If you regularly read this blog or follow me on Twitter, then you know that the low-key vampire survival story Red Spring (2017) was one of my highlights of this year’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival (and apparently I wasn’t the only one — director and leading man Jeff Sinasac won the 2017 BiTS Bloodies award for Best Actor for his performance). Red Spring was a project long in the making. It took Jeff and his producer (and wife) Tonya Dodds years to guide the film from a smart and savvy script to a buzzed-about indie gem.
But it was worth the wait.
The two filmmakers are used to wearing a variety of hats: Jeff is a writer, actor, VFX artist, and occasional director who has contributed to a long list of feature, short, web, and television productions, while Tonya is an equally prolific actress, producer, and web series veteran, and co-host of the infectiously fun and upbeat Nicole & Tonya Show alongside her good friend and fellow actress Nicole Wright.
I was lucky enough to run into Jeff and Tonya at a BiTS after-party. After I plied them both with lavish compliments, they kindly agreed to an interview.
Valeska: I know that Red Spring had a very circuitous route on its way to production — can you two talk a little about the hurdles and setbacks that you ran into along the way?
Jeff: During the first decade or so of the script’s existence, it faced the hurdles common to most films. Optioned more than once, attracting the attention of industry heavies, there was a time when it seemed like a golden ticket. But as is the common lament of most films, these things fell through. With this final incarnation, there were no fewer hurdles. The film got off the ground initially only because of the involvement of a prominent celebrity from Los Angeles. His name alone allowed us to attract funding and personnel. When he eventually withdrew, mere months before shooting, all those things we had put in place fell with him – we lost producers, crew members and a significant portion of our funds. In the end, it was literally just Tonya and myself left standing, with no money, no concrete plan, and no reasonable expectation that we could still succeed. We kept going out of grim determination, almost fatalistically. We didn’t want the energy we had put toward this to dissipate, and for it all to become another “remember that time when we almost” story.
Tonya: Red Spring was the first thing of Jeff’s I read. I think he sent it to me after our first or second date. I remember thinking that it probably wouldn’t be that good and that he was probably just trying to impress me. Then I stayed up all night reading and re-reading it because I loved it. I knew then in my heart of hearts that this script needed to be made, so when we finally got the rights back, there was no question for me. We were doing it, no matter what. It was terrifying and we both wanted to quit at times because we were scared of failing horribly. Luckily, neither one of us ever confessed that to each other until after we had wrapped.
Valeska: First off: I’m glad you didn’t give up! Secondly: in a way, it kind of feels like the delay in production worked out — unfortunately, dystopian stories seem more resonant by the day (particularly those involving literal vampires). Do you think that the current climate of political strife and renewed concern about nuclear strikes lend Red Spring an additional layer of subtext?
Jeff: It has crossed my mind that the general political climate, and the ongoing sense that society is collapsing (I know I’ve felt it) might give the film an added weight. Funnily, ever since we shot, I’ve been kicking myself for letting the story’s bomb shelter remain a “bomb shelter”, given Kincardine’s close proximity to a nuclear plant – it struck me after the fact that a shelter to deal with immediate fallout from a theoretical meltdown might seem less convenient and more plausible. But, yeah, I suppose overseas drama does give the bomb shelter set a renewed resonance.
Tonya: I just clued into the vampire significance in our current political climate and just as a vote on a massive tax bill in the US that sucks money away from 99% of population is about to go through.
Valeska: Yeah, I think the vampire symbolism is sadly apt. The film is shot in location in Kincardine, Ontario, which is a very small, very rural area. What was it like working with the community, and what did shooting in that location allow you to do that you may not have been able to do otherwise?
Jeff: Kincardine has been a dream to shoot in. Ever since Tonya introduced me to it, I’ve been in love with the town – we often half-joke about making a permanent move there, though commuting for auditions would be a bitch! The town rallied around us, providing a wide pool of background performers as well as talented crew to help with set building and other tasks. Local restaurants provided meals, the local pharmacy gave us hundreds of empty pill bottles, the marina cleared out space on their piers to give us the desolate look we needed, and the town actually wrote a new bylaw to allow us to close the main thoroughfare for an evening. Toronto is a centre for film, so they have infrastructure in place to help with filming, but it also makes the residents more jaded and savvy to the opportunities to profit from filming. It was liberating to be free of that, and the town’s enthusiasm and passion for the project mirrored and amplified our own.
