Interview: Nicole Dorsey on her film ‘Black Conflux’

Black Conflux, the first feature film from director Nicole Dorsey, had its premiere at TIFF 2019, and then with the outbreak of COVID-19, the film has had a long journey to theatres and finally vide on-demand this summer. It’s a confident and engaging film (read my review here) and an affecting one.

I had the chance to sit down with Nicole via audio last week to discuss the film, transcribed here. I hope you enjoy it!

Ed. Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Matthew: Good morning, and welcome. Thank you for joining me! Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me a little bit about where this inspiration for Black Conflux came from?

Nicole Dorsey: Originally, I was traveling in Newfoundland back in 2010. And I was hitchhiking the Irish loop and became really interested in the idea of people meeting. How do two people from seemingly different worlds somehow meet each other? Is it happenstance? Is it fate? What brings us together? I thought a lot about true crime, too, and that began the story.

I knew at that point that I wanted to tell something about two individuals. Jackie made sense, she was a character that’s close to me, and I’m so fascinated by the psychology of someone like Dennis, so that kicked it off.

Black Conflux
Ella Ballentine as Jackie in Black Conflux

Matthew: Is Jackie, in any way, an autobiographical character?

Nicole: I think when writing your characters, in many ways, they are inherently part of you. I’m not from a broken home, like Jackie’s family, but I think a lot of her experiences are something we share; the conflict of mind and body as you start to mature is definitely something that I experienced. So there’s definitely, in terms of her inner psychology, a lot of me in her character; I just wasn’t in the same circumstances that she finds herself in.

I do think that she is representational of sort of the teenage coming of age experience. This sort of universal feeling of trying to figure out who you are as you as you grow up.

Matthew: Where is the inspiration for Dennis coming from?

Nicole: I think that he is probably an amalgamation of many people. He started off as a product of research. I used Elliot Leyton’s book Hunting Humans, actually. A lot of Dennis’s psychology, and just understanding somebody who may participate in serialized, violent crimes, I used that book a lot to understand where Dennis might be coming from.

But, you know, after doing that, I did a really big sweep on his character to humanize him more and also instil him with other truths I’ve learned along the way about people like him. Just so that he is multifaceted and definitely a layered and complicated person that I think you can’t quite have empathy for, but you can’t quite hate. He sort of lies somewhere in the middle. If the film took place in modern times, he’d probably be maybe an incel on the internet or something like that. But yeah, it’s definitely a mix of multiple things.

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Matthew: Where did the decision to set it in the late 80s rather than current times come from?

Nicole: I think there are multiple things. I’m definitely interested in looking at the past to see a reflection of present times and where we’ve come or how we haven’t moved forward at all. The 80s was a very interesting time, and I became very interested as the film evolved in how our identities are shaped and how within culture, the media that surrounds us shapes us, and I think the 80s was a very specific time for that especially within gender roles.

Women were very hyper sexualized within media, and the idea of masculinity was very specific in the 80s, as well. I mean, each time period, you know, has their stuff but the 80s was particularly interesting to me. Also, if this was a modern-day story, I would have to include things that I wasn’t entirely interested in, like social media and technology, and all of that, and the story would function much differently. I wanted to just get to the core of the psychology of these characters and not spend time with sort of these exterior pieces.

Matthew: It sounds like the absence of modern tech allowed for a focus that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be there.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Matthew: I understand that you’re from Burlington (Ontario).

Nicole: Yeah, originally.

Matthew: The decision to set the film in such a small town, is that from experience as well? Or is that just another limiting factor in the same way that the timeframe was?

Nicole: I guess it’s kind of both in a way. I think I was interested in a more insular community for building out Dennis’s character type, as well as Jackie’s. Because I think that’s what I experienced growing up in Burlington –and that town has changed a lot since I’ve become an adult, but at the time, it was not feeling like you had a sense of community or that there were people like-minded people that you could connect to. There’s definitely a feeling of loneliness, which is definitely a theme within this film.

It was, in many ways, based on my own experiences and also suited the characters, and with Newfoundland, part of my biological family is from Newfoundland, and I was always drawn to the place. After traveling there in 2010 –and I went back, and I made a short film in 2014– I knew that that’s where I wanted the film to take place as a feature.

