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Newfoundland director found creeping terror of 'The King Tide' in a tiny coastal town

Alix West Lefler plays Isla, a young girl with powerful healing abilities, in the Newfoundland-shot thriller "The King Tide." (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-VVS Films) Alix West Lefler plays Isla, a young girl with powerful healing abilities, in the Newfoundland-shot thriller "The King Tide." (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-VVS Films)
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TORONTO -

Newfoundlander Christian Sparkes has shot several films around his home province, but with his new psychological thriller "The King Tide" he saw an opportunity to wander into one unique town that had eluded him over the years.

With about 50 residents, the once-bustling fishing community of Keels, N.L. held a particularly creepy cinematic appeal for the director. Its jagged rock shores were visually ominous while its tiny wooden houses seemed frozen in time.

"The landscape is such a character," Sparkes said of the film, which opens in theatres across Canada on Friday.

"It's hard to recreate that type of authenticity."

The St. John's native had his eye on Keels over the years, though its isolated location made it expensive to shoot there.

"The King Tide," which he said carried a budget of about $9 million, finally allowed him to cross the town off his bucket list. It became the setting for a haunting, fictional island without a name where the entire film unfolds.

The island's isolated villagers see their lives forever changed after a mysterious infant washes up on their shores, the sole survivor of a devastating boat wreck.

They name the baby Isla, and raise her as their own. They also discover the baby possesses unexplainable healing powers that promise immunity to injury and illness.

As the years pass, they become reliant on Isla's abilities. When the young girl's powers start to fade, a panic sets in as the community begins to fracture.

"The King Tide" is a fresh entry in the folk horror genre with sharp performances from a cast that includes Frances Fisher, the frosty mother to Kate Winslet in "Titanic," and Aden Young, one of the lead detectives on "Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent."

Based on a screenplay by Albert Shin, it evokes M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" and Mike Flanagan's Netflix series "Midnight Mass," two projects that dealt with cult-like groupthink in isolated settings.

Sparkes said he screened the latter to ensure his movie didn't veer too closely to someone else's ideas. He also reined in some of the original script to make the townspeople more relatable.

"People were even more maniacal and crazed," he explained while attending his film's premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.

"I worked hard to make it a little more grounded ... It was important for me not to go too over the top."

Some of the groundedness of "The King Tide" relied on casting a young star who would convey the complexities of Isla, an innocent 10-year-old girl trying to understand her abilities as the world around her falls apart.

Over three months, Sparkes said he combed through hundreds of audition tapes to find the right actor, but he wasn't satisfied with any of them. It took a second pass through some of the names before he stopped on Alix West Lefler.

"I must've had my blinders on," he said. "Because something jumped off the screen to me when I saw it the second time."

Lefler, who is now 12 and previously co-starred with Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne in "The Good Nurse," said it felt like a year had passed before she learned she had the part. In reality, it was only a few months.

By the time she was on location in Keels, she was immersed in that world with help from her co-stars.

"They felt so safe and warm," she said. "It was quite easy to bond relationships and get into character."

On Thanksgiving 2022, Lefler and her parents joined her fellow cast members to share a dinner of crab, one of her favourite memories of the experience.

"The community would bring us soup or homemade dinners," she added.

That sort of camaraderie was felt in many aspects of the production, said Sparkes, whose past films include the 2019 crime thriller "Hammer," starring Will Patton.

"The King Tide" crew of 80 to 90 people doubled the size of Keels at times, and many of the locals wound up chipping in behind the scenes or playing bit roles.

"All the background performers that you see in the town hall or walking the streets, those are all actual residents," he said.

"Most of (them wear) their actual clothing, so it really informs the grounded nature of the world."

Capturing that realism on camera was only part of the puzzle, Sparkes said. The challenge was carried into the editing room where each piece had to fit tightly to ensure the plot's tension never wavered.

"Shooting is always going to be hard; everyone knows that," he said.

"But in the edit room, trying to make sure all the performances gel and the world feels believable so the stakes feel real, that's always the biggest challenge."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2024.

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