Canadian directors Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard started their filmmaking career together in 2008 with Lost Cause, a tiny comedy they wrote and starred in themselves. The rough edges are clear, but the concept is fascinating: a man’s ghost comes from the future to haunt him by guiding him to better choices. (And at one point, by telekinetically turning a sock into a puppet to interact with him.) Labrèche and Léonard’s latest film, Radius, also has some visible rough edges, but it’s equally high-concept and compelling: the film stars Diego Klattenhoff as Liam, a man who wakes up from a car crash with complete amnesia and a mysterious power. Anything living that comes within 50 feet of him instantly drops dead — until Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) shows up at his house, seeking answers about her own amnesia.
The film, which is now widely available on VOD and streaming rental services, and opened throughout Canada on December 1st, plays a bit like an extended Twilight Zone episode, as Liam and Jane explore the limits of his radius of death, and try to uncover their own identities while protecting people from his power. I spoke with Labrèche and Léonard at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas about the overheard conversation that helped inspire the film, the moral conundrum Radius shares with Dark Matter, and why you should always put rocks in your potato-corpse.
Where did this story come from? Where did the premise start?
Steeve Léonard: Well, we’ve been together for 21 years. And if you separate us, people will die. That’s it. It’s what’s going to happen.
Caroline Labrèche: That’s it! Bye!
SL: No no. It started a while back, when we first saw the original Oldboy. It just knocked us on our ass. We just loved the idea. How cool was it that a man and woman get together with something binding them, but they’re not too sure what it is? And at the end, it’s gut-wrenching, right? So “Let’s try and make an Oldboy,” that was the initial idea. That’s what Radius turns out to be. We start off with a fantastical situation, but in the end, it’s all about a man and a woman, and how they were connected, and how awful that is.
At the same time, for some reason I was researching old Superman comics. I was trying to get back into comics. And I read a thing about a Superman issue in the ‘80s where he was cast off into space, and he couldn’t approach Lois Lane. He couldn’t approach the earth, or people would die. So he was just stuck in space, watching people helplessly. Lois Lane was being attacked with fire ants, and he couldn’t even save her from ants. I was like, “That’s an interesting concept. Has that ever been made into anything else?” Turns out, no. So we got the idea of somebody who just radiates death, who cannot approach people. And then we combine that idea of isolation with our fantasy of doing Oldboy, and just hammered these two things together, and hopefully made it work.
What gave you the most trouble in making this film?
SL: Trying to make a $10 million movie with… less than that, on a very tight schedule. It was always like under the gun. So you have these ideas of what the movie should look like, or should feel like, and then the harsh reality of making a lower-budget movie. But we were well-equipped for that. We come from very independent movie. We made a movie in 2008 for $15,000. We starred in it and shot it over two years, and it’s very gung-ho filmmaking. So we always knew what would need to be done. But it’s still very challenging to do a cheap movie with stunts, with visual effects, with practical effects, with animals. No day was easy. It was always a big challenge.
But there are these key moments where you hope you get it right. You know, there are some moments in a movie that I’m not proud of, because it just happened that way. It’s the end of the day, you’ve got to make it work. The audience thinks the scene works, but as the filmmaker, you’re like, “Aaaah, if only I had some more love to give that scene!” That said, there are some moments like, “This is my baby. I love this moment.”
CL: I personally love the scene at Sam’s store, with the police. And the scene at the pond. The actors were really into it, and we were behind the monitor, crying. Looking at them being in the zone, really feeling it, was highly emotional.
SL: We did have problems with props. We were in Manitoba, so it’s not like you have a prop-house. It’s a smaller industry, so they don’t have everything. At one point, we have somebody dump a wrapped-up body in the water, and it sinks to the bottom. But we didn’t have a dummy, so they just made one out of potatoes. Fifty-pound bags of potatoes. They kind of shaped them together: “This looks like a body, that’s good, that’s fine.” So we positioned the camera, we have a drone camera up above. The character takes the body, it’s super-heavy, we’re like, “On three, dump it in the water, and the drone will go up to get the shot, and it’s going to be awesome.” So one, two, three, it drops in the water… and everything floats. Bloop! Potatoes float! We were like, “Uh… shit. Poke holes in the bag! Get some rocks in there!” It was very much indie filmmaking. I’m going to take that story to my grave.
