The Scholarly Filmmaker: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. The cinematic equivalent of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Gustav Mahler, he was an undisputed master of the artform and did more than any other filmmaker to further the dramatic capabilities of cinema. His work influenced some of the most notable directors of the 20th century like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. He’s best known for his samurai period pieces, but he was equally adept at crafting contemporary dramas or historical biopics. While post-war Japan shaped his thematic interests, his films have a universal appeal that transcends nationality. This is because he understood film’s potential to capture the diverse experiences and subjectivities of human beings. Despite his dour view of the world, Kurosawa was ultimately a realistic who understood the fundamental dignity of humanity, even if humanity so often falls short of its inherent potential. No filmmaker conveys such empathy in his diverse array of subjects or narratives, and no director demands such attention from filmmakers who want to learn the subtleties of their craft.

Akira Kurosawa was born in the Omori ward of Tokyo in 1910. His father, Isamu, was a descendant of samurai from Akita prefecture, while his mother, Shima, was of merchant stock from Osaka. Kurosawa developed an admiration for film at a young age as his father encouraged him to view films and his older brother, Heigo, worked as a silent film narrator for foreign films. Many biographical commentators credit Heigo with giving Kurosawa his realistic worldview, when during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Heigo took him down to witness the devastation and forbid him from ignoring the corpses and destruction that surrounded them. Kurosawa’s worldview would darken even further after he finished grade school and moved in with Heigo to pursue painting. In 1933, Heigo committed suicide, and that same year Kurosawa’s surviving brother also died of illness. In the years that followed, Kurosawa abandoned visual art and applied to become an assistant director at Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), which eventually became Toho Studios. He worked as an assistant director of Kajiro Yamamoto for several years, and ended up directing a substantial portion of Yamamoto’s 1941 film, Uma.

Kurosawa made his credited directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a Judo saga about a young man who moves to the city to pursue Jiu Jitsu, but who ends up becoming a master Judo fighter. The film proved a success for Toho Studios after a rocky period of censorship approval and he followed it up with The Most Beautiful (1944), a work of war propaganda about women working in the munitions factories during World War Two. Kurosawa met his wife, Yoko Yaguchi, while working on the picture as she starred in the film. In 1945, Kurosawa made a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2, as well as an adaptation of the Noh drama, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. He also directed Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), although he eventually chose to omit the film from his preferred filmography.

Kurosawa’s 1946 melodrama, No Regrets For Our Youth, is the first film to demonstrate his knack for complexity amidst genre convention. The film follows a young woman (Setsuko Hara) who falls in love with a political radical in pre-war Japan. It’s a melodrama that isn’t as interesting as the domestic dramas Yasujiro Ozu was directing in the same period (and which also starred Setsuko Hara). However, its unconventional protagonist is a definitive characteristic of Kurosawa and makes the film an early touchstone when examining his work. His follow-up, One Wonderful Sunday (1947), is a sentimental romance that improves on No Regrets For Our Youth. It follows an impoverished man (Isao Yumasaki) and woman (Chieko Nakakita) over the course of one day in post-war Tokyo. The film’s standout moment comes as the couple visits an abandoned bandstand and the couple pretend to hear music emanating from the empty orchestra pit. For the most part, the film is a dour look at the economic realities of post-war, occupied Japan, but this moment affords a small amount of joy amidst the hardship. It’s a sentimental instance of movie magic from a filmmaker who’s often regarded as pessimistic.

While No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday are admirable films, they’re minor. Drunken Angel (1938) is the earliest essential Kurosawa film. In an article in Film Quarterly by Donald Richie in 1960, Kurosawa recalls the film fondly: “In this picture I finally discovered myself. It was my picture: I was doing it and no one else.” Chief among the film’s many virtues is Toshiro Mifune’s starring performance. Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Mifune; they’d go on to work together for another 15 films. Here, Mifune plays a violent gangster suffering from tuberculosis who attracts the attention of an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) who hopes to treat and redeem him. While Mifune had appeared in films before Drunken Angel, no director could unleash his true artistry until Kurosawa worked with him. Bullish, hyperactive, and constantly emoting, Mifune acted like no other Japanese star. In Richie’s Film Quarterly article, Kurosawa notes that Mifune’s “reactions are extraordinarily swift. If I say one thing, he understands ten. Most Japanese actors are the opposite of this and so I wanted Mifune to cultivate this gift.” Drunken Angel is an excellent example of a post-war yakuza thriller. It’s remarkable because of Mifune’s performance and Kurosawa’s ability to direct Mifune towards the most immediate, empathetic emotions in any given scene.