Tonya: I grew up in Kincardine. It’s part of who I am. I grew up doing community theatre but there wasn’t really an opportunity to work on film or TV in the area. It became a goal of mine to find a way to bring film shoots home. This sounds self-aggrandizing but I wanted to allow people the chance to work on set to see if it’s something they might love. I’m a big believer in sharing knowledge so having people who may have never been on a film set before was really important to me. Because I grew up in Kincardine, I also knew that I could find or find someone who could find what we needed to film. Joan, Doug, and Stacey’s farm was a god-send and we are forever grateful to them for letting us take over for three weeks.
Valeska: The characters in Red Spring share some great chemistry — the group dynamic is one of the film’s greatest strengths. What was the casting process like? How did you pull together your motley band of survivors?
Jeff: I wrote the script in 2003 with the intention of playing Ray, so that particular casting was completed 12 years before we shot.
I’ve known Lindsey Middleton for years, since we both traveled in the same Toronto web series circles (often literally – we’ve ended up in Los Angeles and Montreal together representing our respective series on more than one occasion). We had cast her to play Ray’s wife in a concept trailer we shot in 2014, and she did such an amazing job that when I suggested to Tonya that we might bring her on as Bailey, Tonya immediately agreed.
Elysia White was the star of the web series Haphead, which I had a small part in. I met her on set but it wasn’t until I saw a screening of the series that I knew she’d be perfect for Vicky. An athletic ass-kicker, coincidentally pre-proficient in crossbow and an amazing actress to boot? We were just thrilled she said yes.
The others were all cast off of auditions. My first time meeting Reece was at the audition, in fact, and he fit the role perfectly, as well as being someone we instantly felt a kinship with. He patiently and amiably engaged us as we scarfed down dinner between auditions.
Andre had played our vampire leader in the concept trailer, but we still auditioned him because the actual role was quite different from that presented in the trailer. The auditions for the vampire leader were particularly challenging because, how do you audition for a silent but massively expressive role? He came in with his own concept which was very, very cool, but much more animalistic than we were envisioning. His willingness and ability to adapt instantly in the audition cinched the deal.
Elysia had suggested we look at Adam Cronheim for Eric, and since he wasn’t Toronto-based, we had to do that over Skype. I ended up a half-hour late to that audition because I was out buying the hard drives we’d need for the film. As with Andre, Adam demonstrated an ability to respond instantly and precisely to direction, no small task over the cold medium of Skype. He also didn’t tell us that he’d bought tickets to some event that night, and that my tardiness and the lengthy audition was putting his ability to attend in jeopardy. He wanted the part, and he earned it.
In many ways, Jonathan Robbins was the trickiest to cast, only because he was so different from the character I had envisioned when I wrote Carlos. I’d known him for years and, as he knows, we granted the initial audition out of friendship, not believing there was any real chance of him booking the role. With each person that auditioned, I recorded notes for later referral. After Jonathan left the audition room, I showed my notes on his performance to Tonya and Elysia. They consisted of one word: “Wow”. After his audition, it just made sense to adapt my vision of the character to his amazing portrayal. At this point, I can’t envision anyone else as Carlos.
Tonya: A big part of casting was also the fact that we were all going to be spending three weeks with each other. With absolutely everyone we cast or auditioned, we asked ourselves, “Do we want to spend three weeks straight with this person?” A set is a very unique and personal environment and you must at minimum like the group of people you’ve assembled. I don’t deal with divas well so a part of the audition process for me was trying to sense the people who would be a joy to be with on set.
Valeska: Working with so many people who already knew and liked each other must have made for a very fun shooting experience. Any memorable stories you’d like to share?
