TIFF 2015: Director and actor go with the flow in ‘River’ Special

Posted Sep 19, 2015 by Sarah Gopaul
Writer/director Jamie M. Dagg and actor Rossif Sutherland discuss the challenges of shooting in Laos while attending the TIFF world premiere of Dagg’s feature film debut, ‘River.’
Rossif Sutherland stars in Jamie M. Dagg s feature debut   River
Rossif Sutherland stars in Jamie M. Dagg's feature debut, 'River'
Elevation Pictures
Writing and directing one’s first feature-length film is already a daunting task, but setting it in a communist country halfway around the world is an added challenge that could have had mixed results. Jamie M. Dagg’s thriller, River, is set and shot in Laos, which was no vacation in spite of the exotic location. In addition to the “stifling heat,” there was “very little film infrastructure,” says Dagg. At the same time, “all these little things that seemed insurmountable problems contributed to the film.” The film’s star, Rossif Sutherland, agrees that the limitations were blessings in disguise; “We couldn’t have done it with a bigger budget and crew because we would have been too noticeable… You stick a crane in there and you lose the quality of what it is to be in that place.”
The film centres on John Lake (Sutherland), an American doctor volunteering for an NGO in Laos. During a vacation, he observes a couple of Australian tourists trying to take advantage of a couple of intoxicated girls. After closing the bar with the generous owner, John has a confrontation with one of the men and accidentally kills him. Now on the run from the Laotian police, John must try to sneak out of the country before he’s forced to face local justice.
“I felt like a thief because there are very limited rules as far as the film industry. If you get the thumbs up from the government, you get pretty much carte blanche.” – Rossif Sutherland
The morality of Sutherland’s character is ambiguous. On the one hand, John is a doctor who feels obligated to aid those in need and whose judgement was clouded by alcohol. Conversely he took a life and is trying to escape the consequences, manipulating innocent acquaintances and leaving them to deal with the aftermath of his deceptions. “I wasn’t really interested in a white and black contrast of good vs. bad. I wanted to make it more ambiguous,” says Sutherland. “He’s got a lot of figuring out to do as far as who he is as a person and when he finds himself in this life changing moment, he gets to discover a side of him he may not have known was there.” He mentions that Dagg was also very accommodating, adapting the script to fit Sutherland’s interpretation of the character.
Both agree being on location was taxing, but it added to the film’s authenticity. “The place is so cinematic, you just have to point a camera in any direction and it’s breathtaking,” says Sutherland. But “unless you spend time there, it seems like a very alien environment,” adds Dagg. “That feeling of being out of place, where everything is new, it very much affects the journey of the character,” continues Sutherland who would blend into the crowd and move unnoticed in another part of the world; however, in this setting, it’s not that difficult to spot the film’s wanted man. He is undoubtedly credible as the self-absorbed man on the run whose priorities shift drastically when his own well-being is threatened. Most of the weight of the narrative is balanced on Sutherland’s shoulders; a task he carries with his head held high.
One of the main challenges Dagg faced was working with the local government, which sometimes required them to tread lightly. “The people are happy there, but there’s this tension beneath the surface because of the political situation.” Nonetheless, they received the support of the government’s cinema department who are gradually trying to change the local culture. “There are people our age who really love film and want to help change things,” adds the filmmaker. An example is one of the film’s key moments in which the young women are shown drinking in a bar; the scene raised some flags amongst various local organizations, but the film has been approved in its current state by Laotian censors. “So they are slowly changing in terms of what’s culturally acceptable.”
The pair had never met prior to Dagg casting Sutherland in the role, but there was an instant connection made over Skype. “I saw this very young, enthusiastic face of this guy who had written a script I couldn’t get out of my head,” says Sutherland. “I wanted to go on an adventure with him and it’s been a real gift because not only has a film come out of it, but a friendship as well.”
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2015 coverage.