BRENDAN PROST AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Brendan Prost is a Canadian filmmaker.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
What was it like growing up in Calgary? What kinds of creative activities did you engage with as a kid? What movies stood out for you in your childhood?
Growing up in Calgary left a lot to the imagination. My memories of it are as very spacious, vacant, and lonely, but marked by possibility. I spent a lot of time outdoors, and got involved in performance at an early age—first in theatre, and later in film and television. My dad was a video store junkie, and was always bringing home something to watch. He was a big Coen Brothers fan, so I definitely saw Raising Arizona when I was quite young and loved that. Dad also had an affinity for Hitchcock, and one of my early favourites was Dial M for Murder. There was also a time my uncle took me to see the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars saga, and that was a pretty formative experience for me in terms of movie going.
Can you tell me about how you engaged with film as a teenager? What were you making / watching?
I was on film sets as an actor in my adolescence, which was thrilling. But, being a child actor is so creatively stifling—you can’t exactly lay your hands on the apparatus. So, I was fired up to pick up a camera and start making things of my own. I began shooting schlocky horror movies and thrillers, just to teach myself the basics and have fun with my friends. I did that for a while, and then there came a point where I had a serious mental health crisis in my teens. It sounds cliché, but one of the things that got me out of my rut was making a film about what I was thinking and feeling, and sharing it with my peers. I’ll never forget how affirming it was to have folks— who had been alienated by my behaviour— finally express an understanding of what was going on. From that moment on, I knew I was going to do this forever, for my own well-being.
In terms of what I was watching, early on it was a lot of the 1990s American darlings—Spielberg, Burton, Linklater, Wes Anderson, the Coens, Tarantino, etc. But, I also had a big interest in horror early on, so I spent time watching the cinema of George Romero and David Cronenberg, and some of the classics too—the Hammer studio movies and the early Universal monster movies. At a certain point, I became obsessed with Woody Allen, and his cinema led me to Ingmar Bergman, and ultimately to European art cinema—Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, etc—and probably to something resembling decent taste.
You did your BFA at Simon Fraser. What were some of your most memorable experiences from this time in your life? What was the most important thing you learned in your undergrad?
This was an extremely tumultuous time in my life for a variety of reasons. I moved away from my friends and family, I was abused by a girlfriend, I made two feature films in between semesters, I made and lost some friends, I learned to shoot and edit celluloid, I discovered what it means to be an artist, I hosted a radio show, and my cat was attacked by raccoons and nearly died. I don’t even know where to begin to sum up this time. It was a whirlwind new chapter in my life that I stuffed full, for good and for bad. I liked having a balance of theoretical and practical learning at SFU, I was grateful to learn the discipline required for working with analogue formats, and I flourished in the freedom of directing and producing my own films several times. There was also a real dichotomy to my experience of Vancouver, from initially studying on the Burnaby campus on the top of a mountain, to studying in the Woodwards complex which was in the downtown eastside. Ultimately, my world radically expanded in a lot of important ways.
Can you tell me about your MFA at UBC? What has that experience been like so far? Would you recommend this program?
I only just started my MFA at UBC. It’s been a strange experience thus far, because it’s been all online. But, I have enjoyed the creative writing workshops and benefited from some of the mentorship already. Can’t say if I would recommend it yet, but stay tuned…
What brought you to Toronto? Do you like Toronto as a city?
I came to Toronto in 2016 to do the Directors’ Lab at the Canadian Film Centre. I decided to stay afterward to explore the creative and professional opportunities the city had to offer. Toronto’s a great town—I love how much there is going on (pre-pandemic), how truly diverse it is relative to the rest of Canada, how connected it is to the rest of the world, and I love the architecture and character of all the different neighbourhoods. But, truthfully I feel like it’s a bit dense and hard-nosed for me. Everyone seems very “agenda driven”, if that makes sense. I find it difficult to find peace here.
How would you describe your filmmaking style? What directors do you turn to for inspiration?
I think my style is different film to film, even if my approach is pretty consistent. I’m motivated to make a film by a personal experience I find emotionally potent, and my intention is to come to an understanding of it through a creative process and the collaborations therein. I’d say my approach is to simply transfer my own experience into a narrative that I think is more ordered and magnified, but still truthful, and to explore it through dramatization and image making. Because of my background as an actor, I’m mostly interested in characters, and the actors who bring them to life. I do most of my learning about my subjects through my collaboration with the performers.
