Charlie David is the director, writer and producer of the Shadowlands series. Shadowlands was his first time directing a scripted show so we sat down to discover the highs and lows of the process.
What was your inspiration for these three stories?
Charlie David: I’ve always loved Greek and Roman mythology and really used that passion as a springboard to write my book of short stories, also titled Shadowlands.
And in terms of cinema I appreciate a well crafted anthology film. I saw Wild Tales by director Damián Szifron and it was so incredibly well done. It inspired me to revisit my stories in Shadowlands and re-imagine them for the screen.
Why did you opt for this triptych style of presentation?
Charlie David: I’m sure the rule and magic of the number three has been ingrained in many of us from a religious standpoint – every major religion has numerological references and ‘3’ being ever present among them.
I think it’s also inherent to human psychology to understand that there is a natural order to the number three. Our modern and ancient story structure is most often presented in a three act structure – whether that’s television, film, books or other media.
There’s something innately satisfying when that triptych structure works – it leaves us feeling a sense of completion. And when it’s not followed, that’s often when we walk out of a film or set down a book once finished reading and feeling complacent, unmoved or unchanged.
The playwrights in Ancient Greece wrote for their audience to experience catharsis, they wanted to invoke an emotional response in the people watching because that’s how to incite change. An emotional response will provoke conversation after you leave the movie theatre, turn off the TV or put down a book.
To me that is our goal as creators – to leave our audience moved, educated, and emotionally open. In ancient Greece they held a large festival called the Dionysia and three full days were devoted to the performances of three playwrights – each presenting a set of three tragedies.
My inspiration for many of the Shadowlands stories both in the book and the TV miniseries were these ancient myths. Though I’ve told them in modern settings, I still wanted to honor as many details as I could from their story roots and that included their presentation in a tragic trilogy.
What’s the connection between the three stories that form Shadowlands?
Charlie David: Shadowlands is an anthology style series that explores love in three separate stories – a couple renegotiating a relationship, a narcissist grasping to comprehend it, and star-crossed lovers mourning its loss.
The series begins in 1928 with Alex, a plastic surgeon hell-bent on perfection, hosting a house party with an assortment of colorful guests. Amid romantic misfires it becomes apparent that the only person Alex is interested in is himself.
Fast forward to 1951 and a gay military couple exploring the idea of opening their relationship while on a remote camping trip when they encounter a mysterious stranger.
The stories conclude in 2018 with a painter who in mourning the loss of his lover, becomes obsessed with creating a realistic painting of him. The resulting piece is so beautiful and life like that he is drawn under its spell.
What does Shadowlands tell us about love?
Charlie David: Love to me is like the face of God or of the unknown. It’s a multi-faceted diamond and each way you turn it in the light you will see something different.
In Shadowlands I’ve explored three stories of characters gazing into different sides of this multi-faceted diamond. Each of them is seeing and experiencing love, the loss or expansion of love in a different way. Just as I hope each person who watches the show will see aspects known and unknown to them reflected back.
The first story, Narcissus is really about someone who has not exercised his emotional toolbox enough to comprehend empathy and love – like many of us in our youth.
The second story, Mating Season is about a couple negotiating the often prickly subject of non-monogamy or polyamory. Is it possible to fully love another but also have room in your heart to expand beyond the traditional norms of our society? Does the addition of new experiences diminish the already present love in a relationship or can it multiply it?
The final story, Pygmalion Revisited is about the tragic loss of love – something that all of us will face in life whether it be a family member, friend or lover.
What was the production process? How long to write? How long to film? Was it difficult to find the locations you needed?
Charlie David: I wrote the Shadowlands book over the course of a year. The adaptations for screen took another year in writing amid doing several other projects. Pre-production including financing, development, casting, and all the other myriad jobs that go into prepping a show took another 6 months. We filmed a total of 20 days. Editing and post production was 6 months.
