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An Interview with Brian McWha ("Tsunami Falls")

Brian, we're very excited to chat with you again in this follow-up interview! Seems like you have been pretty busy since we last checked in. Before we dive into your new project, Tsunami Falls, how are you doing, and how is 2020 treating you?

2020 has been fairly good to me.  Vancouver’s industry shut down in March for about 10 weeks.  Like everyone, having that level of uncertainty is not ideal, but it forced me to relax for a bit and take a well needed break.  The only downside is that we are now so busy with filming, I don’t have time to work on my own projects.

What was it like to work on The Haunting of Bly Manor? (Netflix) 

I hate to admit this, but when I took the job, I had never saw The Haunting of Hill House; I had no idea what the big fuss was about.  What really blew me away was the set designs.  I have seen incredible stages before, but detail that went into the building of the house was so authentic, you almost forgot you were in a sound stage when walking though it. 

Tsunami Falls deals with an incredibly thought-provoking topic. Why was it important for you to tell this story? Is it based on any real-life experiences? (Are you a Tsunami survivor?)

I think death is a universal topic, and after having Beautiful Cake show in festivals all around the globe, I wanted to tell a story that everyone can relate to in any language.  It wasn’t based on any personal experience per se. The idea of new love, heart break, family and tragedy are things we can all relate to.  I wanted to tell a story where the audience can put themselves in the main character’s place and impose their own story.

This isn’t your first time working with Neil Chase.  Was this process different from other project?

It was a bit different.  Our past project it was far more collaborative, where we discovered the story together.  On this one, I had the story, and he came in for a clean up.  It’s really nice to have such a successful and creative person to rely on whether we are writing something together or bouncing ideas off of.

To produce this film, you collaborated with Rafal Dybowski, Amy Fox, Ingo Lou whom you've worked with before, alongside Phil Planta. What, in your opinion, makes you guys a great team? 

I think everyone has their strengths, and no one was afraid to tell me I’m wrong.  I am the first to admit that I am not easy to work with.  I have a vision and want to execute it.  It is easy for people to just give up and do what I want, so it is good to have people that have strong values and are willing to stand up for them. 

Josh Dohy's performance is as fantastic, as he captures the incredibly wide range of emotions the protagonist experiences throughout the film. What was your casting process like, and how did you work with Dohy to achieve this delicate performance? 

Casting was a challenge as there is no dialogue to read from.  It was Phil Planta’s idea to take another one of my scripts, find some scenes that emulate the character which people could read from.   I used Edward Scissorhands as my example on how to emote emotion without dialogue and without over acting. 

I think the hardest thing with Dohy was getting him to convey the emotional low points.  His is just such a happy guy, and it was difficult for him to internalize those feelings.  The DOP started calling me Kubrick after the 10th take on some scenes.  Despite us running out of time, I would keep going until we got it.  I just had to give the actor time to get there and trust he would.  In my opinion, he did.

Tsunami Falls is so engaging! From the very first scene, it feels like you're standing there with the main character, facing your own upcoming doom. In your opinion, what are the ingredients for creating a powerful and engaging film such as this? 

I think ‘ingredients’ would be the right word for it.  I knew that there was no ‘one piece’ that made the movie.  From acting, to camera work, lighting, wardrobe, score and editing; all were just as important as any other element.  I knew that if one part was sub-par the whole thing didn’t work.  Personally, it was a hard balance between letting creative people do their job and dictating a specific look and feel.

How did you go about the visual effects in the film? They seem so realistic!

My biggest mistake was leaving VFX concerns to post production, and not having more engagement in pre-production. We knew how important it was but had to minimalize it due to budget limitations. We had a VFX consultant there to make sure we were not getting into Rotoscoping, but other than that it was a post problem.  It took a long time, and a couple of companies before I got what we needed within the budget we had.  The important lesson to all indie filmmakers out there is don’t do water. 

What are some of the challenges you faced when shooting the motorcycle race, and how did you plan that out? It must have been a bit complicated!

Oddly enough this was the easiest day for me.  I was truly fortunate that my DOP, Pieter Stathis was able to get PeaceMaker Filmworks to come out with a Drone and a Warthog (basically a dune buggy with an Ultimate Arm).

The key to the day was making sure we had ample time to film it.  We gave the stunt coordinator time to work with the riders, made sure everything was safe, and set was relaxed. 

I had the story beats that I wanted to tell which we did first. After that, we let the drone team have fun with it.  At that point, I was more a guest than a Director.  We ended up burning the camera card to the last 4 or 5 seconds, got about 30min of footage, and still had a short day. 

Ultimately what made it successful was just letting everyone do what they do best. I was among incredible film makers that can execute their jobs to perfection, and I just had to trust the process.

Let's talk a bit about editing, which is always tricky when dealing with different timelines. What was the process like? Were there any scenes that were left out of the cut? Does the final edit reflect the original structure you had in mind? 

Yes and no?  The script was linear, and so was the way we shot it.  We actually got some beautiful flowing shots that were either cut or chopped up.  That said, I knew from concept that I we needed to do something less traditional.  Because this is score driven with virtually no dialogue, I treated it more like a music video than a short.  I was fortunate to meet our editor Ashley who understood what I was going for and found a great way to cut it. 

What message were you hoping to convey with this story, and what was the audience's reaction so far? 

At the end of the day, I am trying to tell the viewer’s story. What would your last thoughts be if you knew you were about to die?  Before I wrote the story, I started asking random people on the street that question.  What I found interesting was that men and women have distinctly different answers, and I tried to convey both of those feelings.  

I know that I cannot please everyone, and it will not connect with a lot of people.  I just tried to make something for a small percentage of people that will find it engaging and make the best possible experience for them. 

Overall, it has been extremely positive, and quite a few people have told me how it hit them emotionally.

What are your plans for the rest of 2020, and what projects will you be working on in 2021?

Right now, it is trying to get the bank account back into the black after some travelling and the shutdown.  I’m working on a pitch for a short that could hopefully turn into a feature. It is about my father who grew up as a child in Berlin during WW2, until he was separated by his family during the Berlin Airlift.  


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