The Sound & The Furry

The Animal Project (Women’s Film Festival) A thirty something acting teacher pushes a group of eager young performers out of their comfort zones while he struggles with his own ability to live an authentic and fulfilling life. (CAN) Saturday Oct 26 at 12pm. $10/$12, LSPU Hall.

Many moons ago, when actor-raconteur Christopher Walken hosted Saturday Night Live in the mid-2000s, he was asked by the young writers what kind of sketches interested him. In the version I heard, Walken was silent for nearly a minute before giving his considered response:

“Bear suits are funny and bears are as well.”

And it’s true in a weird way. Animal suits do have a certain power to them. They’ve been used to great effect in films like Donnie Darko, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and even in local director Stephen Dunn’s acclaimed short, The Hall.

When writer-director Ingrid Veninger began working on her latest film, The Animal Project, it wasn’t just for the animal suits.

It was an atypical approach, but Veninger opted to cast the film first and then write the screenplay. Once the film was cast was when the animal costumes came in — she realized she wanted to make a film based on her dream of people in animal costumes walking in a field.

After writing the original treatment, Veninger discussed that and other core ideas with the cast, asking them what they thought the movie was about. It was the beginning of a three-month production which was shot with no rehearsals. The Animal Project was constantly being revised by Veninger, taking shape between editing sessions and the three days of filming allotted each week.

The finished film is more about performance than panda suits.

“Actors are always balancing a desire to escape themselves with a desire to express themselves through other characters,” Veninger says. “They’re professional liars, but they’re always looking to be truthful in the moment. It’s all about that search for authenticity. The film is about how connections lead to creativity.”

The Animal Project centres on a group of six actors, their director and his teenage son. The director is searching for a project that will get his actors to open up emotionally. As the director drifts further away from his son, he recreates a film he shot with his son where his then-prepubescent boy dressed as a bunny offering free hugs on the streets of Toronto. Asking his group of actors to put on different animal suits and offer free hugs to the public, he urges them to become vulnerable while struggling to reconnect with his son.

Though all the actors are reluctant to put on their suits and go street-hugging, the freedom they get is a lasting one, and each of the actors becomes less guarded as their Animal Project progresses. The experiences remind them to be vulnerable. Veninger says that kind of vulnerability is important to filmmaking as well.

“I’m more on the cautious, guarded side of life but the process of film cracks me open,” she says.

The Animal Project is about vulnerability, which was the perfect theme considering its unorthodox creation.

Just as the actors are unsure by the vaguely defined performance Leo (Aaron Poole) is asking them to commit to for his “Animal Project” within the film, Veninger was asking actors to go out on a limb for her Animal Project. The finished film captures that vulnerability, marrying Veninger’s aim to her dreams of costumed actors and even her first film.

The “Bunny Project” film-within-a-film is actually a film Veninger created for a 24-hour film competition.

“Uncertainty is really important,” Veninger says. “Because we were editing as we were going, the film changed as we were going along, creating a constant sense of vulnerability.” Of course, the writer-director shared that raw uncertainty, as she needed to deliver a script from scratch.

In the end. The Animal Project’s characters do end up making connections despite their lumbering, cartoonish animal costumes or maybe because of them. Maybe Christopher Walken was on to something.

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