During a raging snowstorm, a drifter returns home to the blue-collar bar located in the remote Canadian town where he was born. When he offers to settle an old debt with a grizzled bartender by telling him a story, the night’s events quickly spin into a dark tale of mistaken identities, double-crosses and shocking violence. You’re not going to believe what happened at The Oak Room.
I wander onto the set and immediately I’m struck by the level of detail that’s gone into the creation of a dimly lit, basement-level, small town bar. Every meticulously created label, every tchotchke and wall hanging, every drunkenly-scrawled signature on the bathroom stall, it all builds the world of The Oak Room, rich in texture.
The set carries a bit of a weight to it, holding the energy of the previous scene. Actors RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) and Peter Outerbridge (Suicide Squad) laugh between takes, shedding the terse tones they held moments before. Originally, The Oak Room was a stage play, and you can sense it. The dialogue glides as the actors work through extended takes.
The stage version premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2013. Actor Ari Millen (I’ll Take Your Dead) — who also stars in the film — had thought that it might be a good choice for an adaptation, so he brought the script to director Cody Calahan.
“He called me and said, I’m going to send you the script, you’ve got to read it.” Calahan recalled, “I was about to get on a plane for LA, and he was like, just do me a favor, whatever you have to do on the plane, don’t do it. Just read the script.” By the time the plane had landed, the script had been devoured and a plan was starting to form: “We started right away and over the last two years, took it from the theatrical version into the film version.”
One of the theatrical elements that has been maintained throughout shooting The Oak Room is the use of long takes — up to 15 minutes at a time — to really give the actors room to breathe. “We do a bunch of rehearsals, we do a rehearsal for camera crew and all that, then we dive right in.” Calahan noted, “When you kind of let the actor go, and there’s no stopping and starting,” he grinned, “It’s pretty awesome.”
Between these extended takes, I slipped behind the scenes to meet with RJ Mitte and Peter Outerbridge to delve into the secrets and stories of The Oak Room.
“It’s written very much like a play, and plays are very extravagant for many reasons.” elaborated Mitte, “Everything that we do in editing — trying to create the beats on stage — you do it live. With this, we have time to alter the beat.” It gives the actors the flexibility to really dig in and find the scene. Mitte smiled, “You find that space and live in that space, and it’s really, really good.”
As organic as it is to shoot long scenes, it creates a unique set of complications for DP Jeff Maher, said Calahan. “We’re capturing the scenes and not dictating, okay, you can only look this way because I want that shot,” he explained, “Which is really tough for Jeff because he’s got to make all the shots creative, unique and entertaining.”
“He’s got to adapt,” he continued, “So they’re running 12 foot long dollies so that when we do the rehearsal, if he sees a moment that’s not working, he’s able to fly over to the other side.” It’s an effective way to shoot the static scenes, and it certainly keeps everyone on their toes.
But the complexities don’t end there. “We’re shooting it chronologically, which is very rare to do in films.” Outerbridge shared, “You shoot everything out of order when you shoot films. So we’re shooting it like a play.”
“It’s a play, it’s an actor piece,” he continued, “It’s like two guys in a bar, talking for two hours. Now, that in itself is a challenge.” But it’s not just two talking heads; there’s a few tricky twists to this particular tale. “It’s a story about a guy who walks into a bar, and tells the bartender a story about a guy who walks into a bar, who tells the bartender a story about a guy who walks into a bar.” laughed Outerbridge, “And then eventually, it loops back to the first bartender.”
With such a dense script to work from, it was important that the film be economical while not cutting the meat of the story. “The great thing about the script is that the plot is in the dialogue,” said Calahan, “We really don’t cut away to a lot of storytelling elements. It’s in what they say; the story’s in what the dialogue is dictating. So the more dialogue you cut, the more story you cut.”
Cutting the story down is a whole other challenge; it’s tightly woven to preserve an evocatively ambiguous ending. “It will be left to the audience — if they’ve been paying attention — to try to figure out what is happening,” explained Outerbridge, “Who’s getting redemption and who’s getting revenge.”
“It’s really left up for interpretation on whether or not you want to believe that it happened one way or the other.” commented Mitte, “Is this real? Or is this fake? Is this guy lying to me? Or is this guy telling the truth? And you don’t really know. As many questions as we answer, we raise a lot more questions. And we leave them there.”
“Depending on what version of the ending you think is about to happen, it becomes a totally different film in each version.” Outerbridge hinted, “One begins with a murder mystery, one becomes a horror movie, or one becomes like a ghost story.”
“It’s unique.” Agreed Mitte, “It’s a one of a kind story, it’s a one of a kind script, and what you see is definitely going to be wild.”
Spotting a severed unnamed body part (no spoilers here), I can tell that what Mitte said is indeed accurate. Calahan, Outerbridge, and Mitte all seem genuinely excited about the project, and their enthusiasm really pulled me in. “We’re a rare film,” said Mitte, “I feel that what we have is a special movie with a very special group of people that really honed their craft and have the skills to make it great.”
The Oak Room is filled with great detail and care. Nuances are carefully rehearsed and placed with just the right amount of off-the-cuff attitude so that it feels natural. Like the Oak Room itself, it feels very comfortable and real, though there’s something that’s sharpened the edge.
So what exactly happened in The Oak Room? “They’ve made a point of keeping it as ambiguous as possible. But there is a backstory to it,” said Outerbridge, “[Calahan] knows what that is. The writer, Peter Genoway, knows what that is. But they haven’t told us.”
They’ve painted a compelling picture — a nice compliment to the tense undercurrent of the scene they’ve been working on. “You know that something bad is going to happen,” Calahan quipped, “You’re just waiting for that moment.”
Walking away from the set, I immediately wanted to know more. From the way the film was shot to the script’s layered and cryptic conclusion, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see how it all unfolds. Months later, I still need to know.
So if you’re intrigued by a complex thriller with a good hook and a strong weight, definitely check out The Oak Room. Pull up a stool, grab a drink, and settle in. Things are about to get interesting.
Breakthrough Entertainment Inc. and Black Fawn Films will be bringing The Oak Room to Cannes’ upcoming virtual film market “Marche du Film”, where first viewings of the film will be taking place on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. You can view the brand new trailer and poster below.