After Drunken Angel, Kurosawa collaborated with Mifune for most of his films for the next two decades. In 1949, they made two films together: the medical drama, The Quiet Duel, and the police procedural, Stray Dog. Both films co-starred Takashi Shimura and are clear examples of Kurosawa’s maturing style. Stray Dog is especially remarkable. The film follows Mifune’s rookie detective who loses his pistol on transit and sets about searching the gritty underbelly of Tokyo to recover it. The film blends the pulpy interests of the noir genre with the concerns of post-war realism. Its depictions of an impoverished Tokyo during a heat wave are some of the most tactile depictions of poverty in late forties cinema. Kurosawa employs medium-wide angles of stewing hovels, lighting schemes consisting of intense key lights, and close-ups of Mifune’s sweaty face to make the viewer feel the heat. The result is a film that has thematic heft in addition to its many genre pleasures.

Kurosawa followed up Stray Dog with the modest courtroom drama, Scandal (1950), which also starred Mifune and Shimura. That year, he also released Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and instantly made Kurosawa the premiere director in East Asian cinema. Rashomon is one of the great masterpieces of classic cinema. The film’s narrative is disjointed, recounting conflicting versions of an altercation in the forest where a bandit murders a samurai and rapes his wife. The film shows the encounter from the point of view of the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyo), and the deceased samurai (Masayuki Mori), as well as the frame narrative of a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) discussing the case with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichiijro Ueda).

It’s impossible to overstate the film’s narrative influence. Much like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the film engages directly with the unknowability of truth and dishonesty of memory. Both films are purposefully non-linear, and as such, they’re radical works of cinematic art. However, unlike Welles does with the revelation of the meaning of the word “Rosebud,” Kurosawa never resolves the conflicting narratives within his film. He refuses the authorial instinct to provide a definitive version of the crime, instead allowing the story’s contradictions to coexist with each other. We never experience an omniscient version of the film’s crime, and thus, all accounts of the crime contain both truth and lies. In Rashomon (and for Kurosawa) objective reality is not only unknowable, but also essentially meaningless. Life forces you to live within the subjectivity.

While Rashomon’s staggering narrative is its primary appeal, its technical filmmaking is equally impressive. Kurosawa uses medium-close-ups and parallel shot lengths to maintain directorial neutrality when depicting the stories. For example, he doesn’t favour stylistic flourishes in one recounting of the narrative over another, nor does he use filmmaking techniques to underline obvious lies in each of the character’s stories. He also inverts two common visual motifs to emphasize ambiguity. Firstly, he uses sunlight—his crew used giant mirrors to reflect the sunlight onto the actor’s faces while filming—not as a symbol of purity, but instead a symbol of sin and debauchery. Whenever the characters are bathed in the light through the high branches of the forest, they are not cleansed of their sins, but are instead at the height of their evil. It’s as if their sins are laid bare.

Secondly, he uses rainwater—he blackened the water with ink so as to make it stand out on film—to visually muddy the film’s atmosphere. Instead of washing away the thematic and literal murk of the film (metaphorically wiping away ambiguity) the rain heightens the grim nature of the story. Rashomon is a great film, but its dark philosophy and complex filmmaking mean it’s best viewed by mature individuals. Unlike some of his later films, Rashomon is not the ideal introduction to Kurosawa’s filmmaking.

After Rashomon, Kurosawa suffered a minor artistic failure when he adapted Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951). However, he recovered with his follow-up, Ikiru (1952), which is one of his best films—perhaps better than Rashomon. Ikiru follows a small-time bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who receives a cancer diagnosis and decides to pursue the construction of a playground in his neighbourhood as a small measure of redemption for a wasted life. If Rashomon dealt with crime and high drama to explore the nature of subjectivity in human experience, Ikiru uses the mundane life of an unspectacular man to reflect on life’s meaning and the necessity of being purposeful with you use your time. It’s a lovely film, both melancholy and yet deeply sympathetic with its protagonist. It’s one of cinema’s great existentialist statements, highlighting the necessity of action and how a moral life cannot be a passive one. For many viewers, cinema offers no film as profoundly empathetic as Ikiru.

