Harpoon is part of the official selection of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, running in Montreal, Quebec. It’s a taut, dark, and often hilarious thriller that will surely catch audiences by surprise. I had the chance to talk with writer/director Rob Grant about the film, its genesis, and why terrible people are just so damn interesting.
You can keep an eye out for my interview with one of the stars of the film, Munro Chambers, and a full film review.
Kelly McNeely: Where the hell did this movie come from?
Rob Grant: Frustration, is maybe a good start! I was talking to my producer Mike Peterson and complaining about the state of movies that I was either making or where I was at. I told him I just wanted make something where I could go for broke, and I pitched him the idea of Polanski’s Knife in the Water by way of Seinfeld characters. I had just finished shooting a previous project, and then it just kind of came out; within four weeks we had a first draft. I’d finished Alive at the end of August/early September, and then I had a draft to my producer Mike by October, and we were shooting by January, so it came together really fast.
And it’s not like the idea just came to me, when I usually write a script it takes me about 2 years from the first idea to the time I put it on paper, so by the time I actually write down the draft, it’s already pretty well thought out. So it’s not like it just came out crazy. But I knew when we were writing it and when I was pitching to Mike, like, I want to do all the things that I’d been too scared or haven’t tried before, in case this is my last movie. That’s kind of how Harpoon started with me.
KM: Had you always intended to have that sort of dark comedic streak to it, or did that come out when you were writing it?
RG: That definitely came out, because the original genesis of it was when I first read about the Richard Parker coincidence and I thought; if these people knew about that coincidence, this would be hilarious. So for me it was always just like, the bad luck is so strong that you can’t help but laugh. That was kind of my first genesis, knowing that it had to kind of be down that road. It’s also one of those things, like… I grew up watching Richard St Clair, I love listening to people talk. I was realizing you need a bit of levity in there, otherwise I’m worried I’m just going to bore people. That’s the thing with genre – I’d love to do straight drama, but I’m scared I’m going to bore people. So, yeah, let’s chuck in some crazy stuff.
KM: It works really well. With the narration, was that something that came out of wanting to shake it up a little bit and make it not so heavy, or were you always kind of intending to have that in there?
RG: The narration was in the first draft. The intention was always – for me anyway – when you have three people who’ve known each other for so long, they have this shorthand that doesn’t tie very well to expositional dialogue. So I really really wanted to relay the two being like “hey, remember the time we did this?”. So the narration was always meant to get all the exposition out of the way, so by the time we get to the characters, they can act the way they should.
Originally it was a lot more on-the-nose, but some of the themes and ideas were kind of dark. We went through maybe 4 or 5 different voices, testing it out, different levels of dry wit and humor. We did test screenings and realized that if the narrator was judging these characters too harshly, so would the audience, so we had to really scale it back. There were a ton of iterations of that.
KM: And how did you find Brett Gelman? Did he come in, did you bring him in…?
RG: He came in a week before we premiered at Rotterdam. So we found out our premiere date on Christmas Day or the day after – Boxing Day maybe – and we were premiering at the end of January, and we still hadn’t finished our narrator or had the writing of it right. So that entire Christmas holiday was spent scrambling, re-writing, and getting it right. And then finally, like the week before Rotterdam, Gelman agreed to come on board.
I had to fly down to LA, record the narration, and edit it on the plane back the same day, and then fly with the hard drive – the only copy of it with him in it – to Rotterdam. Our two management companies – 360 management – that had repped two of the actors, Christopher Gray and Emily Tyra, we have a really good relationship with that company because they’re happy with the project too, so when it came to narrators, they helped a lot. Of course Brett, his dark humor – especially from his Adult Swim days – kind of fit right in to what we were doing and he got it right away. His movie – Lemon – screened at Rotterdam as well.
KM: And now with the cast that you have, did you have any actors you wanted to work with in particular? Munro Chambers is phenomenal, and I know he’s Canadian, which is great to have some Canadian talent in there… did you have any actors in mind when you started or did you sort of find them as you went?
RG: Well thank you very much, because we also think the exact same about Munro. Without spoiling he has maybe the toughest turn to take. When I was writing? No, I didn’t have anyone in mind. We cast Richard’s role first, and the hardest one I had was casting that Jonah character for reasons that will become obvious for anyone that sees the movie.
It was, again, my producer who said “you should really look at Munro”. I had edited Mike’s last movie, Knuckleball, which Munro was in. And for some reason I just thought, with him as the villain in that, it wasn’t computing in my head. Like, “I don’t know, I don’t think that he’s right, there’s a lot of different levels to this character”. He was like, “trust me, just look at Munro”. So he got Munro to make a tape and send it to me, and as soon as I saw the audition tape, it was like “ok, it’s him. We got him”.
Mike allowed us three days of rehearsal at the hotel before we started shooting, which is so rare for an indie movie, but that made such a difference I think just in terms of how prepared they were, and how the three interact with each other, and it allowed us to refine a lot of that dialogue and lines beforehand. So by the time they got on set, they’d be shooting it like it’s a stage play. They’d be running full 12 minute scenes in one single take. That’s how I feel like a lot of their performances were dictated just based off of those three days.
KM: I was going to say, especially with those long takes and big chunks of dialogue, it’s such a character driven piece that it does feel a lot like a stage play, but just in the most extreme circumstances possible.
RG: Absolutely. That’s why there’s a part one and part two, it’s not in thirds. It was done very specifically that way. Like I said, I like listening to people talk, and it kind of felt like if this wasn’t made as a movie, I could potentially do it as a stage play, so I kind of treated it like that. It also made the actors think that way, too.
We got to shoot all the interiors in order, then we reset and shot all the exteriors in order, and I think that not only helped build their performances as they slowly got more and more exhausted, but also just going through 10 minute scenes of really intense stuff over and over that at the end of the day I think they were nearly falling over, they were so tired and exhausted emotionally. It sucks to say, but I knew it was working really well for the state they had to be in.
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