White Lie is a 2019 drama film that follows popular university student Katie Arneson, who gets caught up in a lie when she tells everyone that she has cancer and strives to keep up appearances.
Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, the filmmakers behind the film "White Lie," spoke with BT interviewer Nace DeSanders on the different elements of making the film, which is now available to watch via VOD and digital platforms now.
Listen to the podcast episode and read the interview transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Hey, movie fans. My name is Nace DeSanders and I am here with the writer/directors of White Lie - Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. White Lie is the story of a well-liked university student who lies about being diagnosed with cancer and struggles to keep it a secret. It hit various digital streaming platforms on January 5th, 2021. So, please do check this one out. Yonah and Calvin, thank you for being here!
YL: Oh, thanks for having us. It's our pleasure to be here.
I love the film. I got plenty of questions for you guys. You're both writing and directing together. How and when did you guys start working together?
CT: It's been 15 years actually, like 15 years in January. So, I think we get that question a lot. Oftentimes, you have co-writers, sometimes you have co-directors, but it's more of a rare thing.
YL: And often, they're brothers.
CT: We're not related, but we started working together 15 years ago in film school, and in film school, most of the time people don't know anything. You're not exactly sure what you want to do. You don't know what movies do you like necessarily. We were very young at that time. So, we learned how to make movies together. We learned how to watch movies together and sort of taking films seriously happened. We knew we had similar sensibilities very, very early on and, and we didn't connect with a lot of our classmates. But clearly, the two of us just had something in common and I don't know there was a formal discussion of like, "Oh, we are now are writing-directing duo". Because in film school you do different roles and also it grew quite quickly towards that.
YL: But I remember on our thesis film or our final film we had to do in our final year, they wouldn't allow there to be like a co-director, kind of thing. One of us had to be director/one had to be producer, and we just fudged it and pretended that was going to be the case. And then, when it was done, we just made the credits what they actually were — which is we did everything together, and they just kind of accepted it. So, I do know right off the bat, there was a little bit of a sense of like, this isn't how you should be doing it, at least not to fill the roles in film school. And, we just kind of did what we wanted and eventually, they were okay with it.
Well, if it works, it works, and it definitely works. So, where did the idea for this film come from? I think it's so original!
YL: It came from real life. Calvin, I don't know, a decade ago or so heard about somebody doing this in real life. And, we were instantly taken with the idea. We right away....we sort of wanted to know who did this, what kind of person would do this? We were fascinated by that. And so we started looking into it and couldn't find much about that particular story, but we started realizing that it was a bit of a phenomenon, that a lot of people were doing this with the rise of the internet, with the rise of social media, the way it sort of presents our lives. It became a bigger and bigger thing. People hiding behind their laptops, hiding behind their phones, and pretending to be something that they are... I mean, obviously, that's a thing all over the place, but that coupled with people trying to get money on GoFundme, those kinds of places (Kickstarter, Indiegogo). A lot of people pretending to be sick. It's not a new thing, but it's easier and easier to do it. If you don't have to let someone see you. So right off the bat, we were interested in this thing, looked into it further, and started sort of plucking different parts different little character traits, or story elements from all sorts of different parts of life. So, it's not really taken from one individual story. It is its own creation, but it's influenced by a lot of stuff that happened out in the world.
So it sounds like there's a lot of research done for the film. Did you guys do any researching into different mental conditions for the main character? Cause it does seem like for Katie, this isn't a one-off thing. This is a compulsive habit.
YL: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that we found right off the bat was there was actually less on these people than we wanted there to be. We were hoping we'd be able to find more about it. Then it seemed readily available for us. We did learn about Munchausen by Internet, which is the term for people who are faking an illness through online means, we'd heard of Munchausen by Proxy before, but we hadn't heard Munchausen by Internet. So we did look into this. I mean, part of, I guess maybe what you're getting at with your question is what compels somebody to do this? And that was always what drove our interest in it. And hopefully, in the film, you're able to sort of come up with an idea of why she's doing this. We tried to not spoonfeed it too much to you. We thought if there was one flashback scene where you saw some horrible event that happened to her as a child or something — that was the sort of cause of all of this — it would feel a little on the nose. So for us, it was important that we gave you a lot of ideas. Our understanding of life as it was rarely as black and white as that. There's a lot of things that contribute to all of the decisions we make in our lives. And so for us, in this particular case, it was important that we gave you a lot of those shades of gray as to the reasons why she might be doing this, and let you put them together. And, we based the character, not only on people doing this in your life but also people we knew in real life. And so, not any of whom had done anything quite as horrific as this. But that helped to sort of just create that character and flesh them out and make them feel like somebody we all might know perhaps.