Akira Kurosawa followed Ikiru with his greatest film, Seven Samurai (1954). Seven Samurai is one of the most influential films ever made. It’s a perfect balance of adventure and drama. Its story is superbly constructed, following a small farming village that hires seven ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them against a band of roving marauders. The leader of the ronin is Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a world-weary samurai with a strict code of honour. Hired first, Kambei goes about assembling six other warriors to aid him in the defense of the village. Five of these warriors are samurai, both young and old, who are drawn to the quest in deference of Kambei or because their code of honour commands it. The seventh is the aggressive Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who claims to be a samurai but is actually a peasant who stole a samurai’s sword and faked his identity to escape his former life.

The distinct personalities and goals of the seven samurai make them an unlikely team and the men must come to terms with their differences in order to work together and defend the village. This team movie framework may sound familiar, but it wasn’t at the time of film’s release. Kurosawa was inspired by westerns like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) in how to balance the screentime of each of the characters and blend their dramatic concerns, but the particulars of the film’s structure were a first. Seven Samurai is not so much a microcosm of the society it depicts (as Stagecoach or Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [1944] are) as a depiction of an ideal society: one built off of moral action and teamwork at the expense of ego and lineage. Everything from John Sturges’ remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (1960), to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) is indebted to Kurosawa for establishing the beats and conventions of the team film.

While the film’s story construction is its most enduring touchstone, its action filmmaking is equally revolutionary. For instance, in opposition to common practice at the time, Kurosawa filmed the climactic action scenes with multiple cameras. He would create complicated diagrams to choreograph their movement within the chaotic action of the battle between the samurai and the marauders. Again, this decision has become an industry standard, but Kurosawa had no playbook on how to shoot action with multiple cameras back in 1954. He was pioneering a shooting style. In addition, there is nothing sloppy about Kurosawa’s action coverage. Unlike many Hollywood films whose editors have salvaged their action scenes from sloppy choreography and aimless coverage, Kurosawa’s action scenes are superbly constructed. They constantly build momentum and convey the chaos of war without losing clarity. The cause and effect of each movement and action beat is clear, but that clarity doesn’t detract from their visceral impact. The success of the film’s action scenes does a lot to make one forget the film’s mammoth length (it runs 207 minutes). Seven Samurai continues to be one of the most praised films ever made—it ranks highly on the decennial Sight & Sound lists of the best films ever made. It’s an essential watch for anyone who considers himself or herself a filmmaker.

Kurosawa followed up the spectacle of Seven Samurai with the paranoid drama, I Live in Fear (1955), starring Toshiro Mifune as an elderly patriarch of a Japanese family who believes a nuclear apocalypse is inevitable. In 1957, he adapted Macbeth to medieval Japan with Throne of Blood, one of cinema’s greatest Shakespeare adaptations. That same year he also adapted Maxim Gorky’s socialist play, The Lower Depths, which had previously been adapted by Jean Renoir in 1936. In 1958, Kurosawa released The Hidden Fortress, which was one of the largest points of reference for George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In fact, the plot of A New Hope (1977) and The Phantom Menace (1999) are both largely based off The Hidden Fortress, which follows two bumbling peasants who get swept up in a general’s quest to protect a princess from an evil rival clan. Unlike Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress is primarily high adventure. It’s Kurosawa’s broadest film and most child-friendly in subject matter, which explains its appeal as inspiration for Lucas’s space operas.

In 1960, Kurosawa made The Bad Sleep Well, a contemporary drama loosely-inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The film is a cynical, depressing assault on corporate corruption and Japan’s moral complacency. Arguably, it’s also the grand culmination of Kurosawa’s pessimistic worldview. The film is remarkable for the depth of its righteous anger and for Mifune’s uncharacteristically reserved performance as the main character who pursues revenge against the corrupt company that forced his father to commit suicide. Its opening scene is one of cinema’s greatest, where a lavish wedding is interrupted by police officers who arrest the Master of Ceremonies for corporate bribery. Underseen and often ignored in favour of his samurai films, The Bad Sleep Well is one of Kurosawa’s most accomplished films and deserves a broader audience.

