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It's been a week since director Lance Edmands launched his tension-filled short Whiteout online and, quite frankly, we're still a little bit taut.

Beautifully shot in a single-take, the film's tantalising premise - what would you do if you came across a mysterious stranger in the dead of night? - sets up a slow-burn pressure cooker of fear, guilt and intrigue.

We were impressed by the film's technical and dramatic prowess, so grabbed some time with Edmands to unpack the mystery.

Whiteout

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Lance Edmands, director

Where did the idea for the short come from? Please tell us this isn't based on a true story…

Fortunately, it’s not based on a true story… although I’ve certainly had my share of creepy late-night encounters! 

For me, the film started out as a simple image in my head: an old man, standing in the middle of the road, lit up in the headlights of a car. There was just something inherently spooky and unsettling about this image. It was full of ambiguity and a vague sense of menace. 

I find that the best short films are based around a single event or conflict, and this premise presented so many different narrative avenues to explore.

How was the scripting process? Pacing for a film like this is vital--was it tough to assess how it would play from the page?
 
I co-wrote the film with my girlfriend, Sarah Tihany, who also plays the female lead. 

We mined a lot of our own arguments and insecurities and exaggerated them in these two characters, Lydia and Jake.

From that initial image, we began to ask ourselves questions to build out the story. Was this man lost? Was he hurt and in need of help? Or was he lying in wait, preying on innocent victims who happen to cross his path? How would we, as a couple, approach this situation? Would we get out to help the man, or would we drive on in an act of self-preservation? 

We mined a lot of our own arguments and insecurities and exaggerated them in these two characters, Lydia and Jake. We did several rehearsals to get the timing right so that the conflict built up naturally and allowed space for the tension to grow. 

We needed the audience to understand who these people were in a short about of time, so every line of dialog had to tell you something. 

Even throw-away jokes mentioning 'wine bars' and New Yorker articles give you an idea about the world of privilege these characters occupy.

When did you decide to shoot in a single take? What did you see as the storytelling benefits of shooting in that way?

I've always wanted to make a film that was photographed in a single take. It forces you to concentrate on the timing of the performances and the precision of the blocking. You don’t have editing and camera trickery to fall back on, it all has to work within a single, unbroken shot. 

But I didn't want to do it just for the sake of the gimmick. It needed to fit with the story we were trying to tell. Since so much of this particular film was about perspective, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine form and narrative. The camera is literally inside the bubble with our characters, experiencing the world from their point of view. This further exaggerates the idea of the 'other' and forces the audience to be complicit with the characters, almost like a third passenger in the vehicle.

The camera is literally inside the bubble with our characters, experiencing the world from their point of view.

Hopefully, this allows the audience to ask themselves how they might react in this situation and to examine their own relationship to fear in the face of ambiguity. I also think the single-shot idea allows the tension to slowly build over the course of the film. If there were cuts, I think some of the air would be let out of the balloon. 

The fact that the frame is limited to looking out the windshield also plays into this idea of the unknown. 

What is just outside the lights of the car? What is lurking in the darkness? That limited perspective mirrors the limited perspective of the characters and adds to the tension as well.

The performances are really compelling. Did you have a long rehearsal period? What was involved in the pre-production?

We did a lot of rehearsals. The first phase was just Sarah and David Call, who plays Jake, sitting in our apartment talking through the script. They’re both great actors so that worked right away. 

Once we got the rhythm of the dialog down, we went out and drove the streets around Brooklyn to work on the blocking. We had to figure out when they would get out of the car, how long that should take, and timing it out so we had a sense of how long the road needed to be. 

The final phase was figured out on set when we combined the blocking of the actors with the blocking of the camera, which had its own marks for where the focus should be at any given time. 

There were a lot of different elements working in concert, so the hardest part of making the film was assembling the puzzle so that everything clicked.

How was the shoot? Were there any issues?
 
The shoot day was probably half set-up and half execution. 

We had written the script for snow and we got really lucky in that there was an actual snowstorm when we shot.

We rigged the car with kinos and LED panels. The DP, AC, sound recordist, and me were all cramped in the back of the car. We had to seriously contort ourselves to fit back there! There was also a follow-van with the rest of the crew. 

A couple of grips had to jump out during the take to rig sandbags and crash-pads for the stunt. 

We had written the script for snow and we got really lucky in that there was an actual snowstorm when we shot. This made things look great, but it also got really tricky as the snow began to build up. 

We almost slid off the road on a few takes! 

What was the biggest challenge to overcome?

Well, with a single-shot film, if you screw up a line, or if there is even the tiniest bump in camera focus, you have to start all over again. In our case, this meant turning the vehicles around and driving three miles back up the road. All this while a blizzard swirled around us! 

In the end, I think we did eight takes and take six is what you see in the film. 

As a director, it became really hard to judge what was working and what wasn't because of the duration of the takes. By the time we got to the end, it was hard to know if every moment worked. 

Once I got home and watched all the dailies, I knew we nailed it.

It's obviously hard to 'edit' a single-take piece like this. What could you do in post to aid the storytelling?
 
Not too much. It’s pretty much as you see it. 

Of course, because their backs are facing the camera for so much of the film, we were able to transpose some of the dialog from other takes in a few places, almost like a radio edit. 

[Mark Henry Philips] spent a lot of time adjusting the wiper sound, so it gets progressively louder and more annoying as the film goes on, which adds to the tension. 

Also, sound design was a big part of it. 

Mark Henry Philips did the score and sound design which helped a lot to underscore the drama. He added drones, snow, wind… even the sound of the windshield wipers, which are almost like another character in the film. Every squeak is different! 

He spent a lot of time adjusting the wiper sound, so it gets progressively louder and more annoying as the film goes on, which adds to the tension. 

Finally, there was a little bit of VFX work so we could do the stunt safely, so there is a little stitch near the end. But we tried really hard to do everything practically. 

The film premiered theatrically at Tribeca earlier in the year. How did it feel watching it with an audience?

It was super fun to experience the film with an audience. There is a pretty big jump scare at the end and it’s quite satisfying to hear people scream. 

When you make something that is meant to be scary and funny, seeing it with a crowd is essential. You get that immediate feedback in a way you don’t necessarily get with a drama. 

There is a pretty big jump scare at the end and it’s quite satisfying to hear people scream. 

I think the theater was great for this film because everyone feels trapped inside the car with our characters. There’s no escape. 

We’ve had great Q&As at the festivals where people seem to really respond to the moral quandary at the center of the film.

Tough question: what would you do in that scenario?

To be honest, I have no idea! That’s probably why I made the film. 

I think we all assume that we’d make the correct moral choice in this situation. But when our fight or flight reflex is activated, you never know how you’ll react. I’m interested in the way these base human actions are often in conflict with our intellectual response. 

Sarah and I are working on a feature length adaptation of Whiteout that plays on the themes of the short but expands the world and characters.

In this case, what happens when our sense of fear overwhelms our sense of empathy? It can lead to disaster. 

Hopefully, that idea makes the film resonate with a lot of what is going on in the world right now while still being entertaining, scary, and funny in its own right.

Above: (L-R) Pat Walsh Jr, Sarah Tihany, Lance Edmands and David Call.


What's up next for you?

I have a feature that I have been developing for a while now called Brightwater. It's a thriller set on a Maine island, and we are planning to shoot that in October. 

I also just finished a short documentary with Topic called The Seeker, which should hit the festival circuit next year. 

Sarah and I are also working on a feature length adaptation of Whiteout that plays on the themes of the short but expands the world and characters. 

At this point, I have a backlog of scripts I want to make! I also direct commercials, so I stay pretty busy traveling and shooting.

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