Naomi Watts’ new role in the Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) film Lakewood tells the terrifying story of a mom who gets the call every parent fears, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Filmed in North Bay, Ont., during the pandemic, Watts plays Amy Carr, a mother of two (an older son, younger daughter), who finds out there is an active shooter at her son’s high school in the small town. She gets this call while she’s out for a run in the woods and spends most of the film trying to get back to town to see what’s going on.
When Noyce read the script from Chris Sparling just over a year ago, he immediately connected to the material as a parent.
“The first thing that connected me was this uncertainty of any parent, when you kid starts to form his own personality...and you wonder who this new persona is and sometimes you wonder, has he grown into something that I'm feeling negative feelings about,” the director told Yahoo Canada. “That was echoed in the script in Amy.”
The other thing that connected to me was the feeling that...I don't think there's been any day that I've taken them to school that I haven't looked at the security guards and the egress points around the school and wondered if today is the day, and that fear that's experienced by millions of parents.Lakewood director Phillip Noyce
At a press conference for the film, Watts explained that every time she takes on a new role, the story has to be “meaningful” to her.
“I just have to choose a role that speaks to me and what can I bring to it, what scares me about it, what does it mean to my life, and I just kept coming back to how haunting this would be, seeing myself in this woman’s shoes and adopting her mindset of how to struggle in complete chaos from a state of powerlessness, to panic, to actually coming into her power,” she said.
“That both terrified me and interested me, nobody wants to see themselves in this position but we’ve all dreaded it at one point or another.”
'I didn't have any interest in doing a movie where you're going to see kids being shot'
The film is largely just Watts running, on the phone to friends and family members, as she frantically tries to figure out if her children are alright. For writer Sparling, he didn’t have any interest in showing the violence that would be occurring at the school in the story.
“I didn't have any interest in doing a movie where you're going to see kids being shot, and shot at, frankly,” Sparling told Yahoo Canada. “Personally, I would not want to see that movie, so why would I want to be involved in making it?”
“Secondly,...it allows you as the audience to be in her mind, really, because, like her, you don't know what's going on, you're getting this small dribs and drabs of information, and trying to piece it together, and you're left largely in the dark otherwise, where you're just kind of trying to mentally fill in the blanks.”
While Sparling wrote the script before the COVID-19 pandemic, telling this story through Watts’ character being isolated in the woods, away from others, lent itself to a pandemic project.
“I guess, in some ways, it speaks to some of the larger themes here, too,...we never know what's around the corner, we never know when tragedy will strike,” Sparling explained.
“When I wrote this film, I didn't have any idea whatsoever that right around the corner was something that was going to shut down the entire world, much less just the film industry.”
Setting up the 'procession' to film
From an executional perspective, in addition to beautiful, tension-building drone shots of North Bay, Watts is almost constantly in motion. Noyce admitted it was more difficult on her than it was for him to pull off.
“On the first couple of days, I tried to run beside the vehicle that was carrying my monitor but quickly I was relieved of that by my first AD [assistant director], who said that's just too dangerous, after I slipped and fell,” he revealed.
Noyce explained it took two hours to line up the "procession" to film each morning, including either hand-held or steady cam, or being pulled by rickshaw or grips, or on a tracking vehicle or motorbike. Then there are two actors, a husband and wife duo, who are playing everyone Amy is speaking to on the phone. Following that is a sound vehicle, a costume/wardrobe/makeup vehicle, another with assistant directors and one more with a medical team.
“We were constantly pushing her, some of those takes they go for up to 11 minutes, she ran literally during a take more than a mile and three quarters,” Noyce said. “And getting that procession to line up in the morning was a huge task, to get them all in position, to check that we could hear her, to check the camera was connected and was able to stay in focus.”
“So it was a challenge, but the real challenge was for Naomi and what could have been a negative, she turned into a positive because she's that kind of actress. She used the physical rigor of having to keep moving, she used that to fuel the character so that by mid-morning, she was exhausted. She was in a heightened adrenal mode, she was fighting, not just to remember her lines, but just to stay up as the character is in the movie.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs until Sept. 18 with both in-person and digital screenings of films.