But, you know, it’s definitely a Newfoundland film and in terms of atmosphere and some characters, but I do I think that this could take place in Middle America or in Winnipeg or wherever absolutely, I don’t think the story’s that specific to location.

Matthew: Just as a comment, one thing that really struck me about the location is –as someone who grew up in a small coastal Island place, albeit the opposite coast– that sort of insular Hotel California type feel of the town was so spot on. So congratulations on that. And as someone who grew up in the 80s in a tiny place, parts of the film really resonated with me.

Nicole: <laughs> thanks!

Matthew: How did you connect with Ella Ballantine, and Ryan McDonald?

Nicole: It was through casting. My producer had seen that [Ella] had won a Canadian Screen Award for a project that she had done, and the moment I saw her, I was like, “I think she could be perfect for this”. I hadn’t seen her act before, but something told me that she could be right. We auditioned a lot of Jackie’s but we asked her if she would tape, and she did. She was really excited about the role, which obviously excited me even more. We brought her in a couple of times –and I don’t even really know why I brought her in a couple of times. I think it was because it was my first feature, and I wanted to be absolutely sure– but I kind of knew from the get-go that she was the one.

Kind of the same deal with Ryan, actually. Bless his agent because I normally don’t take fondly to emails like this, but his agent wrote us and was like, “I have the guy for you look no further” And of course, I laughed at this email, but it was true the moment I saw Ryan’s tape. And same thing, we were receiving tapes for Dennis from all over the world –we got tapes from New York and LA and Ireland, all the way to Australia– and Ryan, who’s from Vancouver, originally, was the perfect fit for the character.

Matthew: Did he beat anyone out anyone for the role whose name we might know?

Nicole: I wouldn’t say, but his tape definitely stood out.

Matthew: Shifting to production just for a few moments. Obviously, I’m a film nerd and film nerds love long takes, so how did the long take come to be? Was that the plan from the start, or something that happened organically?

Nicole: I’m pretty obsessed with prep, so it was definitely something that happened early on. I’m trying to remember if it was written into the script, but I love oners, and I also know that they can be misplaced and can also be used when a filmmaker wants to show off, so you really have to find the perfect spot for it where it doesn’t feel like a device, and it feels organic to what’s happening narratively.

That part of the story just felt like such a happy moment for that to take place because Dennis is blossoming at that moment and finding himself and gaining his own confidence, power, and independence. And it ends a very specific way, which felt like the perfect moment to cut, and we see what happens afterwards. It definitely was decided very early on. It’s four minutes uncut, and we spent about a half a day rehearsing it and shooting it, which is pretty quick.

Matthew: How many takes did it take?

Nicole: We didn’t always do full takes; if something went wrong, we just cut it because there’s no point in going forward. I think we rolled nine times, and out of those nine times, I think we did maybe four all the way through.

It was a lot to coordinate between going from outside to inside to the lights to the background dancers and their own choreography to the camera, and it was definitely a lot, and as well as shooting in low light. For any other film nerds out there: shooting wide open, so the focus was quite shallow. So there was a lot of tricky stuff to keep going the whole time.

Ryan McDonald as Dennis in Black Conflux

Matthew: Did you have any specific notes for Ryan MacDonald’s performance? Aside from the fact that it’s a oner, it’s also it’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie because of his performance in it. Were there any notes you had to give him, or did he just sort of nail it from the start?

Nicole: We rehearsed the dancing beforehand just because we didn’t want to give the other actor whiplash –which is very important. I had shared a bunch of sort of documentary footage of 80s nightclubs with Ryan, so we had looked at dancing specifically a lot and he and were sort of dancing before just to get the energy right for that scene.

And yeah, Ryan just really understood the character. We spoke many times at length and had meetings to talk about Dennis’s psychology and arc. I love to look at overall arcs, and then prep the at my actors with “what is the arc of this scene, what is trying to be achieved in the scene” and, both he and Ella were so wonderful and so easy to work with. They really just embraced the characters from the get-go, and it was really beautiful to watch them bring it to life on screen.

Matthew: One last question on that whole sequence: How did you settle on Moonlight Desires, which is probably the most 80s-est 80s song out of Canada ever?