So Katie lives in this movie world where I love her, I love Katie as a character, but of course, if I met her in real life, I wouldn't want to associate, or be associated with her. So, what was the process behind creating a character like he, anywhere you're both compelled and repelled by her?
CT: Yeah. I mean, that was the thing that came up a lot from... I mean, we certainly questioned it as writers, but it was feedback that we got a lot from financiers/ funders/ people who were helping make the movie. It's this sort of like triggering thing or is it, it's a buzz word that people use unlikable, unlikable, the characters and it's, it always seems like we sort of roll our eyes when anyone says, Oh, your characters unlikeable because there's lots of precedent for unlikable characters who are compelling and fascinating. And I think we have to trust two things, one that in the script, she so dominated the film that you're winning every single moment that there is really no question that you are/were going to be attached to her in some ways because you there's just no choice you're with her, the entire movie she's in every single scene of the film. So, part of the attachment comes from just being forced to watch her.
But then also I think from a writing perspective, you want to try to...we tried to have fun with her being able to think on her toes; to be able to respond and react to things with very short notice and watch her be smart at the same time and wiggle out of you know, a tricky situation, but also be momentarily be vulnerable so that you could see how much she had planned ahead. And at sometimes you could see how little she had planned ahead. So, that was balanced that we felt like we could trust the script was compelling and fascinating. And even if you weren't repulsed by what she's doing — which everyone is — you are fascinated by seeing how far will she take this? How will she get away with it? And in some cases, we've heard from people that they're actually rooting for her cause you just don't want to see the fallout. You don't want to see the damage.
And the other aspect of feeling like we could succeed with a character like this was casting well, and casting Kacey. On the page, I think some of the financiers would read it and not really have that kind of imagination to be like, "Oh, someone's going to embody this. Someone is going to humanize it. Someone's going to make this character live and breathe." When you're reading a script... our script was very bare-bones in terms of description we didn't get into, Oh, let's describe the psychology of the character. Let's describe her hesitations because no one reads the description anyways, so our script is very dialogue-heavy. And I think maybe from the script — if you weren't thinking — "Oh, what kind of great actor could portray this/ bring this to life?" You may have doubts about the success of the film or the ability to pull off a character like this. But we kind of knew deep down that if we cast the right person, those issues just wouldn't be there. And, to our great delight and to significant reason why the film succeeds is just Kacey brought so much complexity to that role. And the reason why I think people are fascinated by the movie and want to follow it and are frustrated or have [a] complex about her (liking her/disliking her) is hugely attributed to Kacey.
Absolutely. She does a great job. I definitely feel like the character of Katie is something akin to Walter White and they're doing awful things, but I was definitely in the camp of people who are like, "Yeah, get away with it, just do it, "and see — like you said — how she at every turn can think on her feet. Just being good at something I think we all really like in a character. So, awesome character!
YL: You bring up an interesting point, I think, which is say Walter White in Breaking Bad. But which is that there are in popular culture, there are a lot of movies/TV where we have antihero men, sort of unlikeable men. Whereas we through this process started realizing how few female roles there were of people who are doing such horrible things that we were still meant to identify with them. And so, that was part of the process of trying to get people on board was just to say, like, just accept it. Like, be okay with this. You're okay with this with a lot of other male figures and movies and TV, you should be okay with it as women as well. And that was something that we maybe realized almost too late, but that this was a problem particularly to do with that part of it. But I think once you actually watch the movie, you bring someone as great as Kacey into it — that disappears.
Yeah, definitely. So, if audiences are to take one thing away from watching your film, White Lie — what do you want it to be?
YL: I don't have a brilliant answer for this Calvin, do you?
