build our own specific histories and relationships that could work as a film.

How did you find Jesse Todd as your lead?

This is Jesse’s first time acting in anything ever and it was really important for me and the producers that we cast a trans actor for the role.We did an open casting call and we tried to see as many people as we could. In Canada, there are barely any trans actors in ACTRA, our acting union, and no trans males, [but because of] programs like “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent,” we’re all starting to see trans actors playing themselves on screen. Obviously, it’s so powerful and important for trans actors to be able to play any role, not just a trans role. But more crucially, they should be the ones behind the camera, writing and directing their own stories.

We asked different trans males, who were all non-actors, to record themselves telling us a story about a song or an album that impacted their life. Jesse was one of the last submissions, who was encouraged to apply from our mutual friend William Ellis. [Jesse] filmed their audition in the bathroom of this queer bar where they work called the Beaver and told this powerful, funny, sad story about listening to [Radiohead’s] “Kid A” as a teenager. It was just so vulnerable and funny, I was just like I have to meet this person immediately. I am not trans and the story that Evan experiences in the film was in some ways one that I was familiar with — going through a painful breakup and having to distance yourself from the people who you thought used to define you — but in other ways, a really radically different experience that needed to be honest and authentic and also represent a group of people who are not normally depicted on screen. Having Jesse to collaborate with was really key – they had a lot of extremely valuable input on the development of the script and pushed and fought for things that made the movie much stronger.

[Jesse] had filmed their transition previously on YouTube, so they let me watch videos of them going through the process of taking testosterone and having top surgery, which was fascinating and incredibly valuable to have as a tool towards learning and understanding what Evan has gone through in the years since he last saw the band. [Jesse] forced me to reconsider my own assumptions about gender and trans identity and I learned a lot and became much more cognizant of the story I wanted to tell and the film I wanted to make as a result of our friendship. So I would encourage anyone who wants to tell a trans or queer story or any Othered story that’s different from your own lived experience to surround themselves and actively collaborate with people who can bring their own experiences and points of view to your work and really listen to them, especially when they are challenging you or calling you out on your own biases or assumptions. I really hope the next time Jesse and I work together on a film, that [Jesse is] the writer/director and maybe I can be a producer or a PA.

The band in the film all appears to be really playing their instruments during the concert scene — were they cast based on musical experience? Or were they just really good looking doing it?

Three of the actors who play in the band are musicians. Steve McCarthy has a funk band called the Elastocitizens, Dov Tiefenbach used to be the lead singer in Theresa’s Sound World, and Mark Rendall is also a musician and solo artist. Grace Glowicki had never played bass before and the Cara Gee has never played the keyboard. I was intimidated to film the big rock and roll show at the end, and was really grateful that our composer Murray Lightburn actually came to Toronto rehearse with the actors and teach them how to be a band. He is the lead singer of a band in Montreal called The Dears, and there was one day where the producers booked a rehearsal studio and we watched a bunch of videos with bands performing live and studied their movement and energy and chemistry onstage. Then we broke down all their parts individually and Murray gave everyone their rock star persona. We booked a studio and a recording session, so they all sang the song for real and Murray recorded and mixed the track.

How did you collaborate on the song with Murray Lightburn?

Michael Perlmutter, our executive producer and music supervisor asked me, “Who would you want to compose to song?” And I suggested The Dears because they were my favorite band when I was 15. The suggestion was a bit, like “That’s not going to happen,” but we put the offer out and it was really exciting that he wanted to do it. It’s an exciting and intimidating thing to create a rock band from scratch and I didn’t want to lean too much on how the book suggested the band should sound like. I sent [Murray] three or four songs that I really liked that had cool elements – Sonic Youth’s “Massage The History, The Dears “Heartless Romantic” and a song by The Jealous Girlfriends called “Secret Identity.” Murray took that as inspiration and he read the book and he read the script, so the lyrics are based on the themes from the script. The song evolved over time as we tried to figure it out. We knew we wanted a boy-girl harmony, a big guitar solo and a cool, cathartic chorus. Murray recorded some aspects of the song himself and got a friend to play drums. But once the cast recorded it, it was really magical and surprising. They completely transformed it into something really special. It’s a hit!

Was it difficult to stage the concert aspect?

We had a little bit of movie magic. We got really lucky to shoot at the Danforth Music Hall, which is a really iconic venue in Toronto and a fantastic place to see a concert. It’s just amazing on camera. There were maybe 16 extras that we kind of like all grouped together, so it looked like a huge audience watching the band. Before we shot, my friends PUP ended up playing three sold out shows at the Danforth, so they let me put Jesse, our lead, into the audience. We filmed his reaction shots in the crowd before we shot the band stuff and we copied the same lighting design from PUP so that the band’s performance would match the look of the audience.

The lighting throughout is so effective at conveying emotion, particularly during the scene where Evan and Lugh, the lead singer, talk about their estrangement and the changing colors in the background as the technicians run a soundcheck reflect the shifting mood. How did you figure that out?

It was really all Cabot McNenly, our extremely talented cinematographer, to have it change and shift during that scene. Originally, I wanted to stage that scene in a small stairwell, but the location didn’t have anything to offer. During our location scout, Cabot pointed out the fact that there’s this whole glorious balcony at the Danforth Music Hall. So we conceived of the idea that they can be testing the lighting on stage and the light can be reflecting off of them. I wanted the scene to take place originally in one seven-minute zoom shot, which is a classic first-time director mistake, and of course, we ended up needing those close-ups for emotional impact. But it ended up being so cinematic and beautiful to have the blue light coming up on their faces. I loved to see them looking at each other with the light coming off the stage. Louise [Simpson], the lighting board designer at the Danforth Music Hall, created a beautiful lighting scheme for all of it, so it was a real nice collaboration between me, Cabot, and everyone at the Danforth that also felt emotionally tied to what the characters were experiencing as well.

What’s it like for you to have this film premiere at Toronto?

It’s so amazing. I still can’t believe it. I’m a Torontonian and have been attending and covering the festival as a journalist for about eight years now. There are so many movies and filmmakers that I’ve discovered at TIFF that have actively changed my life and informed my whole perspective on cinema, from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor” to Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” Because of TIFF, I’ve also gotten to interview legendary filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodovar and Jill Soloway and maybe also secretly ask them for advice! So when I found out that “We Forgot to Break Up” was accepted into the festival, even to be in the same programme book as my cinematic heroes like Agnes Varda, Yorgos Lanthimos, Greta Gerwig and Michael Haneke is just overwhelming. It means so much to me. I think we’re at a really exciting moment for Canadian film and I’m inspired by so many of my peers and friends who are emerging Canadian filmmakers. I’ve wanted to call myself a filmmaker my whole life, so I’m just really excited to be a part of TIFF.

“We Forgot to Break Up” will play as part of the Short Cuts Program 5 at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th at 3:45 pm the Scotiabank 14 and September 16th at 3 pm at the Scotiabank 10.