One of the most well-received films out of 2020’s Fantasia Film Festival was director Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room, a single-location thriller packed full of mystery and edge-of-your-seat tension.
During a raging snowstorm, a drifter (Mitte) returns home to the blue-collar bar located in the remote Canadian town where he was born. When he offers to settle an old debt with a grizzled bartender by telling him a story, the night’s events quickly spin into a dark tale of mistaken identities, double-crosses and shocking violence.
We had the pleasure of speaking to the film’s lead actor RJ Mitte, who readers will know best as Flynn in AMC’s award-winning drama television series Breaking Bad. He’s been rather busy in the film and television world in recent years, starring in cult director’s Gregg Araki’s series Now Apocalypse and films including Dixieland and Time Share.
The Oak Room is one of those movies that has a simple set-up; a one or two-sentence premise but has so many twists and turns within it.
RJ: 100%. And that was one of the things that drew me to this project, how open-minded everything is. It really leaves a lot to your interpretation. I don’t see a lot of movies getting made like that anymore, because they don’t want people to have to think so hard and have to go back to it.
So I’m always happy to find a project that’s a thinker. When you watch it once, you’re gonna go, “oh, that was great!”. And when you watch it again, you go, “oh my god”. You see all these things that happened to these characters in such subtle ways, and with such a finite location too.
It’s a very multi-layered narrative, and I was so pleased with the way that it flows back and forth between these stories within stories without becoming convoluted. Did you have to take much of that into consideration as an actor, or was a lot of that magic in the editing room?
RJ: Not so much for me. This was originally a play, now adapted to a movie. There were a lot of eight to ten page scenes with no cuts, and that was unique in a way where we were always trying to bring the theater vibe to this production. I think we captured it very well.
Peter, who played our grizzly bartender, was amazing. He had such a way about himself that really helped me play off of that. He’s a very talented actor, and I’m very lucky to have had him as a counterpart in this production, because between him and myself and Cody (Calahan) we had almost a free range of emotion, to be able to go as far as we wanted, as quiet as we wanted.
That’s a special set. Not many sets are like that, especially when it comes to such an intricate story, to be able to have the freedom to put emphasis where it’s needed and to have everyone’s full support. That’s definitely a win.
So much of The Oak Room is about storytelling itself; it doesn’t just have several stories of its own to tell, but it’s about the act of telling stories, who’s telling them and how they do it. How did that inform your approach to your performance?
RJ: I think a lot of the choices in the performance came from just being there. I know that sounds like a cheap answer, but really a lot of it was the space, Peter, the setting and the team behind this production. It had this energy the whole time; this all hands on deck vibe where everyone was excited and everyone was so into the story.
It only helped raise the story higher for us, because everyone was so passionate about it. I think from the dawn of entertainment we’ve always told these tales, like “I caught a huge fish!” that really wasn’t so big, or “they were doing 100 miles per hour” and they were only going 30. When you get the opportunity to tell a story, and it’s a good story and people want to hear where it goes, it just makes everything so much better.
When it came to being on set, we just wanted to hit every line, every punch hard, and whatever felt right to the story. Cody had a vision of what he wanted, and I think he got it.
That’s where every great movie starts, right? A great story. So you started with that and kept running. I think that’s why it’s so fun to watch.
RJ: Thank you, man. It was a lot of fun to film. We had a great crew, and you don’t always have a well-rounded team of people supporting a film, but we did here. In that sense, I look at it as a success, and it’s still growing. It’s interesting to see how the film is still picking up momentum; it has some speed and it’s still getting further and further down the track.
THE OAK ROOM is now available on digital platforms.