Rowan Athale, director of 2012’s “Wasteland”, is back behind the lens for the suspenseful supernatural thriller “Strange But True”. The film, featuring a superlative cast including Amy Ryan, Brian Cox and Greg Kinnear, is an adaptation of John Searles’ 2004 novel and concerns a woman who surprises the family of her deceased boyfriend by telling them she’s pregnant with his child. It’s a skillfully-directed, constantly-compelling and brilliantly performed piece – the likes of which don’t come along too often. Moviehole spoke to Athale about the film, which is now in select theaters and on VOD.
When did you discover John Searles’ novel, Rowen?
Rowan: I read the script prior to reading the book. Fred Berger, one of the film’s producers, had been developing the movie for some time with John Searles and screenwriter Eric Garcia. Fred and I were acquainted, and we’d been trying to find something to work on together for a while. Fred sent me the script to see if it was something I’d be interested in. Half way through Eric’s excellent script, I knew I would be directing this movie.
I later read John’s book. And found I loved the story all over again.
How far into development was the film when you were attached yourself as director – or were you on from the get-go?
Rowan: Fred had been trying to put the film together for a few years. The script was well developed before I became attached. We continued development after I came on board, but the script was in a great place when I initially read it.
Having spoken to quite a few filmmakers who’ve adapted novels for the screen, the general consensus is that it’s quite difficult to do – – did you find it hard to decide what stays and what goes as far as the film goes?
Rowan: The book had already been adapted – beautifully – by Eric Garcia before I came on board. But it was a laborious process. Novels and movies are different mediums, of course. And the process of adapting one to the other is challenging. But to me the process is about distillation. Finding the essence of the story, the heartbeat of the characters, and putting them on screen. It’s challenging. But when you have a novel as strong as John’s, it’s more than worth it.
How involved in the film was John? Did he get his say as far as all that goes, too?
Rowan: John was involved in the making of the film. He was involved at the script stage, and even during production. John was on the set often – he was there on the first day of the shoot, and a number of days during production. John is such a warm, giving person, that just his presence brought a positive energy to the set. This movie exists because John created this wonderful story, and these beautiful, broken, yet strong characters. And I strongly felt that he should be involved in the film’s production. He’s actually in the movie, by the way. John plays an author who is introduced to an audience by Amy Ryan’s character in the library where she works.
I imagine with such big games as Amy Ryan and Greg Kinnear onboard that there was immediate interest – in terms of financing and production partners – but were there any hurdles you faced on the film before even a roll of film had been shot?
Rowan: Strange But True isn’t a sequel or a remake and in Hollywood today, that automatically makes financing your movie a challenge. The movie is a character-led mystery thriller, rather than say, a horror, so pitching the movie required a certain amount of nuance on our part. So the biggest hurdle we faced before making this movie was understanding that we would be making it with a huge amount of passion, rather than a huge amount of money! But we had the right partners backing us in MPC, and in Bankside/Head Gear films. MPC were very respectful of the process, and great to work with. And working with Bankside/Head Gear felt like working with family – they financed and sold my first film, Wasteland, and we’ve had a great working relationship since.
Kinnear, one of the most versatile actors of our times, is incredible as Richard. Do you recall any specific direction you gave him before the shoot – – or for that matter, during, on how to approach this part?
Rowan: I like working closely with my actors. And I find the best form of direction is to discuss. I have an open dialogue with the actors, and encourage them in in their performances. Working with such a great cast on this movie meant collaborating with brilliant artists, which is always a joy. With Greg specifically, I encouraged him to see the character as someone who runs away from his responsibilities, who puts distance between himself and the things that cause him pain, but who, in the course of the movie, has to find the strength to run at his pain head on. Greg and I were very much on the same page in terms of the character. And Greg is wonderful to work with. His passion, his energy, is something to see.
What’s coming up for you Rowen?
Rowan: Next up I’ll be directing Little America, a sci-fi action movie which is being produced by Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes. I also wrote the script, and I’m excited to take it into production. I also co-wrote Jaume Balaguero’s Heist movie Way Down, which is currently in production, and I co-wrote Netlix’s Outside The Wire, which is scheduled for release next year.