A Very Sick Man

A wife accuses her husband of pretending to have cancer in A Very Sick Man. Writer-director Bronwen Spolsky talks crafting a memorably dysfunctional marriage for the screen.

In A Very Sicky Man, a romantic dinner goes awry when a wealthy woman (played by Sarah Kolasky) accuses her husband (Jordan Gray) of faking his cancer diagnosis.

Toronto-based filmmaker Bronwen Spolsky says her directorial debut offers a character study in the psychology of manipulation and the dynamics of a twisted marriage.

“On the surface, it’s a story about a husband faking cancer,” Spolsky says. “But underneath it’s about how to maintain power in a dysfunctional relationship and how far someone will go to do that.”

A Very Sick Man (2023)

Spolsky says she was motivated to tell the story by a real experience that happened to one of her relatives who was forced to confront their partner about faking a terminal illness.

“I was kind of angry when I wrote this, but I think I moved away from those feelings in a good way and processed them through the project,” she says. “It’s a complicated thing because it involved someone who was mentally ill and is seeking treatment. I’m also more removed in a healthier way now that the film has been made.”

Despite having a strong point from which to start, she says the script went through numerous rounds of feedback and revisions to get it to the stage where it was ready to shoot.

“The writing process was a lot of cutting away and asking, ‘Can we get that beat across with just a reaction rather than a line?’”

“The nature of it being in one location and still holding people’s attention was really challenging. When I was writing, I loved the dialogue, but I had to make sure that I wasn’t repeating beats,” Spolsky explains. “So, the writing process was a lot of cutting away and asking, ‘Can we get that beat across with just a reaction rather than a line?’”

The project also came together with the help of a grant from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Society of the Creative School. As a result, Spolsky says she was able to stretch the shoot over three days and take time for added preparation she otherwise would not have been able to afford.

“It’s so boring to say, but have a pre-light if you can. We would have lost so much time if we didn’t. On the first day, we did a pre-light, did some tests and made sure everything was ready,” she says. “As a result, we got right to work the next day when the actors were there. It was good to settle into the space where the story was going to be told, especially when it was all in one place.”

A Very Sick Man (2023)

Spolsky describes Kolasky and Gray as “amazing collaborators” who bought into her vision for the story and brought a lot of great chemistry to the project.

“I got a lot of submissions for the female protagonist, but as soon as I saw Sarah’s audition tape, I was like, ‘That’s her.’ She has great control over her face and 90% of the movie is her face,” she says. “Also, when I saw Jordan’s tape, he was so relaxed, like, ‘Yeah, I’m evil.’ I liked that casual evil.”

She also credits the pair for the emotional work they did behind the scenes in order to internalize the directional notes she gave them throughout rehearsals and filming.

“Your movie will die at least three times, but it’ll also grow again and come back in a way that you didn’t expect.”

“They were really able to grasp the shifts in power dynamics pretty well for a script that’s very talkie-talkie,” she says. “In a fantasy or action, it’s easy to know who has power because in a physical fight you’re winning or losing, but in a verbal battle, it’s a bit more difficult to understand.”

As a writer-director, Spolsky adds, it’s also important to know when to trade one hat for the other and trust the process in order to welcome creativity.

“Leave your writer brain behind when you’re on set, only use your director brain and trust what you wrote is just a foundation,” she says. “Your movie will die at least three times, but it’ll also grow again and come back in a way that you didn’t expect.”

A Very Sick Man (2023)

A Very Sick Man recently premiered at Pendance Film Festival in Toronto. With more screenings in the works for 2024, Spolsky says she finally has time to reflect on the opportunity to creatively steer a project from idea to screen.

“I work in film now in the sound department, so my whole life is film and I love it that way,” she says. “But when you’re in the director’s seat, it’s such a different experience and just taking on that role for the first time, that was exciting all on its own.”

Ultimately, she says she hopes those who see the film will be able to relate it to some of their own relationships and see it in a way that is both “uncomfortable and hopefully memorable.”

“I always want to leave the audience with a specific emotion. If they can laugh at a certain point or they can cry, then I feel I’ve done my job,” she says. “With this one, I wanted to make people uncomfortable a bit and sort of question each character’s psychology.”

Connect with Bronwen Spolsky on Instagram here (@spolskb).