For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we feature talented filmmaker and NC at the Movies contributor Jon Dewar’s short film “Hypothermia” which just finished the festival circuit and is up on the web for the first time. Here in dialogue with his cinematographer on the film, filmmaker Matt Rogers, they explore the film’s themes and how it was made. Dewar just wrapped an epic film shoot adaptation of one of my short stories, The Beautiful Drowned,” and I am so pleased we get to share this, his previous film, in the bittersweet moments as he finishes up the new one.
— R. W. Gray
Jon Dewar’s “Hypothermia” asks us to relive fractured and incomplete memories of a love story rife with nuanced tensions and unspoken complexities. As an audience, we are tasked to temporarily experience the leftover pieces of a relationship between characters Verity (Michelle Duncan) and Harper (Greg Profit) as they search for each other in a frozen forest. Dewar’s precise editing leaves us to find meaning through stark juxtaposition and intended absences. The film features a tonally complex score by Nick Mazerolle, which draws us in and provides connections between the characters’ dispersed memories.
In the end, Dewar asks us to implicate ourselves in these cold fragmented pieces of the story through a simple, but bitter, glare. Since 2014, “Hypothermia“ has enjoyed great success on the Canadian and international film festival circuit, winning Best Picture at the Tottering Biped Film Festival and I won Best Cinematography at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival for my work on the film. My following discussion with Dewar, of Quispamsis, New Brunswick, is an extension of all the conversations we had through the making of the film and gives him a chance to elaborate on the film’s craft, and on what brought him to this frigid romance.
MR: When people ask you to describe what “Hypothermia“ is about, where do you start, and what do you tell them?
JD: I generally try to keep the synopsis for my films simple. For me, “Hypothermia“ was always a love story set to the backdrop of winter.
MR: The narrative of the film comes to us in small pieces and fragments. Why did you think this film needed to be told this way?
JD: I wanted this film to feel like a memory. When reflecting on an experience, our minds tend to oscillate between different parts of that experience; we try to pinpoint where we were, how we felt, and what was influencing us. Time can distort memories and this can affect how we perceive them. I wanted this film to explore this conflict.
MR: How does that distortion play out between these two characters? Do you think these distortions ask audiences to distrust elements of the narrative?
JD: It’s less a distortion of truth and more a distortion of emotion. If we line up and juxtapose all these moments what is the final equation? Are the moments of wonder between Harper and Verity any less so because of their moments of hardship? The characters spend the film trying to navigate this idea.
MR: Did the story come to you first or the style of telling it?
JD: Every draft of this script told the story in fragments. Rather than using a linear story structure, I wanted to try to blend moments together in a visual or kinetic sense, without ever losing the arch of the characters. I wanted to find ways for the images to represent scattered pieces that form the whole. I thought this was vital in depicting the film as memory.
MR: Where did you find your influence for this approach? What films were you watching at the time when you came up with “Hypothermia?”
JD: Blue Valentine was a source of inspiration for “Hypothermia;” I was really drawn to its nonlinear narrative and to the type of romantic conflict between the two characters. Upstream Color is a film I’m continuously drawn to visually and also served as inspiration for “Hypothermia.”
MR: You and I had a lot of conversations while making the film about how the terrain is another character in the film.
JD: I try to ground my films in the resources I have available. One thing that New Brunswick continuously offers is unique landscapes and weather, and I’ve tried to use those in most scripts I write. When I decided to lock this story into a winter backdrop, the setting started to influence the choices I made for the characters, the themes of the story, the color palette, everything. Winter became a reflection and embodiment of what this story is about.
MR: I found this is a very tonal film. Besides the terrain, what were some of the things you focused on to help establish this stark tone?
JD: The dialogue and acting were a big part of that. I wanted the characters to speak more in sentiment than in specifics. The characters’ memories fail them in a sense. They don’t remember exactly what was said or how they felt but can recall the tone or spirit of it. This puts us at a bit of distance from the characters. We experience the moments as they do – as reflection.
MR: I particularly liked that, how as the story progresses we relive this growing disconnect between the characters with them. The coldness of the terrain, that third character, definitely helps establish that feeling. Did that third character (winter) have an impact on the production of this film, did it in any way influence what was possible for you to do with this story?
