Nova Scotia’s Swiss Army Knife Filmmakers
Werewolf producer Nelson MacDonald interviews the emerging crop of exciting auteurs across Nova Scotia, many of whom are playing TIFF ‘17
A surge of Nova Scotian films by new, independent voices are hitting the festival circuit. As the producer of Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf (which played TIFF ’16) and a former programmer at the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival (HIFF), I’m proud to be a part of this movement. This new wave boasts a bunch of cinephiles, work-a-holics, and multi-hyphenates variously capable of writing, directing, producing, editing, shooting, acting, composing, and dancing. They are Swiss Army knife filmmakers, and I’ve been anticipating their move from shorts to features for years.
This year’s crop includes Cory Bowles’ first feature Black Cop (TIFF ’17), Seth A. Smith’s sophomore supernatural feature The Crescent (TIFF ’17, playing in the Midnight Madness programme), Winston De Giobbi’s ultra-low-budget and underground Mass for Shut-Ins, Jacquelyn Mills’ debut documentary feature In the Waves (Visions du Réel ’17), and Heather Young’s sixth short film Milk (TIFF ’17).
Despite being remarkably diverse in theme and style, these new Nova Scotian films share deep connections beyond geography and their premiere dates. A DIY ethos binds all of these filmmakers together in solidarity. Many of them first met at the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and HIFF. They admire and inspire each other's work, share rough cuts and scripts, and continuously encourage one another to work independently. Although too self-deprecating to ever call themselves auteurs, they are unique artists who have struggled to get their films made and their voices heard within traditional Canadian filmmaking systems.
I decided to hold a conversation with them via Skype to figure out what exactly is stirring in Nova Scotia and what the hell to call it. Someone needs to identify this exciting moment in Nova Scotian filmmaking, and who better than the filmmakers themselves to explain and maybe even name it.
I know this is an insane time for everyone to talk, what with festival season about to start and your new films getting finished, so I really appreciate you taking the time to help me figure out what is driving this new movement in Nova Scotia. Would you say it’s a product of close-knit collaboration, friendly competition, or something else?
Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf): There’s a real mutual appreciation for each other’s work, and that’s a big part of it.
Cory Bowles (Black Cop): When people ask me who my favourite filmmakers are, I tell them Andrea Arnold, young Spike Lee, Heather Young, and Ashley McKenzie. I’m seriously inspired by other Nova Scotian filmmakers, and really honoured to be lumped in with all of you. You’re not trying to make movies that look like Hollywood, or make movies that look polished for the sake of looking professional… You’re making honest work, telling vital stories, and when I see your films, I’m like, “Shit, man, I need to do better!”
Winston DeGiobbi (Mass for Shut-Ins): I remember attending HIFF for the first time a few years ago. It was a big deal for me, because when I went to the “Atlantic Shorts” program, I saw Seth [A. Smith]’s Wind Through a Tree, Heather [Young]’s Howard and Jean, and it seemed like we were all tapping into the same thing. Even though we’re scattered across the province, there’s a similarity: we collaborate, we keep in touch, and we support each other’s films.
One thing that connects your films is the casting. Most of you are casting your own friends and family. Why is that?
Jacquelyn Mills (In The Waves): With my situation, I was writing a feature script about my grandmother’s life. When her sister died suddenly, it struck me that a documentary would be more meaningful and would give me a chance to spend a year with my grandparents. It became a sort of art therapy project. It made a lot more sense than writing fiction and casting someone else to play her, so I sold all my stuff and moved into their basement!
Seth A. Smith (The Crescent): That’s the same reason I choose my son to play the lead in The Crescent. Selfishly, I just kind of wanted a home video. Also, it’s because I know how my family will react in certain circumstances, and I like that. If I’m working with an actor, I often feel like I don’t really know them until the film is done.
Winston De Giobbi: I think we all strive to build a family when we’re making a film. It’s a fragile time when you’re an emerging filmmaker and trying to find your voice, so surrounding yourself with family makes sense. For Mass For Shut-Ins, I used a lot of people who were friends and friends of family. For my short films, I cast my aunt three times. The idea of family itself is an endless source of material for me, so it’s natural I’d use them in my films.
