An Interview With: Albert Shin

February 26, 2020

“We threw him in the water — and he was cool with it.”

Canadian director Albert Shin wanted legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg to have a worthy entrance for his engagingly oddball supporting role in mystery-thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill.

Cronenberg plays Walter Bell, an eccentric Niagara Falls podcaster and former rescue diver in the movie, which premiered as Clifton Hill at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Shin has a wetsuit-clad Cronenberg emerge from the Niagara River — à la Creature from the Black Lagoon — triumphantly hoisting a bag of scavenged fishing lures.

“When we were able to cast him, I said, ‘I’m going to double down on his entrance, really make something of it.’ So we threw him in the water and he was cool with it,” Shin says.

The scene was shot on the first day. It took multiple takes, which didn’t faze the “incredibly gracious” Cronenberg, according to Shin.

Meanwhile, Shin and everybody else on set couldn’t help thinking the same thing: please don’t let me drown David Cronenberg.

While Cronenberg put cast and crew at ease, what about working with the tiger, a key player for delightfully cheesy magicians the Magnificent Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes)? 

“They don’t listen to ‘action’ and ‘cut,’” says Shin of the feline co-star. “We held our breath on Tiger Day… Ultimately, it’s a big cat who wants to sleep and eat and not listen to you.”

Like Cronenberg, the tiger was ready for its close-up.

Shin, who won the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Jay Scott Prize in 2014, follows his much-lauded Korean-language drama In Her Place with the neo-noir about a 25-year-old kidnap mystery and the troubled woman with a murky past who believes she witnessed it. 

Shin teamed with co-writer James Schultz on the script for Rhombus Media.

Set amid tourist-strip motels and the faded carnival-like trappings of Niagara Falls in the off-season, Tuppence Middleton (Sense8) stars as Abby, who returns to her hometown after her mother’s death to claim her legacy: the family’s now-shuttered Rainbow Inn motel. But a slick local developer has other plans.

Abby is also obsessed with a memory that’s haunted her from childhood. She’s convinced she saw a boy being kidnapped, beaten and stuffed in a car trunk. But Abby, who has never been one for telling the truth, was never believed.

Like In Her Place, which grew from an overheard conversation in South Korean among three women about a pregnancy, Disappearance at Clifton Hill’s story came from Shin’s experiences.

He grew up in Niagara Falls, where his parents also ran a motel. And he has a similar boyhood memory of a child abduction.

 “It’s interesting that this sort of noir-ish mystery film is more personal to me than In her Place, which feels like it would be more personal,” he says.  

“I had this repressed memory and I’ve always been in the back of my head. How do I tell this, or is it a story to be told? There’s something here.”

Shin says the idea of a Niagara Falls motel and a child’s memory of a kidnapping was a long-percolating idea for a film, but he needed a third ingredient. He found it with the flawed lead character of Abby and the myths and hype surrounding Niagara Falls. “It’s ripe for a mystery film and noir and world building,” he adds.

His sets include the (real) Flying Saucer Restaurant, where Bell records his podcasts.

“I always wanted to do something weird and crazy and strange and put it out on the world and let it live there and see what happens,” Shin says.

Mindhunter’s Hannah Gross plays Abby’s younger sister, Laure, who’s anxious to keep her sibling from tipping into another manic period of lies and obsessions. But Abby won’t stop looking for answers. She’s also not going to give up her fight to save the Rainbow Inn.

By centring his narrative on two female characters, Shin brings a contemporary shift to detective tropes.

“I wanted it to be like a movie from another era,” he says. “Is it always James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart? Why are females always the femme fatal? Why can’t she be the heroine?”

Linda Barnard