After filmmaker Matt Johnson did a mic drop assault on Canadian programming and film funding in a now infamous interview earlier this year, there's been a new urgency amongst DIY filmmakers to carve out a space for themselves separate from the usual funding bodies and film bureaucrats.
All in their late 20s to early 30s, this group is leading the new wave of creators reshaping the fundamentals of what it means to make a "Canadian" film. In 2016 alone they premiered a host of films with international interest including Johnson's Operation Avalanche, Nadia Litz's The People Garden, Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant, Igor Drljača's The Waiting Room and Kazik Radwanski's How Heavy This Hammer. Though all these filmmakers received some form of subsidy or commission through the government, most of their work has been made with little means, by breaking rules and just going for it.
VICE: How hard is it to get a movie made in Canada?
I think that question would change depending on who you ask. Obviously, I'm making movies with my friends in such a way that we try to change the form to fit the limitations. Everybody knows the limitations: that you have no money and there is no star system so you find a way to make an independent film without either of those things. So for us, we try to use those limitations as best as we can.
I think the Canadian films that fail and fail massively are the ones that try to make movies despite those limitations. So they're like, "OK, so we don't have $50 million but we're still going to make the $50 million movie but we're just going to do it with $10 million and Canadian stars and we're going to try our best." And that kind of imitation I don't think it has ever worked. I've never ever seen it done effectively.
Now this is becoming a whole political conversation, but I think that one of the big problems the Canadian system is suffering from right now, is that the funding bodies in this country are kind of trapped in that loop of not embracing the realities of being a Canadian filmmaker. You couldn't make a movie like they make in Hollywood here in Canada. So it's the people who are finding new formal approaches to cheap filmmaking who are the ones that are succeeding.
Your Now Toronto interview before you left to premiere Operation Avalanche is just as critical of the industry. How was it received?
Because I don't have a social media account people didn't talk to me about it directly at all. But my filmmaker friends were all really supportive of it. And it has led to this upcoming Breakfast at TIFF conversation on the topic and certainly people have been talking about those issues much more than they were before that time. I still stand by those things. And hopefully within my lifetime things can change. My big issue is that every single year 75 percent of Telefilm's funding goes to more or less the same kind-of cabal of old-school Canadian filmmakers. And I know you're quite supportive of some of them. You're a Paul Gross fan or at least you pretend to be…
I like Paul Gross as an actor and his most recent film Hyena Road.
I wonder if I can cast Gross in my John A. Macdonald film … But returning to the previous topic. My problem is that the lion's share of Telefilm's funding should be used to develop new talent. For $28-million, for example, you could make 140 first features for $200,000 each. I really don't know why Telefilm wouldn't want to do that. I don't know what they're getting out of making movies like this. Versus making movies like with women or minorities. You could fund films for the whole gamut of the different Canadian societies. I'm struggling to try to answer that though I'm sure that they would be able to answer that question for me.
VICE: How long was your first feature film [The People Garden] in the works? Was it difficult to get it made here?
There was a five-year development process. The process took so long that I actually wrote and co-directed another feature called Hotel Congress during development of The People Garden.
How committed are you to working in Canada?
Well I spend my time also in Los Angeles and New York. I travel quite a bit. I'm a filmmaker. The purpose of this occupation is to feel a sense of freedom. I've made films in Toronto but neither of my features were made here in the city. I like to escape.
Do you have any ideas on how to potentially remedy the gender disparity in Canadian feature filmmaking?
Not really. There is no one policy that will remedy what is a naturalized societal disparity based on years of exclusion. Frankly I'm tired of panels and initiatives that simply seem to create delays in the process of women working. The initiatives in Canada that I've seen so far—they just put women in think tanks. I want to be on set. Minding my own business. Working. I'm an artist not a policy maker so ultimately all I can do to balance out the scales of gender disparity is endeavor to make compelling work.
VICE: What do you think are the biggest challenges of filmmaking in Canada?
I never worry about things like insurance or permits. If we need them we get them. If we can't get them we figure something else out. Those are easy challenges. The biggest challenges are always the biggest questions. Why make a film? Why would anyone care about a film from Canada?
What are some of the benefits of DIY filmmaking for you?
What it allows for is complete independence. Everyone I've collaborated with is either my age or younger. Dan Montgomery and I have never had a senior producer or investor looking over our shoulder. There are also never people on set that don't need to be there. There's nobody who is just there for a paycheck. Everyone is an artistic collaborator. I want to maintain that.
VICE: How hard is it for first time filmmakers to get funding?
I think you have to be willing to look at what's reasonable. Because you can spend year upon year trying to get that three or four million dollars for your first feature because you think that's what it needs. I think with early films it's about writing a story that you can find a way to tell. Even if it is a big story then you have to find a creative way to tell it or an aesthetic within the means that are reachable.
Are there any Canadian filmmakers that provide a model for you?
I was definitely inspired by the films of David Cronenberg because I saw that you could be somebody that lived and stayed in this country and who had an incredibly strong voice as a filmmaker and made films with an international appeal. I think that Last Night by Don McKellar was a film I saw as an early career filmmaker that set a bar for me for what would be possible for a first feature in Canada. And then my attention moved more to the French Canadian cinema and contemporary French Canadian directors who were at that point and still to this day are knocking it out of the park. Like Denis Villeneuve's earlier work right on through to, well, the list of French Canadian filmmakers is longer than I can list here. What it allowed me to do was see that you can make films in this country that are not Canadian in the stigma inducing maple syrup Canadiana kind-of bullshit way. But that you can actually make things with a strong voice that can go out, that can play anywhere in the world and stand up because they're really strong and powerful stories, that happen to be Canadian.
VICE: How do you find making movies in Canada?
The resources here in Toronto, both in terms of talent and crew are tremendous. But most importantly there is a community here, which is always the most important and often neglected element when making films, as there is a chance to discuss work in the early stages, screen it, challenge one another—that is something that is very hard to replicate. Only a handful of cities in North America can argue to have this, and Toronto is one of them. How hard is it to actually get funding here for your films here?
I don't have a one method fits all approach for funding our films. Once we have an idea for a film we figure out the best way to have it realized, whether it is a small arts council project or a bigger one requiring funders. We haven't worked on large budgets, but do plan to if we feel a project would benefit from that type of support. All of the films thus far have been micro-budget projects, though that umbrella term is interpreted differently by different filmmakers.
Any advice for emerging filmmakers?
I believe in the DIY method, since ultimately it is very hard for smaller independent films to survive in this environment. Making personal connections, reaching out to programmers directly. There are few resources for young filmmakers when it comes to promotion and distribution. Every filmmaker should know the basics about all other parts of the financing and distribution process. As budgets shrink for many different types of projects, promoting work becomes a more intimate and DIY affair, which while exhausting at times, also provides an opportunity to really engage with audiences.
Follow David Davidson on Twitter.