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Interview with Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, directors of White Lie

Canadian filmmaking duo Calvin Thomas and Yonah, chatted with me about their new film White Lie which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Kacey Rohl as a college student who lies about having cancer. It’s equal parts fascinating and horrifying (you can read my review here). A must see if you’re interested in human behaviors and love a good story.

Left: Calvin Thomas – Right: Yonah Lewis

Raquel Stecher: What was the genesis of this story?

Calvin Thomas:  It’s based on a number of cases…. people [lie about serious issues] a fair bit and especially when we started really looking into it and just discovering cases around the world of people doing this. It became quite popular or, multiple cases came up when social media and GoFundMe websites started, that kind of thing became more common. What we found was a lot of people would post campaigns and then they’d get caught. But most of their lies and campaigning were done through social media, so they’re hiding behind the facade that they would create on Instagram or a GoFundMe fundraising page. They hide behind their computer and not do it.

But then we also discovered several other cases of people who took it way to the extreme like our character does, where they changed their appearance, they shaved their head, they make themselves look ill by losing weight or however they do that. Then they’re also, not only lying to people online but lying to their immediate network and family and friends and that kind of extreme really drew us in.

Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a little bit about how Kacey Rohl came to the project and what it was like to work with her?

Yonah Lewis: Kacey was fantastic, we felt so lucky to have her. We spent a lot of time searching for someone and it was a bit of a tricky search. We saw hundreds of people before we came across Kacey. We’re based in Toronto. She’s based in Vancouver. She sent the tape from afar. We watched it and instantly knew she was really, really fantastic. But it’d been hard to find somebody because it’s tricky role and we needed somebody to shave their head. We weren’t willing to just go with the ball cap. We thought that would feel really false. But Kacey was amazing and weirdly enough gung-ho to shave her head.

Part of her had been wanting to do it for a long time and so this gave her an excuse to do it and she was thrilled at being able to do it, what it would do for her… What it would bring out and changed her performance. She loved the physicality of that, the transformation. We were thrilled that somebody wanted to do it as much as she wanted to do it. That was always a pivotal thing for us that the person shave their head and she wanted to do it. Not only that, she’s also an extremely fantastic actress.

We were always concerned about this character. We knew that they were “unlikable.” We knew that they’re doing something rather despicable. But we needed to find somebody who could bring some warmth and some humor… We needed somebody who would make that character sympathetic in a way because if you’re going to spend an entire film with somebody, you want to not absolutely despise them from minute one.

Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a little bit more about developing her character Katie?

Yonah Lewis: We were trying to focus on… this balancing act between rooting for her and then obviously realizing that [the viewer was] doing that and not feeling great about it. We tried to juggle that as much as possible and we wanted you to feel conflicted and usually, one does root for the lead character in a film, but when they’re doing something as awful as this… we want one minute for you to feel like, “Oh, I hope she gets away with it,” and then realize you’re feeling that and feel bad about that.

Calvin Thomas: We knew that when we made the decision to have the film take place over five days, is a very short time frame in the journey or the life of her faking cancer. We knew that we would focus and hone in on obstacles and the little detail that goes into keeping that lie together. I don’t know if we really thought about it when writing that it would all add up to people feeling closer to her or rooting for her. Because we focused so much on all of these little lies that she’s doing and these little details that she experiences in over the course of the film, I think you get on her side because it’s just things start piling up and piling up and piling up and we’re trying the best we can to focus on… granular day to day things that she’s trying to mend and band-aid.

Raquel Stecher: Can you tell me more about Amber Anderson and her performance as Jennifer? She’s really the emotional core of the film.

Calvin Thomas: I think we knew that we wanted Jennifer to be the one thing in Katie’s life that she genuinely wanted to keep and maintain and have. As much as the relationship is built on this… They met through this, when Katie had cancer and built upon this lie. I think she’s actually means a lot to Katie. When Katie realizes that relationship is in jeopardy, she does anything she can to make sure she doesn’t lose her. For us she was, there’s a bit of a focus shift as the movie goes on… that we wanted Jennifer to reflect the audience’s experience as Katie and hope that they could be connected with Katie’s partner in that way and feel the force of the lie through Jennifer’s reaction.

Yonah Lewis: Amber is fantastic and we thought she was amazing. She was cast very late in the production. We had trouble finding someone for that role and then we came across her and Skyped with her. She was based out of the UK, but she was at just… The thing that we’ve loved about her so much was that she brought this kind of intelligence, anger to the character.

