Times Colonist movie writer Michael D. Reid is covering the Victoria Film Festival. Go to timescolonist.com./VFF for daily updates. Ratings are out of five stars.
There were times Andrew Currie and the cast of The Steps felt like they were in a horror movie after arriving in northern Ontario to shoot his new movie in the fall of 2014.
“Some of the actors said it was like The Shining,” said Currie, recalling with a laugh their initial reaction to their surroundings at The Grand Tappattoo, a big old resort near Parry Sound that housed the cast and crew.
It was November, and the snow had started falling by the time the cast headlined by Christine Lahti, James Brolin and Jason Ritter began shooting the film Currie had hoped would get rolling that summer.
Since it was off-season, the spacious resort was eerily empty, but the owners opened it up to the filmmakers. It became their hangout when they weren’t filming at an idyllic lake house.
The Steps is anything but a horror movie. And it’s certainly a departure from the last movie Currie showcased in Victoria — his 2006 zombie satire Fido, starring Billy Connolly.
Currie and actor Benjamin Arthur, who plays a bullying redneck paintball entrepreneur in The Steps, will appear at tonight’s 6:30 p.m. screening at the Odeon, and Thursday’s 3 p.m. screening at Star Cinema.
The ensemble comedy-drama that Currie directed from a screenplay by novelist Robyn Harding focuses on the domestic chaos that ensues when an uptight stockbroker (Jason Ritter) and his sister, a notorious party girl (Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui), are summoned by their neglectful father to visit his new lake house to meet his free-spirited new wife (Lahti) and her four grownup, rough-edged kids from different fathers.
“It follows themes, like human connection, that I’ve explored since my short films,” said the Toronto-based Currie, who was born in England and grew up in Victoria. The former Lambrick Park Secondary School student’s other credits include his feature debut Mile Zero, a heart-wrenching drama about a divorced father’s desperate attempts to reunite with is son, and The Delicate Art of Parking, the acclaimed mockumentary he produced.
Currie said he was particularly struck by Ritter’s character Jeff, an overachiever who has become disconnected not just from his family but the world.
“They say families can screw you up, but we really need them to be able to connect as human beings,” he said. “That need for connection has always been important, but now even more with what’s going on the world, and social media, which can be great but . . . I find myself even using my iPhone sometimes to avoid people, so that’s something I love to explore.”
While Currie usually directs his own material, he says he was comfortable working with Harding on her first film. He had the benefit of working on the script on-and-off with her for two years.
“It made a huge difference,” he said. “She’s a real pro and she really listens and responds really quickly, and having the actors we had, and the table read and rehearsals, things really started to evolve from there.”
Working with Lahti, best known for her roles in films including Swing Shift and Running On Empty and the TV series Chicago Hope, was an “amazing” experience, says Currie.
“She is a phenomenal actress and she doesn’t hold back in any way. She just lets it out,” said Currie, whose star steals the show as the aging cocktail waitress whose outrageousness is tempered by her humanity.
“She just craves direction. She’s like a sponge and just takes it in. She is very smart and will argue her points, and we’d work things out, but when we were actually at the point of shooting she was just a dream.”
While the onscreen family is obviously dysfunctional, it was a different story behind the scenes, said Currie, who with his wife Mary Anne Waterhouse, the producer, has three sons of his own aged six, 10 and 21.
“All of the actors were great to work with, actually, and we were a really close family.”
When Lahti, on a whim, asked on a Friday if they could spend their weekend off “running lines” at the lodge, for instance, everyone readily agreed, he said.
It’s a good thing, he said, because they were constantly fighting “crappy” weather during the 21-day shoot, even losing a day because of snow.
“Even for scenes that look very tranquil and idyllic, it was actually snowing outside. You just don’t see it,” said Currie, whose next festival appearance is March 13, when The Steps closes the Miami International Film Festival.
Meanwhile, Currie has something else to get excited about: Broadway producer Gerald Goehring (A Christmas Story: The Musical) wants to turn Fido into a Broadway musical and has hired a composer and lyricist.
It’s got a little horror and comedy and satire, so it’s really ripe for that,” said Currie, who would provide creative input. “He’s so passionate about this. His son saw it and said, ‘Dad! You’ve got to make this into a musical!”