A lot of local filmmakers get their start through the NIFCO First Time Filmmaker Program. It seems people who move here from other parts of the country are often surprised by how easy it is to make a film here thanks to this program. Can you tell me about your involvement with the First Time Filmmaker Program and what kind of cultural impact you think it has had?
I coordinated that program from 2002 to 2006 and was lucky to be involved in a lot of different films. We’re blessed in this province to have such a program. There are similar programs in other cities, but none quite as streamlined – or prolific – as NIFCO’s program. It’s great not just for new directors, but also for people who are interested in working on film crews … be it lighting, camera, production design, make-up, etc. It’s been the doorway into the film industry for many, many people. And in terms of filmmakers, I think it’s fair to say most, if not all, Newfoundlanders who have gone on to direct a feature film got their start making a NIFCO short. So it’s been a tremendously vital, productive program throughout the years. I think all these films, ultimately, are a big part of NIFCO’s legacy. My NIFCO film was called The Audience. Made in 2001. It screened at the first Nickel Film Festival.
Punch-up at a Wedding is composed of three scenes, each a single, continuous take with the camera held in a fixed position. Together they tell a sort of elliptical story about a scandalous event at a wedding. Did you conceive of the film as an exercise in style?
I was interested in using the actors (and how they move within the frame) to convey cuts, as opposed to actually making cuts. For example, Frank Barry walks into a close-up for his big line, as opposed to me cutting to the close-up for the big line … then he turns his back to the camera, and suddenly we’re shooting the other actor (Steve Lush) over Frank’s shoulder, so it becomes a different shot. Basically using movements to get these different compositions, not cuts. That kind of thing. The script was written first. But it was the idea of shooting it this way that actually got me motivated to go and make it. There was no funding or anything, we shot it in an afternoon at my house last June. Just four of us on the crew. I asked some actor friends of mine to come out and be all artsy with us for an afternoon, and I think they did a great job. I think the nature of the film (long takes, no cutting) made it fun for them. Film actors don’t get to do complete scenes, uninterrupted start to finish, very often.
Your other film in this year’s festival is a science fiction parable called Face Machine. In this case, you seemed to be working with a significant budget. Can you tell me how this opportunity came about and why you were compelled to tell the story that you did?
Face Machine is about the importance of intimacy. Not necessarily sexual intimacy, more a psychological intimacy – the feeling that you’re not alone in the world–that there are others out there like you–and how once that intimacy is taken away or limited, it has an adverse effect on a person’s ability to be happy. We shot on a sound stage in Toronto and had a lot of great resources to work with, so the goal was to give it a really complex look. The characters live in a dystopian society, where faces are outlawed, so I wanted the shooting and visual design of the film to fit within that sort of idea – that everything is carefully controlled. I think that though Face Machine and Punch-up at a Wedding are drastically different films from a stylistic point of view, they represent the two sides of my brain when it comes to what kinds of films interest me.
Nathan Hynes, Chris Power, Anthony Alviano
Your film Long Pigs is a pseudo-documentary about a cannibalistic serial killer in Toronto. I think the main reason the film is so disturbing is the way it mashes together the entirely opposed genres of horror and documentary. Did you conceive the film as a satire mainly of the conventions of documentaries or rather of the exploitative subject matter of horror movies? (Are you fans of horror movies yourselves?)
We don’t think documentary and horror are opposed at all. Most docs you see are generally about horrific things like war, murder, sexual abuse and lurid crime in general. If anything, “Long Pigs” is a satire of the the exploitive nature of documentaries. And yes, we are horror movie fans. For some reason many people like to be confronted with their mortality on a regular basis–aka “have the shit scared out of them”–us being two of them.
Has the film received any hostile reactions in any of the places where it’s been screened so far? I’m thinking especially of the first murder scene, though at one point the film also touches on the delicate subject of missing children cases in Toronto.
We’ve had much fewer negative reactions to the film than we expected. People generally get the bizarre humour of the film, and let’s face it, you’ve got to be a little twisted to watch a film like this in the first place. However, when we first started pre-production of the film, we gave a script to one of the top effects companies in Toronto and were told that the film was disgusting and should never be made–which, of course, we took as a compliment.
The tough part for people is getting through the first 15 minutes, which are extremely graphic. But we’ve found that most people are most disturbed by the scene you mentioned with the father of the missing girl. The film gets very serious at that point and it makes you realize that there are terrible consequences to the murder and mayhem that take place earlier in the film.
The actor (Anthony Alviano) who plays your main character, Anthony McAlistar, has to pull off the very difficult trick of being convincingly charming and personable in spite of his repugnance. How did he feel about portraying this character?
We called Anthony and got him to answer your question: “No, it was fun. Working with some of the props was a little awkward, and obviously the scenes with Barb (Lucy the Prostitute) were touchy. But I enjoyed the character. He was always in control, or thought he was, and I certainly never felt weird about it, or felt like I was going to snap or anything.”
It should be noted that the only time Anthony (who is a gentle sweetheart in real life) ever got impatient with us as directors was when Barb had to go though her “most exposed” scenes. He was extra sensitive and protective of her, making our jobs as directors that much easier.
Also, Barb is Barbara Walsh, an actor who was born in Gander and is living in St. John’s right now. It was a total coincidence that she was cast in the film and we couldn’t have done it without her being so open and supportive of us.
How did your film Here On In start out?
The story came first. I wrote a version of it in university, and it was loosely based on true events. It was based on me getting smacked in the head with a baseball bat by my cousin when I was four. But the story is really about the father and the daughter and all the weird tensions that can be in those relationships. …
You mentioned before that you had a lot of trouble with post-production.
It’s funny, the prep and the shooting itself was the most easy going, layed back, wonderful experience. The shoot was just like a dream. Everyone who worked on it was amazing. We were wrapping early and had amazing weather.
And then post production started and it was just a fucking nightmare.
Post is so hard too because you lose all your momentum.
Well it doesn’t come through in the film. It’s really pretty. I kept thinking “this can’t be St. John’s—how can everything be so green?”
It was so green.
I wanted it to have this really exaggerated, childish memory. Really bright colours. Story book colours.
I swear to God, the whole weekend we were shooting the weather forecast was calling for rain. I was like “No! This is death! It can’t be a rainy day!”
But at eleven o’clock the night before, [the producer] Tiffany [Martin] would call me and say the weather had changed: “The forecast is sunny.”
And that happened every day. The swinging dream sequence… I’m not sure I’ll ever see another day like that in St. John’s in my entire life. We were really lucky. There were a number of horseshoes up people on the crews asses. Just blessed.
What is it about making movies that you like so much?
It’s the best way I know how to tell stories. That’s essentially what I like doing. Storytelling is what I want to do and I don’t want to just do it with words or just pictures.
And I want to do it with real people. That’s what it is: I like stories about people. So working with actors is really exciting to me, seeing characters take on so much more life than I could ever imagine when writing them. I find that really thrilling. A good actor works so hard and does so much work that is invisible to most people. …Working with actors has taught me so much about writing characters. Because they’ll ask you questions. And you should know as the writer and as the director too. You should understand your characters like they’re real people.