Friendship is hard. This is a fact that director Rob Grant knows very well as seen in his latest film, Harpoon, which recently screened at Fantasia 2019. It is a film about underlying resentment, rivalries, jealousy, and toxic masculinity disguised under the very thin veil of just three friends going to party on a boat for the day. But, as you may have guessed, that veil is torn to shreds and friends Richard (Christopher Gray, The Mist), Jonah (Munro Chambers, Turbo Kid), and Sasha (Emily Tyra, Code Black) are pitted against each other in the name of survival. Secrets are revealed, seagulls are murdered, and way too much liquor is consumed on an empty stomach, all while the soothing tones of Brett Gelman (Fleabag) narrate their predicament.
We were able to take some time with Grant to discuss harpoons, nautical superstitions, and the difficulties of friendships.
Mary Beth McAndrews from NOFS: So why did you choose a harpoon as the film’s centerpiece?
Rob Grant: That’s a good question. Actually, I’m trying to think where the heck the spear gun itself came from. But I believe the original premise just came from the idea of, you know, a three-hander with people trapped somewhere that I’m not used to seeing. I was sick of the cabin in the woods and that kind of stuff. So what’s something that has really been done in the indie scene before? I’m from Vancouver. My friend has a boat, and funnily enough, we had a similar situation where the boat lost power for us here in Vancouver. It didn’t last five days, but it was kind of the genesis of all these ideas as well as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. But I’m trying to think where the heck the gun came from. I’m not sure! It’s like, what’s the most obvious weapon for there to be on the boat? Then without giving spoilers away, what’s the most obvious weapon that would be set up to cause the most damage that doesn’t actually end up being the one that caused the most damage.
NOFS: See, that’s what I loved about the film, too. The harpoon is in the title and it’s obviously the starting point for all of the conflict, but it doesn’t really do anything violent. It’s there for just a few moments, then it just goes away, which I thought was so cool.
RG: It’s a MacGuffin! We got lucky because the original name of the movie was “A Boat Movie” and it was because A. my producer and I are really bad at picking titles, but also B. originally the narration was a lot more on the nose about it and was more writerly. The title kind of felt right. But then we found out another movie came out last year called The Boat at fantastic fest and realized, well we can’t do that. And then we realized after the fact that not only was harpoon like the better title but it also fit the themes of you think it’s one thing and then it turns out to be something else. So it kinda worked out for us.
“..the original name of the movie was “A Boat Movie” and it was because A. my producer and I are really bad at picking titles, but also B. originally the narration was a lot more on the nose about it and was more writerly.”
NOFS: Also the narration is so good along with Brett Gelman’s voice. I was watching Harpoon almost like it was a nature documentary at certain parts. The way that he was describing each of the friends, it was like watching a nature documentary on Discovery Channel, which changed the way I watched the movie. I feel like it just enhanced the whole thing. Why did you want the narration there? It really did make the movie so much funnier. I also feel like I understood the characters a lot more and was more invested in them.
RG: That’s awesome. Well, I mean we had to do a ton of drafts on that narration. It was actually through test screenings that we realized that some people don’t invest themselves in people or movies about bad characters. Some people are very put off by that. But we found that through test screenings that if the narrator wasn’t judgmental against these characters, and was just stating things more as a matter-o- fact and wasn’t poking fun of them too much, it opened up the audience to also not be too judgmental of them. So that’s kind of why we landed on the tone that we did. And that’s great that you brought up like a nature documentary because you’re right. It’s just, “here’s these people, now watch them do stuff,” and it’s not trying to say one way or the other whether their behaviors are good or bad. That’s probably why it felt like that. It took so many tries on us to get there because we did originally have narration where they were making fun of them or where they were saying, “these are bad people.” It put audiences in a bad state. It’s like when you’re introducing someone to that friend of yours and you say, “oh, don’t worry, he’s a good person!” But your friend thinks, what is wrong with this person? So we had to avoid that pretty quickly off the hop of the movie.
