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The work of Nova Scotia playwright Catherine Banks has been described as “Atlantic Gothic” for its combination of stark, East Coast settings and impassioned characters, torn by the contrast between the impossible beauty of the region they love and the difficult choices that threaten to tear them away from it.
In his adaptation of Banks’ play Bone Cage, actor/writer/director Taylor Olson takes that thought and runs with it in his first feature, as its main character Jamie haunts the deforested landscape with all the brooding intensity of Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff storming across a Yorkshire moor.
The film makes its East Coast debut starting Thursday as part of the FIN Stream online version of FIN Atlantic International Film Festival and will be available through the run of the fest until Sept. 24. It’s a project that’s been simmering in Olson’s mind for years, dating back to when he first read the Governor General’s Award-winning play while studying acting at Dalhousie University, eventually playing the conflicted forestry worker Jamie onstage in Matchstick Theatre’s 10th anniversary production in 2017.
“After two days of rehearsals, I started thinking that this was a story that would translate really well to the screen. You’ve got these big images of the clearcuts, while other parts of Nova Scotia are really gorgeous,” says the Halifax multi-talent, who kept the production 100 per cent local while shooting last year around Stewiacke.
“Catherine’s work really spoke to me, especially in this play, because my family’s worked in the forestry industry for generations. My dad is a heavy-duty mechanic who worked in forestry, my grandfather was a boom boat man, and on the other side of my family my grandfather was a tree processor for a number of years.”
Banks play provides perfect film foundation
The material couldn’t be more perfect for Olson, who communicates that deep connection to the forest, and those who make their livings there. Clearly, he felt passionate about presenting a character who is placed in the impossible position of working a job that takes a toll on the environment while trying to save some of the wildlife that’s displaced by it.
The angst imposed on Jamie by the solitude of the wilderness makes it difficult for Jamie to communicate with friends and family, which isolates him even further at the same time that he’s considering marriage and starting a family.
“Jamie interested me right away when I first read the play. He’s sort of two-fold: he’s what you might call a ‘hard case’ due to the tough exterior that he’s built as a way to survive in this environment, but underneath it all he’s the same guy who is torn apart inside when he’s running the tree processor and clearcutting,” says Olson, who depicts Jamie’s strongest connection to a red-tailed hawk that he’s found in the forest and brings home to rehabilitate.
“He goes into the destruction and tries to find injured animals to try and rescue them and take care of them. Deep down, you see he’s that softer, more sensitive person, but after so many years in this environment, and what he’s gone through to get by and survive, he’s created this shell.”
Hulking through the frame in his plaid lumberjack shirt and wild, unkempt hair, Jamie embodies a kind of toxic, performative masculinity that he alternately exhibits and defies, at one point dressing up in drag on his stag night to beat his prankster friends to the punch.
Ultimately, he wants to leave, taking his bride-to-be Krista (newcomer Ursula Calder) away from her home and family, feeling misunderstood by everyone around him, even his sister Chicky (Goon’s Amy Groening) who’s feeling a similar push-and-pull.
“I knew a lot of Jamies, and there are people in my family who are Jamies in some sense, and I felt like I really knew him early on,” says Olson, who points out parallels between the film’s emotional devastation and its ties to the environmental toll that feeds its characters families while simultaneously destroying their souls.
“It’s an interesting time to release a film like this right now, when we’re going through this pandemic, but we’re slowly becoming more and more aware of our environment,” says Olson. “And even being locked in our homes for this period of time, it makes us even more aware.
“One of the things I find really interesting about the story that Catherine wrote, in my experience, is that the forestry industry itself is so two-fold. There’s selective logging, which is actually really healthy for the environment, for the growth of forests, and then there’s the dark side, which is the clearcutting that we depict in the film.”
Constant collaboration keeps Olson busy
After writing, directing and appearing in 10 short films in the past five years — and co-writing and co-starring in partner Koumbie’s microbudgeted 2016 feature Ariyah & Tristan’s Inevitable Breakup — Olson brings the same collaborative spirit to Bone Cage. He’s also continuing on to another Koumbie-directed team effort Bystanders and his second feature, an “autobiographical cringe comedy” about eating disorders called Look at Me, loosely based on his play Heavy.
Olson says Look at Me will be a similar microbudgeted project to Bone Cage, which was selected for the Telefilm Canada/Talent Fund Talent-to-Watch Program in 2018. After making so many short films out of his own pocket, he’s learned to be creative with funding and finding ingenious ways to stage scenes like Bone Cage’s fistfight and car crash.
Like so many filmmakers before him, he’s figured out a key ingredient to any successful film: preparation.
“I wanted to make sure that when I showed up on set, I’d know how the film looked from beginning to end, every shot and cut in my head beforehand, and I knew the script almost word-for-word.
“The thing I loved about making this film was the collaboration process. Here I got to work with people who are way smarter than me, are way better at all their jobs than I could understand. It’s incredible to be lifted up by other people to bring your vision to life. Everybody bought in, and we could just work together to go for that vision.”
FIN Stream runs from Thursday through Friday, Sept. 24, with the closing night gala, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (Druk) available to stream until 7 p.m. on Sept. 25. For a complete rundown of gala presentations, special presentations, features and short film programs, and to buy tickets and passes, visit finfestival.ca for the complete program guide and box office.