Local filmmaker courts controversy with “Zooey and Adam”

When asked if he anticipated the controversy surrounding his new film, Zooey and Adam, filmmaker Sean Garrity’s answer was fairly clear: “I had no idea!”

Zooey and Adam is the local filmmaker’s third feature, and some film festivals have actually refused to screen it, citing it as too controversial. The film, focuses on the titular couple, who have been trying to have a baby for several months. After Zooey ends up pregnant following a shocking rape, they decide to have the child, even though they are unsure of paternity.

But next to the numerous sexual assaults and murders shown daily on primetime television, what makes Garrity’s film particularly controversial?

“The sexual assaults on television are, in my opinion, for entertainment value — they’re quick and done in a highly dramatic way and I have ethical issues with that,” Garrity explains. “The rape in Zooey and Adam is filmed in such a way that there is nothing even remotely entertaining about it; it’s harsh and difficult to endure, and I feel that’s the only responsible way to portray something like that.”

Fundamentally, Garrity believes that the film is about people dealing with smaller traumas.

“My main character [Adam] has trauma that seems secondary to the trauma that his wife goes through,” he says. “So it never gets looked at or addressed, and he’s expected to just swallow it. So it festers and eventually eats at him.”

And because most of the rape’s emotional debris belongs to a third-party male character, even more debates have been prompted. Garrity explains, “The film has now spurred divisive gender political debates — the kind of controversy a lot of people don’t like — because we focus on how Adam deals with his wife being assaulted and the fact that he was forced to watch.”

Looking at the film now, a year and a half after he wrote it, Garrity realizes that the idea stems from the trauma he dealt with surrounding the difficult birth of his child (thankfully, both Garrity’s wife and daughter are fine).

“With child birth, especially when things go wrong, as the husband, you’re forced to watch — my wife was cut open with blood everywhere,” he explains. “I wanted to protect her, but my job was to sit there and watch, totally emasculated and helpless.”

Once he came up with the initial concept, Garrity didn’t necessarily plan to make it into a film.

“I came up with a basic outline and asked the Manitoba Arts Council if they’d give me money to develop it into a screenplay,” he says. “I told them I was going to get actors, shoot improvised scenes and use the videotapes to write the screenplay.”

Tom Keenan and Daria Putteart were cast as the main characters and did a fair amount of brainstorming, working under the premise that they would develop ideas for what would later become a screenplay. Since the actors knew nothing about the story beforehand, Garrity had the opportunity to manipulate character creation.

“I was designing these characters so that, given a certain situation, they would be forced to make choices that I had already written in my story,” he explains.

Because the actors didn’t know what to expect while shooting, they were constantly surprised with on-camera events — the rape scene, in particular, was challenging.

“It was a difficult scene for the actors, but because of the approach we took, we used that sense of enormity of an event like that to push them.”

Garrity shot Zooey and Adam chronologically — with some scenes filmed immediately after one another — which allowed the actors to work off the emotion of the previous day’s scenes while it was still fresh in their mind. “There were a lot of authentic, emotional performances that I look at and say ‘I could have never written that,’” he said.

When compared to his first two features, Inertia and Lucid, Garrity feels much more confident this time around in his filmmaking skills.

“For my first movie, I storyboarded every shot and wrote tons of ideas — I had about 1,000 pages of notes on my 90-page script,” he explains. “With Zooey and Adam, I had the emotional through-line in terms of the rise and fall of the story, and I trusted the collaboration with the actors, plus I didn’t think it was a movie, so the pressure was off.”

Garrity also took on a lot of responsibility this time around — writing, shooting, producing and editing the film.

“I won’t do that again!” he says. “I wanted to explore the single artist art form, but I ended up spending too much time with sound, renting gear, organizing shoots, getting locations set up, that sort of thing.”

For his next feature, which he already has in the works, Garrity plans on keeping the same idea, but hopes to change the methodology slightly by bringing on a small crew.

“I’ll gladly do all the writing, directing and editing, but the coordinating was stressful; my brain doesn’t work like that.”

And don’t be surprised if you recognize some of the music in the film — Garrity used all local musicians for the soundtrack. Expect to hear songs from the likes of The Liptonians, The Details and Flying Fox and The Hunter Gatherers.

Zooey and Adam opens at the Winnipeg Cinematheque on Friday, Jan. 29 and runs until Feb. 4.