However, it’s understandable that some of Kurosawa’s lesser known greats like The Bad Sleep Well are overlooked in favour of films like Yojimbo (1961), which exert a loud influence over cinematic culture as a whole. Yojimbo follows Toshiro Mifune’s nameless ronin who arrives in a dirty rural town and decides to eliminate the town’s gangs by pitting them against each other. The plot might sound familiar as (like Seven Samurai) Yojimbo has been endlessly remade and parodied in the past 50-plus years of cinema. The film essentially invented the archetype of the rogue warrior with mysterious motivations and an unwavering sense of morality, a character type that has proliferated in westerns and action films since the sixties. The film even gave birth to the spaghetti western when Sergio Leone unofficially remade it as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. However, even had it never birthed an entire cinematic legacy, Yojimbo would remain one of Kurosawa’s best. It’s his most purely enjoyable film, one filled with shocking violence but also cutting humour.

Kurosawa’s followed Yojimbo with its sequel, Sanjuro (1962), which finds Mifune’s ronin saddled with nine bumbling young samurai as he seeks to take down a corrupt town administrator. It’s a lesser film than its predecessor, but still deeply entertaining and more humorous than the film that spawned it. In 1963, Kurosawa returned to contemporary drama with High and Low, an ingenious crime procedural based on a pulp novel by Ed McBain. Like The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low is often overlooked in favour of Kurosawa’s samurai films. This is unfortunate as High and Low would prove the crowning achievement of most any filmmaker other than Kurosawa himself.

In 1965, Kurosawa worked with Mifune for the last time in Red Beard. The film is a historical drama about a young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) working in a slum in 19th century Tokyo (then known as Edo) and his surly mentor, the enigmatic Red Beard (Mifune). Red Beard is a culmination of Kurosawa’s interest in the poor and his strong belief in existential humanism despite humanity’s shortcomings. Running 185 minutes, Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s longest films, but the patient manner of its plot development and the depth of its character construction makes it a film of immense power. It’s also one of cinema’s most articulate examinations of social justice and the difficulties of enacting social change.

It took five years for Kurosawa to make his follow-up to Red Beard, which itself took two years of filming to finish. Dodes’ka-den (1970), a series of charming vignettes about impoverished citizens living in a garbage dump, was meant to be Kurosawa’s triumphant entry into colour filmmaking, but ended up being his biggest professional failure. The film was critically dismissed and lost money at the box office. Kurosawa took its failure personally and fell into a deep depression. In 1971, he attempted suicide and it took him another four years before he’d continue to pursue filmmaking.

The next two decades were not easy on Kurosawa. No longer a box office draw, Kurosawa struggled to finance his films. He went to Russia to make his 1975 naturalist masterpiece, Dersu Uzala, about the friendship between a Russian explorer and a Siberian native. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1976. However, this critical success did not reignite Kurosawa’s cinematic fortunes. It was only because of the financial assistance of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that Kurosawa was able to fund his historical epic, Kagemusha (1980), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Kurosawa partially intended Kagemusha as a testing exercise for Ran (1985), his long-envisioned adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Although it took him over a decade to finally undertake, Ran proved worth the wait. The film transposes the story of King Lear onto medieval Japan and swaps the genders of the three children of the king who abdicates his throne and divides his kingdom between his offspring. The film is most remarkable for its use of colour. It looks like a painting come to life. This is not accidental. As Kurosawa was a painter before he became a filmmaker, he used much of his fallow period in the 1970s and 80s to paint a storyboard for every single frame of Ran. More than any of his other films, Ran captures the chaos of warfare and the potential nihilism of human existence. Its most stunning moment comes late in the film when a castle is burnt to the ground following a battle between clashing armies. Kurosawa actually constructed a castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji and burnt it to the ground to accomplish the shot. Such was the depth of his devotion to the film’s visual power. Ran was Kurosawa’s last epic and his last masterpiece.

In 1990, Kurosawa made another vignette film much like Dodes’ka-den. Yume (entitled Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams in North America) is an anthology of sequences based off Kurosawa’s actual recurring dreams. The film has no overarching narrative or theme, although the cumulative power of the various sequences is profound. Although each of the eight dream sequences are individually fascinating, “The Blizzard,” where four mountaineers struggle through metres of snow on a frigid mountainside, and “Village of the Watermills,” where a young traveller stops in a town where the villagers have forsaken modern technology, are the most powerful.

