VIFF 2018 Interview: A PICNIC TABLE, AT DUSK director Sheridan O’Donnell

“A PICNIC TABLE, AT DUSK tells the story of Ivy, played by Kelowna native Taylor Hickson, who is a grieving teenager who spends most of her days sitting at a picnic table at the park near her house.  One day she decides to leave a message on the table, an angry shout into the void. When she returns the next day, she’s surprised to find that someone has responded to her. Desperate for human connection, she starts a correspondence with this mystery person, setting off this simple but moving tale of a young woman yearning to be heard and seen.

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to VIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Our screening at VIFF ’18 actually marks our World Premiere!  I’m thrilled to be here and it’s my first time in Vancouver and I’ll be attending the screening on October 4th.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

If you don’t believe in fate and destiny, sheer luck.  I majored in Chemical Engineering in college and after a long and difficult first year, I realized it wasn’t for me.  I opened up my school’s website and on the front page was an advertisement for their new film program. I dropped out the next day and went into film on a complete whim.  It was only after the fact that I found film to be the perfect for me: a wonderful harmony of art and science.

Since then, I’ve wrote and directed numerous films, most notably WOLFF’S LAW, a 27-minute short film about bullying starring Brendan Meyer (Netflix’s THE OA), and most recently A PICNIC TABLE, AT DUSK.  Making movies has always been act of therapy and healing for me, a chance to examine the darker parts of my psyche and evaluate past traumas. I have never been interested in movies about heroes, but rather in the broken and the flawed.  Because then I see myself in the film and feel a little bit less alone. That’s my hope for audiences as well when they see my films.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

The inspiration for the film came from two instances: one was when I had a conversation with a stranger on my desk in middle school, and the other was more recently when I was saw a lone, weather-worn picnic table at a park.  Something about the image was so lonely and evocative. When I began to imagine who would be at a table like that, I remembered my mysterious middle school conversation, and things began to fall into place story-wise very quickly.

The most important part of making the film was casting.  The film essentially has one character in it and very little dialogue.  I knew I needed someone who could really draw out an audience’s empathy and someone you would really feel for.  I was very lucky to find Taylor Hickson, who has these big, blue expressive eyes and was able to communicate so much to the audience with so little.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee are we talking about here?

I think early on it was always the realization of my vision.  I tend to be very methodical in preproduction and plan things extensively.  It’s very satisfying to imagine something and a year later watch those images be brought to life.  Nowadays though I’m the most excited about working with actors and giving the control over to them.  When you’re open and willing to try things on set, you might end up discovering something that’s so much better than what you had planned for, and that’s the best feeling you can have when making something.

And yes, coffee.  Gallons of coffee.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The film is very formal and restrained in its tone.  That was part of the impetus for me in wanting to make it.  But I had never really made anything like this, and I was quite nervous about it working.  

Narratively, I wanted to very quickly show the audience “how” to watch our film right at the start, so I planned out a very stayed, very long first shot to the film.  We spent an entire day finding the right spot to put the camera, and on the day we spent the entire morning blocking it. When the camera rolled and I got to experience the moment in real time (as a viewer might), I sensed that it was actually working.  There were other challenges during the rest of the shoot, but it was in that moment I knew that fundamentally it was going to work, and that gave me a lot of relief.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

The visual design was everything to our film.  From the first conception of the idea, I knew that I did not want the camera to move in the film at all.  No pans, no tracking, nothing. It was formally challenging and exciting for me as a filmmaker, but the decision really came from the character; in the film Ivy is stuck in her life and completely solitary.  So if Ivy was just going to be sitting, then the camera was just going to sit too. Also the movie takes place entirely in the park except for one scene, which is quite uncommon for a film. So I knew compositionally I had to be very engaging and exacting in order to keep the audience’s attention.  Part of that is not shooting coverage and not repeating any shots. The other part was just tons of planning–I spent days and days with my DP Matt Wilson in the park finding the strongest compositions in advance. I usually like to work with actors and find the shots according to their blocking, but in this case I really had to know the visual framework of the film and the sequence in which the shots were going to unfold.  We shot the film on an Arri Alexa and an old Cooke zoom lens.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Vancouver?

I’m most excited about the audience.  Canadian cinema is some of the best filmmaking in the world, and audiences here seem to be very receptive to foreign and alternative cinema and more so I think than in the US, where I’m from.  So I’m hoping as meditative and subtle as the movie is, people still really dig in and engage with it.

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

More festivals!  VIFF is our World Premiere, so now that we have that, we’re really going to open up our submissions and get it everywhere we can!

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

It should be a mandatory thing that every person in the world work on a movie, because if you did that, you would realize how much time, effort, and heartache it takes to make a movie.  Maybe then you would be honor the filmmakers and give the film your attention. But I watch movies like I’m in church, and expect friends who are with me to do the same.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Make the things that really excite you and that you’re curious about.  Early on in your career, I think you have this preconceived idea of the filmmaker you “should” be instead of the one you are.  Embrace your own life and experiences. Get of your head and into your heart. If you find it interesting, someone in the world will too.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

My festival experiences have been quite limited at this point, so I’ll have to stick to my favorite movies.  It’s cliché but it really is impossible to narrow it down to one movie, but I’ll share some of my current favorites: CODE UNKNOWN, MEAN STREETS, NETWORK, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE and anything by Stanley Kubrick.


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