Ashley McKenzie: When you work with people you know, there’s an inherent trust. You don’t have to explain yourself and justify your ideas all the time. On my earlier films, which I made in industry training programs with bigger crews, I was often doubting myself and my instincts. Whenever I wanted to take tiny risks with my filmmaking, I had to fight for it, and would usually end up compromising. On Werewolf, I felt the collaboration with the crew was much more fruitful because it was so small and we all knew and trusted each other. There was no awkwardness; it was much more playful.
Heather Young (Milk): I can relate to that. When you’re starting out, you’re often told the goal is more money, bigger crews, and having the biggest production you can get. After making a few shorts with bigger crews, I eventually learned I don’t work well with a big crew. That’s why I wanted to try to get back to a simple way of doing things with Howard and Jean. I cast my mom, made it myself, and it was a turning point for me. I felt like I was getting back on track with what originally attracted me to filmmaking. I know now that I work much better with a small number of people I’m really comfortable and close with.
The trailer for Jacquelyn Mills' In the Waves.
I think you’re right. There’s an attitude that first features, like short films, are a stepping stone to bigger budgets and bigger casts. But is that what motivates you?
Cory Bowles: I’m of the mind that with your first feature, you don’t want to fuck it up. You want to make something you’re really proud of and that speaks to you. Personally, I don’t want to make a film that gets me a gig directing Mighty Ducks 6. I want to do something that’s worth all the time and energy it’s going to take.
Winston De Giobbi: Yeah, I didn’t approach Mass for Shut-Ins as a stepping stone. When I received the grant from Arts Nova Scotia, I was like, “Okay, this could be the last time anybody ever gives me money, so I’m going to hit the ground running!” I hope it ends up being a stepping stone to making more films, but I wasn’t approaching it that way.
Ashley McKenzie: The idea of stepping stones implies there’s one set path to follow. I think our power is in maintaining autonomy and finding our own way. I think you have to trust yourself and believe in your vision. I really think that’s something we all have in common.
If making a micro-budget feature isn’t a stepping stone, do you plan to work with micro-budgets again?
Heather Young: Well, I don’t feel like I need much money to tell the kinds of stories I want to tell. My ideas lend themselves more towards micro-budgets — they don’t have car chases, explosions, or drone shots. Like everyone else, I want to pay people fairly. Yeah, it’d be great to be able to pay myself, but I’ve given up on that. My dream scenario is always [having] more time to shoot, so maybe a little more money would help that.
Seth A. Smith: Making a micro-budget [film] requires asking for a lot of favours, and at certain point, you want to pay your friends and pay yourself. It’s great to prove to yourself you can do it for next to nothing, and I really prefer only having a few people on set, but eventually you have to find some balance to sustain yourself.
Cory Bowles: Yeah, it’s really tough watching collaborators take a pay cut. My friend Ronnie [Rowe] stars in Black Cop, and he gave everything he had. We only had 12 days, and we had to work really fast. There were some pretty hard shooting conditions. He did it for next to nothing — it was a real dedication. I don’t mind sacrificing, but it’s hard watching others do it.
Ashley McKenzie: It seems like more money means making films in a more “industry” way. When it comes down to it, if you have a bigger budget from Telefilm, a lot of the money is going to the infrastructure that comes with making bigger films. I wish there was something in between.
Cory Bowles: I think we can assume more money is more rules and less creative control. Honestly, the place where innovation is happening in this country is at this budget level. For some reason, we have a system in Canada where you can make a risky film like Werewolf and now they’ll give you a bigger budget, but they’ll never let you make a film like Werewolf in that system. It makes no sense to me.
Seth A. Smith: That seems to be the trade-off. If you have no money, you can take all the risks you want, but if you get funded, you can’t.
