TIFF Press Conference: Susan Sarandon and company talk up the euthanasia drama Blackbird

By Danita Steinberg

In the TIFF feature Blackbird, Susan Sarandon plays Lily, a woman who decides to end her life on her own terms. 

As a prelude, Lily and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) invite loved ones (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Kate Winslet, Rainn Wilson, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, and Anson Boon) to the country for a final weekend together. 

On Friday, co-stars Sarandon, Neill, and Wilson were joined at a festival press conference by director Roger Michell and producer Sherryl Clark.

Producer Clark said the movie was a happy accident.

Blackbird: Sarandon as Lily “celebrates” her impending assisted suicide.

Blackbird: Sarandon as Lily “celebrates” her impending assisted suicide.

“I was at a dinner party and asked the writer next to me (Christian Torpe) if he had ever written a feature because he was currently working in television. 

“He had a script at the ready and when he sent it to me, I fell in love.” The script was for Blackbird, an English remake of his Danish film Silent Heart. Clark immediately thought of Roger Michell – her previous collaborator on the film Morning Glory - to direct.

Michell said he loved that most of the film was people sitting around talking. “We know there’s going to be a death, but it’s what surrounds that death that makes it so fascinating. It’s a complicated family.” He was also drawn to the humour. “It’s quite a funny film. It’s not entirely dreary. It has wonderful life and truth in it.”

Sarandon said she was drawn to the character of Lily and her decision. “It’s interesting to ask yourself what your definition of life is, where you draw the line and what matters and what doesn’t. When you start looking into ALS, there are different landmarks for different people. What is your quality of life?”

Neill said his role was one of restraint. “Paul is a man of contained heartbreak. His heart is breaking throughout the film, but it’s necessary for Lily that a sense of normality is brought to the situation. Love is explored on many levels in this film.”

A film about euthanasia is bound to spark conversation. Sarandon said, “I think it’s an individual choice, but it should be legal and controlled. The fact of the matter is, it is similar to abortion in that if you’re wealthy, you’ll always have access to it. So, it’s about making it more accessible to everyone now. 

“I think taking on the process of letting go of your body takes a lot of thought and the medical profession has been behind for a long time. You should be able to die with dignity.”

Adds Michell, “Everyone in the film is very practical about it. Susan’s character is a control freak and I think that’s what we wanted to portray. She’s decisive about what she’s going to do. She’s completely coherent.”

On choosing roles, Sarandon says she considers who’s involved and whether or not she’s moved by the script. “It also helps when the location is fabulous like this one was,” she adds, of the West Sussex shoot. 

For his part, Wilson said wryly that he looks for “a challenge and of course, something I can talk about for eight hours a day during a junket.”

TIFF’s recent role as an Oscar-predictor means that a performance-driven film like Blackbird will inevitably generate Oscar buzz. Sarandon says she takes it all with a grain of salt. “Everything has gotten so corporate. When I first got nominated (in 1982 for Atlantic City), the studio didn’t even know how it happened. 

“That would never happen today. Now you need so much money, so many people behind you, a six-month campaign to get a nomination. Of course, I’m honoured to be in the club. But there are so many people who deserve to be recognized who aren’t.” Sarandon won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1996 for her role as Sister Helen in Dead Man Walking.

Blackbird has its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 6 at 9:30 p.m with additional screenings on Saturday, September 7 at 12:00 p.m. and Friday, September 13 at 3:00 p.m.