When the lights finally go out on this precarious civilization of ours, you might wanna keep Ellen Page among your plucky band of survivors. You’ll need protein, for one thing, and she knows how to gut a pig.
“Oh, lord, yeah,” she says with a sigh during a call to the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “It’s a skill I’m shocked I have.”
The Oscar-nominated actor puts this recently acquired expertise to very graphic use in the film Into the Forest. The gagging she does on-screen as she pulls an armful of intestines and viscera from the slit belly of a wild hog is quite, quite real. So were the reactions of camera-crew members who were “dropping like flies”, according to the film’s writer-director, Patricia Rozema, along with the assembly editor who complained that he couldn’t bear to work on the sequence.
But let’s not discourage viewers here. Into the Forest, which opens Friday (June 3), is a triumph for Page as both an actor and first-time producer, and it is a gift to grown-up moviegoers. An apocalypse drama of rare intelligence and originality, it features two stunningly committed lead performances from Page and Evan Rachel Wood as sisters facing Armageddon in a remote Pacific Northwest luxury home cradled by old-growth forest.
The novel by Jean Hegland was set in California, but Rozema and her team fudged the geography and shot Into the Forest in locations around Vancouver and Vancouver Island, all of it spectacularly lensed by cinematographer Daniel Grant. Vancouver provided a few other, less obvious benefits: Page was trained to disassemble a pig by Campagnolo’s chef de cuisine at the time, Ted Anderson. Meanwhile, globally acclaimed choreographer Crystal Pite appears on-screen as Wood’s dance instructor.
“I just watched her in rehearsal with Evan and I thought, ‘I have to catch this,’ ” Rozema says in a separate call from Toronto. “She’s so beautiful and mesmerizing; I could make an entire movie about her.”
These details aside, Into the Forest haunts with its larger vision of a world in collapse, made all the more affecting because we’re told so little about it. One day the power goes out—with a whimper, not a bang—and then it simply never comes back. With all forms of mass communication gone besides rumour and Chinese whispers, humans are left very much in the dark. “That’s truthful to me,” Rozema remarks. “The absence of knowing is what’s going to be difficult for lots of people. I would find that just terrifying.”
“When I read this book—I guess I was 22—it was something that I was thinking about a lot,” Page explains. “I would imagine it’s a fear, whether conscious or unconscious, that we all have: what happens when all these oftentimes amazing but very elusive things that aren’t really that real in terms of what life actually is, what does it mean if that all disappears tomorrow? I know—for myself, I mean—I wouldn’t have a chance!”
Page had been working with Rozema on a decidedly less serious project, a (sadly) unmade adaptation of Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, when she brought Into the Forest to her director’s attention. Page was principally interested in the sisters’ respective psychological and emotional journeys, envisioning something like the unknown and unknowable catastrophic event that sets the human drama of Michael Haneke’s 2003 film Time of the Wolf in motion.
“I loved that movie so much,” she says. “I think Patricia is someone who’s able to capture intimacy in a way that really moves me, and I think it’s one of the strengths in all of her films. Just the sincerity of experience, whether she’s doing a family film or a period film or a love story between two women in the ’90s or what have you. And, obviously, the relationship between the two sisters is one of, if not the most crucial part of the film. I just felt like she was the perfect voice to tackle the story.”
Rozema was no less focused on the psychological insights contained in Hegland’s book. But everyone involved with Into the Forest kept a bead on its larger and perhaps more pressing themes.
“I found it fascinating that some people, maybe like me, might say: ‘Oh, it’s all going to be fine; it’s all gonna come back very soon. Let’s just keep working on our careers; let’s hope for the best,’ ” the filmmaker begins. “But there’s no room for either optimism or pessimism; it’s just a fact. It’s just a fact that we, as fossil-fuel-burning people, are a cancer on this Earth and we’re cooking ourselves and eating our host alive. It’s a bit grimly put, yes, but we need to reengage with the needs of this planet. And I’m one of so many people saying this, but it felt like a very useful thing to say. Civilization is a thin, thin little layer over top of our animal nature, over the top of wildness.”
“Do I think about a life, at some point, that is a little more connected to the natural world? Absolutely,” Page offers. “But I’m talking to you from a room in the Ritz-Carlton right now, you know what I mean? It’d be pretty horrible of me to be, like, ‘I’m ready!’ ”
All the same, the actor continues, the effect of living and working inside an ancient rainforest was palpable and inevitable and mirrored the story they were trying to tell. “There’s sort of a shift in the film when the forest is something to be so feared, and then it’s actually something that’s basically offering you everything you need,” she says. “And the moment we got out into the woods, Evan and I were just like, ‘Oh, my God…’ The stress just goes. The feeling, at least for me, is pretty immediate. And I guess I know lots of people who aren’t that interested in going for a walk in the woods, but for myself, yes—it really changed the game.”
“The whole spirit behind it is about us going into the forest and becoming closer to nature in some profound way,” concludes Rozema, who believes that if you are going to live out the apocalypse anywhere, British Columbia is probably the best place to do it. “It’s our fantasy and it’s our fear, right?”