Nicole: I feel so so lucky to have that song. I originally had a different song in there. We had actually shot the scene to Pet Shop Boys, It’s A Sin and the Pet Shop Boys refused to give us the song because they said they didn’t want to be seen as an 80s band, which I thought was pretty funny.

It ended up working out, but I obviously panicked because we danced to that song, the beat was to that time, and I wasn’t sure where else we would go. Our music supervisor suggested Gowan, who I wasn’t super familiar with beforehand –I heard a couple of the songs but not his whole discography– so I spent the evening listening to his albums, and I stumbled on Moonlight Desires and instantly said, “wait a second, what is this?” Lyrically it was amazing and perfect for what was happening in the scene, and it was catchy; it was kind of everything. So I rushed off to the studio and slipped the song in, and it lined up perfectly. It couldn’t have been more meant to be.

Moonlight Desires by Gowan, which for the record, is an absolute banger.

Matthew: I don’t want to say I feel bad for people who watch your movie, but I almost feel bad because I watched your film, I think two or three weeks ago now, and the song has been in my head ever since. I feel like that’s gonna be a phenomenon.

Nicole: Yeah, we have a joke, a friend of mine and I, she’s also a director, and after seeing the film she was blasting the song in her car and then immediately got into a car accident. So we have a joke about the song being so powerful that it just captures all of you. She was okay though. It was just a fender bender. But yeah.

Matthew: That’s a that’s a hell of a story for sure!

Nicole: Yeah!

Matthew: So I don’t want to get too deep into spoiler territory because I think that the film has a unique ending, but –I mean, we can’t really talk about it without spoiling it a little bit– but obviously the conflux at the end of the film where the two characters finally meet, it doesn’t exactly go the way that I think many people would probably expect it to go. How did you arrive there? What inspired that choice?

Nicole: I think just current conversations that are happening right now. You know, the time when I was writing the film the #MeToo movement broke and #TimesUp and thinking a lot about that and also thinking a lot about cancel culture, and how we grow, and how we learn I think ultimately, that empathy is what I wanted to come out of this film.

I won’t give the ending away. And I don’t use empathy in regards of just feeling bad for somebody, I use it more about understanding because I think those two things can function separately. I think that’s where I wanted the film to go, and I think with the ending that I chose, there’s just more of a conversation that can be had after watching the film than if it had gone the other way.

Matthew: The film premiered at TIFF 2019, so it’s been a bit of a journey to get to theatrical release over summer 2021, and now it’s going on-demand this month in August 2021. How has that journey been for you?

Nicole: It’s been long! I didn’t know how things would play out, but luckily we had the beginning of our festival run, our premiere TIFF and got to play a few other festivals, but then the second half of the circuit got cut short. Then there was a long waiting period, but it was really exciting for it to come back to play in theatres across Canada; that was pretty huge for me, and at the end of this month, it will be out on-demand, so that’s quite exciting. It’s interesting to see the journey of the film, and as well, when once you’ve had distance from it. I’ve already shot something else, and I have other projects on the go. I guess it’s in a way –I don’t have children– but it’s kind of like watching your first child go off to college, and you still have some other kids that you’re rearing at the same time.

Matthew: The film has been talked about a lot, and I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of these questions before, so for you, what is one thing that either no one or very few people have been asking you about about the film that you wish they’d asked more?

Nicole: That’s a tricky one! I don’t know, maybe the little easter egg in the beginning, because I’m actually in the film for like a brief moment. I’m the newscaster on the television, and only a couple of people have picked that up. I’m done up very 80s, so it’s hard to tell it’s me.

Matthew: You mentioned you’ve already shot something else. So my last question was going to be, what’s next for you?

Nicole: I shot a CBC Gem series called Something Undone, which shot in the winter and came out in spring. That’s available to watch for free on CBC Gem streaming service. Then I have a couple of things coming up. So, living the life of a filmmaker, you’re just constantly trying to get the next thing off the ground.

Matthew: Well, I hope all your upcoming projects go well, Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I very much appreciate it.

Nicole: Thank you very much, and yeah, likewise!

It was awesome speaking with Nicole, and I am very excited to see what she does next.

Black Conflux will be released on demand this Friday, August 27th.


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