What’s your working relationship like, both as writers and directors?
CL: Well, like he said, we’ve been together for 21 years, so we’ve always worked together. It’s pretty organic, the way we work.
SL: Usually, we’ll get an idea and brainstorm about what kind of form the story should take. We’ll work out the beats together, just to make a skeleton. That’s always together. Then we’ll hash out what every scene should be about: “This scene’s purpose is X Y Z, that’s what it’s about—”
CL: “—and this is what’s going to happen.” Then Steve goes on his side and he writes it. And when the scene is done, I read it, we sit together, and we talk about it, and we make changes—
SL: —and we fight a lot. We scream, we throw objects across the room.
CL: Yeah. But never when we shoot. When we shoot, we are on the same page. We’re organized, we know exactly what we’re gonna do. I mean, shit happens. We wake up in the morning and everything we worked on and were about to shoot, we throw away and just improvise. But we are so prepared before then. On set, we become like just colleagues working together. The brain just connects. It’s weird, we just take a look at each other and we know exactly what the other person thinks.
SL: And as far as Radius goes, I was more with the actors, and Caroline was more with the technical side.
CL: The technique.
SL: And it was such a hectic, fast shooting pace. It was 22 days, bang bang bang bang bang. So to split the load into two people just makes it better. So I go my way, she goes her way, and then we come back, “Okay, I said that? You said that.”
CL: We can prepare both sides at the same time. It’s not, “Okay, I’m going to go with the actors. DP, wait for me, I’m going to come back to you—” No! We do it all at the same time. We trust each other 100 percent. We do a shot, look at each other, talk about it like for 10 seconds—
SL: Sometimes you’ll make a variant, like, “You tried it that way? Let’s try it this way too.” All right, boom, we’re done. So we always have another option.
What was the technical side of the film like? What did you shoot it on to get the look you wanted?
CL: We shot on Alexa. Visually, we went for something like — we watched The Killing, the AMC series — we really liked the way it looked.
SL: As far as color scheme and lighting for sure. It felt like natural light.
CL: We wanted to have something natural, but at the same time, super-colorful. We wanted something cold to fit the story. So that’s why we had like The Killing in mind.
SL: It was never about making it too stylized, either. It’s such a fantastical situation, so we needed suspension of disbelief. It was like, “If it’s going to be sci-fi or something weird, let’s try and bring it down to earth as much as we can. So we didn’t go into crazy camera movements and stuff like that. We had very static shots.
CL: It’s an impossible situation, taking place in real life.
SL: If your style is too much, we felt it takes away from the story’s reality. And also, it just helps to see it that way, because on such a tight schedule, and with a limited budget, you can’t just start doing crane shots ever three seconds. It was always very calculated: “Let’s keep it cold, let’s keep it about the characters.”
You keep describing it as “cold.” What went into achieving that feeling?
SL: It was about just always keeping a bit of blue in the black, about desaturating, using as much of the natural light of a location we could can get. Our DP was great. He’s very good at using what he calls negatives — negative space, negative light. He’ll work with shadows, shape shadows instead of shaping light. It sounds like a weird science thing, but he makes it work.
It’s tough, because we had some really nice days! In color correction it was like, “Let’s take out as much of the warmth of the sunlight as we can. Even though it’s sunny, let’s make it a white sunshine, not too much of a yellow sunshine. We got lucky, too — we got some nice rainy days, some nice heavy skies. And we made a conscious effort to keep Liam’s wardrobe and his house in the cold, neutral zone, so he blends in with everything, so he doesn’t stand out, ever.
It feels like there’s a lot of coldness in the characters, as well. They’re both clearly concerned about human life, but they don’t express it verbally. They don’t say things like “We don’t want to hurt people.” They just act on it, which feels decisive, but also minimizes any distress they feel at the harm they’re causing. How is that part of your writing philosophy?
