Words: Jesse Locke
Something strange is lurking in the wilds of Nova Scotia. For their feature film debut, Dog Day frontman Seth Smith and Divorce Records / Obey Convention head honcho Darcy Spidle put their primary projects on the backburner to conjure the spine-chilling visions of Lowlife. Like a Maritime twist on The Blair Witch, the black and white horror follows a drug-addled musician haunted by a ‘Mudman’, psychotropic starfish and other creepy creatures.
“There seems to be a particular kind of alienation that comes from living in the sticks that, for better or worst, forces a person inward,” Spidle explains. “I suppose Lowlife exploits this idea. On a more aesthetic level, I think using the forest and ocean in early spring gave our film a rugged look and feel. The actors and crew were always hurting, wet, and cold. It was often a brutal experience, and I hope it shows on the screen.”
With a perfectly spooky shooting location in the weathered forests outside their front door, Lowlife began as a man vs. wild adventure. Yet in Smith’s words, their original intentions to create a survivalist story spun off into far more surrealist territory as the project took on a life of its own.
“The fantasy/drug concept was a way to allow us some experimentation in filming and not have to commit to a realistic, linear narrative,” he says. “As for the black and white look, I thought it would go nicely with the movie’s dark tone, and it seemed like an interesting take on a psychedelic drug flick. The name Lowlife came from a prop we had on set. I had made up a bunch of fake book spines for a bookshelf shot, and over time, seeing it in the scene, it just sort of summed it all up… and maybe reflected how we were feeling making it.”
For the pair of musicians turned filmmakers, it’s a no-brainer that the soundtrack would also play a primary role. On top of fittingly freaky cuts from artists like black metal vet Burzum, Italian experimentalists My Cat Is An Alien (recently released on Divorce) and Chad VanGaalen’s electronic alter-ego Black Mold, Lowlife also features Seth’s first attempts at the tuba with some low-pitched drones guaranteed to rumble your bowels.
“Seth learned to play tuba with the record button on,” says Spidle. “Of course, the playing is manipulated and touched by the spirit as well. He came up with some murky stuff, and it works. The movie is all about dirt, parasites, mud, and discomfort, so we wanted the soundtrack to match. We used a lot of experimental or outer sound type music. With the exception of one ‘70s track by some hippy monks, there aren’t any typical songs. It’s all squelch and screech from a bunch of our favourite experimenters.”
One final flourish is the Lychian voiceover throughout the film. No, it’s not a backwards-talking dwarf in a snazzy red suit, but Smith’s father-in-law, Ogi. Here’s the story:
“We wanted something different for the narrative parts that had some sort of tie to the region,” says Smith. “Also, since the role of the narrator was played by an animal, it seemed like it shouldn’t be in English. We were initially looking for someone who spoke Gaelic, and Ogi was always in the back of my mind. He’s a real old world guy with a fairly unique German/Newfoundland accent. We were having a couple Scotches one night and he was telling me a sadistic story about how he used to shoot his friend between the eyes with a slingshot to teach them a lesson. I took him downstairs and recorded the lines right after and it fit the part perfectly.”
“It was a really last minute idea,” adds Spidle. “I was basically writing the poems and emailing them to Seth minutes before Ogi would read them. It’s funny, I guess he got quite emotional. We ended up having to subtitle his narration to make sense of what he was saying.”
Bypassing the casting couch or awkward Craigslist interactions, Smith reached out to recognizable faces from the Halifax music community such as members of Catbag, Bad Vibrations and lead actress Kate Hartigan, who had previously appeared in a Dog Day music video. Yet based on a history of unhinged methodology, there were no doubts in his mind who would be the star.
“Darcy has always been a captivating performance artist, usually under the name of Chik White,” says Smith. “I remember seeing him once at a show, slicing his guitar and hands with a butcher knife and screaming at the audience of 10 people. He definitely brought that mentality to the film, somehow ending up as a weird GG Allin / De Niro cross with some Chaplin slapstick. A real stellar performance for an impossible role. I had to talk him out of living in a coyote’s den for a week before the shoot.”