There’s a way in which we were always worried about this character being a sad sack victim and we thought that she brought through just her own personality, through her own experiences, whatever she was bringing to the role. She brought something in the final moment there at the end, when she realizes that Katie’s actually been lying to her this whole time. There’s a mix obviously, of horror and sadness, but also the anger that we thought was really an interesting take on that character and we just thought Amber brought something so fantastic to the role.

Calvin Thomas: We found in these real life cases that people fake cancer, that the money was not particularly large what they were raising. There’s obviously a financial component to someone doing a con like this, but the amount of money gained is not particularly life changing. It’s usually a small amount and Katie says she’s… the $24,000 [CAD] that she’s raised. It’s not a crazy amount. But that was integral to our entry into the film as to what is she getting out of this, why is she doing it?

The first half of the film really focuses on all these obstacles and problem solving that she has to do in order to get a grant and get money from the people around her. But then we wanted to make a pretty clear shift where we forgot about any financial gain and then focus on the emotional gain, which also in real life cases, seems to be quite a large reason why people do this, for attention and emotional gain. That’s what we tried to do and focused more on Jennifer as the film headed its way to the climax.

Raquel Stecher: Can you tell me about how Martin Donovan came to the project and what it was like working with him?

Yonah Lewis: Martin was a dream. We absolutely loved working with him. We had very little time with him because it was such a small, but pivotal role. He was the catalyst that changes up the entire theme. But obviously there’s some tumultuous relationship between him and his daughter. [The] two of them don’t spend much time together. But he was great. We spent a lot of time beforehand trying to figure out that character.

There were so many ways that it could go and we were trying to not hit you over the head with the shaky relationship that the two of them have. It can be a bit of a cliche in movies to have a… kid who’s got a problem come to their parents and ask for money or whatever. We’ve seen a lot of movies where [a] junkie kid comes [in] and just trying to get money out of their parents. We were wary of the way we’ve seen that kind of scene done in many films before. But we loved him, we loved him and Kacey together and we were thrilled by that.

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film and do you see it as a warning against doing something like this?

Calvin Thomas: We tell the audience what we want them to leave with. I think the movies that we love, you’re always walking away as a conversation to be had about and sometimes disagreements to be had about the character, about the story. I think we’ve hit that. We feel good about that where I think there’s a lot of conversation around Katie’s character and her actions throughout the film. It’s really very fun to write and then of course direct and I think it’s very fun for us to hear audience reaction where they feel so conflicted about the lead character.

I think for us that’s the best reaction that we can get from people leaving the movie. Is this a warning? I don’t think it is an epidemic of people doing this. I don’t know if there’s anyone in the audience that during the course of [it who] are contemplating and then like, “Okay, you know, it doesn’t work out great.”

Raquel Stecher: It’s very interesting that you both work as directors on your films, which is kind of rare. What is that experience like? What is it like to both write and direct the films together?

Yonah Lewis: We’ve been working together for a long time. We met first year at film school and then we directed four features together and produced several others, written a lot of unproduced screenplays. We’ve been working together for 13 years now and it’s a fairly seamless process at this point.  In the beginning, that’s what drew each other to each other. We instantly understood that we had a similar sensibility, like similar films, and then slowly through film school and for 11 years since we’ve surfaced, honing our own style, what we like together. We’ve grown up as filmmakers together and that’s great. I guess we spend a lot of time thinking and talking and working together in advance of getting on set so that there’s just no problems. Obviously, you don’t want to have too many cooks in the kitchen and so we want to be on the exact same page. We tend to not really have disagreements or issues on set. I mean, we tend to not have in advance of that either, but if there are any to be had, we usually work them out beforehand.

Calvin Thomas: We honed our in thinks together over many, many years. Learning great movies… we’ve always done that together. I think we both had the same goal of trying to hold ourselves to a pretty high bar and always reaching for that. With both of us having the same goal of trying to make the right decisions and trying to make the best thing possible, we just both always working towards that and in conversation about that.

Yonah Lewis: But there’s really a team of three of us, there’s Calvin, myself and then my brother Lev Lewis, who’s the composer and editor, as well as an associate producer on the film. He’s heavily involved in all sorts of creative decisions. At the beginning, he’s the first person to read the script. He was heavily involved in all the casting. There’s a lot of heads to bounce ideas around on right from the beginning. The three of us work quite closely.

Raquel Stecher: What are you working on next?

Calvin Thomas: We’re still very, very, very early stages and in the same place. We spat something out in advance of TIFF, just so that we would have something done. The first draft that we did is still quite a mess because we did it in about two weeks just to get something out of our brains and onto the page. But I can’t say too much about it yet, but it’s a horror film.

A big thanks to Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis for chatting with me and to Teri Hart for helping me arrange this interview.

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