Jonas Chernick, Amanda Brugel, and Natalie Brown are the stars and co-writers of new film Ashgrove, which has had its world premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival 2022. They spoke to us about the experimental approach to making the film, the challenges of keeping its secrets, and audience reactions.

Can you talk about the inception of Ashgrove?

JC: [Jeremy LaLonde and I] were here two years ago with our last film called James Vs His Future Self. In September of 2019 we were in Canada travelling around doing all the film festivals and we were in the car driving so we said, ‘OK, let’s figure out what we want to film next,’ and we agreed we wanted to make something very different from what we had been working on for the last three years. So I said, ‘Let’s do a chamber piece; an intimate, scenes-from-a-marriage, honest, raw, two-hander,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea’, but his version of that would have the world ending outside the door. We threw ideas around – zombies, alien invasion, but we never used the word ‘pandemic’ – this was months before Covid – but we did decide it would be a global health crisis and we came up with this idea that our bodies start to turn on us and water becomes toxic. We liked the paradox of the one thing we all need to survive being the very thing that’s poisoning us and we liked the metaphor there for love. We started to develop this idea and we really wanted to make the film in a different way, rather than scripting it and working it for years. For this one we decided we’d find a new way to write it, and that’s when we brought Amanda in as the other actor and the three of us started to develop the characters and the backstories first before we got to the script and the story.

It’s really interesting that this idea started before Covid. How much did it then change as the world changed?

JC: It’s really interesting – not much at all, because we already had this idea that it would be a world where humanity had already adapted to what was going on. We tried to find the ways in which people’s behaviour would be different but without pointing at it or highlighting it too much. Little things like if you were dry you’d use a lot more moisturiser or lip balm or you’d ration your water or have lines on your water bottle – things that are just indicators that they’ve adapted. It’s funny because a year later, by the time we were shooting, society had already adapted so much to the Covid situation – the idea of walking inside a building and pulling your mask out or hand sanitiser. The one thing we were worried about when we were conceiving it was whether audiences are going to believe that the world could adapt so quickly to something? That didn’t end up being a problem! It ended up helping us.

How much did you worry about researching viruses and vaccines? Was it important?

JC: We do a ton of research. Jeremy and I spent countless hours [on our last movie] sitting with two particle physicists. Obviously time travel’s not real, but we wanted to understand as much as we could about theories behind it. For this, though, we had a chemistry consultant, and a neuroscience consultant who specialised in memory disorders. I talked to two different water chemists – they’re all credited. So even though the film doesn’t get into too much detail about the science, Jeremy and I understand the science, so much so that I wish more people were interested so I could explain the science of how the body starts to reject water. But the movie doesn’t need all that.

Likewise, the audience doesn’t really find out Jennifer’s revelation about the virus.

JC: You don’t find out exactly how these things all tie together and that is very purposeful. I can’t say that we 100% understand it yet, but I don’t know if even know Jennifer completely understands it; she just knows that she’s found the key.

AB: I had to play something so I had to do my own research. I couldn’t play this nebulous, ‘I kind of have a key [idea]’. I did enough research that I had something that I could hold on to at least to authentically play.

JC: I had all three of these consultants confirm to me that this theory we’d come up with about water toxicity [was legitimate]. Yeah, it would never happen, but it could happen. I expected more audiences and critics and journalists to pick apart this idea that what makes up 60% of our body could turn against us and become toxic but not one person has yet questioned me on it, but I guess that’s one of the advantages of the real pandemic! Anything goes – we’re all so paranoid.

Natalie and Amanda, at what point did you come in and how much was already in place by the time you joined?