Like Yume, Kurosawa’s final two films, Rhapsody in August (1991) and Madadayo (1993), are works of an old man reflecting on the life he’s lived and the world he’s experienced. Rhapsody in August is a contemporary drama about a grandmother living in Nagasaki who is visited by her grandchildren who deplore her traditional ways and lifestyle. The film explores the generational rift between the (then) youngest generation of Japanese citizens who grew up in a post-Imperial, post-westernized Japan and Kurosawa’s own generation, which experienced the war and the modernization of their country first-hand. The film also denounces the American nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and explores the older generation’s inherent distrust of Americans because of that incident. Madadayo is a biopic about professor and author Hyakken Uchida and his lifelong relationship with his many students. Much as Hayao Miyazaki does with Jiro Horikoshi in The Wind Rises (2013), Kurosawa uses Uchida as a stand-in to explore his own legacy and impending mortality. It’s a gentle swan song for cinema’s greatest humanist.

After Madadayo, Kurosawa planned to continue working. He wrote two screenplays, but after suffering a spinal fracture, he was confined to a wheelchair and his hopes of dying on set while filming a movie were dashed. He died in 1998 from a stroke. However, Kurosawa’s work lives on. His 30 features constitute the most remarkable filmography of the 20th century. He defined action cinema with his samurai features, crafted some of the most touching works of humanism with his contemporary dramas, and utilized colour in the most startling ways in his late masterpieces. His influence is incalculable and every film made today is inherently influenced by Kurosawa’s work. Throughout the history of cinema, no name has been more synonymous with greatness than that of Akira Kurosawa. And it’s likely no name ever will be.

Inside The Chaos: Interview with Winnie Jong Peters on her Debut Film with Female Eye Film Festival!

As many readers who frequent my series may know, I am a huge fan of Film Festivals. And there is a great one coming up! The Female Eye Film Festival is a wonderful festival with a great line up.

I was lucky enough to snag an interview with Director Winnie Jong Peters, to hear about her debut film The Offer, a dramatic short about a man who gets entangled with a traveling encyclopedia salesman. Winnie has much to be proud of about her work, having managed an incredibly successful crowd funding campaign and being selected to be part of a stellar Toronto Festival which was ranked by MovieMaker Magazine as one of the “Top 50 World Festivals worthy of it’s entry fee.”
Check out this great Feature on Winnie, and hit up the details below to follow here work!

1) Winnie, tell me a brief history about your introduction to the industry and your attractive to directing. What inspires you as a creator?

As a teenager, I started my self-education of filmmaking by watching every film, every night at the then amazing rep cinema, The Fox. That’s when I became attracted to the idea of visual storytelling and directing. I ended up quitting university, heading to work in Ireland, quit that job to attend the Cannes Film Festival and came back to Ryerson Film School to learn the craft. I’ve been working as a script supervisor and realized that I had to free myself and allow myself to create my own stories with my own voice.
2) The Offer, your debut short film will be presented at the Female Eye Film Festival this upcoming weekend, can you tell me a little about the film? What is the concept for the piece and how did it find its way to the Female Eye Film Festival?

The idea of an encyclopedia salesman had been percolating in me for years, but I didn’t feel I had the strength as a writer. Daniel Godwin wrote the script. Hugh Dillon Sergio Di Zio and Lesley Faulkner star. We crowdfunded the entire budget in 20 days. It’s a short film about helping people who don’t know they need help. When we started creating a list of film festivals to submit to, I made my top five list and The Female Eye Film Festival was on that list. When I was selected for the WIDC-CAM, I contacted Leslie-Ann Cole to check to see if my film will be programmed. I like to think my stars aligned and I was able to attend as a WIDC-CAM participant and a filmmaker.

3) As a female director and content creator, tell me about why this film festival resonates with your piece.

As a female director and content creator, this film festival is one of the top 50 film festivals named by MovieMaker Magazine and one that specifically serves to highlight the talents of female filmmakers. As this is my debut short film, I am trying to get as many people to view the film as possible. The Female Eye is an intimate festivals which programs film consecutively and so you don’t have to choose between screening times. This is important as a female director to not be in a competitive position for audience and appreciated the equal opportunities to showcase my film.

4) You have been selected as one of four participants  in the Women in the Director’s Chair Career Advancement Module held in conjunction with the Female Eye Film Festival. Tell me more about this- what does it entail and what kind of opportunity is it? How much competition was there?

