Nick Wernham is the talented director behind the new film No Stranger Than Love. With a blend of Canadian common sense, a great love of story telling and a youthful outlook, Wernham is able to capture the feelings of a younger generation with his filmmaking. Nick spent some time answering our questions on his childhood, his inspirations, and what’s next for him.
FGN: What sparked your desire to direct films?
Nick Wernham: My mother and father really made an effort to share their love of stories with my siblings and I. As kids we were exposed to a ton of literature. They were resistant to buying us too many toys, but if we ever asked for a book they would nearly always buy it for us and it was rare that we went to bed without having a story read to us when we were young. They also took us to see a lot of local theatre in Toronto and at a couple of great theatre festivals in Southern Ontario (The Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake and The Stratford Festival in Stratford). We’d watch films together quite often as well.
I went to the University of Toronto to study English Literature and Cinema Studies (sort of a film theory and film criticism program), but I didn’t find the program was really a good fit for me. My parents could tell that I was feeling kind of listless and so it was actually them who proposed that I drop out and pursue something else. I think it was that love of story which drove me towards cinema. I worked a bit as a production assistant on a feature and some music videos and just fell in love with filmmaking.
My plan at that point was to work towards being a screenwriter because I have always done creative writing for fun. Still, I went off to film school in Los Angeles with the intention of learning more about that job and learning whatever I could about producing and directing movies that could help me be a better writer.
I went to this little trade school called The New York Film Academy. The original campus is in New York, but they have satellite campuses in various different places. It was a great experience because over the course of eleven months my classmates and I got to go out and shoot a ton of little short films. We’d be working in one capacity or another on about a half dozen per week, both in class and on our own time. It was an extremely fun flavour of madness.
Most of these shorts were not impressive, but they afforded all of us an opportunity to try new things that we didn’t fully understand how to do and then see how they turned out. I guess that while I was there my interests just shifted towards directing over time. I still write for fun, but since that year at NYFA I’ve only directed other peoples’ scripts.
FGN: Are there any particular films or television shows you find yourself drawn to? How have they inspired you with your directing?
Nick Wernham: I love a lot of different types of films. Some of my favourite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Terry Gilliam, and David Fincher.
I love films that feel thoughtful. There is such an abundance of ways that a filmmaker can use picture and sound to help an audience connect with their film’s story on an emotional or intellectual level. I have a great deal of respect for people who are good at choosing the right creative tools to get across the various messages in their stories and use those tools in carefully considered ways. I guess that’s probably the biggest thing that I admire about movies like Jaws or The Shining or It’s A Wonderful Life. I’m still at the stage of my career where I’m very much learning on the job, but I try my best to emulate that kind of thoughtful approach. That means a ton of work in development and pre-production on each project and a lot of stealing from other filmmakers who are better and more experienced than me.
FGN: For those who haven’t seen No Stranger Than Love, can you give a brief description of the film?
Nick Wernham: No Stranger Than Love is a film about Lucy Sherrington, a beautiful, charming high school art teacher who is admired by everyone in her town. Every man whom she meets believes themselves to be in love with her, for she is not just charming, but also kind and generous. She finds this adulation and the pressures associated with it to be very difficult to bear and so, at the time in which the film’s story is taking place, is experiencing a kind of existential crisis. This drives her to begin an affair with her co-worker Clint Coburn, the married coach of the high school football team. Then, just as they are about to consummate their affair, a mysterious inter-dimensional hole of infinite darkness appears at his feet and swallows him into some sort of seemingly infinite void. While Lucy is selfless to a fault, she is not a natural heroine. Her anxiety about being caught and ruining Clint’s marriage and her reputation in the town weighs extremely heavily on her. It doesn’t help when, upon venturing out to seek help with her problem from one of Clint’s most trusted friends, she encounters a rather mysterious man named Rydell Whyte who is looking for him for some unstated reason.
For me the film is really about the fact that love is a very strange thing which manifests itself in different ways for different people. It’s also something which I believe requires a certain amount of growth on the part of an individual to really experience. In order to truly feel love for someone else and, just as importantly, to have true love reciprocated you need to be comfortable enough with your true self to reveal it to others. I believe that most people begin their adult life with a certain set of insecurities and that finding peace with yourself requires finding peace with those things that make you uncertain, which cause your confidence to falter. If you cannot find peace with yourself then how can you expect to find peace with someone else in an honest way? In essence, the story is about Lucy and Rydell finding their courage and a greater degree of peace within themselves. It’s about them growing into truer expressions of who they really are on the inside.
FGN: How did you discover the script for No Stranger Than Love? What about the script made you want to direct it?
Nick Wernham: My good friend Paul Fler whom I had worked with before brought me the script because he knew I was looking for something interesting to do as my first feature project. He had been sitting on it for several years after being shown it at a festival where his the first feature he produced was. The opportunity to work with Paul was very exciting to me as I have great admiration for his skills as a producer and his tireless work ethic. He’s an incredible guy.