AB: Jonas and Jeremy called me after they came up with the idea so it essentially started with Jonas and I creating our love story which was really nice. It was something that I haven’t had the luxury of doing – defining such an extensive backstory with your scene partner over a great period of time. That was something that was really exciting to me and enticing. I’ve worked with Jeremy before and I’ve known Jonas for a long time and it was the idea that I was going to be able to collaborate with other actors and they were going to be able to create their backstory, so over the course of the year we workshopped ideas and put pieces together.
I thought I was co-writing one story, which I did, and then I didn’t realise that there was another story brewing in the background and then I found out on camera.
It’s the idea that we were able to collaborate in such an effortless, seamless way that was so wonderful and from the beginning it was sort of pitched as an experiment and because [of this] it was even more exciting because it could become anything – hopefully it would end up at a beautiful world premiere in Glasgow, but it could also just be going back to our roots as theatre students.

There’s so much you can’t reveal about the plot. How difficult is it to talk about the film without spoiling these secrets?

JC: We’re dancing along and figuring it out. The secrets and surprises in the movie we hold very dear to us and we don’t want them revealed and people are usually pretty respectful of that.

NB: We kept secrets the whole time we were filming!

JC: We’re getting good at keeping secrets, yeah! And as Amanda said, we were able to shoot this in such a way that Amanda, the actress, also was not aware of the actual surprises and secrets in the film and so you get to see her character solving the mystery and figuring things out and putting pieces together.

NB: No acting required.

There is a sense of improvisation in the film – in a good way. In one scene between Natalie and Amanda there is a visceral feeling in your interactions.

NB: In that scene – when you’ve been sitting on a secret that is now known and you feel you’ve betrayed a friend, you’ve no idea how that’s going to go and Amanda was so forgiving – I did not anticipate that. There was another secret that I was aware of that doesn’t transpire on screen, but there were constantly different secrets that we were being given, so no actor really knew what to expect so you had to stay very present which is the trick of the job, but this way of filming made it that much easier and unpredictable and terrifying at times, but also thrilling.

JC: It added to the whole meta experience of shooting a film about a global health crisis. For me, I was nervous because I had been collaborating with Amanda on this as a trusted partner for a year, but keeping this monstrous secret from her. So leading up to the reveal of the secret – not only was my character overwhelmed with fear and guilt and anxiety – I was experiencing all that. I was legitimately afraid that Amanda would feel betrayed, hurt, upset – that when she found out what kind of movie she was in, she might say, ‘This isn’t the movie I signed up for!’

Even until the last scene, there are secrets being revealed.

AB: And I kept that from everyone.

JC: I didn’t know that secret until the moment it was revealed to me on camera.

AB: And before we found my name, I came to Jeremy with that secret. It was the first thing that I’d chosen about my character. That was the big thing that I wanted to drop.

I have to ask, how improvised was the ukulele song?

JC: It was! During the pandemic, I decided to learn to play the ukulele, as everyone did, so then I said let’s try to work that into the script. The idea was that I was going to completely improvise the song. The chords had been pre-written by our composer, but the words were going to be improvised on camera. But something horrible happened that morning; something devastating happened.

AB: Don’t make it sound like someone died!

JC: We dropped our hundred-thousand dollars in the water.

AB: The canoe scene. The director and the DP tipped over in the canoe.

JC: We lost our camera. We had no movie. So that whole day we were scrambling trying to get a new camera and sort insurance and money and budgets.

Did you lose footage?

JC: No. But we didn’t know until the next day when we finally took the little chip out of the rice and put it in the machine. ‘Yes! We got the footage!’ But we knew we now only had an hour to film this really important ukulele scene where we finally connect, so while we were waiting, pacing around, waiting for the truck to bring us another camera, we sat around – Jeremy and our production manager, Anthony Wallace, and I – and figured out some lyrics. But I still like to think they were improvised.

AB: But I didn’t know!

Jennifer is patronised by her colleagues and there’s an element of gaslighting to the film. How much impact did her gender have on the story for you?

AB: No one has asked that! I love you for asking that. It was so essential to me – and I didn’t even know the secrets that were going to happen – I just had this instinct, because I’ve lived my life identifying as a woman, that I had to have some aspect of motherhood or some aspect of making this monumental choice, because that’s all I find that we have to do. It was a very conscious decision to play this woman with an overarching comment about how women can’t have it all. She has to work three times as hard to be taken seriously. She is a world-leading scientist surrounded by men – her boss is a man, her direct co-worker is a man, her husband is obviously a man. I wanted to show the audience that, for women in particular, you have to choose.