The Women in the Director’s Chair is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and holds many programs each tailored to different aspects of the director’s career. The Career Advancement Model offers a tailored leadership master class for four mid-career women filmmakers in conjunction with 3 Female film festivals across Canada. It involves intensive workshops to hone our projects, one-to-one meetings with industry mentors and opportunities to foster a support network. We also have a VIP Pass to attend the festival Master Classes and screenings. Being selected is an affirmation of my career path as a director and a creative voice in the Canadian landscape. Exclusive access and one-to-one meetings makes this a wonderful opportunity. The competition to being selected is rigorous and I am truly honoured to be part of this group.

5) How can people find you and your work during this festival (this is the standard plug where I give all the festival info!)

The Offer will play during the 2016 Female Eye Film Festival on Saturday June 18 at 2:30pm. I will be in attendance for the Q&A afterwards. Here’s the link to get your tickets http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/#!day-five-program-2/vze1m

6) How can your fans find you and your work after the festival? 

The Offer can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheOffer2015 and on Twitter at @TheOffer2015

Winnie Jong Peters is a filmmaker to watch and follow. Keep your eye on this rising Toronto talent!

Inside The Chaos: An Interview with Parker Mott, Tom Beaver and Steve Chambers

Parker Mott, recent Inside The Chaos Interviewee, is back for round to, after his recent shorts, MAYFLY and What Floor, premiered in Toronto at the end of May.  After the success of producing two shorts, I had to get Parker’s take on the film making process. We exchanged conversation and Parker brought in his two associates.  Tom Beaver, actor in What Floor, and Steve Chambers actor in MAYFLY,  but established in the industry in his own right. To begin, below is my interview with Parker.

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Parker, tell me exactly what role you took on in each film. What roles resonate with you most?

MAYFLY was a university project (Queen’s) – a thesis film – so Sebastian (my co-director) and I wore many hats since a lot of our crew were only available intermittently due to exams. With “What Floor”, it was very structured. You had the one AD, the DoP, the Sound Recordist, the Make-up Girl – someone dedicated to every role each day on set. It was also different from Mayfly because I did not have a 2nd director by my side. Sebastian and I were very simpatico; he directed the camera, I worked mostly with Steve and the other actors. That was a healthy dynamic. With What Floor, dealing with a director of photography, the actors, all the way to the catering was an endurance test. It really took a toll. Your crew is always looking at you waiting for you to make a decision. When you direct your first film, I discovered it’s not that you need to know what you are doing – rather, you need to make it LOOK LIKE you know what you are doing. The actual knowing comes through experience, which is what I acquired.

Talk to me about the help you had in making the film- financially, what producers were significant for you? 

As a filmmaker, the dream is for someone to say “I want to fund your movie”, as opposed to you phrasing it back to them as a question. With What Floor, in that sense, I lucked out with Bryan Talnariu, the founder of B.A.T Pictures. He loved Mayfly and wanted to make “What Floor” a reality. Bryan has done a lot of documentary work– the man gets shit done. He is one of the few producers I currently know who stays true to his word and sticks to action over talk. So much of the industry is talk; it’s a relief then to find someone who admires your work, wants to fund it, and follows through with everything he says. He also respects the director’s right to final cut, which in turns leads to a healthier creative relationship. He contributes ideas when necessary without the implication of “hey, I put money into this- do as I say”. I hope to work with him again.

What themes did you find within your character that you tired to bring to the performance?

Mayfly went through several stages of post. We edited a cut that was screened on campus at the end of the semester, but Sebastian and I weren’t happy with it. We worked on it for a bit in Toronto, then side jobs veered us away from completing a proper version. Sebastian, who did all the VFX, left for Taiwan so I rejigged it with his trust that I would serve the interests of our shared vision. With Mayfly, I did not anticipate how the film would be so reliant on the editing. That’s not due to a lack of performances or visuals, simply the film demanded a certain pace and kinetic energy to convey Gregory’s thought process. That’s why the first 7 minutes of the film are so flashy; the bar scene, on the other hand, is a very slow burn. I decided to hold shots longer to linger on Steve and Richard’s faces – and that seemed to fit the tension of that scene. Eventually, I found a talented sound mixer named Matthew Lederman to fix the sound issues that previously plagued the initial cuts. The key symptom of a “student film” is poor sound, so Matthew treated that symptom successfully.

