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David Ondaatje

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on the filmmaking background of a particular filmmaker and the nuts and bolts of that person’s upcoming feature film release. This month we feature: The Lodger’s David Ondaatje.

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on the filmmaking background of a particular filmmaker and the nuts and bolts of that person’s upcoming feature film release. This month we feature: The Lodger’s David Ondaatje. To view his top ten films list: (click here). 

David Ondaatje The Lodger

During your childhood…what films were important to you?
As immigrants to Canada in the 50s, my parents were enamored with Hollywood musicals. From as early as I can remember, growing up in Toronto, we frequently huddled around the television to watch any Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly film that was playing. Singin’ in the Rain, Going my Way, and the “Road” films (Road to Morocco, Road to Zanzibar, Road to Bali…all of them) in particular were early favourites. It was a little unusual growing up knowing the lyrics to songs from films my friends had never even heard of. And of course, the witch in The Wizard of Oz scared the living #@% out of me. Perhaps that explains the link between music and writing-directing a thriller.

During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
As a pre-teen and early teenager, I was introduced to some intense dramatic films much earlier than most children would be these days. I think my father took me to see Lawrence of Arabia when I was 11. I also had a teacher who organized weekend screenings of some amazing films (e.g., Midnight Cowboy, Dr. Zhivago, Harold and Maude, Z) which a parent in today’s world might see as “inappropriate” for a 12 year-old, yet for me fueled an already overzealous imagination. Perhaps that why a film like Cinema Paradiso hits home…I was that little boy in the projectionist’s booth watching films I wasn’t supposed to, being completely drawn in by the romance, violence, sex, etc. and becoming increasingly aware of the power that a filmmaker has in manipulating the emotions of his audience. I still love watching movies like a child, letting go and being drawn in completely, rather than as a filmmaker or critic.

When I went away to college in the U.S., long before the days of DVDs or even VHSs, a movie theater across the street from my freshman dorm played a different double feature every day. The schedule was posted above my desk, and far too often I snuck away by myself to watch an unending string of double features (e.g., The Godfather, Parts I and II; A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove; Swept Away and Seven Beauties). These films literally woke me up to the talents of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Lina Wertmuller, Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby, David Lean and others who lured me like Odysseus’ sirens away from my classes and homework during my first year in the United States.

At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker? (Did you make backyard movies? Did you have any technical training College/Uni?)
I suppose I have been a closet filmmaker all my life and have been accused of experiencing too much of life through the eyepiece of one type camera or another. My training, therefore, was both practical and academic. With my sisters and some old family friends growing up in Canada, I remember making a series of primitive home movies using a small 8mm camera. I can’t remember much about the stories, but people always seemed to die horrendous deaths and we must have gone through gallons of catsup. I’m still trying to get a hold of those old films. In college, my field of concentration was officially Government, but unofficially, in one manner or another, I probably spent as much time focused on film. I studied a little under Vlada Petric, a wonderful film professor who first taught first me to look beyond the boundaries of the frame.

Can you discuss the genesis of The Lodger?
A few years ago, I had been approached about adapting a non-fiction book about organized crime in the early 1960s. The project sounded interesting, but I had just begun doing background research on The Lodger. At the time, it seemed a bit of a gamble to write another spec script rather than pursue a “for hire” job, but if I was ever going to direct my first feature, I felt I needed to control the material. So, I decided to write the screenplay for The Lodger based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 bestselling British novel. Despite the fact that adapting a book almost 100 years old seemed a daunting challenge, I loved the premise of a couple inviting a total stranger into their house at the same time a series of unexplained murders takes place in their neighbourhood. It was a great starting point and, as a writer, I would have a wonderful opportunity to create my own version of the story since the 1913 novel was so obviously dated. Alfred Hitchcock had, of course, adapted the novel into a film in 1927, and his movie was also a significant deviation from the book – though in a different direction. The fact that my starting point for the adaptation was based only on the Belloc Lowndes novel made the connection with the old B+W silent Hitchcock film potentially interesting, but in no way derivative of it. So I jumped in.

A few months later, I received a call from Michael Mailer in NY about an earlier screenplay I had written. I explained to Michael that that project was tied up at the time, but I had finished writing something new and when he was next in L.A we should meet. A few weeks later, we had lunch and I gave him a copy of my adaptation of The Lodger. That, I suppose, was when the movie first started getting going. Shortly thereafter, we sent the screenplay over to Clint Culpepper at Screen Gems, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Clint expressed interest in the project, and after spending time together on the screenplay, gave us the greenlight and we were ready to start casting.

What kind of characteristics/features were you looking for your main characters/during the casting process?
We had a wonderful team of casting directors, Donald Pemrick and Dean Fronk, who became enthusiastic supporters of the project from the start. We created a short list of actors for each of the major roles and sent it over to Clint for approval. He had some good feedback as usual and once we had our list of ideal candidates, Donald and Dean got the word out that we were making the movie. The casting process is incredibly interesting. The fact that the film was fully financed and that the script had received good “coverage” made a huge difference in our access to top agents and the actors they represented.

For the role of Chandler Manning, our lead, I wanted to find an actor who would bring something unique to the role of the inaccessible and troubled Hollywood detective – something different than audiences have seen before. Alfred Molina was the ideal choice – as an incredibly talented actor who had played an enormous range of both foreign and American roles, he would bring a unique dimension to the role along with an engaging presence. One day after we started shooting, Bill Flicker (Film’s Editor), after having seen some early dailies called me up on the set to tell me how much he couldn’t keep his eyes off Alfred; how fabulous his performance was. He’s a joy to watch. Not only is his performance outstanding, he was a consummate professional, brought life and creativity to role of Chandler, and was a delight too work with.

