With Harpoon, director Rob Grant delivers high tension on the high seas and on a low budget

Take three friends with a complex history. Put them on a boat with a harpoon (sorry, a speargun). Then, let the truth come out. That’s the delicious set up for the latest blood-soaked thriller from writer-director Rob Grant. 

In the opening moments of Harpoon, tensions flare between the struggling Jonas (Munro Chambers) and his trust-fund pal Richard (Christopher Gray). Seems Richard is convinced that his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) has something going on with Jonas. The accused couple finally convince Richard that he’s paranoid, but not before fists fly and blood is spilled. To assuage his guilt and smooth things over, Richard takes them all out on his boat for a pleasure cruise. Soon, all manner of things start to fall apart and the three characters are trapped at sea, not knowing what to do or who they can trust. 

“These three people cavalierly joke about potentially what things they will need to do to one another to survive,” says Grant, “and that was the deliberate intent so that when those things started to happen it had to not only take them by surprise, but the audience by surprise. It’s one thing to talk about what people have had to do on a boat to get through it. I wanted to make sure it was an entirely different thing to have to act on them.”

Grant describes Harpoon as Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water by way of Seinfeld characters. It’s not a comedy, but it does have a jet-black sense of humour running through a web of nightmarish interpersonal dysfunction. “I’m too scared to do anything serious,” says Grant, “because I feel if you don’t do drama well, you’re going to get nailed on that pretty quickly.”

That’s not to say the script is a collection of glib or ironic one-liners (although a few of them do turn up). For the most part, when Harpoon gets out on the water, it has the dramatic feel of a stage play. That’s by design. Three characters jammed into a tight space inevitably start talking to work through their issues. The longer they’re at sea, the deeper emotional depths they are forced to plumb. Given Grant’s back catalogue, it’s no spoiler to say that lives are on the line in this movie. As Jonas, Richard and Sasha come to grips with their own mortality, Chambers, Gray and Tyra have some heavy dramatic beats to get through. Even in the over-the-top world of Harpoon, the cast of this millennial neo-noir earn their tense, emotional moments.

“The movie wouldn’t work if they didn’t take it seriously,” says Grant. “The world itself may not, but they certainly have to.”

Local film lovers will remember that Grant filmed his 2018 feature Alive right here in Calgary. Looking at this movie, with its crystal blue waters, it might surprise audiences to know Harpoon was shot here, too — at least partially. While Grant and producer Mike Petersen considered filming in Hawaii or Fiji, they couldn’t settle on a location. In the end, they decided to start filming the interiors in November in a frigid studio in Calgary while they were on the hunt for exterior locations.

“We’re all in the same boat together in that if you want to do anything interesting and indie you have to go to Calgary,” says Grant. “It’s got the great crews. It’s got the tax breaks and that just seems to be the place to do it that is reasonably priced. I mean Vancouver and Toronto are monster service industries now. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to shoot a lot of independent cinema in those locations.”

After 10 days in Calgary, where production actually got ahead of schedule, a stripped-down crew jetted to Belize for six days of exteriors. Being on that boat gave Grant the freedom to keep it simple. Dealing with wind, rain and water, Grant knew a lot of elements would be of his control. He told cinematographer Charles Hamilton to bring a camera and a bounce on board, because anything else would have been futile. Even dealing with all the challenges, Grant says the movie he made, looked exactly like the movie in his head.

“And now,” he adds, “I know why it seems Adam Sandler wants to shoot all his movies in warm tropical locations.”

Harpoon screens at 6:30 pm on Sunday, April 28 at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

Jason Lewis is a film writer who thinks these folks are gonna need a bigger boat.