For What Floor, it was a bit different because I was cutting and filming at the same time – and we weren’t shooting in sequence, so often I was cutting scenes that were later in the film and piecing them together as principal photography reached a close. From here, I worked with the superb film composer Emily Klassen – currently on an apprenticeship at the CFC – whose percussion added the necessarily chill to What Floor’s narrative.

Were these films meant to be your creative calling card as a filmmaker

Short films are intended to be “calling cards”, but I didn’t make these films for that purpose. They meant something on a personal level, and I think every director should go into a film for that reason. As a starting filmmaker, doing your film as a “calling card” is the equivalent of an established director doing one “just for the money”. But I’m willing to call Mayfly and What Floor calling card movies if someone answers.

How was the screening on the 26th? 

The screening called for ribbons and confetti. It really was a blast. The day of was nerve-racking because you have last-minute cancellations and trying to organize everything down to the wire. That’s always the way it is. You start to wonder- will all this effort be worth zilch? Fortunately, no. It was a huge turnout; it showed people in and outside our circle truly cared and wanted to witness and support these films. We had a raffle, where we doled out chocolate, a Cineplex pass, and a copy of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (pro tip: do a raffle for your event, it gives something to anticipate beside the films). Andrew Parker did a superb job moderating the Q&A and asking the right questions to stir up conversation. The wonderful Daniela Espino brought some spice to the night, introducing the sponsors and making our guests feel comfortable. When you’re the filmmaker, you don’t have time to juggle all these balls so you have to delegate. Make sure you have an event organizer, marketing coordinator, and for the love of god a good bartender who can ably pour boxed wine!

Do you have any upcoming works and pieces? 

Oh yes… currently in the revisions stages for a feature-length screenplay. It’s about a down-and-out voice actor who finds renewed purpose in an eccentric, mysterious costar. I wrote the script for actor Dan Abramovici (Ben’s At Home), who actually works as a voice actor in Toronto and LA. I love the movie “Punch Drunk Love” and want the film to deconstruct Dan’s roles the way PTA deconstructed Sandler’s. So far the screenwriting process has been extremely interesting; it is very dialogue-driven, whereas “Mayfly” and “What Floor” are quite terse. Braving Toronto’s film industry for over 3 years now, the film is very personal and steals from some of my experiences, which I think a lot of filmmakers and actors will relate to – or anyone trying to make strides in their industry.

Quite a story, am I right? But Mott’s insight is only half of my interviewing adventures when it comes to these cinematic feats. Next, I picked the brain of Tom Beaver, actor in What Floor and film maker in his own right.

Behind the camera

 

Tom, Tell me about your role in WHAT FLOOR.

I played a mysterious- nameless- “Stranger” who may or may not exist? He kind of floats in and out of Samantha’s (lead character) conscious and/or sub-conscious. He’s sort of an unsettling presence in the film (as I see it).

I understand you’re also a filmmaker- (Meryl). Tell me about some of your other works.

I am a filmmaker, actor and screenwriter w/roughly 20 years of hitting the “craft” behind me. Lived in Los Angeles for 9 years- currently reside in Kansas City, Missouri where I’m making my 1st feature film called ERIC BLAIR AND I. Going to Austin in September for film work. I’ve made just under 10 films- all varying lengths- mostly shorts. One documentary- several fiction pieces. MERYL (2014) is about a teenage girl who thinks she’s an angel and is growing increasingly upset w/the social climate in America. All my work can be found here…

https://vimeo.com/user3246102

and here’s the link to my current project

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5181748/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_1

Do you find any similarities between your personal works and your Mott’s work?

Oh yeah- Mott’s a thoughtful guy. He isn’t just making movies to keep you munching popcorn. I think he’s interested in provoking- and this is something that will develop further w/time and more films. We’ve written a script together (WILLIAMS, ARIZONA) and we’ll collaborate more in the future. Mott and I probably have VERY similar sentiments. His work can be abstract, unsettling and off the beaten path (WHAT FLOOR qualifies)- and my films could be accused of these things as well. I don’t see the content of the films as abstraction so much as a challenging an audience to think- treating them like adults- not pampering to their base natures. WHAT FLOOR doesn’t pander- it makes demands- treats you like an democratic full grown person w/a working, independent brain. You know?

How was your artistic collaboration, what was most inspiring and what was most challenging? 

