What types of creative activities do you remember engaging with as a kid?
I’ve liked writing as long as I can remember. I wrote a short story in the second grade that I had a classmate illustrate, and we sold copies of the story for $5 to parents who weren’t about to give a hard ‘no’ to a couple of six year olds. The story was called The Couch Potato and the classmate was called Heather. It was a redemption adventure about a potato who wore sunglasses. We sold at least one copy to every parent because the kids who didn’t have one wanted to read it, and then Heather and I split the profits in half. It was a good haul at the time, and it made me think that writing would be a great way to make money. Whoops.
I did some acting too. My brother and I were in shoe commercials and an anti-bullying video. In the shoe commercial I played in sand. The anti-bullying video took place at a halloween party and my brother bullied me while other kids broke the fourth wall to explain their feelings. I was dressed as a construction worker, which meant I had a beard made of marker dots and, problematically, pillows under my overalls to create a fake belly. Honestly, the person who designed the costumes should’ve taken a look inward because here we were condemning all construction workers to potbellyhood. I would say my performance was adequate, if a bit fidgety. Try to put a camera on me now and I’ll scream.
How did writing and filmmaking feature in your teenage years?
I wasn’t one of those teens that had a camera and made movies with my friends. The first thing that I ever filmed was for my Ryerson application video. But I wrote plays. A play I wrote won some writing contests, which was enough validation to keep doing it. It was a science-fiction play about a guy who was hiding from alien war machines but he was focussed on lamenting the loss of his dog. After that my school luckily allowed me to write and direct a play for the drama festival. It was about a married couple with the last name “Fray” and the title was “Pair of Frays”… so you see why it’s such a clever work.
What made you decide to attend film school?
Honestly, I wanted to go to school for screenwriting school at York but they told me I was too fixated on a specific tone so they rejected me. Mostly, I knew I wanted to write movies and my parents wanted me to go to university. I didn’t really have expectations of what it would be like or what I would learn or what I would do.
At Ryerson you started off writing (Bridges, Dorsal) and then made your way into directing (Running Season). Was that a challenging leap to make?
I was lucky to have actors in my thesis film who knew a lot more than I did. I had directed three plays that were at least an hour long, so I was comfortable talking to actors, but loitering around at Ryerson definitely helped ease my mind about how to navigate the other elements of directing. I knew next to nothing about cameras so the DP (Charles Hutchings) hand-held me through the visual elements that were beyond my ability to communicate. I’ve since learned some things about lenses but I will never be a director who wants to grab the camera and shoot things myself.
Being much more involved in the editing process is what I found taught me the most about screenwriting, and that continues to be true. I think I learned more about writing from the editing process than from the writing process.
Are there any recurring images you notice appearing in your work? How would you describe the aesthetic or ambience of your films?
The image that recurs most often I think would be things that are stacked. Consciously, at least. Stacks of things. Piles. In Running Season the opening image was a tall stack of hay. Bales of hay specifically, not a stack of individual strands of hay. In Cardinals it was cement pipes. One alluded to an immovable obstacle, one alluded to a convoluted web. Both were there to warn the audience about what is to come.
I would say I strive for an uncomfortable ambience that is regionally inspired. I like deadpan humour and I like silence. Visually, I lean towards a more washed-out or muted look versus something vibrant and contrasty. But I like some colours too so someday I’d like to have colours in the movie.
What themes do you find yourself grappling with?
I struggle to write with themes on my mind, but I would say that the theme of extinction has always been interesting to me. With my thesis film, the thing that drew me most about setting something in PEI was the fact that it is, for lack of a better word, doomed. A century from now it’ll be under water at this rate. And that massive bridge will be poking out of the ocean leading to what will look like a bunch of rocks. With Cardinals I kind of went the other way in that it is more about the things we pretend are gone until the point where we can’t pretend anymore. The script I’m writing now is an adaptation of the book The Extinction Club, so you’d be correct in guessing that it deals with the theme more directly.
You recently completed a feature length film, Cardinals. How was the feature length process different from your shorts?
The biggest difference, easily, easily, was the edit. It was crushing. Everything else is kind of the same but scaled up, but editing the feature was more exponential than scaled, because of the domino effect that happens in reverse over and over again (and the dominos effect hah because it’s hard to eat healthy when you think you’ve failed and everything you’ve done up until this point has been a waste).
The biggest thing on set was keeping track of performance arc so that you can be of help to the actors. So often in shorts you are just seeing a moment of change or a moment that will incite change, but rarely do you have time to see that change through. When the schedule is jumping around, it was a new challenge to be confident in where the characters are in their arcs at any given moment. Generally, the best method was to shut up and let the actors take care of themselves.
As a writer were you ever tempted by novel writing? Why did you choose filmmaking?
Until I was 14, I wanted to be a novelist. The trouble is, I had trouble. I found writing dialogue came easier to me, and I could write without catching myself on every sentence. I went to a school that was a 20-minute drive from my house, so I didn’t know many kids in the neighbourhood. What I did have was a Blockbuster within walking distance from my house, so I would go and do the “5 Favourites” deal whenever I had spare time. I still have my blockbuster card.
What non-film art forms inform your filmmaking practice?
Music is the constant. I have no musical talent, but before I write anything I make an hour-long playlist that I listen to on repeat every time I write that script. If I get the playlist wrong, the writing doesn’t work as well, so I change the music until something clicks. It’s mostly tonal stuff but sometimes it’s soundtrack.
For visual references, I find myself going back to the same oil painters for inspiration. John Brosio is one of my favourites, especially his paintings of tornados. Disaster imagery through an ambivalent gaze. I never get tired of them.