Local Filmmaker Tackles Murder, Rural Ontario Style
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Local Filmmaker Tackles Murder, Rural Ontario Style

Director Ed Gass-Donnelly (right) with actor Peter Stormare.

If you were to walk up to someone from, say, Hanover or Barry’s Bay or Pelham, Ontario, grab them by the shoulders, and say: “Premise: a person gets killed in a tiny town nobody’s ever heard of, just like this one,” that person would probably tell you you’re crazy. “Things like that don’t happen here,” they’d say. Then they’d give you a cigarette, light it, hug you, and offer you a ride to their house for a home-cooked meal and a chance to marry the eldest, comeliest daughter.

True, Toronto filmmaker Ed Gass-Donelly’s Small Town Murder Songs, which premiered at TIFF 2010 and opens at The Royal this Friday, may seem a bit cockamamie. After all, a murder in small town Ontario’s about as unheard of as tits on a bull (to use a little small town Ontario parlance). In the last little while, however, it seems as if filmmakers have been interested in depicting such rare rural wrongdoings. In addition to Small Town Murder Songs, last year also saw John Kastner’s Life With Murder, an astounding documentary about Chatham, Ontario killer Mason Jenkins, as well as The Kids in the Hall returning to TV with Death Comes to Town, which also uses a murder in some one-horse hamlet as its comic jumping-off point. It seems like nowadays in small town Ontario, murder’s about as en vogue as playing bingo in a Catholic church basement or putting salt on your draught OV so it doesn’t lose its foamy, delicious head.

Starring Peter Stormare (Fargo, Constantine) as a police officer up to his cookie-duster moustache with the details of a grisly murder (and his personal anger management problems), Small Town Murder Songs proves that Ontario Mennonite territory is as fine a place as any to lay the scene for a murder-mystery. We talked to Ed Gass-Donnelly about the film, its setting, and his decision to screen in the very sorts of communities the film depicts.
Torontoist: With your last feature [2007’s This Beautiful City], you made a film set in Toronto and very much about urban life. Did you intentionally set out to move from the urban to the rural with this feature?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Beyond just the rural environment, the style of the filmmaking is very different. There’s an intentional choice to embrace a more nostalgic style. We shot it on 35mm and embraced the idea of letting scenes play out in master shots, as opposed to the more chaotic, manic approach of This Beautiful City.
The premise of Small Town Murder Songs seems pretty sensational—a murder in anywhere, Ontario. Was there ever a worry that people would buy all this luridness going on in our own backyard?
I think if you look at OPP statistics, you’ll see that that stuff does happen. Whether or not it’s shown in movies is another question. To me, that whole cliché of “this never happens here” only lasts until it does happen here. That stuff very much does happen. When you look at a small enough community, they can actually go fifty years without a murder. Whereas in Toronto you might get fifty in a year. There was a double homicide right near my place at Strachan and Richmond and, it might not have been a conscious influence, but it played a role in making me want to explore this idea.
Where did you actually shoot the film?
We shot mostly in Listowel, which is about forty minutes west of Waterloo. That was our home base. We’d shoot some stuff there and some stuff in little towns around the area.

“A murder? In this small town?! When pigs fl–oh, better call the OPP.”

How’d you get Peter Stormare involved in the film?
I was working with this really great casting director in New York and we were jamming out a long list of people who might fit the character. I happened to be a fan of that TV series Prison Break and then when I was in Copenhagen, I happened to see a bit of Armageddon on TV and he was really funny in that. Then I saw Dancer in the Dark again and noticed how different he was in that film. I was really compelled by how many roles I’d see him in, and how he’d do a villain or comic relief, and I became interested in wanting to see him in this different role.
We sent him the script and he liked it. He agreed to meet us, which in Hollywood is never the norm. There people won’t meet you unless there’s a formal offer or pay in place. But we just met and after a few drinks decided to work together.
And this was also Jackie Burroughs’ last on-screen role, right?
It was, yeah. I always imagined only two people playing that role: Jackie Burroughs or Ellen Burstyn. If I didn’t get one of those two, then I wouldn’t have known what to do. But Jackie was super enthusiastic. And she was fabulous.
You’ve been rolling out the film across smaller markets in Ontario. Was this because a festival debut in a big city precludes certain communities, the very kinds of communities you’re depicting in the film, from seeing the film?
When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, people thought it was a really authentic depiction of small town life. And we were trying to make an authentic film. Not to make the Hollywood version of what a small town is, or making fun of them. So we wanted to play it in smaller communities like this where the film wouldn’t normally get released. I contacted every Mennonite church in Canada, practically, and just started introducing the film, and myself, to the pastors. So in several cases a local pastor got behind the idea and booked a screening. It was a different way to release a movie. Because otherwise you open in four cities and spend a lot of money on marketing and you still can’t compete with bigger budgeted films. You just end up putting it out more for the sake of saying you did than for the sake of finding an audience.
Did these pastors not object to the language or the violence or nudity or anything?
Well there was that scene [that takes place inside a strip club]. We debated if there was enough interest with these groups, if we could digitally cover up the boobs in that scene. We didn’t make the films for religious audiences, so when you go into a strip club, you need to see a stripper. But we debated if we could put some digital pasties on the strippers if we really wanted to reach out to those communities.
Photo and still courtesy VKPR.
Small Town Murder Songs makes its Toronto premiere Friday, February 18 at 7 p.m. at The Royal (608 College Street), where it’ll stay for a limited engagement. Check out Torontoist’s In Revue tomorrow for a review.