It was brief! I only worked on the film a few days- but it was great. I met some Toronto humanoids. It was my 1st time in the city- so- very enjoyable. Beautiful city. Mott and I were as I suspected we’d be- speaking in shorthand and getting along fantastically. He directed me w/economy and precision- very surprising considering it was his 1st film (as a lone director). I’d work with him again anytime- especially if his mother caters again.

Any advice for a young person starting out in the world of Indie Filmmaking? What would your top advice be? 

I only believe in one piece of advice regarding artistic endeavors- because there are no rules- no way of doing things that seems to be fool proof- no clear path to whatever your idea of success is… My only advice to young people would be- STAY THE COURSE- KEEP THE SHIP ON COURSE- DO NOT WANDER FROM THE PATH- KEEP ON- KEEP ON- KEEP ON- KEEP MAKING THINGS- KEEP IT UP- KEEP IT UP- KEEP IT UP…

Persist.

Anything upcoming for you in the future that we should keep an eye out for?

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5181748/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_1

And I’m working on other scripts and I’m always an actor for hire if the project and director is right! And last, but certainly not least, Steve Chambers, on his eventful time with Mott while working with MAYFLY.

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 Steve, Tell me about how you got involved with Mayfly? 

Parker and co-director, Sebastien had seen a feature I did called, The Corridor. They interviewed me over the phone and then asked if I’d read their script, which I did. They asked me if I’d be interested in playing the lead and I was. So, after a meeting with my agent, we all agreed that it’d be a great project for me. And it was!

 

2) How did you analyze your character, what was your take on their behaviour? 

I found him to be very withdrawn. It’s like this; with any project, the first thing I do is look at the big picture, as a whole. Then, I look at what piece of the puzzle my character is. That’s to say, what does my guy have to be in order to best facilitate the drawing, or execution of this larger picture. So, I can’t really put it into words but I knew how my character had to present on screen. I knew the vibe he had to have to fit into this story and help better tell it. From there, I just sort of do it. I didn’t really think about, or analyze why they were doing the things they did. I just kinda knew what it had to come across like, and feel like.

3) What themes did you find within your character that you tired to bring to the performance?

I think there was a sense of melancholy. A sense of isolation, confusion, a sort of, “what’s the point to all this?” in the character. I found the way to best access that, and/or to present that was to simply look at how withdrawn I’d found this man to be. In many way, he had checked out. Now, I coulda anaylzed that and thought, “why is he this way?”, but again, I didn’t find a need to do that. I just sorta already got how he felt and simply allowed myself to feel that. So the themes were kind of already just in me. I didn’t have to force anything. It was, with a few exceptions, all in the subtleties. The one, ongoing thing, I suppose was a sense that the character had once been more outgoing, happier, but then we meet him when it’s all gotten too internal and confused only to sorta “find the light” again, by the end, if that makes any sense. Did I even answer your question?

4) Tell me about one or two hilarious moments from Mayfly from behind the scenes.

Ok. We were hit by snow. And I mean SNOW. It was nuts. I can’t remember what day of filming it was but there’s a shot of me smoking a cigarette in heavy ass SNOW. Well, anyway, it was THAT day. It was nuts. We had to wrap early and get the hell outta there and to our 2nd location. It was a brutal blizzard and the streets were COVERED in snow. The crew got split up and then cars couldn’t leave the lot and stuff happened and I don’t even know. What I do know is that, somehow, Sebastien (co-director) and I ended up dragging a bunch of equipment up the middle of a street from one location to the next as it was getting dark, in the middle of a blizzard, with snow crashing into our faces. It was brutal and at one point, as if we lost our minds, we started yelling at each other like we were in the military, “let’s go soldier! Don’t stop!”. That kinda stuff. We get to location 2, thaw out, dry off and finally the other guys show up with the rest of the equipment. We ask, “how did you guys get here? ‘cause we just marched through the trenches.” And know how they got there? Hitch-hiked. Actually hitch-hiked. So there we all are, wet, cold, too much snow outside, but we all made it and got the day finished. Of course, the next day of shooting was canceled ‘cause no one could move or probably even find their cars. Well, that’s it. Funny to me, anyway.

There you have it! From Parker Mott, Tom Beaver and Steve Chambers, the sage words of professionals- find a story with themes you love, find a team of good people who are valuable to both you and performance and give your all at being constantly persistent. Oh, and don’t get caught in a snow storm!!