Let’s take a minute to dream big and imagine a perfect scenario to make your next film…
Winston De Giobbi: I would want a few million dollars to make a prequel to the Peter Bogdanovich film Mask with Cher. I’d call it Rusty Dennis.
Cory Bowles: Yeah, man, with Eric Stoltz!
Winston De Giobbi: Seriously, though: I would like to make a living making films, because that would allow me to work harder on my projects. I would love to pay people more, and I would love to be afforded more time to work with my actors, so I guess that means I want a bigger budget.
Seth A. Smith: I don’t think I would want to do what I did with The Crescent again, right away. Maybe in a few years, but I’d like to do something that allows me not to be broke and working by myself in a chair at a desk all the time. Maybe I’d like private funding from some rich moneybags person who is into weird art shit.
Jacquelyn Mills: I think we would all want more money. I wish I could pay my collaborators what they deserve for their time, and I would also get paid, so that we can dive in fully and be as creative as possible.
I think it’d be great to get more money, but we also need trust from the funders. We need guidelines and application processes that are more reasonable; we need money upfront so we don’t have to spend time, energy, and money getting interim financing. We need more reasonable reporting requirements that don’t require us to spend three months doing accounting. Give us money and fewer strings attached, so we can actually spend it on paying our collaborators fairly. Let’s be honest: we as filmmakers get bogged down with a lot of stuff that has very, very little to do with making the film.
Cory Bowles: I’m lucky I don’t have to worry as much about paying myself, because I have a job in the industry [acting and directing on Trailer Park Boys] that pays me well and allows me to work on projects like Black Cop. That job could stop at any time, and then I don’t know how I’d manage to find time for projects like this.
Ashley McKenzie: I’m doing this slice-of-life thing in my work all the time, and I know that style is partly out of necessity. I wish we didn’t have to repress our ambition and creativity as much as we do.
Winston De Giobbi: I think we should focus on finding that rich guy Seth mentioned.
Everything considered, do you see yourselves making films in Nova Scotia moving forward?
Heather Young: The only other place I’ve considering shooting is New Brunswick, where I grew up. I actually shot [my short film] Fish there, with my family. My new film, Milk, was inspired by Truro, Nova Scotia.
Jacquelyn Mills: I live in Montreal. I’ve never made it a rule to shoot everything I make in Nova Scotia, but I always do. It’s definitely a strong intuition to shoot at home. The imagery is unique and inspiring for me.
Cory Bowles: I’d like to make something somewhere else. I love Iceland, I love Ghana, I love South Africa… I’d love to do something in those places that I’ve travelled to, but there’s lots to do here in Nova Scotia, too. I would like to tell Black Nova Scotian stories about my community, my neighbourhood, and my family I don’t think have been told yet. I want to live here and explore those themes. Nowhere else can offer that to me.
Ashley McKenzie: Similar to Jacquelyn, I don’t have it as a rule, but my process is totally rooted in what’s immediately around me. I’ve always lived here, so naturally my stories are about this place. I’d probably have to live somewhere else for a while to possibly be inspired to make a film set somewhere else.
Seth A. Smith: I like this place; I’m not going anywhere. I feel most comfortable shooting here, but I have considered shooting other places that have more financial infrastructure for films. There’s a really great art community, and that’s what keeps me here.
Winston De Giobbi: I find with Nova Scotia, there’s images and stories that are so of this place that need to be uncovered and put on the screen. My family is here, and they inspire me most, so I will definitely be making my movies here.
Courtesy of TIFF
If you were going to name whatever the hell is going on in Nova Scotia right now, what would you call it?
Heather Young: “Nova Scotia New Wave” would be appropriate, but that’s been used for every film movement since the French New Wave.
Seth A. Smith: All of my ideas are very cheesy, and I don’t feel like I can share them.
Cory Bowles: Spill it!
Ashley McKenzie: Something self-deprecating would seem fitting, or something with the word “family” because of what Winston said about striving to build family when we make a film.
Cory Bowles: You’re right: it is a weird little family. Maybe something to do with a lobster or a lighthouse?