CT: I don't think... I think that's an impossible question to ask the filmmakers. It might be more of a question for a distributor or something like that, where I find selling of a movie can be distilled to very simple keywords, or they can sort of distill a message of a movie, for the pure purpose of selling the movie. Whereas as filmmakers, it'd be like we were making like a children's book or something like that. It's just too simple to be like — this is the one message of the film. In children's books, great, you can do that. Kids aren't that smart. So, they just need that one thing to take away from. Whereas, in Film...I think, one, you're so close to the film that I think it's not until long after you've screened the movie at festivals, and seen it with an audience and stuff before you start understanding how the audience reacts to the film. I don't think you can ever plan, and be like, "this is what we want". Because if you did, you'd almost always fail and the audience would respond with something different.
So yeah, I think it's a tough question. I think we got at some of our hopes, in the last question about the main character because we had that feedback of like — maybe this movie won't work because the character's not likable. Like how do you make them endearing all this, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, when you get feedback like that, but you have faith that no — you know what — we're making something that's yes, maybe is going to offend some people. Maybe not everyone's going to like it. Maybe people will turn the movie off because they just can't deal with Katie. But we did have faith that most people would be fascinated by her. And I think what's pleasurable and again, it's not necessarily the goal or the only goal — but what's pleasurable is to hear people after screening the movie. Either you see it online — people reviewing the movie, or when we used to do in-person screenings, their reactions of feelings, like debating themselves, debating with friends, how they feel about that character — is fun because you've made a movie that people can go out for dinner afterwards and talk about, or they're driving home and they can talk about it. As opposed to, as I said earlier, a movie that just being spoon feeds you, and you have nothing to say about it afterward. I think any movie is that you make something that people want to discuss, want to debate, want to argue about. You know — whenever that's the case — it feels like you've done something interesting.
YL: I think it might sound a bit trite, but I think at the end of the day, we were trying to make a movie that we would like and that's tricky, but it kind of doesn't matter if people do or don't like it, beyond you, and the people you know who like similar movies to you. And so, I think, for the most part, we feel like we succeeded in that we made a movie that if we came out of. We think, obviously, it's hard to be slightly objective — but achieves a bunch of things that we like in movies. And, so that's not a message, but it's sort of a goal we had, I think for the film was to make one that — at the end of the day — we would maybe have some good things to say about if we came out of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival,) or some other film festival having just seen it.
Awesome. So, where does the ironic title 'White Lie' come from?
YL: It comes from the distributor.
CT: Thanks for recognizing that it's ironic!
YL: A lot of less-than-stellar reviews we've read start with people not understanding that it's ironic. But you know, we don't need to get into those. I brought them up, but we don't need to get into them. The original/the working title for the film was called Baldy. We thought it sort of created an interesting character in your mind right away for this person. It still had a bit of that tongue-in-cheek feel. And, then our sales agent started trying to sell it to some distributors. Sitting in a room with a bunch of old, white, bald men and they didn't like the title very much. So, we had to find something else that we thought worked. So, that's the story of the title.
That's hilarious. I'm really glad I asked that one. So what was it like working with cinematographer Christopher Lew?
CT: Yeah, no, Chris is great, It's the first time we've worked with him and actually the first time we've worked with a cinematographer at all. This was certainly the largest production that we've done. Our previous movies have been quite small with almost no crew — myself, Yonah doing camera a lot of the time. So, we knew we had to work with a cinematographer on a bigger film because it's just too much to do ourselves. So, we met Chris through our friend Connor Jessup, who just has a small role in the film. And yeah, Chris is amazing. He has a deep love for shooting on film, which we do as well. This is our first movie that we shot on 35 millimeter. And Chris shares that passion. I think we'd built up this notion that working with other crew members, potentially jaded crew members, potentially unpassionate crew members would kind of/would make us feel bad. And we just had this vision that we would work with someone who maybe had an ego, or would just clash with our dynamic. Because there's already two directors. Director of photography is so close to the director that having someone else come into our dynamic was something that I think we were concerned about. But, obviously I think the film speaks for itself in terms of Chris' technical abilities, but Chris's presence and mannerisms and way of working on set, just so aligned with us. He's a very, like, calm, very very present person on set. And that just made everything feel easy and feel chill. Despite everything not feeling chill, and everything feeling horrible all the time. He was just such a great additional team member. And we can't wait to make the next one with him.
