The feature film Broken Mile, told in real-time and presented as a single unbroken take, follows a drug addict who awakens to find the girl he is with is dead. To escape the consequences, he seeks the help of his ex-girlfriend while they dodge a mysterious figure who chases them around the city with a gun.

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Broken Mile director Justin McConnell

Wanting to learn more about this tense real-time thriller, Ottawa Indie Fest spoke to the film’s director Justin McConnell about the making of his film which has its Ottawa premiere at Ottawa Indie Fest on Saturday June 3, 2017 at 8:00pm.

What motivated the single take idea?
It was partially practical, and partially story based. The primary reason was practical, though. I had such a limited budget that I was trying to figure out how I could economically shoot a film in the fewest number of days possible, which would mean paying less for actors and crew. But as I began to develop the story I realized that it really would only work if told in real time, so the audience can live in each moment as it plays out. It became about being a window into an 82 minute period of these character’s lives when this horrible thing happens.

How difficult was it to present the story in a single take?
Execution was definitely a huge challenge. But I should get this out of the way now and state that the film is not a true single take. That’s why the marketing says ‘presented as a single unbroken take’. It is actually 8 long takes with 7 very well-planned hidden cuts. We even ended up reshooting the opening 6 minutes of the film two months after we wrapped.

This was a conscious decision on my part for simple logistical reasons. The camera I was shooting on will not shoot more than 30 minutes continuously, and there was no other camera that could have pulled off this film the way it was planned. The gimbal stabilizer rig I shot on was prone to technical glitches, and I knew that I’d be setting myself up for a huge fall trying to do it all in one.

All it takes is one note of the performance to be out of place at minute 80 and everything before it, even if it was good, would be useless. So we planned it out with logical places to hide cuts, and shot it over 3 days. The longest take in the film is actually 19 minutes, though.

Can you tell me about some of the challenges that you faced during filming and how you dealt with them?
In the last answer I mentioned a few of the logistical challenges, but they are pretty obvious. You have to rehearse a lot before shooting, not just with the cast, but with the sound recordist and myself on camera, so that when it comes to the actual shoot day everyone knows what they are doing, where they have to be, and what is going to happen.

There was about a month or more of rehearsal ahead of shooting. The rehearsal is where 95% of the direction takes place in a film like this. And we did most takes multiple times (no more than 5 or 6 usually). However, for our longest 19 minute take, and the one where we got caught in the rain, we were only able to do one, for reasons out of our control. Without the rehearsal time, none of it would work. And organically during that rehearsal I was able to plan out the path the camera would take, which then lead to having to figure out things like having my sound guy William catch doors and block things for me, so that I could pass through smoothly.

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Actors Francesco Filice & Caleigh Le Grand in a scene from Broken Mile

Getting in and out of vehicles was a huge challenge as well, as sometimes it meant that William had to quietly get into a trunk, or I had to somehow get into a car with the camera in a way that would feel natural. Plus, we shot out in the streets of Toronto basically guerilla style, so anything can happen at any time. People can show up mid-take, and you just have to roll with it. On our second night of shooting we got hit with a major torrential downpour, and kept shooting through it. I thought the water was going to kill the camera. Sound is also a challenge, since one recordist has to monitor three lav mics and a shotgun all by himself, on the fly, while he’s also remembering where to hide or be at all times. It was a big dance we had to rehearse intensely.

It was a big undertaking to get this film going, and it seemed there weren’t enough hours in the day sometimes. But I’m kind of used to that, as I’ve operated that way for years. I do have a great team around me, though, and thank them for every bit of effort they contributed.

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Actor Patrick McFadden in scene from Broken Mile

Did you have the film’s soundtrack/underscore in mind before the shoot or did this come about during editing? Also did you have to do any ADR?
I knew the style of score I wanted the film to have before I shot, but the music wasn’t written until the film was finished. I did have early discussions with my composer Sean Motley, but it was when he had a cut to play with that it really came together. He’d come up with a pass, I’d listen and give him notes, and we eventually got it to where it is now. I’m really happy with what he pulled off. It’s intense.

The audio is mostly live, but there is a tiny bit of ADR. In the rain scene there was some, less because of the rain and more due to loud heavy traffic over the bridge they were walking on. And a tiny bit near the end on Patrick McFadden’s lines only while he’s in the van. Other than that, it’s all live sound.

The film has a real gritty dark look to it. Was this part of overall look for the film that you want to achieve?
The lighting look was partially from the script stage, as I wanted it to have a really grimy aesthetic. I was using Nicolas Winding Refn films as touchstones, and was trying to get that grainy feel of, say, Henenlotter’s ‘Brain Damage’. But it also had a bit to do with the camera, the lens, and the production design Darryl Shaw and I put together. Harsh lights for locations we can control mixed with ugly wallpaper.

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Actor Caleigh Le Grand in scene from Broken Mile

For locations we can’t control, I tried to scout areas with low lighting, graffiti, crazy back-lighting. Then since the camera we shot on, the Sony A7S-II, has incredible low-light capabilities and an extremely smooth and responsive auto-ISO, it came down to doing a lot of camera testing to find the right range and look.

Add the 24mm lens and you get a kind of ‘dreamy’ feeling, which I was thematically going for. Basically the basement where he first wakes up is meant to feel flat and real, then as soon as he leaves it the film takes on a floating kind of dreamy aesthetic. It was meant to reflect the character’s worldview after it literally falls out from under him, like he’s on auto-pilot while he’s trying to process the loss he’s just endured.

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Justin McConnell is an accomplished artist who splits his time equally in multiple forms of media – as a producer/director of feature films and home entertainment. He is known for his work on Skull World (2013), Broken Mile (2016) and Minutes Past Midnight (2016).

Broken Mile screens on Saturday June 3, 2017 at 8:00pm along the short film Andre The Anti-Giant at Ottawa Indie Fest.

For more information about the film check out the film’s website.

The 8 p.m. Screening Block is sponsored by GAPC Entertainment.

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