JD: It certainly locked us into a specific time frame of when the film could be shot. It also meant that everyone was going to be very cold. There are a lot of obstacles that come with filming outdoors in the winter but I try to see this kind of restraint as a positive thing. When you lock yourself into a specific parameter you have to get creative and that creativity undoubtedly has a positive influence on the film. This is much of the premise that Dogma 95 was built on.
MR: Were there other limitations in filming the film?
JD: We didn’t have much of a budget and worked with a bare bones crew. I never saw this as a hindrance though. Sometimes having that tight knit group can get everyone in the same wavelength or head space. This is an intimate story and I think having a small crew helped highlight that on screen. That intimacy was something I wanted to preserve in the film and a vital part of the onscreen romance. Greg and Michelle are a real life couple and the three of us were able to work together to weave elements of their relationship into the film.
MR: Audiences also get much of the meaning of this story through what you present to them visually. What is your storyboarding process?
JD: I’ve always had trouble describing my storyboarding process. I generally just try to go with my instinct. When I read the scene on the page I try to focus on the images I see with it and draw a representation of that. It becomes difficult when I overthink it or ask myself how another director might do it. That initial image gets skewed and it can be hard to return to it. I stuck to the storyboards on this film more than I have on any other production. The storyboards were basically my script and shot list. I thought this was key for working with a nonlinear narrative.
MR: What was your approach to editing the film? Did you know the choices ahead of time, or did many of your choices come in the edit?
JD: It ended up being a mix of both. If you watch the film with the storyboards, there are scenes that are identical. There are also several that took on a different form while editing. In some cases Greg or Michelle would bring something great to the scene that I hadn’t considered or noticed and I’d follow that thread. The setting, location, or cinematography could work the same way. Telling the story in fragments or non-linearly also greatly influenced the editing. I had to find that right way to blend the scenes together. Sometimes I would connect them through visuals or motion rather than continuity. It all came back to that notion of the film feeling like a memory.
MR: How did the score of this film help you tell the story?
JD: With each scene representing a different point or jump in time I wanted the score to represent something more fluid. Nick, our composer, created something that weaves between the emotions of the characters. The music seamlessly morphs throughout the film so that it’s always changing but without us ever really noticing. I thought having this fluidity in the music would mesh well with the visual contrasts in time.
MR: For an ultra-low budget short, this film has had great success reaching audiences. What was your experience like navigating the film festival circuit with this film?
JD: “Hypothermia“ was really my first time navigating the film festival circuit. I’m not sure if I initially had much of a strategy but what I found worked for this film was pinpointing independent or underground based film festivals.
MR: Did you get to travel with the film? What was it like screening it in other contexts besides the chilly North?
JD: “Hypothermia“ ended up screening at 18 film festivals across North America. I attended the screening at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival and the audience and programmers responded very strongly to the snowy setting. It became known as the “Canadian winter” film. That was a lot of fun. Regardless of where the film was screening, festival programmers were always highlighting the landscape of the film. I think that almost became its selling point. I was very proud of that. It was such an integral part of the story for me and I’m glad it connected with audiences in that way. Of all the festival screenings “Hypothermia“ had I was only able to attend two. I wish I had been able to attend more. There is nothing else in the world quite like a film festival. I’m glad it is finally going to be online now so that I can share the film with larger audiences.
MR: Anything you learned that you will take with you to the next film?
JD: Film is such a collaborative medium. It’s all about the people you have around you. For every film I’ve directed I’ve been part of an incredibly supportive and committed crew. Without that there really is no film. Surround yourself with people who make you want to be better.
—Matt Rogers & Jon Dewar
Matt Rogers is an educational researcher, a former teacher, and an Atlantic Canadian filmmaker. Matt is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick. His teaching includes critical teacher education in film and media studies, social studies, technology, and educational foundations. His research focuses on the intersection of critical pedagogy and participatory filmmaking with youth in school contexts. He is also active in the NB film community and has coordinated the What’s up Doc? youth film program since 2009. His personal film work has been internationally recognized with awards and nominations in cinematography, editing, writing, and direction. Recently, his latest short film, a list, (Frictive Pictures) won the award for Best Direction at an international film festival in Boston. Currently, Dr. Rogers is co-directing a documentary with Dr. Susan Cahill (U of C) focused on the ongoing history of government resettlement programs in Newfoundland.