Screening at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, Heather Young’s first feature Murmur is a bleak portrait of loneliness. The director sat down with us to discuss her creative process, touring digital festivals and working with a large number of animals.

First of all, how did the idea for Murmur come along?

A number of years ago, I used to work at an animal shelter, and from that experience, I knew that I eventually wanted to shoot a film that was at least partially based in an animal shelter environment. That was something that interested me and I knew kind of a lot of the details of, you know what went on in that environment and I wanted to bring that into a story so that was something that I knew I wanted to do for a long time.

And then around 2004, I made a short film, just on my own, called Howard and Jean, and I made that film with my mother. It was just kind of how I started into making films in the documentary fiction kind of hybrid form.

It was about an older woman who was experiencing anxiety and isolating herself in a small apartment and using her small Chihuahua, Howard, as her kind of constant companion and an emotional outlet for her. So after I made that film I started wondering how I could expand that further into a longer story. That’s when I got the idea to have kind of an animal hoarding scenario, someone who takes comfort in animals but has an addictive personality and gets kind of addicted to adopting pets and that kind of feeling, that kind of high that she gets from acquiring a new pet. Then, you know, the comfort that she gets from a companionship, so that’s how it started and it just kind of evolved from there, I guess. 

Screen Shot 2021 02 28 At 15

Courtesy of: GFF

How was the casting process and finding your perfect Donna?

I had been working in a sort of hybrid form between fiction and doc when I was doing my short films, and through that process, I started working with non-professional actors and I was encouraged by the results that I was getting. So we decided to continue with that into the feature and decided to cast non-professionals.

The way that I went about working with the non-professionals, I really just encouraged them to be themselves, to not, you know, try to be a different character or try to come up with a different personality for themselves or anything like that. I just want them to be themselves but imagining how they would react in this fictitious scenario. So that was kind of the premise.

I used to work at a doggy daycare several years ago and I knew that I wanted someone in the lead that had a genuine connection with animals and really was a dog person, who really loved the companionship of dogs. That wasn’t something that I felt we could pretend or kind of fake, we needed someone who really did love dogs. So I was thinking back to my time at the doggy daycare and wondering if there was anyone I knew there that was interesting and might want to audition, and that’s how I got to Shan, our lead.

She used to bring her four dogs to the doggy daycare where I worked, that’s where I first met her, but that had been several years previous so I had to kind of track her down on social media. I sent her a message and was like “do you remember me from the doggy daycare? I remember you and your dogs and I’m doing this movie…”, and she thought I was crazy at first (laughs) but eventually, I convinced her that we were actually making a film and she came in to audition.

She was very emotionally available, she could bring a lot of her own kind of experiences and emotions to the character. So she worked out really well and yeah we were really grateful for her. She made the film come alive.

Murmur B

Courtesy of: GFF

That leads me to another question: how much of Murmur was improvised and how much was scripted? 

So for our funding partners, we did have to write a traditional script. However, when we were actually coming to shooting, we did approach it in a more flexible way, especially in terms of the performers, so most of the people who appear in the film didn’t actually read the script.

None of them read the script I think except Shan. She read the script, but it was just to give her more of a full idea of the story. None of the dialogue in the film is scripted so everyone was speaking in their own words, including Shan. I feel like with this approach I’m able to achieve more of an authentic and believable character representation, when I have people kind of just speaking in their own words, as opposed to scripted dialogue.

Another thing that I did with Murmur was, for some of the secondary characters, I cast them in their own profession. So, you know, a doctor playing a doctor or a veterinarian playing a veterinarian.

How was the process of finding the shelter and recruiting the animals? You work with a large number of animals in the film and I can imagine this being quite the challenge…

Yeah, that was definitely a challenge that we faced, working with a lot of animals. We were really lucky in a lot of ways when it came to locations and casting. 

The animal shelter that we shot in is called Homeward Bound City Pound, and they were responsible for collecting any stray dogs and cats, or any other type of animal that ends up in the Halifax area here in Nova Scotia. They were privately owned so we didn’t have to go through a lot of red tape in terms of working with the government or anything like that. So that kind of helped us out in terms of we just basically needed to get permission from one person. They were really accommodating. 

We were really lucky with that location. We were shooting there for many days and we basically tried to just integrate ourselves as seamlessly as we could into their day to day operations. They were open to the public and the staff were working while we were shooting, it was a living location. 

The main dog in the film, Charlie, who’s kind of the dog star, was cast first, and it turned out that his owner, Gail, runs a dog rescue group here in Nova Scotia and she also has a lot of dogs. She was also tapped into this network of dog lovers and the whole dog rescue community. So we really used a lot of her contacts to help us, and a lot of people brought in their dogs to be filmed in the shelter. For the dogs in the apartment we mostly used Gail’s dogs and Shan’s dogs as well.