Tonya: On every set, there’s a brief period of time where you are all just getting to know each other. Usually, by the end, you either love or hate each other. The definite added bonus of knowing so many of our cast and crew before we got to Kincardine meant that we went in loving our cast and crew. That definitely carried through to the end and even now we just like spending time with each other. As for memorable moments, we did some game days as a group on our days off. Let’s just say we’re all very competitive people. There is one scene in the film where a character writes a message on a wall. Being producer/any-other-job-that-needs-to-be-done crew person, I prepped that wall and wrote the message. In the original script, the character who writes it is supposed to be an artist so I focused on making a ridiculously simple drawing to go with the message. Turns out I was so preoccupied with that drawing that I misspelled a word in the message. Since time was tight, we couldn’t wash the wall and start over. So the script ended up changing to reflect my mistake. Also, Reece eats a lot of eggs. Obviously, there are a lot more fun stories but some probably aren’t appropriate to re-tell here.
Jeff: For me, one of the most memorable events occurred late at night on a country road. We were filming part of a highway chase scene when we suddenly saw the real-life red and blue lights of a police car behind us. Apparently, someone had seen our van driving up and down the same stretch of road and called it in as suspicious. Approaching the officer was nerve-wracking, knowing that we had replica automatic weapons in the van. However, as soon as I mentioned who we were and what we were doing, the officer smiled and said, “Oh I know who you are. Your producer contacted us and I’ve heard all about you. Carry on.” Evidently, we had fans on the police force.
Valeska: There’s a scene midway through where Jonathan Robbins (Carlos) double-checks a chalk drawing in a way that seems very spontaneous. Was there a lot of improvisation while shooting or did you tend to stick closely to the script?
Jeff: With regards to that particular scene, it was totally scripted. But kudos to Jonathan for making it seem spontaneous. Although there was no improvisation per se, actors did approach me occasionally with new line suggestions which I was always open to. My favourite of these is Jonathan’s comment, “Nice plie”, in regards to watching the ballet video.
Valeska: I laughed out loud at that one!
Tonya: While I wasn’t privy to much of the performance improvisation or adding in lines, we definitely had to think on our feet behind the scenes on different occasions as problems arose or if inspiration struck. For example, we somehow found out that we could get wrecked cars on set if we wanted. Our original plan was just to use our own production vehicles when the script called for them. Suddenly (and wonderfully), we had the option of cars that were totalled as set dec. We ended up having to figure out when the tow truck could come on set and literally drop these vehicles in place, without interfering with whatever we were filming at the time.
Valeska: I have to ask — whose ballet rehearsal was featured in the film? Was that a tiny Tonya or a little Susie Stock-Footage?
Tonya: The ballet footage was given to us by a friend of Elysia’s and featured a young girl who looked a lot like Elysia. So, definitely not me! Although we did record my voice “teaching” the class. It’s one of my producer cameos.
Valeska: I found it really refreshing that Red Spring deliberately and explicitly sidesteps the trope of having the leads develop a romantic relationship. Was that decided early on in the writing process?
Jeff: One of my most hated Hollywood tropes is the conflation of love and sex. Most films are only 90 minutes long, so unless you are shooting a romance or rom-com that can focus solely on this topic, I understand the need to rush to the point. With Red Spring, however, I definitely wanted to try to paint a more realistic distinction between those two things. I’m very proud of the fact that the film contains two separate romantic subplots that audiences seem to pick up on, despite the fact that neither is physically consummated beyond a kiss on the hand and one other halted kiss.
Tonya: When I first read the script, I was overjoyed to see that there wasn’t suddenly a sex scene three-quarters of the way through the story. A huge part of Ray’s character and journey is that he refuses to believe that his wife and child are dead. To have him suddenly jump into bed with Vicky would be a disservice to both of those characters. It just wouldn’t make sense for it to happen at this point in their stories.
Valeska: A question for Jeff: for Red Spring, you wrote, directed, and played one of the lead roles. You have prolific background in acting and writing, and I know that your decision to direct Red Spring was born of necessity. Is directing something that you are planning to focus on a little more going forward?
