Psychological thriller Touched was a hit on the film-festival circuit

Montreal director Karl R. Hearne on his ambitious debut feature.

Lola Flanery and Hugh Thompson in Touched

I try not to do too much research before I interview someone. Of course, I want to be prepared, but knowing the ins and outs of someone’s life and career tends to put a damper on the whole “natural flow of conversation” thing that’s usually an advantage when interviewing someone. When I looked up director Karl R. Hearne, however, there really wasn’t much. Some promising, award-winning shorts in the early 2000s, then a long gap before his debut feature, Touched, played in some festivals.

“I did a year at Concordia and I won a prize there,” he says. “I already had a degree, so I decided to drop out and started making some shorts. I did that for a few years, I did some work in TV and started writing for some people… and then, I just sort of got sidetracked. It was a little bit of bad timing for me, because the shorts had been doing well. The last one had premiered at New Directors/New Films — but then I got sidetracked by some non-film-related things and I was just not working in film at all, even though things had been just at the right point. That was for a good five-plus years. When I tried to get back into film, the people I had been working with — my friends, basically — they’d all moved on. They were doing other things. I had to start from scratch. I just walked into Telefilm, pitched it and they said yes.”

In that sense, Touched is a bit of an outlier: a truly independent film despite being financed by Telefilm. Hearne is the film’s sole producer on top of being the writer, director and editor, even doing some stunts when necessary.

“What was cool about it is they just let me do all of those things,” says Hearne. “It was really a mixed blessing. (laughs) I didn’t have to pitch it to a producer who would ask me what I had been doing for the last six years, but on the other hand, I had to produce it myself, which was kind of a nightmare. (…) A lot of what I did wasn’t because I thought it was the best idea. Either we ran out of money — we had to pay an editor, because I always wanted to work with an editor. I was fortunate that Telefilm let me do it this way. They said they don’t usually do this and that they don’t really like doing it, but they trusted me. They took a chance. I would be setting up a shot, directing a child actor and getting calls saying that I needed to send in documents and sign cheques at the the same time. It was difficult.”

Gabriel (Hugh Thompson) works as the superintendent of a decrepit apartment building inhabited mostly by young people. Quiet and somewhat perturbed, Gabriel becomes fixated on a former tenant named Caitlyn, whose sudden absence from the building can’t quite be explained. Has she moved out or has something more tragic occurred? Gabriel begins investigating what has happened to her while also having potent hallucinations of interactions with a young girl (Lola Flanery) who may or may not be Caitlyn herself.

“The idea was to make a story that’s on a line between a ghost story and a psychological drama,” Hearne explains. “It’s about a man who’s very isolated and who’s coming apart at the seams. It’s a little ambitious for a first feature, but I was interested in making a film where the audience is not sure what kind of film they’re watching. Is this an abduction film? Is this a horror film? Is this an arthouse drama? Most people, I think, come to the conclusion that it’s more of an arthouse psychological drama. One definition of a ghost story is that more than one person has to see the ghost. Right? That doesn’t happen in this one. It’s still up to the audience to decide what kind of film they’re watching. For me, what matters in telling the story is that all of this is real to him, obviously. He develops this relationship, he cares about this girl… maybe he begins to feel she’s his daughter. That was more where the inspiration came from for me, from that emotional salad. So it’s certainly not a classic ghost story. In movies like The Others or The Shining, there’s never any doubt that you’re watching something supernatural. In this film, there is a hint of that – but you could just be watching the delusions of one extremely isolated man.”

One of the things that I did find out about Hearne through some research is that Touched won a prize at a festival in Chicago — and that his parents accepted the prize on his behalf!

“That was really cool,” says Hearne. “That was a really busy week — I think we were at four festivals in one week. This was a really cool festival — the Julien Dubuque film festival, which is just outside of Chicago. My parents came down, but we were having our L.A. premiere in this big festival in L.A., so I could only stay for 24 hours. They saw the film for the first time on a Friday, I flew out on Saturday, but they stuck around. The festival put them up in this nice hotel that Al Capone used to stay at — I think they might have stayed in the Al Capone suite. (laughs) There were 500 films in this festival but 20 in competition, and our film won the Best Feature, which was great. There was a big cash prize as well, which was cool. But the coolest part was that they went up on stage. I don’t know what they said, because I don’t have the video, but I have to assume that it was something like, ‘This couldn’t have happened without us’ which is, you know, hard to argue with. (laughs) But they accepted the award, they made a speech and they got to go to the afterparty, pose for photos on the red carpet, and then dance with all these actors and filmmakers. They danced for four hours — till two in the morning!” ■

Touched opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 28. Watch the trailer here: