Melanie Oates on BODY & BONES and Developing A Story From Page To Screen

Writer Melanie Oates makes her feature length directorial debut with BODY & BONES (2019), a coming-of age story set in Newfoundland.  Tess (Kelly Van der Burg) is lonely and struggling after her mother’s death until she meets local musician and rebel, Danny Sharpe (Joel Thomas Hynes).  When she follows him to St. John’s, Tess soon realizes Danny may not be as charming as he had previously presented. had the opportunity to discuss Oates’ film with her and gain insights into her truthful and evocative piece.

CineFlix Daily:  Visually, the film is stunning and visceral, were there any influences or pieces you took inspiration from?

Melanie Oates: Jordan Kennington was the cinematographer for film. And he and I watched a bunch of films together when we were prepping. And one of our main influences was FISH TANK (2009) by Andrea Arnold; we really loved the way that the camera moved in that and how you stayed so much in the protagonist’s perspective, which was what we really aim to do in our film.

CFD:  How was the process of seeing your characters transform from page to screen?  Did your views of them change at all?

MO: I think especially for Tess and Danny, obviously, Kelly Van der Burgh, who plays Tess, and Joel Thomas Hynes, who plays Danny, they’re both such amazing actors, and bring so much to their characters. I made a bunch of short films before and the struggle that I’d always had was trying to really get exactly what you imagine on the page out of the performers. And with them, they were so amazing that I really didn’t have to do that much. They really embody the characters and so to have you see them come to life was an amazing experience.

CFD:  Especially with Joel Thomas Hynes playing Danny as well, who’s known for his outlandish characters and being a writer as well.  Did that affect the collaboration and bringing out Danny?  Did that affect Van der Burgh’s exploration of Tess?

MO:  Joel has actually been a friend of mine for about 10 years and an amazing writer, is a Governor General award-winning writer and so I had a chance to sit down with him before we started shooting and kind of go through the script, and not just for his character, but for the entire script and the story beats.  Getting his input on that was an opportunity that you have to take advantage of. And so he had lots of great ideas, and even in terms of dialogue tweaks and things like that to really make Danny more grounded and authentic, and he has such a way of delivering lines that is a signature kind of thing that gave Danny, I think, a lot of specific personality.

CFD:  So, at the end, viewers are kind of left curious as to Tess’ next steps. So what do you want people to take away from her story?

MO:  For me, it’s about when you’re at that kind of vulnerable age of- late teens, early 20s- it can be a really hard time for a lot of people. And it’s that you can go through all these things, like have this devastating heartbreak of loss of a loved one, go through an abortion, and that those things don’t have to then define who you are for the rest of your life; that they can be a part of your story, but don’t necessarily have to be the entire story. So for me, I think it’s that she has gone through all this, and now she’s starting a new chapter.

CFD:  So, it’s a relatable and relevant story; a lot of women like go through this story, especially. So why not set it today?

MO: I was relating it to when I was that age, which I was 18. And I think, like 2006. So I just felt connected to that time period, but also I really didn’t want to deal with cell phones and social media and that kind of aspect. Because if it was set now that would have to play a significant role in the story because Tess will be on social media on the internet, kind of finding out everything that you could about Danny and that wasn’t really an element that I was interested in for this story.

CFD:  In some ways, some people could read this story as kind of cautionary tale, but I also feel it can be read as unflinchingly truthful. What was your approach? And how do you balance out those two concepts?

MO:  It’s a tough one, because you can’t really learn from other people’s experiences, just by being told about them. We all kind of have to go through these things ourselves in order to fully comprehend and learn and grow and reap the benefits of those painful lessons. So I think it’s impossible to live a life or even undesirable to live a life that’s without any kind of pain. So it’s definitely helpful to me. And I feel like at the end of the day, it’ll help her to be more grounded in who she is. So I hope that that’s how people feel.

CFD:  So as Canada’s film industry is growing, the East Coast is getting more attention and more space to tell stories. We’re seeing more productions being filmed and taking place there. Is that an area you want to explore further to branch out?

MO:  I definitely love filming in Newfoundland, especially, and I have a couple of film projects that I’m developing now to shoot here. It’s a really specific place, and if you shoot something in Newfoundland, Newfoundland kind of becomes a character in the story. So it has a lot to offer. But I definitely want to do some TV directing and things like that. And I’d love to film anywhere in Canada and in the world.

CFD:  Is there anything you want viewers to know about the film that we haven’t touched on?

MO:  Um, I don’t think so. You know, I just what I really wanted to do with the film was make Tess as raw and as vulnerable as I could and really peel away any false layers. And I think we see a lot in coming of age films, especially about young women in that age group who are tough and rough around the edges and kind of more, let’s say, aggressive or confident.  I really wanted to show a kind of quieter version of somebody in that age group going through those kinds of things. And I hope that there are people who see the film who feel seen by seeing her.

Oates has achieved in creating a moving film that is an honest visual embrace of the loss of innocence and the gaining of experience.  Through her honest depiction and immersive storytelling techniques, BODY & BONES is a reflexive and artistic piece that moves viewers to reflect on their own transformative periods.  Oates’ literary background and experience in the film industry have made for strong foundations for her initiation into features.  With inspiration from Arnold’s film and her peers in production, BODY & BONES is a captivating and emotional watch.

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