“You always hope that the next generation will be better, and that fear of passing down any bad traits is scary”
2021 is proving to be a big year for Cody Calahan. With both Vicious Fun and this month’s The Oak Room giving genre fans a rope-a-dope punch to the face, we sat down with the Canadian director to unpack the latter, a brooding chamber piece about a man who walks into a bar…
The Oak Room is a film that centres around the idea of storytelling: it’s about a guy in a bar who tells a story, and then there are stories within stories. The environment is also very male centric: all the characters are men. Do you think storytelling is particularly important to men as a way of communicating and making sense of the world?
There were a lot of conversations about making a movie with an all male cast, and there were even times when we weren’t going to make it. But as the director I just connected with the material so much and, although it’s adapted from the stage play, I added so many things that have happened to me in little nuances here and there. It just felt like a story that I needed to tell: coming from a small town, leaving home, leaving my family and having deaths in the family and regrets, it was something that I needed to make. But it’s not at all praising the males in the movie: it’s very much about toxic masculinity and those hereditary genes that can get passed down.
I don’t think it’s a criticism at all that the film is all-male. Men are, perhaps stereotypically, not great at communicating their feelings, so talking about their experiences through the medium of storytelling feels like it’s at one remove, a way of processing some of those experiences.
Yeah, definitely. It was funny ’cause I think it was a way for all of us – the actors and myself – to express things as well and to rely on storytelling.
You talked about connecting with the material: it’s Peter Genoway’s script based on his own play. How many of those themes were in the draft which you first read and how much were you projecting yourself into the material when you were bringing it to the screen?
Ari Millen, who plays Michael, was actually in the stage play. I didn’t get to see it – I was away when it was on – but he sent me the play a couple of years after just thinking that it would make a really good movie. And when I read it, I called him and called the writer right away and was like “Look, I’d love to adapt this”. Every scene was obviously tweaked, but 80% of what the play was is still there. I think the biggest changes were that in the play there was no car approaching – that impending doom – and Steve’s father, played by Nicholas Campbell, wasn’t in the play. I think it’s funny because I can’t imagine the movie without that scene: it’s so pivotal and his performance is so amazing that it really grounds the whole film and brings that Father / Son storyline together.
That’s really interesting because – as you say – that sequence with Nicholas and his story feels thematically like the heartbeat of the film: it includes a conversation about going to hell, then in the final moments – without spoiling anything – there is this sense of existential dread and an impending nightmare.
I think through us adapting the stage play it did get, not a lot darker, but everything we fed into it was coming from personal experiences: a lot about life and death and fathers and sons and family and stuff like that. So it felt like everything that we were adding was really giving it that, as you say, heartbeat.
You mentioned fathers and sons and that felt very much part of the discussion around male storytelling: in Ari’s story he talks about his experiences with his father on the pig farm; RJ Mitte’s character Steve is coming back for his father’s ashes and you’ve dedicated the film to your son Bodhi. What are your thoughts about this idea of fatherly legacy?
I didn’t have a plan to dedicate it to my son, but in-between shooting all the exterior stuff and everything at the Spruce Tavern for The Oak Room my son was born so it kind of changed my whole perspective, and some of the scenes just felt a lot different: Steve talking about his father, trying to cover up his regrets and play tough. I drew a lot of comparisons between some of the situations in the movie and my own past: there’s something terrifying about wanting to pass down all the good things to your son and praying that you don’t pass down any of the bad.
It was an intense movie to make when I did ’cause I was on no sleep. Bodhi’s my first child, which was also amazing: to make something like this at that time. So I think that there was a lot of me in the movie that I’m only realizing now after re-watching it that I introjected and I’m like “Oh shit – that is something that happened to me”. But yeah, there’s definitely a fear in you always hope that the next generation will be better than ours, and that fear of passing down any bad traits is scary.
I’m a father myself and I remember vividly when we had our first child the sense of fear that you’re feeding into their development as a human being. It feels very much like that’s part of the therapeutic quality of The Oak Room.
For sure. And I think it was funny: it was the fears of being a new father and then being on set telling a story where a father’s talking about mistakes he made and his son’s trying to play tough but he’s really broken, and being like “Fuck, I hope I don’t end up in this position”. You want to be a a good father, but also, you know, a good man.
I guess by the act of storytelling, ’cause of course The Oak Room is itself a story, it’s a way that we are almost parabolically telling ourselves these things so that we can do better: just as the characters are reciting those various narratives within the film, through the process of making something like this we hopefully learn and reflect and change and improve as we go forward.
Yeah, yeah for sure.
You mentioned Ari Millen before who has also been in another one of your films, Vicious Fun, which is tonally so different.
Ari is the reason that The Oak Room exists: if he didn’t champion that play years ago it wouldn’t have been made. But we grew up together so he’s involved with a lot of the films I make, even if he’s not in them. The difference is that Vicious Fun and The Oak Room are polar opposites in content.
After finishing a film I feel like my first instinct is to not repeat anything, to try something completely new every time. I don’t know if that’s a therapeutic thing, but I get scared of doing the same thing twice, so I always try to jump and do different things. It was crazy because we had finished post on The Oak Room and I think it was like 4 days later was our first shooting day on Vicious Fun: so getting out of the headspace I was in for The Oak Room – which was an amazing experience but was quite a dark place – and then suddenly I’m into this retro-80s-horror-comedy. It was refreshing, like jumping from warm water to cold and back and forth. It was shocking but felt good. It would have been harder going the other way.
One thing which both films do have in common is they look amazing. Jeff Meyer is a long term collaborator of yours as your DoP and he’s done a fantastic job in The Oak Room of taking what is essentially a series of chamber pieces and making them incredibly cinematic.
I haven’t directed anything without him as the Director of Photography and I don’t know if I ever would, because the amazing thing about Jeff – and I think why all our films have a similar look and feel.- is besides being a brilliant cinematographer he really gives a shit about the story. So we’ll do a take and while he’s telling somebody to tweak a light he’s looking this way and then comes to me and says “You know there was this moment that Steve had where he turns, and maybe I should come around and he could take a little pause to give me moment”, so he almost jumps in with ideas that are borderline directing sometimes, which is amazing. It’s hard to make movies at this budget unless you really trust everybody, and of course I trust him with my life, but on set he’s just amazing because it feels like he’s not just there for how it looks, but he wants the content to be the best it can be. And you can’t ask for anything more.
The opening shot, which is a slow corkscrew zoom on a beer bottle with a fight breaking out behind, is visually interesting, but by the end of the film when you realize what that shot is it hits like a gut punch. Was that something which came from yourself, Jeff or was it a collaborative decision?
From the beginning when we started to adapt the movie I knew the shot I wanted at the end, and I knew how I wanted to start the movie. Because the story is not what it seems it just felt right to start it upside down, and as you “right” the story it’s hopefully not until the end that the audience realises what they’re watching.
There were a lot of discussions between me and Jeff: we had one where we were inside the bottle and we pull out which would involve VFX, but for this type of movie that didn’t feel right. We also talked about other ones where we were going to be inside the beer and pull out and do a bird’s eye view.
Almost like Fight Club, zooming out.
Yeah, like a very Fincher shot. But there’s something that felt overly stylized, and the movie is so raw and real and dirty and angry that we almost wanted whatever it was to be something mechanical. So we used a rig that Panavision gave us so that we could do that 180.
After finishing the film you can go back to that shot and it’s a devastating coda.
The Oak Room will be available on Digital Download from 26th April and can be pre-ordered here. A DVD release follows on 14th June 2021.