An Interview with Sweet Virginia’s Jamie Dagg

I sat down with the director of Sweet Virginia and got to ask him a few questions. Here is our interview, and please do go see Sweet Virginia, opens in Toronto on December 1st.

So I saw the film over at TIFF as part of the Reel Talk program a few weeks back. And I remember that was a great Q&A. I remember there was a woman who said she wasn’t expecting to see a violent film at 10am on a Sunday, but glad she did. She added she’s now glad to see what you do next – and I am as well. 

You had mentioned that Jon Bernthal’s character was originally supposed to Billy Bob Thorton, but was it always supposed to be Christopher Abbott? Or was that a choice after?

Well that was, that was before I was brought on to direct it. The writers were trying to, they wanted to direct it themselves. And they had – they couldn’t finance them as the directors. But Billy Bob Thorton was interested in the role as Sam. Chris was the person to sign onto the film, my casting director suggested him. Initially, I was really apprehensive, ’cause I had only seen him in Girls at that point. They asked, or they insisted that I watch James White, and with that film, you could really see how much depth and how dynamic of an actor he is, his range is phenomenal.

Yeah, so we met and creatively, we were on the same page, so he was the first person that came on board.

Well I agree, I think I watched the first season of Girls, and sort of knew him from that, but after I saw James White when it played here for TIFF, and it changed how I saw him. Also, he was in It Comes At Night, which I don’t know if you’ve seen –

I have. Yeah, yeah.

He’s really great in that.

Even in small roles too, A Most Violent Year. I think that’s what it’s called.

The one with Oscar Isaac?

Oscar Isaac, yeah he’s talented, I think it’s a matter of time before he becomes a household name.

I hope so.

There’s the scene in which he starts a fight, but it’s shot entirely from inside the car. Was that something that came from seeing James White, because I feel he controlled that camera.

Not really, no. That scene was written extraordinarily violent and it was a lot more protracted, I wanted to ground it a little bit more in reality. Most fights don’t, they’re over. They’ve begun, and then they’re over pretty quickly, you know. I also think that in reality, when we see a fight, we’re usually at a distance, almost like a voyeur sort of aspect to it. So that’s what I wanted to do with – and the easiest way to do that is to have a single camera [out of the scene] and we thought it was a nice way, the simplest way to tell that story. Because again, I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the violence.

You had mentioned there was a bunch of the script that was cut out, was there anything you wished stayed in still?

No. Absolutely not.

What was the last film that you saw, that you loved? Even like an older film.

In reference to this film or –

In general, like in the downtime.

It’s always like a tough question to be put on the spot, and I usually do write what I watch. For this, I revisited the films of Pakula. Specifically, the films he shot with Gordon Willis, Parallax View, All The President’s Men, and Klute. They’ve been a pretty big influence on me, especially the Gordon Willis cinematography.

It says online, but I haven’t been able to find out which, but you’ve directed music videos for Bedouin Soundclash and Broken Social Scene?

Yeah, yeah. The Bedouin one was uh, shelved. ‘Cause I got into a fight with their management, but it’s up – it’s online. I posted it. I shot it in Columbia.

What was your experience with them?

They weren’t even in it. I think – honestly, I don’t give a shit. I’ll tell you. Like they, I had a concept that we agreed upon, and then they started trying to alter it, and I put my foot down. And they put theirs down, and they shelved it because they’re overly sensitive. Honestly, I hate dealing with bands. And I’ve got a lot of friends in bands and stuff, but I hate dealing with musicians. [laughs]

I feel like a band like Broken Social Scene might –

Oh those guys, well Brendan [Canning] is an old friend of mine. Like he was at the screening you were at.

Broken Social Scene does seem like they have a strong creativity, especially with their music videos.

That’s the only time where they let me, like “here’s my concept” and I delivered it to them, and they thought it was really nice and beautiful. And that was it.

How did you become friends with those guys?

Brendan, I’ve known Brendan Canning who started the band with Kevin Drew since I was in high school. I used to promote shows for bands. I grew up in Timmins, Ontario. I used to show, I used to promote shows out there when I was like 16. And that’s how I met Brendan, he was in a band called hHead with a little h in front of it. So when I moved to Toronto, the only friends I had down here were the guys I had done shows for. We’ve been friends for a long, long time.

Do you know what you’ll be doing next, or an idea of something you want to tackle?

I’m writing a film called The Blood of Young Mice, and I’m also circling a few other directing projects but it’s too early to talk about yet.

I feel like Sweet Virginia is going to get a lot of good recognition, the performances that you capture from the cast are great. You had mentioned being a voyeur, and I felt that sometimes with some of the small town, specifically with Bernthal’s character, and Rosemarie DeWitt’s character, you can sense the connection between them. Was the backstory within the script or was that planning on your end, or the actor’s end for coming up with backstory?

I wrote backstories for everyone. ‘Cause it’s very selective about what information they choose to divulge when it comes to the character’s past. In the case of Jon, there’s mention of his former wife and his daughter, and I think that the fact that he refers to his daughter in the past tense, “remember I used to have a daughter.” I don’t think you need much more than that. I don’t think when people are that close with one another, it’s not like, they will bring up horrible events from their past on a regular basis. It’s not part of normal conversation. At that point, it just becomes expository and I think that it was important, you don’t need to know their backstory. I know that some people like to have a bit more, but this isn’t the sort of film. I like to walk away and think about things.

I agree, one of the main complaints people had about It Comes at Night was that a lot of things weren’t explained, and that was something that I loved.

Exactly, that was great. Some people like to be spoon-fed a little bit, not – that’s kind of mean, but I mean some people want to be challenged a little bit more.

Some people don’t want to ask questions walking out, some might prefer to. What’s the next film you want to see in theatres?

I do want to see Three Billboards, I hear it’s really great. And I still haven’t seen Good Time. I have the Blu-ray in my bag right now.

I highly recommend both of those.

There’s a ton of stuff I need to catch up on, when I’m working, I’m behind on everything. There’s so much coming out, I’d like to watch a few films every day, but now that I’m writing again, it’s a bit tougher. I don’t want to be subconsciously influenced by great films coming out. I like first drafts to come in on their own.

Not to say – of course, I’m watching films, just not at the level I would have. I have a list of films I need to catch up on the past couple of years, and when you try and catch up on that, you miss the stuff coming out.

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