When their yacht breaks down in isolated ocean waters, three "friends" find out just how much they really hate each other (and what they're capable of doing to each other) in Rob Grant's Harpoon. With the dark comedy coming out in select cinemas and on VOD this October from DREAD (in case you missed it, read Meagan Navarro's 4-star Fantasia review), we caught up with co-writer/director Rob Grant to discuss assembling his game cast, finding a shooting location at the last minute, the challenges of filming on the water (especially in an area filled with curious kayakers), getting Brett Gelman involved as the movie's narrator, and exploring the "darker side of human behavior."
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Rob, and congratulations on Harpoon! How and when did you get the idea for Harpoon?
Rob Grant: Thanks for the support! The idea originated on just the premise of three people who hate each other stuck on a boat out on the ocean and still needing one another to survive... but that premise had to roll around in my head for a year or two until I knew what I wanted it to "really" be about. Once I figured out the three character dynamics, it actually came together quite quickly after that. We had a script in October and were shooting in January.
Most of Harpoon takes place on a yacht. How did you go about selecting the boat you filmed on, and where did principal photography take place?
Rob Grant: So this was the crazy part about Harpoon: we were originally looking to shoot in Fiji until the government turned the script down on "moral grounds," then we looked into Hawaii and that didn't pan out, and we were seriously considering postponing the shoot. We already had it cast and a crew and we just decided, "Screw it, let's build the interior of the boat in Calgary, Alberta, Canada," where the production was based. Now, anyone that knows Calgary in January knows that it is FREEZING. There were sub-degree temperatures in a cold warehouse and we just plowed ahead while my producers were scrambling to find an exterior location that also had a boat that would match the set that we built... and at the last minute, Belize got locked in and it all came together.
How many days did you have in your shooting schedule, and were there any additional challenges filming on the water?
Rob Grant: We shot for 15 days total, if I recall: nine days interior in Calgary, flew to Belize and shot the remaining six days of exteriors there. We pared down to minimal crew and gear in Belize knowing it might be a nightmare crammed on the boat, but it turns out just the weather rolling through was the biggest headache. Cloudless and sunny for one angle and then a cloud would roll in for someone's coverage and kind of kill the shot. Actually, scratch that, people kayaking and snorkeling behind us was the biggest challenge. They'd literally paddle through in the background, STOP, and stare at the camera. That happened a few times.
This movie hinges on the chemistry and ticking time bomb relationships between the trio of "friends" played by Christopher Gray, Emily Tyra, and Munro Chambers. What made them the right fit for their respective roles? Did you have them audition together to see how they would perform as a group?
Rob Grant: None of them met each other prior. I just had good, long conversations with each of them beforehand, warning what we were about to get into and what my expectations were. I usually judge their performances based on their reels rather than an audition. I'm looking for that something, usually a vulnerability. In the films I like to make, I need actors that aren't afraid to look and feel uncomfortable, and just through my discussions with them, I got the sense they were down for that kind of stuff.
Munro actually came last, though, as I had just finished editing him in my producer Mike Peterson's movie Knuckleball, and for some reason I couldn't shake his character from my head. It was only once Mike had him do a reading that I realized he was perfect. Once they were cast, though, the best thing we could've done was schedule three days of rehearsal before we went to camera. We ran through the script each day and I'd rewrite at night. It just helped refine everything and develop the relationships.
Were you influenced or inspired by any other sea-bound movies such as Dead Calm while making Harpoon?
Rob Grant: My original influences were Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Polanski's Knife in the Water, but as soon as I gave Mike the script, it was him who said you have to go rewatch Dead Calm, etc. Not because he wanted me to take more inspiration from it, but to make sure we weren't re-treading familiar territory. And he's right, you can't really subvert things if you aren't aware of what's been done before. Funnily enough, though, a lot of the discussions about tone and influence were more based on Linklater movies, even Little Miss Sunshine and Magnolia came up once or twice.
One of the movie's secret weapons is the narration by Brett Gelman. How did he get involved, and did you write the narrator with him in mind?
Rob Grant: The narrator was always there to help set the tone and fill out the backstory so these characters didn't need to be so expositional. It went through a million drafts and changes in its tone, we test screened with my voice for ages, and it only really came together at the last minute. We found out on December 26th that we were going to have our premiere at Rotterdam in the third week of January and still hadn't found our narrator. That's when my buddy and frequent collaborator Mike Kovac came in and helped re-write a lot of the narration into what it is today.
Brett came to us through the same casting agency, 360 Management, that reps Emily and Chris, and he just got what we were going for. It was even him that said, "This narrator kind of sets things up the same as Magnolia," and we knew we had the right person. The week before the premiere, I flew down to LA, we recorded him, I flew back the same day, editing on the plane, exported our DCP, and flew with it to Rotterdam without even testing it. It was scary, but the performance and nuance he gave is what makes it work and that was all him, he's an incredible storyteller.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Rob Grant: I am notorious for hating set. It's my least favorite place to be. I like writing because its limitless, and I love editing because it's like solving a puzzle from the comfort of your own home, but being on set is like trying to stop people from falling off a runaway train. Don't get me wrong, I love working with my awesome crew that I've grown quite close to in Calgary, I love getting to collaborate and work with the actors, but it's just... the host of the party never has any fun.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Harpoon?
Rob Grant: I know Harpoon's not for everyone. You have to be okay with taking a deep dive into the darker side of human behavior. And some people don't want to do that and that's fair enough. To me, its not a movie you can watch while browsing on your cell phone. It asks for your attention, wants you to consider certain things in the hopes of a good payoff. At least that's my hope. At the end of the day, you just don't want to bore the f#*k out of people...
With Harpoon coming to VOD on October 8th from DREAD, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Rob Grant: I'm writing another film... it should definitely still feel like one of my movies and kind of take some unexpected turns in bizarre and grizzly fashion. All I can say is it explores the opposite side of friendship... somewhere along the lines of just how far would you go to help your friends. Unfortunately, I'm not on any social media because I take things way too personal and it makes me depressed, so I'm not sure how people can follow me... I suppose my email is not hard to find and I'm usually pretty good about answering people's messages.
Thanks for your time, Rob!
Rob Grant: Thank you for the opportunity. The indie scene is in a bit of a vulnerable place right now, and it's outlets like you championing interesting films that's keeping us alive, so all the best!