The locations were challenging to find. I had a vision in mind and if you have a massive budget that’s one thing – you can just go into studio and build sets until you get it right. But that wasn’t the case here.
I had restrictions based on my funding that required I shoot outside of the Toronto studio zone, in fact at least an hour’s drive outside Toronto in any direction so my scouting consisted of a lot of road trips to various other cities and towns in Ontario to try find what I was hoping for.
In the end I’m super happy with our locations and there really are so many inspiring places. More often than not, even when I didn’t find the perfect match for Shadowlands, I’d find myself feeling the inspiration for other stories in these smaller cities and beautiful landscapes.
What was the casting process?
Charlie David: I worked with Jason Stroud from Fade to Black casting and we saw a lot of actors based in Toronto. That’s one of my favorite parts of the film making process. As an actor myself, working as a producer and director has given me so much insight into production.
I can’t tell you how many times you have really equally talented people as options for the same role and it comes down to the most inane things – a comment on hairstyle from a network exec, height matching with another actor, the list goes on.
If you’re an actor reading this, please just keep bringing your authentic self to the work and when you’re done the audition leave it at the door. There are so many factors that come into casting that are absolutely subjective. The toughest lesson an actor has to learn is to not take the rejection personally, to disintegrate the ego – there’s going to be a lot of rejection no matter who you are – most of the time it has absolutely nothing to do with you.
That’s why I think actors are some of the craziest people on the planet and why I love them so much. They pay for ongoing classes, they spend hours memorizing and living other people’s words in preparation for auditions, they drive all over town repeatedly to go to job interview after job interview, they are constantly physically and emotionally scrutinized. Most have multiple jobs to simply juggle the demands of living in a major city in order to pursue their passion and the lucky few actually get to work from time to time.
It’s also why I think it’s incredibly important to continue creating scripted content with an LGBTQ+ focus. Most of us within this space are still learning the ropes, we’re still figuring it out because we’re finally getting the green lights and more importantly finally giving ourselves the green lights to actually go out and make the stories we want to make – the ones where we see ourselves and our lives reflected on the screen.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Shadowlands?
Charlie David: Something. Just something! Seriously, I never want to inform or telegraph to an audience what they should feel. My goal when creating is to make you think outside of your comfort zone. I want to push the envelope and as Rumi so perfectly stated, to go ‘Out beyond the ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’
Who are some of your film heroes or inspirations?
Charlie David: Xavier Dolan. Absolutely. He’s my fellow Canadian director of course and the guy is brilliant. He knows fashion, pop culture, has so much emotional depth and just understands what makes us tick.
I’ve watched and re-watched all his films many times and they never stop teaching me about the art of film-making. When he was making his latest film, The Life and Death of John F. Donovan I was asked to come photo double and stand-in for Kit Harington. I jumped at the opportunity because even though I wouldn’t be acting in the film myself, it was an incredible learning opportunity. I got to be in the room during the rehearsals and blocking with the director, cinematographer and actors.
And since Kit was the lead, his scenes were with Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon, Michael Gambon, and Jessica Chastain to name a few of the star-studded cast. The film was also shot on film so that was an exciting process to witness.
To see how many hours would go into lighting a shot, the decisions to have a star like Jessica Chastain film all these scenes and then ultimately be edited out of the film, to really know what your vision is so completely and instinctively that you won’t proceed until it’s right.
That’s how Xavier Dolan works and it’s humbling, provocative and just really fucking cool to watch. Obviously I don’t compare the level I’m working at with Xavier’s – they are apples and oranges in terms of budget, scope and talent. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to witness and work in that arena once in a while as it’s incredibly inspiring.
What next for Charlie David?
Charlie David: A camping trip with friends. I love the great outdoors. 😉 In my work life – there’s always lots of projects on the go. Right now I’m producing a dating show, a cooking show, 2 documentaries and writing my next scripted show. You can stay up to date with me on my social and website.