With Charlie, we were very lucky, he was very relaxed. We needed a dog that didn’t mind being in different environments because you know we took them to a nail salon and we had him on the bus and in the underwater treadmill… and he’s just like so chill.


Courtesy of: GFF

I bet that, for Gail, it’s going to be great, having that captured and preserved forever. 

Charlie is getting on in years and unfortunately dogs don’t live as long as we do, so it’ll hopefully be a nice memory that she’ll have with him. 

You seem to wash away all the colours here, reflecting the poignancy and the sadness of Donna’s world. Could you tell me a bit more about this choice?

Yeah. I made that choice pretty early on. I knew that this was a film about isolation, loneliness and struggling with your own kind of demons. We wanted to have a muted, bleak palette and, in terms of colour, I didn’t want any bright saturation or, you know, anything that would pop on the screen too intensely. So yeah, we definitely planned that from the beginning with both my cinematographer and my production designer, we were aware of the palette that we were working in.

I remember saying to my production designer that our palette was the colour of concrete, which is quite a dreary colour that where we were leaning towards, especially when we were also shooting in kind of an industrial environment in terms of the animal shelter. I really wanted to capture that industrial feeling of being in a shelter. It’s not a warm and cosy type of environment. Everything is made to be sprayed down with a hose so it’s a lot of concrete, flat walls and plastics. I definitely wanted to capture that feeling from the animal shelter.

I would say that the sound design follows the same line. It’s a very quiet film, with very particular noises being emphasised.

Yeah, the sound design was one of the more enjoyable aspects. I really do enjoy the sound design and the mixing and being involved in that whole process.

We did want it to be a quiet film since it’s dealing with themes of being isolated, and being kind of alone with yourself and your thoughts. I definitely knew I wanted it to be a quiet film but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a film that’s still rich in sound. There were a lot of sounds that I felt like I wanted to emphasise, for instance, the sound that her e-cigarette makes, that kind of weird death girdle. I thought that was quite climatically relevant, so we brought out that that death girdle from the e-cigarette.

Something that struck me was how much louder the sound of her pouring the wine was, be it down the drain or into her glass, than any of the animals throughout the film.

Yeah, she was struggling with this addiction and I definitely wanted to emphasise the kind of tactile nature of her addiction and the wine going down the drain and her trying to stay away from alcohol. I think you’re right, the sound in that scene did resonate quite distinctly, which I was hoping it would.

Murmur C

Courtesy of: GFF

Oftentimes, we see Donna from her neck up. It’s quite interesting since we are being deprived of seeing her heart, which is so central to the film. She’s drowning in these spaces, trying to grab some air, being slowly consumed by it. Could you tell me a bit more about your framing choices?

We definitely made a lot of deliberate framing choices. I hadn’t thought about not showing her heart! Oh, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that but a lot of the time when we were framing Donna’s face I would say to my cinematographer: don’t let her breathe.

We used framing in a creative way to emphasise the character’s state of mind and her feelings of loneliness and not feeling necessarily comfortable in all of the situations that she found herself in, especially when she was having to see an addiction counsellor or being interrogated by her supervisor at the animal shelter. These times were moments of anxiety for the character and we hoped that, through the framing, we could elevate that anxiety and that sense of disconnection.

You started touring with Murmur at the end of 2019, and here we are in February 2021. The world has changed significantly since then… How do you feel about having this film about the difficulties of isolation play in this particular moment in time?

When I set out to make a film about isolation, I could never have predicted that the whole world was going to be experiencing feelings of isolation in the upcoming months, so that’s kind of interesting.

I think the last festival that we went to was Slamdance and that was in January 2020. We were set to go to a couple of other festivals, but then, all of a sudden COVID happened. Overall I feel really grateful that we at least got to have our premiere at TIFF and actually be there in person. I feel grateful that we at least had that moment of having our first public screening and we got to show the film here in Nova Scotia at the Atlantic Film Festival, which was a really special screening. We could show the film to our cast and crew and have Shan be there, so I’m definitely very grateful that we had that opportunity to have those experiences before COVID.

Even throughout the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of virtual festivals and it’s been a good experience. I’m hoping that people are still able to connect with the film and watch it in their own homes. Maybe by the time I get around to making another film things will be a little bit more back to normal.

With thanks to Heather Young and Glasgow Film Festival. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

About The Author


Rafaela Sales Ross is a proud Brazilian currently living in Scotland. She has a Masters in Film and Visual Culture and has been diving deep into the portrait of suicide on film for a few years now. Rafa, as she likes to be called, loves Harold and Maude, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Kleber Mendonça Filho and pretty much anything with either Ruth Gordon or Javier Bardem in it. You can find her on both Twitter and Letterboxd @rafiews