Let’s start with “Kitchen Party”. For the readers who haven’t seen the film, can you begin by describing the premise and how the kitchen plays into it? Was the kitchen part of the story from the beginning or did it evolve, say, after developing the characters?
The premise is that a group of teenagers go to a friend’s house for a get-together but they have to stay in the kitchen. The rest of the house is off-limits to the point where even a footstep on the carpet will be a giveaway to the parents that the teen had friends over. The mother vacuums the carpet in the areas of the house that are off limits (pretty much everywhere except the kitchen and the basement) in such a way that the pattern can’t be replicated by the son. It’s not just that having a party is not allowed—going into certain rooms like the living room is off-limits period.
Being confined to the kitchen was in the script from the beginning. It came out of my own experience as a teenager where a friend had this set up at his house. We would go there after school to drink beer. His parents weren’t as nasty as the parents in Kitchen Party but the idea was that if you stayed in the kitchen you could clean up in a few minutes and the parents won’t be the wiser. In developing the script the parental constraint on the son was an interesting way to reflect the unnatural tension between the generations. It’s a gimmick but it was an easy way for me to set up the generational battle that was underway in that home.
In your next film, “Waydowntown”, the characters also find themselves confined to a particular space. This time, the boundaries are self-imposed because they are used as a sort of game. Can you introduce the Plus 15 network (similar perhaps to the underground paths in Helsinki) and how it factors into the story? I recall reading that the funding for this film grew out of a grant to make a documentary about the Plus 15. If so, how did it evolve into the final script?
The Plus 15 system in Calgary is an insidious above-ground network of glassed-in tubes that connect the corporate high rises of the city’s downtown core. I say insidious because compared with the underground systems in a lot of northern cities you wouldn’t necessarily use them if the weather is good. The above ground network doesn’t have the negative connotation of the underground tunnels as it’s often sunny and bright in these walkways. The result of this network, though, has been to kill off street level commerce as the workers shuttle from food fair to food fair without going down to street level. The system has had a terribly negative effect on the viability of the city’s downtown as a walkable livable enterprise. As you can see I’m not a fan of the Plus 15 and Waydowntown came out of this frustration.
The project did start with an arts grant to write the script centred around the Plus 15. An early consideration was to create a script that would work as one continuous take but James Martin the co-writer and I dropped this idea after hearing about the Mike Figgis film that was coming out using a similar method. The idea of the bet to see who could stay indoors the longest was an early idea. It all came out of that and using the architectural ant farm of the Plus 15 as the setting.
Both of these films, made one after the other, use a set of restrictions to anchor their respective plots. They also function to underline broader themes. In Kitchen Party, the ‘house rules’ help to frame the generational divide and in Waydowntown, the bet amongst office workers to stay indoors works as a form of critique directed toward the urban planning or ‘livability’ of the downtown.
You mention the continuous take idea, which would have imposed another set of restrictions on the entire filmmaking process. Is it possible that the use of constraint during that period (narrative device or technical restriction) reflects a sign of the times in independent filmmaking? The Dogma 95 manifesto comes to mind and the documentary Lars von Trier did with Jorgen Leth, “The Five Obstructions” (2003).
Given your interest in these constraints and the fact that a lot of your work is labelled as comedy (somewhere on the dry and dark part of the spectrum), do you think there is something inherently funny about restrictions? Or if not the restrictions themselves then something in how they are used and misused?
My budgets have always been on the low side so having that as major constraint has always been a big part of the process. It’s almost like you know going in it’s going to be a low-budget film so right from the script stage your thinking how can I get the biggest bang for the buck. My first feature film, “The Suburbanators”, played at the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance. One thing you figure out really fast is that there is a lot of competition out there so your film needs to stand out if it’s going to get any traction. But of course, you don’t have stars or much of a budget. So I got it in my head very quickly that you had to have something else—a gimmick for lack of a better word. So you have these constraints that make you inventive. I remember staging part of my first student film on a city bus. I had no money but as soon as you put your actors on a bus which is driving through the city your film looks like a bigger movie. The constraints I’ve been working against are not self-imposed but they do form the way you make films and how you approach storytelling.
As far as comedy – it’s almost like improv where you have the initial prompt and then you have to do something with it. With Waydowntown we had the glassed-in Plus 15 system. Once that came into play all sorts of possibilities emerged. It’s an architectural disaster for the city but very interesting visually – depressing and funny at the same time.
Finally, your latest film, “Man Running”, takes your work in a deliberately unfunny direction. From what I gather, the film plays with the limits of fact and fiction to some degree. Can you describe what viewers can expect from your latest feature?
Man Running came out of the same classic budget constraint. We had a general idea of how much money we could raise; not much. I was trying to think of something I could do within this limit, that was of interest to me and had some wider appeal.
We have a neighbour who runs ultra-marathons, 100-mile running races over mountainous terrain that take about 24 hours to complete. Aside from a few short breaks to change socks and eat a bit they don’t stop—they run continuously up and down across a mountain range. You can imagine what starts to happen with your mind when your running in the dark through the forest after 18 hours or so. That’s Man Running in a nutshell. I wrote the screenplay with my wife Donna Brunsdale. We started with a character who is running in one of these demanding races but also struggling with some personal crisis; which over the course of the race the audience figures out for themselves. There’s not a lot of laughs, but it was a great opportunity to explore some darker themes. We live in Calgary which is about 45 minutes from the Rocky Mountains - so we shot in the front range during fall 2017 and we just locked picture a couple of weeks ago.