I was struck by how unique Steve Adams’ voice is and how interesting the premise was right away and I quickly grew to really appreciate the message of the story. I know this is rather unusual for someone who was 29 when we started shooting and has now just turned 31, but I don’t think that I have ever been in love in a romantic sense. I love my family and my close friends. I love movies and baseball and music and video games. I have had some great romantic relationships at various points. However, I don’t know if I’d characterize the way that I’ve felt about anybody in a romantic relationship as love. Affection? Definitely. Attraction? Sure. Friendship? You bet. But love? I’m not so sure. I believe that a big part of that has to do with where I was as a person when I was lucky enough to meet those people rather than anything specific about them.
I think that, like Lucy and Rydell, I wasn’t ready to love because I wasn’t truly comfortable with myself and that is something that I started to think about more clearly when reading Steve’s script. Any time that a story causes you to stop and consider not just your own experience with love, but also what you might learn from the experience of telling that story I think that is a sign that it’s a good one to pursue. The ideas came very quickly when it came to thinking about how the film might look and feel. The experience of making a movie that hit so close to home sort of shook me, for better and for worse, and I now think of it as the most significant thing I have done to this point in my life. Not just professionally, but arguably personally as well.
FGN: How involved were you with the casting process? Who were the cast members who you mentally pictured when reading the script?
Nick Wernham: The first time that I read the script I didn’t really consider who we might cast in any serious way, but the second time through Alison is the first person who came to mind for Lucy. I am a big fan of Community and she is so brilliant on that show. Annie Edison has some similarities to Lucy, at least on the surface, but I felt that the role was sufficiently different from Annie that she might be interested in pursuing it. After she had read a fairly developed draft of the script and just before we made an offer to her she and I met in Toronto while she was doing press for Community. It was only for forty minutes or so, but I left the meeting feeling entirely convinced that she was the right person to play Lucy. She is a genius.
We considered a lot of different people for Clint. Both felt a bit more open to interpretation than Lucy in a lot of ways from the point of view of their age and their appearance. I wanted Clint to be an actor with a gift for comedy, perhaps five to ten years older than Lucy. He needed to be someone with a certain innate likability that allows the audience to quickly forgive him for his misdeeds. The script does a great job of rationalizing forgiveness for him, but he’s playing this smarmy, dishonest, sometimes crazy man for so much of the film that we wanted someone who would make it easy for the audience to like them when the story resolves itself. Also, because he is speaking off camera (off dimension?) for so much of the movie it was important to cast someone with a really interesting, emotive speaking voice. Colin fit the bill in every way. I’ve always been a fan of his so it was a thrill to work with him.
It was fun, but challenging to consider different people for Rydell. I had a hard time picturing exactly who it might be at first, truth be told. We needed an actor who could be believable as someone who Lucy finds mysterious in an intriguing way, but also capable of playing someone who is vulnerable. I think that great actors really relish an opportunity to play against type. What was so intriguing about Justin is that he’s someone who often plays parts where he is sort of the cool, together guy, but you always get the sense that there’s something different there, just bubbling beneath the surface. I think that, like Alison, he responded to the part because it’s something that felt like it was within his range, but sufficiently challenging so as to be interesting. For six weeks Justin got to come in one or two days each week and, as he puts it, “swing for the bleachers for a few hours”. He’s not really in a huge number of scenes if you really look at it, but they are all meaty, important scenes. The only day where he was on set for more than half of the day was when we shot the scenes at the cliffs. He’s become one of my favourite people since working with him. Such a nice guy and such a wonderful actor.
Nearly every other part was cast through a series of auditions which we held with our casting directors Jason Knight and John Buchan. I’d worked with Jason before on short films and he and John did a terrific job of calling in some great people to audition for every supporting role. We had multiple people who gave great auditions for every part and there were some very hard decisions to be made. I’m so pleased with the work that everyone did. It’s such a performance-driven piece and if anybody didn’t feel right then the whole thing could just come undone. One particularly strong performance was Robin Brule as Verna, but I thought the various suitors, Lucy’s dad and everyone else involved did a great job too! I learned so much from them. My brother Simon Wernham played Jerry, one of the garbage men/volunteer firefighters. It was a really fun to get to work with him because he’s one of my best friends.
FGN: Do you have a favorite character in the film? Who do you relate most to?
Nick Wernham: I find all of the characters really interesting and I think that I connect with certain things in most of them.
In an earlier answer I mentioned how I think I connect with Lucy and Rydell. I can relate to their relationship with love as an idea and to their insecurity around revealing their true selves to others.
A lot of the time, as you can see with these responses to your questions, I can be a bit more verbose than would be ideal. That’s one of Clint’s problems too. He doesn’t know when to shut up!
Similarly, I’m inclined towards overanalyzing things like Vernon. I’ve also always been a bit shy around people who I don’t know very well and as a lad I was definitely very bookish. The former is something that I’ve gotten a little better at and the latter is something that I’m trying to rekindle. Reading is important!
At one point I had a bit of a drinking problem for a lot of the same reasons that Willie does. I think that he feels listless in a similar way to how I did back then. He’s covering his insecurities with alcohol.
