Written and directed by Albert Shin, Disappearance at Clifton Hill tells the story of Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a pathological liar who returns home only to discover that her family’s motel on Niagara’s famous (and infamous) Clifton Hill has been sold. When a childhood trauma is triggered, she sets out on a quest to uncover the truth of what may (or may not) have happened in her past. Surprisingly, Shin confesses that, despite the film’s dark narrative, the gestation of the film came from his own story.
“A lot of it is inspired by my own personal history,” he recounts. “When my parents first immigrated from Korea, they settled in Niagara Falls and bought a motel, sort of in the shadows of Clifton Hill. [It was] very similar to the motel that’s in the movie so I have a sort of a history with the city itself. Then, on top of that, the prologue of the film where a young Abby sees the kidnapping was actually based on something that I actually saw when I was a kid. (Interestingly enough, we shot it in the very same place where I saw this thing.) It was kind of a surreal thing to do but both the genesis of the idea and the sort of the character of Abby was that, when I was a young boy, I wandered off into the woods and saw something through the bushes. I couldn’t really reconcile [it] and didn’t really understand at the time, but it made me feel uneasy for sure and I repressed it.”
“Then, as I got a little bit older, I would retell the story but, every time I would tell it, the story would become more grandiose. It would just keep mutating and turning into a bigger and more fantastical story. Then, enough time passed where I wasn’t sure what the actual story was and then I started to question if that story even happened at all. Maybe I just made it up, you know. So, that idea of memory and how malleable it is, was sort of the genesis for this character and this pathological liar persona.”
For those who are unaware of Clifton Hill, the popular tourist area that’s best known for its midway featuring numerous haunted mansions, video game centres and wax museums. Situated next to one of the wonders of the world, Niagara Falls, Shin felt that there was an inherent contradiction of the area that would bode well for his noir-ish tale.
“It’s an interesting town that, in my opinion, hadn’t really been taken advantage of and given the cinematic treatment.,” says Shin. “I thought [that], in terms of a city in Canada, it’s such a unique city that I feel like, of course, a movie can be set here. [We could] really take it for what it’s worth and make the city itself a character in the film. It’s a border town and a tourist town. There is a genuine natural wonder that is incredible [and it’s] right there. But, right beside it, Clifton Hill is something that’s very different. It’s like a representation of everything that’s manmade as opposed to this beautiful thing that is not manmade. I just thought that all these contradictions were an interesting way to deal with a film about contradictions and competing narratives. I thought the thematic elements of it kind of worked to reflect the city and vice versa.”
Given his experience growing up nearby, Shin was excited to offer a spin on the popular tourist area that brought its darker side to life.
“I grew up in the shadows of Clifton Hill and this was like the old Clifton Hill,” he reminisces. “So, my movie is more of a callback to the less gentrified Clifton Hill. Now, there’s the Boston Pizza and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not [museum]… Obviously, Clifton Hill [and] that area of Niagara Falls has put a lot of emphasis [on] really reinforcing the family-friendly experience. For me, it was interesting to kind of flip that on its head and give it sort of a noir cinematic treatment. So, something that is just a fun house in a haunted house is for fun, [but, if you] kind of twist it just a little bit and make it a little bit seedier, it [becomes] a little bit more sinister. [That] was sort of the idea for how to have fun with the setting, I guess.”
Anchored by a solid cast that features a number of other veteran talents including Tuppence Middleton (Downton Abbey), Eric Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Andy McQueen (Jack Ryan), Disappearance at Clifton Hill also boasts one of the most unique casting coups of the year when David Cronenberg signed on to play Walter, a conspiracy theorist podcaster. Having never actually believed that someone as iconic as Cronenberg would sign on to play the role, Shin was ecstatic to hear that he was willing to come onboard to play such a unique character.
“It almost feels like it was written for him,” he explains, “but I wasn’t presumptuous enough to think that I could write a part for David Cronenberg and then he would be in it. It’s one of those things where it was very serendipitous and, for that role, I needed see an actor to bring a certain amount or a certain level of persona to the character… We sent him the script and, within hours, he said he wanted to do it. It was really amazing… I went to his house, sat down at his kitchen and talked to him about the part and, literally within days, I was throwing him in the middle of the Niagara river in his scuba gear. It was a very quick turnaround [and] very surreal. He had a lot of fun with the part and that’s what we needed. I’m really, really thrilled that he was a part of it… I would say he fits the role perfectly, but he just brings it to life is what I really mean to say… There’s obviously a little bit of like a meta aspect to the person that’s playing this character [that] was an extra kind of treat for me.”
With this in mind, the key to Clifton Hill‘s success is Middleton’s performance as the broken investigator, Abby. Playing a pathological liar on a quest for truth, Abby is as flawed as the city itself and, as he designed the character, Shin knew that he had created something special.
“I was trying to make a heroine that was very complex and, in a lot of ways, the most flawed person in this movie,” Shin clarifies. “She’s the hero that’s trying to get to the bottom of the truth but the way she compromises everything to do it is very morally suspect. So, I thought that was an interesting way to play with audience sympathy and also kind of address her mental state as well.”
In the development of the character of Abby, Shin and Middleton worked together to create someone who struggles to grab hold of what’s true as she twists and turns it in her mind. For Shin, this fluctuating understanding of what’s real was part of the appeal of the character and added to the film’s noir sensibilities.
“I had a lot of conversations with Tuppence in terms of her character and this idea of being a pathological liar and what that means,” he recalls. “[From] the research that she did and the research that I did, it’s an interesting sort of rabbit hole to go [into] because you know, there’s no definitive answer. For somebody that’s always sort of weaving tales for the story to continue to be ongoing is part of the thrill of it, you know? The fact that the story can continue to grow, mutate and continue become something else. [The fact that] it can become bigger or more grandiose is… part of their psychology. [I wanted] to play with that idea [in the] movie where there is so many competing narratives. What is truth? Does the truth even matter [or] does the truth matter to her? It was a way to sort of touch on these topics and think about it without telling the audience exactly what is what.”
With the film’s emphasis on the complexity of memory, Clifton Hill also touches on the complicated relationship between truth and one’s perspective. For Shin, the contrast between multiple aspects to the same truth inevitably arises out of the film’s examination of memory and its flaws.
“If you kind of go below the subtext of the film, there is a little bit of a comment on [truth] because the film is dealing with memory or one’s perception of truth. Obviously, we’re living in a day and age where truth is very relative so it’s interesting what that perspective means and how there can be two different truths. I thought it was an interesting comment. [The movie’s] not about that, but obviously there is an element of that that the movie is addressing.”
For full audio of our interview with Albert Shin, click here.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill weaves its tale of intrigue in theatres on February 28th, 2020