Zach Braff and Isabelle Blais in The High Cost of Living.
Two people melt marshmallows over a fire. The snowfall around them offers a special hush, a privacy, so they take courage; they share a kiss that they shouldn’t.
It’s a perfect Montreal love scene, one from writer-director Deborah Chow’s quietly moving first feature, The High Cost of Living. An independent film made with a measly $1.8 million budget, it was named Best First Feature and Top Ten at the Toronto International Film Festival, Best Canadian Feature at the Female Eye Film Fest, and won the Prix Super-Écran at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. It opens in Montreal today.
Starring a well-known Québécoise actor (Isabelle Blais) alongside a well-known Hollywood one (Zach Braff), High Cost also features a bilingual script and storyline that takes us to a bubble tea shop in Chinatown, Plateau dépanneurs and a Mile End bagel joint. In other words, it’s as much about Chow’s love for Montreal as the romance between the characters.
“I was in New York doing an MFA at Columbia, but I wanted to make a film capturing the soul of Montreal,” says Chow.
It was also her way of saying thank you to the city that got her started. Chow, who is originally from Toronto, says her first film was a “funny” homage to 1920 horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that she made as a final project for a course at McGill (she graduated in 1996). Her short went on to win the McGill Film Festival. “It was just the beginning of the Mac revolution, and all of a sudden you could home edit,” explains Chow. “It was within our grasp to actually make films. But I was the only girl in the class who did it—you could write an essay instead. For some reason, the girls just didn't think we could do it.”
Chow hatched the idea for High Cost as she was “literally making up on the spot” a pitch that would qualify her for the inaugural Kodak New Vision Mentorship for promising Canadian female directors in 2004. She blurted out two ideas: Montreal would be the star, and the female protagonist would be pregnant.
The starting point for the character was her sister, who was pregnant at the time; Chow was fascinated by the intense expectations of the condition, how everything became related to the baby. “What would happen if you lost it?” she wondered.
In the film, eight-month pregnant Nathalie (Blais) is hit by a car. Her baby dies, but she must continue to carry the child until its stillbirth. Unable to lean on her preoccupied partner, she finds an empathetic figure in Henry (Braff)—who, unbeknownst to her, was the same driver who hit her and sped off.
Montreal frequently stands in for American or European cities on celluloid, but in the unforgiving Canadian winter months the city is hardly most directors’ first choice. When filming High Cost, not only did Chow unabashedly refuse to dress Montreal up as New York or Paris, she scheduled her short fifteen-day shoot last year in February.
Neither filming in the cold nor the low budget deterred Braff. He says he was struck by the similarity between the script and a Danish film he optioned to remake several years ago, Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts), which also centres around a car crash, and the relationship between a grieving woman and a man partly responsible. Braff plays a party-loving American drug dealer with an expired visa, apartment above a Chinatown restaurant and aimless life. Not such a stretch, Braff claims. “I was a real American in the city who didn’t know what other people were talking about. I don’t know any French—just, ‘J’ai faim!’” he says.
Chow sent Braff her script after noticing parallels between his angst-ridden and quietly existentialist 2004 film Garden State and her own High Cost. “It drew me in right away,” says Braff. “This is a movie for an audience that wants a challenge. Ninety-nine percent of movies, there’s a good guy and there’s a bad guy. This is a movie where all those lines are blurred.” He signed on a mere three weeks before shooting, after the producers had been searching for a leading man for almost a year.
Chow had already recruited Blais, who she approached immediately after seeing her in 2008's Borderline. Blais was on board two years before financing was even secured—she even had her own baby in the meantime, which gave her a stronger grasp on the fear of losing a child. “No one else could have done the role justice,” Braff says. “Not even Meryl Streep!”
It took Chow five years and countless rewrites to finish the script of High Cost, and the end product is a subdued, at times whimsical film with a tragic core. Chow’s spontaneous pitch for the Kodak mentorship scored her time with veteran Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema. Chow says seeing how that auteur was struggling herself to create a script helped Chow gain the confidence to craft one of her own—one that could be poignant while still avoiding melodrama.
No doubt names like Braff and Blais will go a long way towards helping High Cost avoid the indie movie pitfall of limited distribution. But the film only narrowly avoided the ultimate nadir: it was almost stillborn due to lack of funding. The script was initially turned down by national funding bodies Telefilm and SODEC, before some rewrites finally convinced the latter to back the project. Chow says she’s not sure they would have gotten financing at all for this type of project in the United States.
“But you have to just keep going,” insists Chow, who is now working on her second feature. “It gets really hard, hard to pay your bills. But everybody that I went to school with that are filmmakers, the ones that stuck it out eventually did get there.”
Deborah Chow’s The High Cost of Living is in theatres April 22.
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