Jeff: Planning is the wrong word. Hoping would be accurate. Ideally, in a situation where I could just wear the one hat to get a better sense of how much I like it. I definitely enjoyed it during Red Spring but the stress of constantly switching modes made it challenging to really savour the role.
Valeska: Another one for Jeff: You have quite a few visual effects credits to your name. You actually worked on visual effects for two of the film at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival this year: Red Spring and Ryan M. Andrews’s Art of Obsession. Do you have a formal education in VFX, or is it something that you’ve picked up through practical experience over the years?
Jeff: No formal education. Back in 2006, I wrote, co-produced, and starred in a VFX heavy short called Red Moon Over Rigger’s Pond. Though the director of that film handled the bulk of the VFX, he asked me to help. At that point, through a combination of his tutelage and extensive YouTube viewing, I began to learn. A year or so later, I was asked by the director of a feature I was acting in if I would be willing to handle the VFX on his film. There were more than 70 shots and it really allowed me to cement my experience.
Valeska: Tonya, I’d love to talk a little bit about The Nicole and Tonya Show (I’m a legit fan). Between guest stars, musical breaks, and different segments, each episode manages to pack a LOT of content into a fairly short run-time. How long does it take to produce each episode, on average?
Tonya: NTS is a definite labour of love. Nicole is truly one of my best friends and just working with her makes it an awesome experience. That said, we do everything from writing, to shooting, editing, and sound design so it takes a lot to get an episode put together. It doesn’t help that we’re endless perfectionists. Our goal is to write two or three episodes at once so we can work on those at the same time. That usually means that we’re looking ahead at TV and film premieres, talking to our friends with expertise in different areas, seeing what festivals are coming up in our areas, talking to each other about things we’re passionate about, and then building a block of episodes from that research. It can take a month to produce three to five episodes.
Valeska: The two of you are starring in the upcoming sci-fi thriller The Control. What can we expect from the film and your characters?
Jeff: We can’t speak too much on it since we’re not sure what we’re allowed to share. I can say I played a character named Jeff and Tonya played a character named Tonya but that our characters don’t reflect our real-world personalities. (And this is also another film where I was asked to handle the visual effects).
Tonya: I’m not sure I got a full script? But, like Jeff said, I play a character named Tonya who isn’t exactly like me in real life. That said, though, Mike and Eric are two of our friends so when they asked if we’d like to be involved, we didn’t hesitate.
Valeska: You’re both immensely creative people and obviously work well as a team. What advice would you give to other creative couples in terms of supporting each other’s projects and staying sane in the face of looming deadlines and differences of opinion?
Tonya: First of all, I just want to say we both giggled when we read this question. Second, I think, like any partnership, you have to communicate with each other. I admit I’m not great at that at times, especially when I start to get stressed. Jeff is very good at reminding me to say things out loud. But, at the end of the day, working with Jeff has been awesome. We found that it’s efficient in the sense that when I had been mulling a problem over in my head, I could just turn to my business partner who happens to live with me and run the idea past him immediately. When we’re on set, it’s easier for me to know when Jeff is done and just needs to stop for the day. And I had both wife and producer authority to tell him to do so. It is immensely gratifying to have shared this experience with my husband.
Jeff: Set your ego aside and remember that you’re both trying to achieve the same goal. Receiving criticism, especially when familiarity overrides diplomacy, is never easy. But I can say that having someone whose opinion I trust as the first set of eyes to see any editing or visual effects work I was doing provided a great safety net. It’s easy to become too close to what you’re working on and having a mildly filtered opinion (note: not unfiltered, Tonya) made the film the best it could be. PS: I love you, T!
Valeska: Thank you both so much for taking the time to chat with me. Looking forward to seeing more from the two of you in the future!
For Red Spring news and updates, find the film on Facebook & Twitter @redspringfilm.
Find Tonya and Jeff on Twitter: @tonyadodds and @jeffsinasac.
And, of course, Anatomy of a Scream is @aoas_xx on Twitter and Instagram. We love new friends & followers!