CL: I personally hate when I see a movie that says what’s on the screen. If I see something, and it’s quite obvious that it’s there — why do I have dialogue telling me the couch is red? I can see it’s red!
SL: It’s a motion picture!
CL: Sure. So we really love to work with expressions. Less dialogue is best. When you have an actor who’s great, who can act their ass off, it’s like you don’t need dialogue. You have the face, the eyes, the body language. This is what I crave when I watch movies — to know exactly what the character thinks without him saying, “Oh, I feel sad.” I know you feel sad! I see in your face that you’re sad!
SL: It’s tough in the first minutes of this movie, because we’re dealing with characters who do not know who they are. So it’s tough to strike that balance. You want to convey emotion and a sense of personality, but at the same time, they don’t have that because they’re blank slates. Every action they make, they’re building their new personalities, their new sense of morals or ethics or whatever. So we’ve had people tell us that, “Oh, I found these characters static or cold” at the start, but when you’re at the ending moments, you’re like, “Oh my God, these guys are going through so much.”
We also shot the movie almost completely in chronological order, which was a good thing. I don’t know if I would do it for every film, but here, it worked out because the actors were trying to figure out who they were as characters. So in those first scenes, they’re more awkward.
Radius reminds me a bit of the TV show Dark Matter, which also deals with amnesia, and the question of how much we owe our past, whether we’re responsible for things we don’t remember doing. Radius takes a pretty strong tack on whether we’re the people we used to be, or the people we create ourselves to be. What did you want to say about that idea?
SL: Honestly, it just made sense to us. The main question for us was, “If you’re a horrible person, and then you create a new moral code, does that absolve you? Does something remain in there?” I still can’t answer that, really. That’s what we wanted the movie to do. These are questions that are fun to discuss.
CL: We overheard, once, a girl once in a restaurant saying that her boyfriend had an accident, and did not remember her. He became another person. She was explaining it to another person — that guy was not the guy she knew, and he never went back to being the guy he was. He became like another human being.
SL: He was a totally different person, and she was trying to explain, “We met like this, usually you act like that, usually you do this, you say that.” And it wasn’t sticking to him.
CL: He was like, “That’s not me.” That’s a concept that’s so weird, and so interesting.
SL: How do you try and convince her that you had a good thing going? You could make a whole movie out of that.
CL: Just talking about it, I get excited. It’s something that really interests me. So it was just fun for us to play with that a little bit.
You mentioned the other iterations of the script, where there were aliens or a military experiment. What else did you discard along the way? What were the important steps to getting the movie where you wanted it to be?
SL: Time and rewrites. If you’re like us, you start with a thousand wacky ideas, and try to cram them all into the same script. But then you have some people read it, and they give you notes, and you work on it. This is the most clichéd thing ever, but it was always about bringing it back to those characters. At one point, we had more people with strange powers. Like you’d see something on the news about some guy in Russia walking into a hospital all confused, and the place burned up because he caught on fire. It was almost like an X-Men, Misfits story. But then it was like, “This makes our protagonists less special.” So we took all that out, and boiled it down to the most concentrated version of itself. It was a long process, four or five years.
How did you train people to do the boneless face-first flop of “I’ve just been killed by a psychic power”? It’s done very convincingly here, with a lot of people who obviously aren’t trained stunt actors.
SL: We were lucky. Our cue was — this is horrible. If you’re seeing footage of people getting shot in the head, that’s pretty much what it looks like. Your brain shuts off immediately, so you lose all your muscle control.
CL: The legs go first.
SL: Legs go first, always. We worked with a stunt coordinator, a guy called Rick Skene, based out of Manitoba. He’s, like, the stunt guy down there. He and his team did some tests, and found a way of falling without hurting themselves, just creating that look of life draining out of you and your face just hitting the floor. We have a cameo in the scene outside the store, with the cops. We were like, “We’re missing two extras, we’re just going to jump in there.”
CL: Personally, I would love to be a stuntwoman. I mean, I’m clumsy, I hurt myself every day, but I love this kind of stuff. I would show them, “This is what I want,” and just drop on the floor. “See! Bloop!” We had fun. I love to do stunts, and I love to work with stunt people.