NOFS: I also loved Gelman’s narration coming in and explaining that being a red head on a boat is unlucky and all the other boat superstitions!
RG: We had to research so many of those of those superstitions. It’s funny enough, it’s like the second we started putting a bunch of them on the boat, actually the interior of the boat is a set, I don’t know if you were aware of that, but the interior of the boats is an actual set. The second our production was done, I had to put a whole bunch of these superstitions on the actual boat. Bad stuff started going wrong all over the place.
NOFS: That’s amazing. I love little things like that, like learning how much it took to research. I felt like it added a lot to the comedic value, too, with that very matter-of-fact listing of all the things they throw off the boat.
RG: Well that’s so bizarre and that’s why I like wrote it in there. We tried so hard to look up why the red headed superstition existed. But we couldn’t find anything about why this exists, but it definitely holds true. We had to do such a deep dive with that and with cannibalism and, see, I don’t ever want to have to look at anymore.
NOFS: You brought something up about the narrator introducing everyone very matter of factly. This definitely felt to me, and you can please correct me if this is wrong, like a film about toxic masculinity in two very different ways. Jonah is the Nice Guy who actually isn’t very nice. And then Richard is the rich mean guy. The film works so well as a commentary on the manifestation of those two different kinds of masculinity. Is that something you wanted to tackle or is that just me reading way too into it?
RG: No, no, it’s definitely there. I’ve often been of the thought in movies that first and foremost, the job’s to entertain. If I wanted to be a teacher or to teach it to go be a teacher. That being said, going into these things, those conversations definitely had to be had both with my producer and also with the actors to just be aware of those people out there in real life as well. For these moments especially, we have to have answers if these things come up.
You know, I was giving Munro Chambers a whole ton of material actually specifically from Twitter, if you can believe it from these people. We weren’t going straight incel, but we were giving him conversations straight from the Internet feed, and telling him, “This is your mindset. You feel like you’re owed this.” And same with Richard. At the end of the day, they’re both arguing over Sasha as if she’s a piece of property.
So we were very well aware about both of their characters’ self-centered views on how things are. But then on the other end of it, too, I wanted to make sure that there was a subverted expectation. By the end, Richard shows a ton of emotion that I hope people aren’t expecting. Same with Jonah’s slip, that it’s kind of a bit different. I think it’s also important in movies that are about technically people to do bad stuff that they have, at least in their characters’ minds, that they have a very strong reason for the behaviors they do and they’re not just cliches. So it was there. It wasn’t something that I wanted to hit home. It just so happened that those archetypes fit very well into this self-centered threesome.
NOFS: Oh, for sure. I think what I really liked was how you were able to do it so well. It didn’t feel like you were hitting the audience over the head. You gave a lot of really good context, like with Richard’s dad and Jonah’s family and showing how these things aren’t just people being bad people, but they also come from really awful circumstances. I was just so impressed with how you were able to make the friendship seemed so real and able to add all this context and resentment without having a ton of flashbacks.
RG: So you weren’t the first person to bring up the incel stuff. I did another interview with a guy who said had this movie been made maybe five, ten years ago, he didn’t think people would’ve made that connection because that conversation wasn’t so prevalent. He said, “you almost might have, back then, felt a little more sympathy for Jonah’s plight. But now, not so much.” And then he even had an interesting story. He said, “Well I’ve been there, you know where I felt that I’ve been owed something either in a relationship.” And then he’s said, “Yeah you did a really good job of both peppering the little things.” I at least hope that we did a good job of peppering those little things that would make someone believe that, even though you know, in hindsight this is not how one should ever react in those situations!
NOFS: No, you did a really good job about creating sympathy for Jonah and then flipping it. You also did a really good job with Sasha’s character, in capturing her frustration and anger. It hit me in a really sensitive spot because I have gone through that. But I have a kind of a personal question. Have you ever had friendships like this before?
