If you’re not yet familiar with Toronto filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly, who helmed the new gothic drama Small Town Murder Songs, lead actor Peter Stormare draws a lofty comparison.
“He very much reminds me of the Coen brothers,” Stormare, who played a kidnapper in the siblings’ Oscar-winning drama Fargo, said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
“They have the movie in their head so it works pretty fast and he moves on fast … so it’s very nice. He’s a very, very sharp director.”
Small Town Murder Songs, which hits screens Friday in Toronto and Edmonton, stars Stormare as Walter, a cop from a small Ontario Mennonite town who is haunted by his violent past as he probes the murder of a young woman.
Aaron Poole co-stars as Walter’s police partner, Martha Plimpton plays Walter’s doting girlfriend and Jill Hennessy is in the role of Walter’s troubled ex, who is treated poorly by her current boyfriend, played by Stephen Eric McIntyre.
Toronto indie rockers Bruce Peninsula scored the intense, drum-and-chant-heavy music, which drives the storyline.
Gass-Donnelly, who’s worked extensively in theatre and is the son of Factory Theatre founder Ken Gass, started writing the film in January 2009 after drawing huge kudos for his first full-length feature, This Beautiful City.
He began the six-week shoot in Listowel, Ont., in October of the same year — the fastest turnaround of any movie he’s worked on.
The 33-year-old says he originally wanted to explore the effects of a murder in a small town using separate stories, but when a double murder happened on his street in Toronto, his focus narrowed and a protagonist emerged.
“When I wrote the movie, I was actually writing it based on an ex-girlfriend’s dad,” he said before the film’s debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
He set the story in a farming town with a strong Mennonite influence because it adds pressure on Walter as he seeks redemption.
“There is a constant reminder of this religious influence on him and that he is going through a bit of a spiritual crisis,” said Gass-Donnelly — who was recently named by Variety as one of “10 Directors to Watch.”
“I didn’t want to make it about (the Mennonites), I just liked the idea of making sure that we feel that there is an outside force of religion and judgment at work.”
Stormare immediately knew he wanted to play Walter when he saw the script, feeling a connection to the small-town life depicted in it (Stormare grew up Abra, population 2,262, in northern Sweden).
He gained 15 pounds for the role because he wanted to symbolize the heavy burden that Walter is carrying.
“He’s got to look like he’s an old car,” said Stormare, whose other credits include the films The Big Lebowski and Armageddon, and TV’s Prison Break, in which he played John Abruzzi.
Joked Gass-Donnelly: “It’s funny, you go through the effort of bringing in a recognizable actor and then you make him look unrecognizable.”
Winter weather hit early in Listowel during the shoot and two blizzards stalled filming for a bit. Stormare lived in a house with his wife and two children throughout the shoot.
“On one side was cows and on the other side was corn, and then — nothing,” said the 57-year-old.
Walter’s enigmatic nature — combined with the snowy landscape and the brooding music — all serve as yet another reminder of Fargo, said Stormare.
“You don’t know the story too much in Fargo either in the beginning but then you hear that haunting music and … the same with this movie,” he said.
“It is kind of a strange cousin (to Fargo).”
Small Town Murder Songs won the prize for best film at the 2010 Torino Film Festival a Plimpton won a best-actress prize at the Whistler Film Festival.
The film has also had sold-out screenings in small towns across southwestern Ontario.
Release dates for other Canadian cities haven’t been announced yet.
“We had a wonderful time. Thank God she’s Japanese and very Zen so she could keep herself sane because sometimes it was just grey, grey, grey for two weeks and I was off every day from six o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night.”
Stormare developed a character profile of Walter with Donnelly so that he could portray the nuances of the role, but not much is revealed about his past in the film.