JC: You’ve got me thinking – there are only six characters in this movie. Two of them are world leaders in their field. One of them is the world’s leading water chemist and the other is Dr Rebecca Lakeland from New Zealand who is the world’s leading neuroscientist, and they’re both under the control of men, professionally, even though they’re the brains.

It struck me even ten minutes into the film that if Jennifer was a male character, the film would have probably gone in a different direction.

AB: Oh yes! It felt like that while filming too, which was very helpful. I was saying to Jonas after watching the screening – had there not been secrets, I would have finessed my reactions a little more, but they were so immediate because I didn’t know what was coming at me all times. But I did have to play with this undercurrent of bubbling rage, and not even at my husband – just everybody, just being squeezed, so I was really trying to show her rage which I feel all women have to walk around with and smile and keep it all together. That was the one thing that was really important to me.

What have been the most unexpected or surprising responses to the film you’ve had now that people are beginning to see it?

AB: Two things: How well it’s been received, not that I thought that it was bad, I was just shocked at how well it’s been received. And the foremost surprise is how most people immediately get it. They aren’t confused by the twist, aren’t confused by the science, don’t question the science.

JC: They accept the twist.

AB: And are willing to go on the ride.

JC: I said in the previous film, Jeremy and I worked the script so hard with an eye towards an audience. Jeremy and I aren’t arty filmmakers. We like to make commercial art; movies that are going to be enjoyed. But this one was not designed with that specifically. As I said, it was an experiment. Of course, we tried to include elements that we think people will feel compelled by, but the audience reaction has been surprising.

NB: You had said that you were initially worried that people would even accept that there was this – you didn’t use the word ‘pandemic’, but global crisis – and [it would be] too much for an audience to swallow. And then the worry now is that it sounds like it’s a pandemic film after we’ve lived through two years of a pandemic, so is it almost going to be the thing that bites you in the end? And yet, in a weird way, I think it’s the reason that people so easily accept what’s happening, because we lived through it. So in a strange way, the alchemy and the timing is really interesting.

JC: A lot of journalists have said they really appreciate the lo-fi approach to this crisis; that it’s nice to just be with a couple at the farm as opposed to the burning buildings and people lining up in protests and all that stuff. It’s a refreshing break from that view of the world. Really we were making a tiny film.

NB: But that’s also what everyone lived through for the past two years – it’s your own interpersonal relationships with the backdrop of the pandemic so I think that’s what makes this so relatable. Whoever we were stuck at home with or weren’t stuck at home with – the loneliness we experienced… everyone has had to navigate and re-examine relationships in our lives over the past two years so I think only right now that you mention it, that is part of the visceral response people are having.

Jonas, you’ve been to the Glasgow Film Festival before. Natalie and Amanda, how have you found it here?

NB: Lovely! The ‘People Make Glasgow’ moniker – yes! I didn’t know that about Glasgow. First time to the UK so it’s about time and yes, people really make Glasgow. We went to Edinburgh yesterday too and it was really magical. It’s also been such an unusual reprieve from everything we’ve just experienced but also what’s being experienced currently.

Glasgow has become a magnet for filming over the past few years – Indiana Jones, The Batman, Batgirl. Can you see the appeal of the city for filming?

NB: The steps going down to the train station in Edinburgh last night – every step was a different slate of coloured marble. It was like ‘can we shoot here?’

AB: In Glasgow, the Necropolis – oh, it’s beautiful. I would love to work with a crew here. Everyone is so lovely, so lovely, and stops and has a conversation and has the time of day. There’s an outpouring of generosity here that sort of tops Canadians.

JC: We were the top and now we’re sinking.

NB: We don’t call people dear and darling. We’re not as endearing.

Ashgrove screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022