Ellen Bunting, the emotionally troubled housewife who, with her husband, takes in the lodger, has a wonderful character arc. First and foremost, therefore, we needed to find a talented actress capable of enormous range. Hope Davis is, without question, one of the finest actresses of our generation. She is fantastic in every movie in which she appears (e.g., Next Stop Wonderland, American Splendor, About Schmidt). Because of the way the screenplay is structured with two independent yet converging storylines cutting back and forth, we realized we could structure our shooting schedule to allow us to film all of Ellen’s scenes in one block of about 10 days. And as you’ll see, she is incredible…it’s one of the finest performances I’ve seen her give. Everyone who’s seen the film has commented about how exceptional her performance is.

For the part of Malcolm Sleight, the lodger, I was looking for a talented actor who could play the role of a mysterious stranger who could be both charming and disarming at the same time. Not your typical dark and dangerous villain. We need to completely understand Ellen’s attraction to him despite the fact that his behavior is clearly unusual and increasingly threatening. I had loved Simon Baker’s work in The Devil Wears Prada and a smaller movie called Something New, and managed to get him a copy of the script through his agent. As it turned out, Simon was incredibly knowledgeable about Hitchcock. He and I met over coffee, talked for awhile about Hitchcock, the movie, his thoughts on the part and immediately I could see how he would be able to bring incredible depth and intelligence to the role. From the moment he first shows up at Ellen’s front door, he is fantastic and able to communicate the character’s enormous and mysterious complexity.

How did you prep for the performances (was there a rehearsal process?). How did you prep for each scene (was there storyboarding involved?)
Once you have outlined the general objectives and made sure everyone understands the dynamic of each particular scene, I believe it is important to allow the actors sufficient freedom to interpret their roles. With the caliber of actors we had for the film, it was important for me to create an environment where the actors felt they were able to give their best performances. Before filming, I spent time with each of the actors discussing their roles and plans for how we planned to tell the story using a variety of visual and other cinematic elements. I had storyboarded the entire film beforehand so the crew and actors had a general idea about the visual goals for each scene. In addition, before coming to the set every day, I spent an hour and a half preparing a tentative shot list. While we often deviated from these preliminary plans, they provided an important framework so that everyone started out on the same page. Before filming each scene, the actors and I spent time on our own rehearsing, fine tuning the blocking, and working through any other issues before bringing the crew in to begin the involved process of preparing to film it.

What ideas did you have for the style of the film? What inspirations (other films, location, paintings etc…) did you draw upon for the look/style, aesthetics of the film?
Hitchcock’s lifelong exploration of form and unique talent for employing a range of cinematic techniques in telling the subjective story has had a significant influence on my love of filmmaking. This has been the case for each of my short films and now again for The Lodger. Without giving away too much, some viewers may enjoy knowing that in much the same way that Hitchcock inserted himself into each of his films, I have symbolically inserted him in The Lodger through references to a specific shots from a few of his films. That is as far as the comparison goes, however, as I hope viewers will find that the film was shot with a contemporary visual style of it’s own influenced as much by the filmmaking of more recent neo-noir filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and others. And yet, without denying the importance of the influences of others, every director inevitably seeks to carve out his or her unique space. In The Lodger, I have tried to create vague boundaries in what is a dark psychological mystery. I have consciously and conspicuously manipulated time, sound, color, camera angles, movement, blurred the lines between physical and emotional reality, and have experimented with a variety of other cinematic elements to lead, mislead, disorient and, ultimately, entertain the audience.

Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Franco–Giacomo Carbone (Production Design/Costume Design)?
Franco-Giacomo Carbone is incredibly creative and had done terrific work as the Production Designer on a number of films including Hostel, Bug, Cabin Fever, and Wonderland – a dark film also set in LA. In all aspects of set design, art direction and costume design, Franco did a great job of visually differentiating the film’s two distinct geographical worlds as the two storylines cut back and forth: a) creating muted earth tones, avoiding most reds and blues, in helping communicate the strained dark emotional complexity of Ellen Bunting’s world inside the Bunting house; and b) creating more colorful, yet colder color palate of the more frenetic outside world of detective Chandler Manning as he searches for the elusive killer.

…And how about Bill Flicker (Editing)?
I have worked with Bill Flicker for almost ten years on a variety of unusual short films. After the unbelievable pace of trying to squeeze far more into 25 days than we had right to expect, it was a treat to settle into our editing room and spend time with Bill. While there are no doubt many directors who’d prefer to have the world believe that their finished film was all completely anticipated in advance due to extensive storyboarding, lengthy shot lists, etc., having worked with Bill before, I fortunately had embraced the approach that editing is as important and as creative a stage in the filmmaking process as anything else.

…And how about David A. Armstrong (Cinematography)?
Having filmed all of the highly successful and visually stunning Saw films, David A. Armstrong is an extremely experienced and talented cinematographer. Despite the fact that we had a very limited budget and timetable, I wanted to make sure the film had the deep, rich and high-contrast look of a much larger budget film. Too often, I’ve seen great acting performances and impressive writing badly compromised because evidence it was shot on a low budget screams out at you in every scene. The flip side of that, of course, is that it takes a great deal of time to light well and to give visual depth to each shot – and we had very little time. So, while also indulging my unending barrage of requests for highly unusual “specialty” shots, the most impressive contribution from cinematographer David Armstrong, camera operator Josh Harrison, Gaffer Armando Salas and the rest of the film’s outstanding camera crew, is that the film is every bit as beautifully shot as a film 10x its budget size.

Sony’s Stage 6 Films releases The Lodger in theaters on Janaury 23rd.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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