The Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program, which shines a light on less conventional genre films that might seem at odds with the rest of the festival’s more dramatic line-up, is known for drawing enthusiastic crowds who scream, shout and sometimes even cheer throughout each film’s runtime, creating a communal experience unrivalled by the rest of TIFF’s screenings. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, one of the festival’s Midnight Madness picks for 2020 which centres on a woman who makes her way onto a plane during World War II to complete a mission, would have undoubtedly been met with the same level of enthusiasm had it premiered in actual theatres instead of the drive-in screenings it received due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even then, the Midnight Madness crowd found a way to turn the screening into the sort of event they’re more than familiar with, honking excitedly at some of the film’s more brutal moments and even welcoming a very special guest into the fold.
“Peter Kuplowsky, the [Midnight Madness] programmer, actually got a guy dressed as a gremlin to creep around the cars to really give the audiences the special Midnight Madness experience,” says Liang, who virtually attended the screening from her home in New Zealand, where she recorded a Zoom Q&A to screen after the film. “I was just delighted to be invited to TIFF in the first place. I’ve never been and I’ve wanted to go for as long as I’ve been a filmmaker,” she says. “I’m sad to have missed [the screening] but that just gives me more reason to try and do it again so that I can experience it hopefully when we are all together again.”
Judging by the rapturous reception to the film at TIFF, where it won the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award as voted by the audience, there is no doubt that Liang, who has several films in the pipeline including a feature film adaptation of her short thriller Do No Harm, will make her return to the festival’s line-up in the near future. “To win the award, especially when we only premiered at a drive-in, which could not be more fitting, I think, was a huge honour,” exclaims Liang. “It legitimised the movie in a way that every filmmaker only dreams of.”
Bringing the movie to the big screen was a huge undertaking for Liang, who only received representation in the US in 2017 after the premiere of Do No Harm at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with critical acclaim and endless buzz. “This is all new to me. I’m not of the system. I don’t know what it means to have representation,” she recalls. “So, of course [my agents] started sending me projects. I said that I was interested in action and genre stuff and this script came across my desk.” Liang, who entirely rewrote the script herself after first reading it, says she connected with the main character, Maude, who is played by Chloë Grace Moretz and is a badass, no-nonsense, determined woman on a mission who is not exactly perfect. “I felt that she was kind of a messy superhero and that really spoke to me as a woman and as a mother.”
At times, Shadow in the Cloud does feel like a superhero movie, with Maude going to great (and sometimes extreme) lengths in order to defeat all the odds to fulfil her mission. But it also feels like a horror movie, a sci-fi thriller and a period piece all in one thanks to its 1943 setting. Did Liang feel any pressure to find the right tone for the film without making it seem jarring? “One of the things that attracted me to the script in the first place was that it was kind of a mishmash of stuff,” she explains. “It’s a period piece but it’s not it’s not a war movie. It’s not a drama. It’s kind of a horror movie but not really a horror movie. It’s an action film but not really an action film. I think what really connected with me was that sense of empathy I had to the character, that if I ever didn’t know what where to put the camera or what to say, I always came back to Maude, and what was happening in her head and her mental state. She was essentially my guiding light.”
Shadow in the Cloud allows its main character to be messy, imperfect and sometimes even selfish in her determination to complete her mission, features regularly seen in male characters that are rarely ever seen in women. “Chloë and I talked a lot about superheroes that we love and some surprising ones, like Indiana Jones,” recalls Liang. “His energy is a bit messy sometimes. He’s not perfect. And in fact, Maude is not the best person either. She’s incredibly selfish. She makes bad decisions, but then wears them and I think that’s something that I really love, especially in a female superhero. When we talk about Sarah Connor or Ripley, they’re not perfect either and that’s what I love about them.”
While many of Shadow in the Cloud’s elements veer into supernatural territory, one aspect of it is firmly grounded in reality – its male characters’ treatment of Maude who, as the sole woman on a WWII plane during 1943, is constantly subjected to a stream of sexist comments and many attempts at gaslighting, some of which may still ring familiar to many people to this day. “We had lots of discussions about making sure that the dialogue was realistic and that we got the voice of the men right because locker room talk is so extreme sometimes and we see it, you know, the extremeness of this locker room talk or toxic masculinity, whatever you want to call it, is so on the nose sometimes that when you read it in a script, sometimes you get the feedback that it’s too much,” explains Liang. “But the reality is that it is too much. That’s the thing for us who have experienced this first hand. It is too much. You wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t believe the things that men say to women with impunity. You wouldn’t believe what why people say to people of color with impunity. It’s just out of this world. And so we wanted to go there but not push anyone away. There are moments in the movie where we go there, but we needed to find that balance. It was something that we were refining all the way through post-production.”
Shadow in the Cloud was subjected to several test screenings, where many of the test audience complained about the extremity of the dialogue. “We were getting feedback from people and it often came back with them saying, ‘Come on, you know men wouldn’t say that,’” she recalls. “But we have proof that they do every day, every minute. It’s happening right now.”
Liang, who is currently in the process of developing the aforementioned feature film adaptation of Do No Harm, has just completed work on her next project, Creamerie, a subversive take on the traditional sitcom that is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where men have been wiped out by a viral plague and Earth has become a planet run by women, and follows three women who come across one of the few remaining men on the planet. “It’ll be fun,” she promises of the project, which is due out next year. If Shadow in the Cloud is any indication, it will also be so much more.
Shadow in the Cloud is out now on VOD.
by Ahmad W.
Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favourite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.