Interview: Rowan Athale, director of Strange But True

Having made his feature film debut as a writer/director with the 2012 heist thriller Wasteland, filmmaker Rowan Athale now returns with his quite-different second feature, the supernaturally-tinged drama-thriller Strange But True.

The new film concerns a young woman who, five years after the tragic death of her boyfriend, arrives on the doorstep of his family to inform them that she’s pregnant with his child. Unbelieving, the family digs deep to get the whole story, only to discover that the truth is more disturbing than they ever could have imagined.

Starring a first-rate cast that includes Amy Ryan (Win Win), Brian Cox (Churchill), Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going), Greg Kinnear (Little Men) and rising stars-of-the-moment Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) and Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Strange But True is written by Eric Garcia (Repo Men) and based on the 2004 novel by John Searles.

I spoke with the affable Mr. Athale a couple of weeks back about Strange But True, it’s talented cast of veterans, and it’s wham-bam production schedule.

Disc Dish: Congratulations on the new movie—I watched it a couple of days ago and it grabbed me, particularly the final third, which really came out of left field and surprised me!

Rowan Athale: Thank you, thank you very much. Yes, that’s how I felt when I first read the script.

DD: I wanted to ask you about the script, which is based on a fifteen-year-old book by John Searles. How did it initially make it to your desk?

Margaret Qualley in Strange But True

RA: Fred Berger, one of the producers, had been developing the script for nearly ten years. The movie had nearly gone into production a couple of times over the years, but it hadn’t, as is the case with many movies. We’d been speaking for a couple of years about working forever—he had seen my first movie, Wasteland, and was a big fan of it. He sent me a couple of scripts but I didn’t connect with them. And then he sent me the script for Strange But True and I jumped on the phone and said, “Let’s do it—I love it.” That was 2016 and we went into production in June of 2017.

DD: With four weeks of principal photography, it was a relatively short production.

RA: (laughs) Yeah, it was. When you’re making a movie like this one—one that’s not based on huge IP, one that’s not a sequel—you’re making it on a modest budget. It became a little more modest when we went into production, which meant we had a tight shoot of twenty-one days scheduled. We got it done.

DD: You certainly had the right cast for it, led by a quartet of high-profile veterans: Amy Ryan, Brian Cox, Blythe Danner and Greg Kinnear.

RA: It was all on the strength of Eric Garcia’s screenplay that we put such a strong cast together. Most of these guys were our first choices with the exception of Margaret Qualley, simply because we weren’t aware of her work at the time. But she’s exploded over the past couple of years. The same with Mena Massoud in a smaller role, and then he was cast in Aladdin and later on, he was on billboards everywhere.

DD: What’s it like walking onto a set with a talented cast of actors that has so many decades of experience behind them?

RA: It’s exciting. I’ve been watching some of these guys since I was a kid and a teenager. It was purely exciting—not nervous excitement or intimidation. I felt incredibly fortunate to be working with such seasoned professionals.

DD: It must be quite a rush to be able to shoot with actors who have such a shorthand with their work; who are comfortable with shooting on a such a tight schedule.

RA: What these guys want more than anything is a director who feels competent in what he’s doing, to know beforehand what he’s doing. They ultimately want you to be prepared. What they don’t want to do is sit around for ten hours of a day while he decides what he wants to do and then shoot with him for two. But the crew, all of us, were prepared and nobody’s time wasn’t being wasted.

DD: I guess if you have three months to shoot a film, it’s a different ballgame…

RA: Yes, and you probably become quite lazy and indecisive! You shoot whatever needs to be shot and then you just end up with all the extra footage on the cutting room floor. But I think if you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing, you can make it all work effectively and in less time.

DD: Tell me about the post-production process. I’m thinking you didn’t have hundreds of hours of material and that you knew and had what you wanted.

RA: I did. I worked with [editor] Kim Gaster on my first film—and I’m going to working with him on my next one—and while we were shooting, he was putting together his assembly. And that assembly was completed three days after we finished shooting. For someone as talented as Kim, putting the movie into shape as the story you want to tell is a very quick process. What you then do is make decisions on the manner that you want to further shape it. And as you sail on to distribution and the process of test screenings, you rework the edit with your latest notes. All in all, it was a very enjoyable and satisfying process.

Strange But True opens in select theaters today and is also available On Demand through Lionsgate.


About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.