TIFF 2019: An Interview With ‘Anne At 13,000 Ft’ Star Deragh Campbell

Four years after being named as a TIFF Rising Star, Deragh Campbell will return to the festival with a ‘staggering’ lead performance in Kazik Radwanski’s drama, Anne At 13,000 Ft.

Close-up Culture James Prestridge spoke to Deragh to learn more about this highly anticipated role, working with Brandon Cronenberg on Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You (which will also premiere at this year’s TIFF), directing her first feature film, and much more.

Q: You were named as a TIFF Rising Star in 2015. What are your memories of the festival experience that year?

A: It was a great time! I’ve been involved largely with smaller art house films so it was very different for me to be walking red carpets and having my photo taken. Also, I was in a strange German film at the time and returned for the duration of the program so it was a real switching of modes.

I really appreciated TIFF giving me access to that side of the industry – everything is a curiosity! 

Q: This year you will return with two films – ‘Anne At 13,000 Ft’ and ‘Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You’. What are your thoughts and feelings heading into TIFF 2019?

A: 2019 was such a good year! It started with Sofia Bohdanowicz and I premiering our co-directed film MS Slavic 7 at the Berlinale Forum and going on to show it at New Directors/New Films. And Please Speak Continuously played Cannes and now Anne at 13,000 Ft, a film we worked on for the past two years, playing Platform.

I feel really excited about the work my friends in the Toronto film community are making and about the new space we’re being given. I’m excited about the future because I think, as we get more space, the work also gets more inventive, risky and complex. 

‘Anne At 13,000 Ft’

Q: I have been able to find little about the plot of ‘Anne At 13,000 Ft’. apart from description that it is the ‘story of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world.’ Can you reveal anything else about the story and what interested you about it? 

A: Certainly, the backstory is that Anne suffered a nervous breakdown years previously but when we meet her she has since built the structure of a life back – she has a job, an apartment and a couple friends. She has a real desire for new experiences (such as skydiving and online dating) but she can’t really handle too much stimulation and it destabilises her.

As her behavior becomes more erratic, we see just how tenuous this structure of a life is.

Q: You play the lead role of Anne. I’ve already heard incredible things about your performance. How did you prepare for and approach this character?

 A: While the film did have a script, the dialogue was largely improvised and Kazik would set up the scenarios and I’d interact within them. So with Anne there were really just a couple strictures: everything she feels is visible and she is very reactive. So this involved trying not to hide anything. Or, on days when I was feeling more shy, showing the struggle of being trapped in your own head. 

Q: I read that the film was shot over two years. How was the experience of returning to the character for short spurts rather than filming straight over a few weeks or months?

A: I didn’t concern myself too much with consistency with the character. That is a really interesting thing about the way that Kaz works – by showing this kind of cacophony of different situations, that were all shot at different times, he’s able to show how a person doesn’t really behave in one continuous way – they can be at times wildly generous and at other times selfish, really open and available while other times totally removed. 

Q: You worked with director Kazik Radwanski before on ‘How Heavy This Hammer’. What does Kazik bring to a project and what support does he offer you as an actor?  

A: Kaz has a sort of idea for a tone or action that he wants to achieve in a scene and then he orchestrates the elements to try and achieve it or lets the scene go in a totally different direction altogether! That is a lot of freedom so sometimes I could get self-conscious but other times it was really immersive.

I definitely could not think about the result of what I was doing or the film as a whole (that was the job of him and the editor) and just had to try and be present.

Q: Brandon Cronenberg’s short film, ‘Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You’, will also screen at TIFF. The title alone sparks all kinds of intrigue. What hooked you about this project? 

A: I love Brandon’s writing so much and I really wanted to speak those words! In the film I recite these monologues in which I describe kind of brain puzzles and I was really interested in that horror, of how you can think yourself into a trap.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, you also co-directed your debut feature, ‘MS Slavic 7’ with Sofia Bohdanowicz earlier this year. Why was this the story you wanted to tell in your feature directorial debut? 

A: Sofia discovered these letters between her great-grandmother and the poet Joseph Wittlin in an archive at Harvard and spoke to me about them as a subject for a film.

She had already invented this character, Audrey Benac, for me to play in her previous feature, Never Eat Alone, and we wanted to reprise this role and learn more about the character as she went to see the letters. We wanted to find ways to represent the research process – the pleasure of discovery but also the difficulty of organising your thoughts and constructing meaning. I love the idea of gleaning a character’s personality from behind an intellectual discourse. 

Q: How did you find the experience of directing and sharing that effort with Sofia? 

A: Sofia and I totally trust each other and there is no ego between us so in writing, shooting and editing we have this really easy dialogue that is never slowed down by defensiveness – we’re just responding to each other’s ideas. Sofia is so capable – she can shoot, do sound, edit. For her to extend equal authority to me for my own perspective as a writer and a performer was really empowering. 

Q: The film screened at this year’s Berlinale. How special was it to premiere at such a prestigious festival? 

A: It was really incredible – for your work to be so thoughtfully handled and considered was so moving. The cinemas are beautiful, the programmers are really dedicated and the audiences ask these elaborate, multifold questions that they seem to really want the answers to! It was a true honour to be included in that. 

Q: What are your hopes for the coming years? What type of projects do you want to be involved in? 

A: My hope for the coming years is that filmmakers that are making formally inventive work get supported and that the community keeps growing in the healthy way it has been, getting more adventurous and diverse.

And for myself, I hope for a lot of variety – different styles of performance and ways of being directed. As I’ve been working a lot in improvisation, I’d like to work more with scripts, perhaps a very verbose and literary one. But as long as there is an aspect of the project that I find interesting, I’m very open!

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