Jeremy Podeswa on The Five Senses 
interview by Paula Nechak, 14 July 2000

Textured, layered, rich with inner life and meaning, The Five Senses won the director's prize for its writer and director, Jeremy Podeswa, at the Canadian Genie Awards. It's a complex movie -- on the front end full of easy beauty and privilege -- yet in digging deeper into its subconscious, dream world, slowly reveals a finite message -- that we must find the sensory and the sense that, in the past, carried us but which has dulled through neglect and routine, and which must be re-found and honored in order to survive.

This thematic Holy Grail "happens" to a quintet of people living in present day Toronto -- each blessed with an exaggerated sense -- smell, touch, sight, hearing and taste -- and played out against a backdrop of tragedy -- the disappearance of a little girl in a park. The actors -- Mary Louise Parker, Pascale Bussieres, Daniel MacIvor, Molly Parker, Gabrielle Rose and Philippe Volter -- ignite midst this mystery that proves as moving and humane as it is seductive and inviting.

Podeswa has sculpted a visual world that is urban savvy and yet has hope; as full of impossibility as possibility and as rife with surprise as the human experience can muster. The Five Senses is, after the director's first feature, Eclipse, a notable step up and a work that invites a second (or third) viewing in order to grasp everything that lingers beneath its subversively accessible surface.

Here, after a screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, he told Nitrate Online how he accomplished such a monumental quest.

Paula Nechak: Like Eclipse, The Five Senses contains a large ensemble cast. Is it daunting to work in such a big scope?

Jeremy Podeswa: It's challenging, but, you know, you always start these things blindly, not thinking about how complicated it's going to be. Certain ideas need to be done in a certain way. I started this movie in a conceptual way and it developed organically. I wanted to deal with certain themes. I wanted to deal with the senses and how we relate to the natural world and how we tend to take a lot of things for granted and shouldn't. Not just the sensory things, but relationships and the people in our lives. From that it mushroomed into this thing -- five characters, five senses, a multi-narrative, and that required a certain kind of treatment. I didn't set out to do a complex movie but the theme warranted it and it's the direction it took. I ran with it and it created some problems that had to be solved but at the same time it gives you a broad canvas to work on. It ended up being a rich experience that felt right.

PN: When you only have two hours to tell a story, and you have such a complicated narrative, do you need to rely even more upon your actors to fill in the blanks?

JP: I'm not a big exposition fan anyway so certainly with so many characters they basically have to walk onscreen and the audience has to imagine a whole past life for these people. They have to be able to convey a lot with very little. The only way it happens is if the actual actor has a rich inner life and I look to cast people who are complex, interesting and alive. And every single actor in this film has a very rich inner life. They're all interesting people and they bring it to the role. I couldn't cast a stupid actor, I just couldn't. It took a long time to find people that were rich in that way.

PN: Was there an incident, an inceptive event that brought about the script's birth?

JP: Two things happened at the same time. I had been traveling with Eclipse and I was away from home for a year and a half and I was by myself most of the time. It's a very strange experience that's great in a way but in another it's alienating because you spend all that time without your friends and family and home and don't feel like you have one after awhile. You start to think about what's important to you. I thought a lot about it and started to read a book by Diane Ackerman called A Natural History of the Senses. It's about how we take the senses for granted and how we're over-stimulated so we don't notice the particular value of something. Those two things dovetailed and they got me going and I began to think of the senses as a metaphor for how we conduct our lives. I thought of five characters who each have something to do with one of the senses and to see what narrative possibilities are there. And it mushroomed.

PN: Events occur in Eclipse as well as in The Five Senses that are juxtaposed against a larger canvas, almost like chess pieces against a bigger playing board. In this case it's a little girl's disappearance in a park. It has its own mythology -- having people's lives molded and sculpted by a larger event.

JP: Well, we go through life mechanically. We have routines; we get into ruts. It happens physically, in your career and in relationships. The treadmill begins until something cataclysmic happens. You lose such a sense of perspective about your own life and so when something really serious happens or something totally outside of your immediate life, even for a moment, you have a different perspective. You begin to understand what's important and sometimes it's the only thing that can shift where your head is at and make you re-prioritize, People need to be shaken up and it usually has to do with something external, an outside event, because it doesn't happen spontaneously internally. Dramatically it's a potent tool to use and to show, in an explicit way, how people can be stuck in destructive patterns and how those patterns can be broken.

PN: The film has a wonderful look, very Sven Nykvist, gorgeously austere and with a very controlled color palette that compels the audience to say "I want to live there." It's a look featured in other Canadian filmmaker's work -- Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema -- and you thank them, among others, in your closing credits. Why?

JP: They're friends of mine. Patricia is a close friend and I've known Atom for twenty years. We've always been involved in each other's work in one way or another; sharing crew or socially being part of the community. I read their scripts and they read mine and comment upon them. They've always helped at various stages. I feel part of a community because we know, like and support each other. They're brilliant critics as well as filmmakers and they're good people to have around when you're making a movie. I appreciate that and it was a way to thank them.

PN: Why is Canada so different from other film industries internationally in that way?

JP: I don't know. But after traveling around I see how unique the situation is. You don't even find it in Europe. Everyone's really competitive and there's a lot of bitchiness. We're supportive and I don't know how that happened except we all started together. Patricia and Atom had a quicker trajectory than I did. But we had to invent everything from the bottom up and we needed the help of our peers. Also we do very different things. I'll never make a movie like Bruce McDonald but I like what he does. He does what he does and I do what I do. All of our films are a reflection of who we are as people.  

PN: So why has Canadian film, over the past few years, boomed? It's much like the Australian film industry's late '70s and early '80s renaissance 

JP: From outside, the perception of Canadian film is changing. There's an energy as well as a new generation of filmmakers coming of age. Part of it has to do with a few lucky breaks. Now there's a perception that Canadian movies are unusual but interesting, inventive, risky and very particular.

PN: There is a dreamlike quality to The Five Senses. Did you dream about the film while in the process of making it?

JP: I had a strong sense of mood but I didn't know how it could be articulated until I brought the crew and cast together. They all contributed enormously to make it work. I always saw the movie in operatic terms, it was a musical thing that washed over you and helped you enter the world. It's very seductive. I wanted it to be alive -- the look, the music. It had to be tactile and full of meaning. If you say that to talented people, while it may sound abstract, they'll interpret it in ways that are concrete, and they made it happen.

PN: The end result is you won the best director prize at the Canadian Oscars -- the Genies. Has that brought about the recognition and open door you desired?

JP: I think it has. It was such a strong year for Canadian directors so even outside the country there was a perception that it mattered. I certainly have seen a difference in the kinds of projects people bring to me so it's changed things more than I thought. I have that Canadian curse where I diminish everything but in fact it means something. But it's really a tribute to everyone who worked with me because the truth is, you don't do it alone.

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