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School shootings, a depressingly familiar aspect of American society, have been the subject of a surprisingly broad range of films.
Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002), was a treatise against American gun culture. Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning Elephant (2003), took a radically banal approach, depicting the day of a school shooting as largely ordinary and uneventful. Until it wasn’t. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) focused on the mother of a shooter, played by Tilda Swinton, who questions her parenting and herself after her son commits an atrocity. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018), starring Natalie Portman, takes the bird’s eye view, showing how the sickening repetition of these massacres, and their endless, cliched framing on U.S. media, have traumatized American youth.
With Lakewood, which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12, the focus is back on the mother. Naomi Watts plays Amy Carr, a woman whose son is caught up in a school shooting, though it is not clear — not until near the end of this taut thriller from Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) — whether he is a victim or the shooter himself.
The other radical choice made by Noyce is not to show any images of the violence itself. Instead, in an approach similar to contained thrillers The Guilty and Locke, Lakewood focuses entirely on Watts’ character as she runs through the woods (she was on her morning jog when she got the news about the shooting) trying desperately to find out what has happened and if her child is safe.
“We fully supported Phillip’s vision not to glamourize any aspect of the violence or the shooter,” says Zack Schiller, one of the producers of Lakewood. “to not take the easy or lazy approach but to tell this story entirely from the perspective of Naomi’s character.”
The contained nature of the story was one of the primary appeals for Watts, who came to the project via Lakewood screenwriter Chris Sparling.
“I’d worked with Chris on Sea of Trees (2015), which he wrote and I knew he had written another film, Buried (2010) with Ryan Reynolds, which was also a contained story, told from one person’s perspective,” says Watts. “I thought it was an approach worth unpacking. Because I also live with the same dread and fear that most people have around this subject matter.”
Lakewood shot in Northern Ontario, in 6 square miles of woods near North Bay, about 4.5 hours north of Toronto. The isolated location and the relatively small crew make it an ideal project to shoot during COVID.
“We were the first project to start production in North American under COVID and the first to finish,” says Schiller. We got in and out without anyone getting sick.”
Instead of shooting short takes of every scene, Noyce had Watts copy the experience of her character, running full tilt through the woods, gasping for breath as she tries to call the police, the school, and anyone who can help her.
“I’d been running and running in character and after 10 takes the physical emotion would just kick in, I’d be living the experience of this character,” says Watts. “I don’t think I could have done it differently. I literally had to be on my toes because I’d trip up in the woods, or we’d lose cell service, the connection to the actors on the other line who were performing the scenes live with me.”
The experience took its toll on the two-time Oscar nominee.
“I have a bit of a fitness background and I consider myself quite agile,” she says, “but I needed to train to get my body back to a place where I could handle that much running…Luckily they had a physical therapist on set who was an absolute genius woman. She was there on my body the whole time, after the end of the day or even at the lunch break. She’s a marathon runner herself and she was said I must have run the equivalent of two marathons in those two weeks of production.”
But, Watts says, it will be worth it if Lakewood, which is being sold by UTA Independent Film Group, Endeavor Content, and CAA Media Finance for the U.S. and by Mister Smith Entertainment internationally, can spark new discussions around the issue of gun violence.
“School shootings were definitely not part of how I grew up and it was not a conversation that I was aware of as a child,” Watts says. “But the world has changed a lot since then, and it is something we all now fear. That such an innocent place like a school can be so vulnerable is such a horrible thing. I’m not trying to be prescriptive in what should be done to help. It’s not for me to decide on policies or come up with solutions. But I hope this film can help crack open the conversation.”
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