Despite the manic joy that comes from winter finally ending, spring in Nova Scotia is a long road, and can be a bleak one. Every time you catch a saucy wink from a newly sprouted crocus, there's 10 times as many instances where a melting snowbank reveals a winter's worth of dog shit or a nasty spill, ass over teakettle, on greasy sidewalks. Artist (Yorodeo), musician (Dog Day) and now director Seth Smith's feature film debut, Lowlife, premiering locally Friday at the Atlantic Film Festival, takes that glimmer of hope in a naturally gloomy landscape and weaves it in as another character.
While it's far from a typical Nova Scotian film, visually, Lowlife is as familiar as it is surreal. Like Badlands, Fargo or Assault on Precinct 13, it wouldn't be the same without the location.
Filmed in spring 2011 in the forests and bogs of West Chezzetcook and West Pennant, the film tells the story of a man and woman and their addictions to a "living drug"---a species of starfish with special psychotropic properties. For Smith and co-writer and actor Darcy Spidle (who plays Asa in the film) the landscape inspired the film.
"Darcy was the first to move [to the country]. Then we [Smith, and partner and assistant director Nancy Urich] did," says Smith. "Originally we had written that this person would go to this island and find these drugs and live this utopian life, but there was no conflict in that. So we kind of did the opposite. I think the bitterness of the dying winter translated well.
"We wanted to capture this secret part of Nova Scotian wildlife, some of the landscape that doesn't really make it into Maritime dramas."
"In some ways it's a regional film. A film about Nova Scotia that's just really fucked," says Spidle.
"Really fucked" only scratches the surface of Lowlife's weirdness. For its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, it was billed "the weirdest film in the festival." Shot like a B movie, the film has "cult favourite" written all over it.
Made on a shoestring budget of $5,000, funded in part by an Indiegogo campaign, the film tells a good versus evil story, with Lynchian and Cronenberg-inspired dark twists.
"We wanted it to be weird," says Smith. "I wanted it to be really surreal so I could have a lot to play with while shooting. I wanted to be able to make it an arty film without it being too much of a classic narrative."
"We wanted the audience to take multiple interpretations of it," says Spidle.
And that's easy to do. The interplay between the two main characters Asa and Elle (played by the tortured and intense Kate Hartigan) offers a lot of ambiguity. Questions are never completely answered, which is just how Smith wanted it.
"I don't know how it became a mystery film, we were watching some Polanski films and a bit of Hitchcock, but I think that idea of having a lot of questions and space where you kind of question what they're doing and where you can make the answers up yourself is something intriguing."
The addition of a narrator (voiced by Urich's father, reading Spidle's poems) doesn't necessarily clear things up.
"There are religious themes, and it makes parallels to drug addiction, or the loyalty to drug addictions," says Smith. "We were thinking it would be interesting to have a narrator to fill in those blanks."
"We decided the movie was quite strange and maybe the viewer did need a bit of guidance," says Spidle. "Give a few hints."
"But it doesn't really explain anything," says Urich. "You still have to interpret it alone."
Just like the landscape being so handy and inspiring, so were the actors. Smith's Yorodeo partner Paul Hammond plays a role, artist Mitchell Wiebe plays one of the more disgustingly sleazy characters seen in recent memory, reminiscent of Wild At Heart's Bobby Peru. Longtime friends of Smith and Urich's, Hartigan and Spidle throw themselves into their roles despite having no prior experience.
"Darcy's character was written for him and Kate's character was written for her," says Urich.
Hartigan's dark stare haunts throughout the film, but it was her willingness to put herself in uncomfortable positions that made her an obvious choice.
"The first time I considered putting her in a film we were outside, just having this philosophical talk, and she just snatched this june bug out of the air like The Karate Kid and just put it in her mouth," says Smith. "She was like, 'That's a nice summer treat.'"
"She's very up for adventure and hijinks. She actually said she would only be in the movie if she could eat bugs."
Spidle, who runs Divorce Records, went the Method route. He cancelled his yearly experimental music festival OBEY in 2011 in order to stay in character, took inspiration from survivalist documentaries and Charlie Chaplin, perfecting a lot of over the top pratfalls that, while absurdly humourous, only serve to further unnerve viewers.
"I had to beg Darcy not to sleep in the forest, he wanted to sleep in the coyote den," says Smith.
"It was the only way I could do this," Spidle says. "I don't know how to act."
"I didn't want you to die, I needed to finish the movie," says Smith, laughing.
The film leaves the viewer to unravel the twist ending themselves. Vice Magazine's Noisey blog called it "the feel-bad hit of 2012," and while you may leave feeling slightly sick, you won't see a lot of gore in the film.
"There's a lot of dirty business going on," says Spidle. "It's unsettling and dark without any obvious things."
"I saw no need for blood and gore, it didn't really add to the film," says Smith.
"I think that's an accomplishment," says Spidle.
Smith pauses. "It's not a film for everyone, but it's a film for me. And I'm quite proud. You do it for yourself sometimes."