RG: Yep. Here’s the thing, this has come up when anyone who says, “oh, I hate movies about, people doing bad stuff. It’s like I can’t relate to them.” Well, you don’t need to relate to them, but there should be a level of empathy as to why people act this way. And I always like to say, if you don’t know anyone that even remotely acts like this in real life, either firsthand or secondhand, I don’t know who you’re interacting with.
RG: I do feel like betrayal and friendship are universal truths that we all should have to deal with. I feel like on any given day, and I usually write this way, is that these three people are either parts of me, just taken to an extreme measure or thoughts that I’ve had, or people that I know. So I feel like my job was just to take things that I’ve either felt or overheard from some other people, turn that to 11, and make it into something that at least at least worth talking about.
“..betrayal and friendship are universal truths that we all should have to deal with.”
NOFS: And that’s again another reason why I liked the film because it felt relatable. Everyone has had a friend who’s kind of a dick, but you keep them around. They were very relatable friendships.
RG: I appreciate that. But I like to think, I hope anyway, that I made sure that Sasha wasn’t a cliche and not just a set piece for these two characters. I tried to fill her out and wrote her as one of the guys as well. And I hope that stands out as making her not feel like she was just bullied into submission through the whole movie.
NOFS: Yeah, I felt like she had a lot of agency in the film, which I really appreciated. She wasn’t, like you said, just bullied. She spoke up for herself a lot, which again, is difficult in a situation like this one. But here you really did pick to that struggle of agency really well and I really liked her character and was cheering for her so much.
RG: Thank you. I appreciate that. This was the kind of stuff that, you know, I knocked back and forth, especially when I’m writing and my producer is asking, “Okay, where are we landing here? Because I’ve got to be prepared to answer questions!” But that’s good to hear.
NOFS: What was it like to work with just these three actors and film in such a claustrophobic space?
RG: I wish I had a story about how shitty it all went because, you know, it’s always better that when these indies have struggled to make it. But I had such a great team surrounding me in Calgary. My producer Mike was the smartest man and planner, and he was the one who said the script needs rehearsal time. So he flew the actors in three days early and gave us three full days in the hotel for us to just go through the entire script day by day until, you know, not only they had the characters right, but they had the lines. We also did a bunch of rewrites. So that by the time we stepped on set, we hit the ground running. I feel like they knew each other better. We even gained a day on an indie film, which is just unheard of. My producers allowed us the opportunity to shoot all of our interiors in shooting order and then we reset and shot all the exteriors in shooting order. I feel that also did help build the momentum of these characters. Don’t get me wrong, I exhausted the hell out of them because we shot it very much like a stage play where we’d run the entire 12 page scene in one take. And then we’d reset and start from the beginning again. So by the end of the day they were walking home basically in wheelchairs they were so tired. But I feel like it helped build to the level of exhaustion that shows on film as well.
NOFS: It definitely does. And also I love the positive stories about indie films. I feel like I hear them more often than not of like everyone having a great time and it just being a really awesome collaborative thing. It feels like the more positive the sat when I talked to a director, you can kind of feel that in the movie even if it’s a violent movie.
RG: Thank you. Yeah, I don’t like to hear the stories about, you know, 20 hour days grinding in the crew. I mean, especially on these indies, we’re all either working for free or very cheap. So I don’t like it. I don’t like usually having a nightmare for this or that. I also like to think that, I mean filmmaking hard enough. I don’t know why we try to make it harder on ourselves.
NOFS: Well I am so glad I got to talk to you about Harpoon and learn some more about it. It’s probably one of my favorites this year and talking to you has made me like it even more so. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me for a little bit about your movie.
RG: Oh absolutely. And I have to return the thank you because it’s a very tough for these indies to break through these days. And so it comes down to reviewers and sites. like you guys that are able to kind of help push this especially weird stuff forward. You know, this was one of the movies that by the time we were submitting it to festivals, we had no idea if this was going to work or not. And so very satisfying and very humbling to know when people want to champion the movie.
Harpoon screened at this year’s Fantasia 2019. Click HERE to check out all of our continued coverage of the festival. Have you seen Grant’s latest film? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!