If the movies—or, y’know, basic common sense—have taught us anything, it’s that being lost at sea isn’t fun. In Life of Pi, the poor castaway at least gets to hang out with a rad-as-heck tiger. In Rob Grant’s Harpoon, screening on Saturday, July 27 at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, the company is different: Three lifelong friends who secretly can’t stand one another.
There’s Richard (Christopher Gray), a preppy daddy’s boy sporting khakis, a fashy, and a raging set of anger issues; Jonah (Munro Chambers), a woe-is-me type who leans more than a bit towards the “Nice Guy” end of the spectrum; and Sasha (Emily Tyra), Richard’s girlfriend, desperately trying to keep the peace between the two ostensible best friends despite some questionable behavior from her own past. Rounding out the cast is the voice of Brett Gelman (“Fleabag”), narrating the devolving relationship between the trio as old wounds fester and new ones come to light.
Oh, and as their boat breaks down in the middle of a day trip and they’re all trapped at sea without food, water, or a way of communicating with the outside world.
“My original pitch to my producer was Knife in the Water by way of ‘Seinfeld,’” says writer/director Grant. There’s violence, there are lies, there’s betrayal… and that’s before the whole “facing imminent death together” thing forces Richard, Jonah, and Sasha to either work together (and/)or splinter further apart.
“It’s been so interesting—in a lot of the Q&As, people are either onboard” (pun, I assume, unintentional) “with following these kinds of people, or they vehemently reject the idea and are dismissive of these characters because of the bad things they do,” says Grant. Aside from the more extreme examples of rotten behavior to be found in Harpoon once the situation gets really bad, “A lot of the things that these people do to each other feel pretty common to me. But some people straight-up don’t want to recognize or discuss that… You don’t have to like these people, but you have to understand who they are.”
“There’s nothing fun for an actor, or for a writer, or a director to play the quote-unquote bad guy,” he elaborates. “It was very important to us that all three of these people have what their characters believe are justified reasons for acting” they way they do.
At turns survival thriller, dark comedy, and straight-up horror movie—with some disgustingly effective gore thrown in at key moments, sure to please the Fantasia crowd—Harpoon is easily a movie that could give its audience tonal whiplash, something Grant and his producer Michael Peterson were determined to avoid.
“What we always kept coming back to is, we need a movie that feels like how life really is. We can think that we’re in a love story, but then minutes later in can turn into a tragedy or horror… Between the writing, the shooting, and the editing, it took a year and a half to get everything together. There were lot of discussions between me and Mike and through doing test screenings with our friends and seeing how well or how badly some of those tonal shifts were going to work. At a certain point, we also realized that we had to try it, for better or worse, just to see how it would play out.”
There was some “better” and “worse” in Harpoon’s shooting schedule, too. The bulk of the movie takes place on Richard’s boat, The Naughty Bouy, either within the claustrophobic interior of the cabin or outside on the deck. Interiors were filmed first, in the middle of a freezing winter in Calgary, Alberta. This half of the film was shot sequentially, allowing the actors “to follow their character arcs through to the end,” says grant. “As the week went on, they got more and more exhausted, just having to get into more and more of the horrible stuff and horrible conversations. That exhaustion definitely helped their performances. We were inside, in the middle of winter. It’s dark all the time. We got a little kooky after a while.”
The “better”—a sort of reward for getting throughs some of the more emotionally harrowing scenes from the latter half of the film—was a second shoot in Belize, the site of the movie’s sun-drenched exteriors. Here, too, Grant and cinematographer Charles Hamilton shot sequentially, allowing the characters to seamlessly transition from seemingly sane and with it to seriously messed up. “At the beginning, everyone’s friendly. Then we slowly devolve. For sure, they exhausted themselves. I played a hand in that, because we would shoot as if it was a stage play. We’d run the whole 12-minute scenes front to back with only a single camera, and then we’d have to reset and do the whole thing from a different angle. So they got put through the ringer, for sure. But I think it helped not only with their performances but with the language becoming almost on autopilot.”
Also contributing to natural “we’ve known each other for years” patter is Gelman’s dry-yet-funny narration (Grant characterizes his delivery as “weird bizareness”), which brings the audiences in on the nuances of the characters’ years-long relationship without the characters themselves having to spell it out. Grant admits to being insure about having a narrator—done poorly, it can be a bit of a cop-out—“but then [some of] my favorite movies of all time are the Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas. Both with narrators! But they’re used in a way that’s not filling in story problems. It’s putting you in the characters’ heads, so when they speak they don’t have to speak expositionally. That was with us from the beginning, because I felt it was so important that anyone that’s had very long, long-term friends has a shorthand. No one’s going to say ‘Hey, remember that time we did this?’ I didn’t want to hear that coming out of characters’ mouths. Hopefully this narrator can give us all these backstories and this set up, so that when the characters talk, they can just run right into things.”
The exact content of the narration was being worked out up to the last minute; Grant found out Harpoon had been accepted into the Rotterdam Film Festival, where it had its world premiere, on Christmas Day, then had three and a half weeks to finish the narration, hire Gelman to read it, record it, and edit it into the cut. “I put it into the film, I exported it, and I hand-carried the drive with me just in the nick of time for our screening. We didn’t even know if it was going to work,” the director recalls.