So, which films or directors have influenced you two as filmmakers, and your film 'White Lie'?
YL: I think it's hard to pinpoint any one film or any few films that have influenced us. We watch a lot. We graduated in 2008. We shot our first feature in 2010, and we spent those two years writing. We wrote seven feature screenplays and just watched movies. We sort of felt like we hadn't seen enough films to really feel like we could be real filmmakers. And so, we watched five, six, 700 films a year and started to get really a handle on cinema. And I think at the beginning, in film school, they taught us so much about the great big classics (which is important), but they weren't teaching us about modern, smaller films that in some way were accessible. Like that we could make films similar to.
So in the late 2000s, there was a whole genre of cinema called "Mumblecore," which is long gone, but it helped us understand that you could make a movie, yourself, and your backyard. And that helped us with our first film named Amy George (2010). I think for White Lie, one of the biggest concerns we had making the film was technology, and the technology on screen. We find that most North American films deal with it very poorly. It's a hard thing to do. We're also familiar with it that if you do something a little bit wrong, instantly know, you're like, that doesn't look like Google. That's not how text messages work. You know, why do those people have a long relationship, but only have one text message in the thread — where are the rest of the texts? So, it's a hard thing to do. Some of our favorite filmmakers, all their modern films actually are period films because they don't deal with technology anymore. If you look at Paul Thomas Anderson, if you look at Scorsese. If you look at all those people, Scorsese hasn't made a film that takes place in the modern world since The Departed, which is 2006 or whatever. So, these people are not dealing with modern technology in a way. Paul Thomas Anderson said I think, himself that it's easier to deal with writing a script that doesn't have a cell phone in it. And so, you aren't seeing a lot of films of his that take place where people are picking up their iPhone anymore. So, that was something that scared us. And we started looking to Asian cinema to European cinema. Asian cinema in general, we found particular directors worked really well with technology in a way that we haven't here.
There a French director, Olivier Assayas — who dealt with technology very well. His movie Personal Shopper — for example, a lot of that those scenes, just texting back and forth, back and forth. And it feels really real, but it also feels interesting. It's not, you know, it's not very boring. So we looked to a lot of different, not North American cinemas to figure out how people deal with that. Well, cause we certainly did not want to be doing the like text bubbles showing up on top or like that — it drives us insane. So there was that.
Then the other type of cinema we used for White Lie that we looked to was Romanian New Wave. So there was a wave of cinema from Romania in the early 2000s to late 20-whatever, it's still going. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" was sort of the big one that people probably know, but there's a whole genre of cinema coming out of that country that is really terrific, and also deals with its sort of dramas and thrillers at the same time — which is sort of how we thought of our film. And they often have quite an intense clock and sort of structure to the very compressed timeline to their films, which was something we knew we wanted to be dealing with. So, we looked at how they made these movies feel very real, but also very exciting — often by just putting a very short timeframe where you'd have to achieve something in X amount of days. One of the things we realized writing the script was that you could do anything with it. The basic idea was somebody fixed cancer. Where do you go with that? Do you do a sort of big regular rise and fall biopic kind of thing? But we, after sitting on it for a little while sort of on the back burner while we were on other projects, we realized that a compressed timeframe was really going to help make it as exciting as possible, coming in as late as possible into the story and leaving as early as possible. And so, we looked to the Romanian New Wave as well as the Dardenne brothers out of Belgium and looked at how they did that kind of thing.
Hmm. That's really interesting. So last question. Do you guys have any upcoming projects?
YL: We're writing something right now, but we can't share that yet. Cause it's still very early stages. We produced a short film called "Every Day's Like This" that's directed by my brother who is White Lie's composer, and editor and it's playing festivals all over the world as we speak. So, if you get a chance to see that it stars Kacey Rohl from White Lie.
CT: Playing Sundance in a couple of weeks, I think.
YL: Sundance soon. So, if you want to see Kacey with hair, you can see her in that.
Awesome. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
YL: Thanks for having us.