In terms of style, I think every film deserves its own treatment according to its emotional core, story, and characters. It would bore me to do the same thing aesthetically on every movie, so I don’t. As a result, my sources of inspiration range quite a bit, depending on what I’ve got creatively stewing in my mind. But, for my most recent project I was consumed with the cinema of Lynn Ramsay for the enigmatic nature of her imagery, and the way she positions the audience in relation to her protagonists.
If I were to speak more foundationally though, I think the folks that have had the biggest lasting impact on me are John Cassavetes, Steven Soderbergh, and Kelly Reichardt. In terms of ethos, ethics, and process, I find myself most routinely in alignment with what they stand for.
If you were to describe the themes and feelings you are exploring in your entire oeuvre, what words would you use? Do you notice any recurring imagery in your stories? What are your favourite types of characters to portray?
Struggling with my own mental health has inspired me to tell personal stories about internal conflicts—focusing on depression, disassociation, and crises of identity—as well as the desire to be understood—focusing on social alienation, miscommunication, and loneliness. The central characters I write about usually occupy this emotional world, and I like to place them in an extreme position within it. Either ahead of me in some way, like they’ve learned some lesson or had some revelation I haven’t. Or, they’re in a bad place I fear I may end up. I also am drawn to characters who long to change, but don’t have the wherewithal to do so. Folks who are ultimately trapped inside of themselves, and need some help to escape.
It's clear that you are a leader in your film community: you like to bring people together, you like to facilitate new relationships between people. What does community mean to you?
That’s a very sweet thing of you to say! To be honest, among folks I consider my peers, I usually feel pretty left out. I’m not much of an intellectual or a cinephile, and I’m not much for connecting with people online. So, I usually feel as though I’m off in my own world doing my own thing. But, I do long for community, and like to disrupt what I perceive as stiffness or folks being overly guarded. I try to stay attuned to what all my peers are making, and I try to say “yes” whenever folks reach out to me for one reason or another. But, mostly I make my own community through the process of creating and sharing work. That’s one of my favourite things about making movies, is that you’re always bringing together a disparate group of people who don’t have any other reason to hang out except that you’re all united by a common artistic goal.
You've directed shorts as well as features - can you talk a little bit about the difference between working with these two different lengths of project? Is there one you prefer over the other?
I like getting to know characters and watching them change, which because of the limits of my emotional imagination, rarely happens in less than 20 minutes. So, I prefer making features for that reason. I also find that if I’m driven to make something, it’s usually rich and complex enough to feel like it deserves a larger canvas. But, occasionally I have ideas that lend themselves better to the short form, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to condense things into their simplest and most succinct form. Features are more biased to my skill set as a dramatist though, whereas shorts seem to benefit more esoteric and experimental imaginations. I also can’t separate my feelings on formats from professional imperatives and material circumstance. I’d love to live in a world where a movie’s length is determined solely by the material I want to explore, but sadly that is almost never the case. Lately I’ve been focusing on short work for professional reasons, but that time is about up and I’ll be pivoting back to features soon (I hope).
What non-filmmaking art forms do you turn to for inspiration?
I’m more consistently inspired by music than I am by cinema. Music is so much more singular, emotional, DIY friendly, and easy to make an ongoing part of your life. If I could somehow rewrite my life, I would prefer to be a musician. But, as it is I can barely clap in time. I also am a big fan of live performance of all stripes—theatre, improv, and stand-up comedy. How I miss it!
What was the last film you really enjoyed watching?
The other night I watched Jennifer Kent’s second film, The Nightingale, which I found arresting and far more complicated than the standard revenge film. It explores an intersection of colonialism that I hadn’t considered before—the Irish prisoners and the Indigenous peoples of Australia during the early days of British settlement. The main character’s rage ultimately works against her, and disconnects her from the ally she needs in order to achieve her revenge. It’s through qualifying her anger and selective empathy that she’s able to find justice. Kent injects a lot of hot blood in her work, which I appreciate immensely. And she has a background as an actor, which elevates the quality of her character work considerably.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to sharing my new film Heavy Petting with the world when it’s done! It’s pretty close now. I am also looking forward to getting my new feature off the ground—I’m putting together most of the creative pieces for that right now.