SJIWFF: An owl costume at Cannes

Shot in a borrowed apartment in Toronto, short film The Hall follows detective Martin Holligan, played by Dan Cristofori, on his awkward attempts to woo his neighbour, Olive, performed by Lauren Breuer.

Then this giant owl shows up.

Originally made as an entry for the 48-Hour Film Challenge in Toronto, the film ended up cleaning house at that festival’s award ceremony, was slingshotted to festivals in the States, continued to win awards (including awards with titles containing words like “best of all time”) and even caught the attention of Roger Ebert, who wrote about the film.

Oh, and it was screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Now, finally, The Hall is being screened in director Stephen Dunn’s home province. Elling Lien called him up to ask him about how it all came together.

So tell me the story of The Hall. You had just arrived at Ryerson film school, and—what happened?
I didn’t know anyone. Not a soul. I stumbled into a line up for the Toronto Film Festival and I was standing line next to Polly Washburn who was the director of the 48 Hour Film Challenge. We were just talking, and she told me the most important part of being in the industry is to meet people.

I ended up finding out she was the director for the 48 Hour Film Challenge and I was like, man I’ve done competitions like that with the Women’s Film Festival before, and I was totally game.

So when I got to school I started telling people about the competition, and sure enough, seven of us grouped together and we started meeting weekly.

I knew if we were going to do this we’d be doing it with discipline. We were going to be prepared for it. We had weekly meetings for a month and a half before shooting, to prepare.

To do it in Toronto, and to do it in 48 hours… I felt so vulnerable. I felt like I had no control. I didn’t have any equipment. I didn’t have a good network of people in Toronto like I have in Newfoundland.

But that didn’t matter, because we were all so into it. We loved the idea of working on a project outside of school, and it was a profound bonding experience for us. We got to work with each other before anyone else did. So I told a couple people, then the competition happened and we won.

How many people were involved?
Seven first year students, and we had actors and stuff like that.

Let’s go back to the first win. Did you have any idea that it be as successful as it was?
Not a clue.

We were the youngest people in this. We were all first-years, early 20s and late teens.

The other competitors seemed like serious professionals—many in their 40s and 50s. And we were doing it for fun. We didn’t even know there was a prize for it—it was for a fun, bonding experience.

But we loved the film once we finished with it.

It had heart, it had some great performances and it looked really professional. Not like anything I’d ever worked on before, or anything anyone else had ever worked on before.

Out of the seven, it was only myself and Kyle Sanderson who had ever worked on a film before. No one else had ever been involved on a film set.

When you first watched it in the cinema, what was your reaction?
My background is in theatre, and watching my films sitting with an audience I feel so much more exposed than I do in a performance. Because I have no control. The film is it’s own thing, and I just have to wait and see how people are going to respond.

That’s terrifying, because you’re with them, you’re with the audience.

But, actually, that time I felt satisfied. I was nervous as hell, but I had this warm feeling, sitting there with my friends watching this film I was proud of.

…Aaaand then it won a shitload of awards.
We were going up there every five minutes to collect them.

…Aaaand then you went to Filmapalooza, Miami’s International Film Festival.
And the film had the exact same response! We were like, “great! It got to Miami!” Then, once we arrived there was a rumour that the top films at the festival would go to Cannes.

Of course, then, that was always on our minds.

Then it happened.
We were floored.

Do you think the fact that it was a group of friends trying to get to know each other that really helped it?
Yeah, I think it had a really big impact on the film. There’s something so wonderful and spontaneous about challenging yourself in that way. It’s easy to let go of things. You assume, “okay, I’m going to make a film from script to screen in 48 hours.” That sounds really stressful, but it wasn’t at all.

Myself and Kyle stayed up the entire time, and I hardly felt tired.

If you thought you were going to get so much attention from the film, how do you think that would have affected you?
I probably would have changed it. I probably would have felt more pressure.

That’s something I don’t like about that industry. Awards are fun, but competitions hurt sometimes. I work well under pressure, from deadlines. I’m not very good at organizing myself, but I do work well under pressure.

I don’t like thinking about awards. It doesn’t matter! It’s so easy to feel unsuccessful if you’re thinking about awards.

If there was a film that won more awards at that 48 Hour Film Challenge… If we didn’t win, that wouldn’t have mattered. It’s still a good film. An award shouldn’t change that.

I know people in Newfoundland are eager to see it, after hearing so much about it.
I really can’t wait to share it at home. That’s the whole point of making films, is to share it with people you love. And I love home so much. I can’t wait to bring it there.

I have to ask about the owl costume. Where did you get it?
It was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen. It was a mascot costume. It looked like a cartoon trying to look like an owl. It looked so demonic.

When I saw that decapitated head on a shelf, I thought, “that has to be mine. I want that!”

We had it for the weekend and wore it around our residence. It was amazing.

I don’t know if Scott Matthews, the actor who wore it, appreciated it as much as we did.

Why?
It was really hot. And we were fighting him, pushing him to the ground.

He was a trouper though.

The Hall will be screened at the Women’s Film Festival on Saturday, October 24, at the Majestic Theatre at 1pm. For ticket info, visit www.womensfilmfestival.com


Stephen Dunn