TIFF Interview: Alan Gilsenan on “Unless”


The perspective of life changes every minute, and for some even faster.  In Alan Gilsenan’s UNLESS, based on Carol Shield’s novel, you will find an interesting concept; the story of a young teenage girl who decides to test her limits as well as the limits of her family, which I should say, not everyone would ever be able to handle.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I simply could not pass on an opportunity to talk with the director Alan Gilsenan, who gladly shared his experience of making his feature film that you should certainly see screening this Friday onwards.

MOVIEMOVESME: What in this story was so attractive that you decided to adapt it for a film?

Alan Gilsenan: I remember I read the novel; somebody gave it me and said, “Read this.” In many ways it’s a very internal novel and it’s a very philosophical novel. Something just struck a chord; I think there’s a certain amount of mystery and magic in all this. There was a sense of wisdom and humanity into it, the author knowing it was her last book as she was dying. It felt somehow that it was an important story.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was there added pressure to make the movie as close to the book considering it was the author’s last?

Alan Gilsenan: There’s no point adapting a book unless you respect the author. Obviously there are changes you have to make while making a film to make it work but I think you have to start from the premise of respecting the book. Sadly, I never met the author, never had the chance to talk to her. I always felt that if there was something I was struggling with or get a handle on, the best thing is to go back to the book. When I went back to the book it was almost like she was talking to me.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you find a right location for your film?

Alan Gilsenan: It was kind of fortuitous in a way that if you have to build a set that extraordinary, circus-like and magical it costs a huge fortune in the art department. Honestly, it was the location that she had in the book. It does seem like the signs there have some kind of meaning in them but we didn’t design them and we worked with what we had and we did a certain amount of art department stuff. I can see why Carol would be attracted to it because of what it represents; of course it’s now gonna be torn down and build condominiums there. So the nice thing is that this kind of iconic building, which is circus-like, Vegas-like will be preserved on film.

MOVIEMOVESME: Why do you think Nora, the character, had to make such a choice?

Alan Gilsenan: One of the things I like about the book and hope is in the film is that in a way you have to bring yourself into understanding that it’s not all easily laid out to be seen and it’s resolved. You almost have to imagine yourself in Nora’s mind. Obviously she felt the need because of the events that transpired in the end to take that place on behalf of other people. When researching the film I walked in the city, took photographs with people. I think all these people say something about ourselves; they’re speaking to us. I think Nora decided to take up that mantle as an outcast. I think the audience should bring to that what they feel in the book and allows the audience to connect with this in a real way.

MOVIEMOVESME: How many Noras did you have before choosing the right one?

Alan Gilsenan: Well, I met a lot of really fine actors in the course of casting for the film. But Hannah has something unique I think. It’s an unusual part where she doesn’t speak and yet she able to convey through her eyes and emotion; that’s a very difficult thing for an actor. Yet what I found with Hannah, she has this extraordinary presence and intelligence and sensitivity. She’s not showy, in-your-face as an actress but you could feel the depth in her. In a way, looking back I don’t think it could’ve been anyone else.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you manage to involve Catherine Keener in the project?

Alan Gilsenan: I’ve known her (Catherine Keener) work for a long time and really admired her. I think she really is one of the great actors of our time. I talked to other actors and they just adore her. She’s really kind of revered and I felt she was perfect for the role and luckily she read it and connected with the material. I was so delighted when she said yes because she has no vanity as an actress. There’s a depth of humanity and emotion in her which in her character is kept beneath the surface but she expressed it through her eyes. She’s always true and honest.

MOVIEMOVESME: How long did it take to shoot this film before bringing it to this amazing festival?

Alan Gilsenan: The project had a long gestation, it took a while to get going. The actual shoot was very short, we shot it in March before last; it was quite intense, it was quite fast and the weather was really cold. I was away for a while post production, so that kind of delayed it.

MOVIEMOVESME: When the opportunity comes, what is the subject you would like to bring up in your next movie?

Alan Gilsenan: I don’t know; I like doing a variety of stuff and I like that. I loved doing Unless and it is an intimate, quiet film. But equally I’d be quite happy to do a thriller or a musical. I think probably my next project will be a little different or a lot different. But I quite like when a film allows you to go many different places in many different ways. Probably my next film will be a little noisier I suspect.


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