I think that, on balance, I’m an optimist like Jon. I get excited by ideas quite easily and when I get excited I get obsessed with those ideas.
At one point, I had a little crush on one of my teachers like Alex does. I admired how kind she was and how excited she made me about the subject she was teaching.
Howard I don’t relate to as much. I guess he’s the exception.
FGN: Do you have a theory of where the hole in Lucy’s living room came from?
Nick Wernham: Well, I should start by saying that I love that any questions surrounding the hole’s reason for being are never really answered in the story. To my mind, doing so would distract from what the film is really about. The hole is there to serve as a kind of metaphor for the unknown, emphasizing the fact that sometimes personal growth comes from being exposed to new and challenging experiences. Focusing on it too much would diminish that message. A film that does that might well be a good film too, but doing so would not fit in this film.
My theory is that the hole was put there by fate to protect Lucy and Clint from loving dishonestly. It’s as if the fates, like the people of Spot Valley, love Lucy so much that they can’t bear to see her make that mistake. There’s some similarity to the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. In order to find herself and her chance at love Lucy must deal with this trial that the fates have presented her with. I suppose that’s more magical realism than science fiction, as some people would probably be more inclined to describe it as because of the presence of a black hole, but it’s how I choose to interpret it.
FGN: No Stranger Than Love takes place in a picturesque little town. Is this a real town or was it a set built for the film?
Nick Wernham: The only scenes which we shot in studio were all of the scenes inside Lucy’s house (including the basement), Alex’s treehouse, and Vernon’s study. Everything else was on location in smaller towns near Toronto. Some of the towns were Unionville, Pickering, Caledon East, and Whitevale. The exterior of Lucy’s house is this beautiful place in Whitevale. We were having a hard time finding just the right location for a while and then our locations team turned up that idea and I feel in love with the place right away. Our production designer Adam Wilson and his team did a terrific job building the sets and dressing them along with all of our locations. The art department were some of the stars on this project for sure.
FGN: Is the town in No Stranger Than Love anywhere like where you grew up?
Nick Wernham: Not at all. I am a city boy for the most part. I guess that I have spent a fair bit of time in the country, but I grew up in downtown Toronto and have lived here most of my life. The shots at the beginning and end of the film where Lucy is approaching the cliffs and the exterior shots of Alex’s treehouse were shot at a farm that I spent a lot of time at as a child though. It’s in Caledon East.
FGN: How did you react when you found out that the Newport Beach Film Festival wanted to use No Stranger than Love as their closing night film?
Nick Wernham: I was thrilled! I’ve been visiting Orange County for years with my family and I love the place. The Lido Live Theatre is beautiful too. My good friend Michael Sparaga had a film play at the festival some years ago and before I went down to support No Stranger Than Love he was telling me how thrilled he was that our movie would be playing at the Lido. When I saw it for the first time I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. What a place! It’s like something out of a Frank Capra or Frank Darabont movie. Just stunning. And the festival itself is so well run. I couldn’t be more impressed and of course it was a great honour for our film to show on the closing night.
I also saw one of my new favourite movies at the festival. La Passion D’Augustine is a wonderful French Canadian film directed by Léa Pool. It’s such a wonderful piece. The acting and cinematography were unbelievable. The story was funny, heartfelt and made some very interesting points about people’s relationship with religion and government in a time of important change in Quebec. The music is just exquisite too.
FGN: What can you tell us about your next project “The Death and Life of Martin Quick?”
Nick Wernham: This is the synopsis which we are currently using for the film: “Imagine suddenly waking up in the afterlife, even though you are not yet dead. That’s what happens to Martin Quick. The victim of an error by the vast and chaotic afterlife administration, Martin sets off on a journey to get back to his life. In the process, he travels through a bizarre world populated by an apparently absentee God, bureaucratic angels of death, afterlife gangsters and ultimately hell, where he searches out Lucifer, the one person able and willing to “help” him. In the process Martin, aided by the beautiful Beatrice, a guardian angel, gains a fresh perspective on the many mistakes he has made in his shallow, but outwardly successful life. If he can only get past Lucifer while still keeping his soul, he may have the chance to become a changed man. The story is an inspiring but comedic combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooged, with elements of Brazil and Office Space.”
It’s a story which is very special to me. It began its life as a novel that my father was writing about ten years ago called The Afterlife Adventures of Joseph Kay about a fund manager who winds up in the afterlife accidentally. Over time the lead character’s name has changed and he has become more of an anti-hero. Joseph was a bit more neutral than Martin is. I can’t wait to make this movie. We’re going to camera in October.
FGN: Is there a wide release date for No Stranger Than Love?
Nick Wernham: Not yet. Hopefully soon.
FGN: Where can our readers follow your projects and the progress of No Stranger Than Love?
Nick Wernham: The best place is nostrangerthanlove.com or @nstlmovie on Twitter. I don’t have a personal web site yet, but I do use Twitter and Facebook a lot. My Twitter account is @NickWernham and my Facebook account is my name too. I post a lot about our projects and filmmaking in general. If you can put up with me indulging in some talk about baseball or music then go ahead and add me or send me a message if you’re so inclined.