ISA award-winning Trent Newton: “Horror is always fun to play with”

After the romantic drama “Gift Giver”, Canadian film director Trent Newton brought us a challenging, dark narrative in the impressive thriller short “Contrition”, double awarded in ISA’s July season.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, film director Trent Newton grew up with a passion for filmmaking. Pursuing his goal to tell new and interesting stories, he achieved a Bachelors Degree, with Honours, from Humber College for Film Production.


ISA: Doing a 20-minute thriller with a budget of $5,000, is that scary enough for a filmmaker?

Trent Newton: I would say that the relatively small budget for “Contrition” was more of a benefit than anything. When you’re making a film, particularly a short, it’s important to determine exactly what you NEED to tell the story properly, rather than what you WANT. An increase in the budget can certainly lead to securing a more expensive camera to rent, extra gear to use, negotiating the use of a location, but sometimes that can result in a team having too many toys in the box, and losing sight of telling a more reserved, character-driven story, which “Contrition” is. I had an amazing DP, Taylor Amos, who provided most of the camera gear for the shoot himself, while our Camera Operator, Sam Davies, had personal access to a Ronin, which helped capture some of the more dreamlike shots in the opening and ending sequences. That’s what we NEEDED, and it came free of charge. This helped focus the budget on what was most important, paying the cast and crew for their work on the film. We got lucky with “Contrition” and managed to secure great locations and gear without having to pay more than $500-$1000, while the rest of the expenses went towards providing compensation for the shoot, which is sort of a golden rule that I follow.

Trent Newton on the set of "Contrition"
Trent Newton on the set of “Contrition”

ISA: What made you decide to make this film?

TN: I always want to make a drastic shift in tone and style when I move onto a new project, it keeps things fresh and also prevents you from falling into the trap of being tied to one particular genre. The two previous films I had directed were a romantic drama and a mockumentary superhero film, so I sat back and thought for a long time, writing tons of ideas down, sending sides out to actors that I was interested in working with, trying to find a compelling character and an equalling compelling story to build around that character. I’ve always been a fan of the thriller, keeping the audience at the edge of your seat from the first moment to the last, so I decided I was going to make a psychological thriller. “Ok,” I said to myself, so I’m going to make a film about a serial killer, how do I keep that interesting and fresh when there are so, so many films out there that deal with the same subject matter. The only horror film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar (“Silence of the Lambs”) is about serial killers, so I do I subvert the audience’s expectations and not just cover the same material? I kill the serial killer off in the first 5 minutes, that’s how! So when you watch the film, certain beats are playing in those opening scenes that give off the impression of “Alright, this is going to be about her tracking this guy down, they have a confrontation, she gets revenge” then BAM, guess what? He’s dead, you didn’t get to see it happen, we’re going to follow the emotional aftermath of this event now, that’s what the film is about. Now you’re not exactly sure what to expect from the piece, which is what I love about movies. And it instantly makes Claire Gagnon-King, as the lead character, far more interesting of a protagonist, because she’s reached her breaking point mentally less than 20% into the film, and we’re going to now watch her go even further into madness.

ISA: What did you want to tell to the audience with “Contrition”?

TN: When you get down to it, I’ve grown tired of the way most mainstream films deliver their information to the audience. People say exactly how they feel, exactly what motivates them, exposition is delivered as if filmmakers are scared the audience won’t understand what they’re going for, so they settle for the most basic way of communicating the story in a film, dialogue. I’ve never been a big fan of dialogue, so that was one of the first goals of “Contrition”; be able to tell a story through the visuals, through glances between characters, use music, use sound effects, use color to get your point across. The frame should be what is talking to the audience, shot composition and the length of each shot is a vital tool that so, so many filmmakers fail to utilize. So it became a mission to tell the audience, essentially, use your brain, this movie is a puzzle box and you don’t have a reference to build it. Not everyone may get exactly what I intended, but that’s okay, I think it’s fun, especially with this film, to be able to take from it what you bring into it. I’ve heard many different interpretations of the material from my friends after they’ve gone into the story blind, and I’ve found that very amusing.

ISA: How difficult is it to explore the psychological level in a film so short, and manage to make the audience believe in the characters and feel emotionally linked?

TN: One word, very. It’s very difficult, and there are many points in production where you can stumble and not hit a certain moment properly. Most of the seeds for issues that a film faces are planted in the writing, and the casting. If your script is poorly written and thought out, it doesn’t matter if you have Roger Deakins shooting it, or Daniel Day-Lewis as your lead, it’s still a poor script, only slightly elevated by the talent. So I spent months ensuring “Contrition” would be a story people would be interested in seeing. Then I spent another month focusing on shot design, how to properly capture each and every moment. During all of this I’m sending material out to incredible performers to send self-tapes back, and I love that process. It’s soul-crushing to have to choose sometimes because I truly had the privilege of seeing some amazing self-tapes from actors I really look forward to working with in the future, but in the end, you have to make a decision. And it’s lucky that I’m usually right with my gut instinct, hahah, because everyone we cast for “Contrition” was amazing, and such a pleasure to work with. I had been hoping to work with Claire Gagnon-King for several years and was really excited to offer her the part. We had both expressed interest in exploring a really dark character, so I always had her in my mind while building the narrative. She brought her A-Game and I couldn’t be prouder of her performance. The same goes for the rest of the cast, including Holly McCourt, who I knew from high school!! Horror is always fun to play with because you can take it in so many different directions. It’s amazing how much fun darker material can be to film, everyone had a blast on the shoot but sometimes we would stand back and think about what we were making, and start to question our sanity. I think you’ve got to be a little crazy to make films, especially horror/thrillers. We had to film the people being tortured at the start, and you talk to these incredibly open and talented performers, and just explore ideas that you’re all comfortable with shooting. You go back and forth about how much you want to show, how far you want to go, and then you just film it, and have fun with it! The most important element to remember is that you have to ensure the audience is going to get an emotional reaction from your work, so at the end of the day, it all boils down to a great script and actors that you 100% trust and they trust you back, so you can head into that material together.

Trent Newton
Trent Newton

ISA: Are you happy with the final result, or would you go back and change something?

TN: I am incredibly proud of “Contrition”, both as a film and of the hard work given by the cast and crew to bring the story to life. You can always tell on a shoot when a project is going well, or not, and as we were moving through each shot and I was seeing everything that had been in my head for months come to life, I knew that it would be a product people would be intrigued by and the most professional looking film I’d directed yet. That is always a wonderful feeling. It’s difficult to look back at a production and think about shots you aren’t 100% happy with, maybe if we spent a little more time, maybe I could’ve given this direction, you’ll never know if it would’ve truly altered the perception of the final product. I don’t think it’s right to look back, a film is all about adapting and being open to change. Things aren’t always going to go your way, in fact, things have a habit of going the complete opposite of how you expected them to play out, but that’s part of the fun! I do love tweaking the edit though, I’m very obsessive when it comes to that area of production. Some people hate editing, but I love it, and I think that’s a benefit when we’re shooting the film because I shoot with the edit in mind. When I build a shot list, I have a fairly strong idea of how the scene is going to play out when I cut it together, and when you can see that far ahead to the edit, your shoot will move at a better pace and you’ll really capture what matters.

ISA: What’s next?

TN: I have a cycle system where I’ll be putting one film through post-production and beginning pre-production on another. With “Contrition” heading into the festival circuit, I’m developing new ideas and thinking of that next shift in style and tone that will make for an enjoyable story, something that actors will really enjoy playing with and that the audience is going to be thoroughly entertained by. I have a ton of incredibly passionate actors and crew members looking to collaborate, so certain stories are in various stages of development. I want to move away from the dark, cerebral narrative and head in a more action-oriented direction; wittier characters, greater stakes, something fun! So for now, I’d say action adventure is where I’m heading next, and I plan on having several new films out in the fall and winter, always learning, always refining, and always enjoying what I do. You can’t get much better than that.

Cast and crew of "Contrition"
Cast and crew of “Contrition”

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