I met local film-maker J.P. Marchant earlier this year when he asked if I would do some voice-over work for his independent film, The Hitch-Hiker. I waived my usual $100,000 fee and demand for only red M&Ms and went to one of the recording booths at the U of L. I have to say that there is quite a dedicated group of individuals in southern Alberta who are keen on not only coming up with movie ideas but actually seeing that idea through to fruition. J.P. just found out that his movie has been accepted to the Calgary International Film Festival. He took some time out from his hand-crafted director’s chair (I made that up) to answer these questions. (I’m hoping my voice made it to the final product and didn’t end up in the trash file. It’s all digital now. No such a thing as the cutting room floor.)
What got you into making movies?
I’ve always been a cinephile which also means, by extension, that I’ve thought about producing films as well. However, making a film was always something of a pipe dream for me because I figured that I hadn’t gotten into the game early enough, didn’t know the right people, have the right skills, etc. This all changed when I took a filmmaking course at the Film and Video Arts Society (FAVA) (www.fava.ca) in Edmonton a few years ago which tossed me into the deep end of filmmaking and forced me to make a 5 minute short film.
Describe your film The Hitch-Hiker.
The Hitch-Hiker is a 1960s period thriller about a young mechanic whose car breaks down (how ironic is that?) on a lonely backcountry road. He hitches a ride with a passer-by and gets much more than he bargained for. It’s predominantly presented in black and white and takes some visual elements from Film Noir and German Expressionism.
What influenced you to do a film in this genre?
I’ve always loved the look and feel of older films. I adore B&W and films that play with low-key lighting and expressionist elements. I wanted to do a psychological thriller, and the visual elements lent themselves to this. Musically, I have an interest in stuff from the 1920s-1960s, especially old country, western, gospel stuff, and later rock’n’roll, rockabilly, etc. I used to go to music festivals where bands would be playing this kind of authentic music and they’d be fully decked out with period clothes and hairstyles. It was awesome. I developed quite a collection of stuff from contemporary bands who’ve strived to maintain an old-time authentic feel to their music. As I started to think about the kind of music I wanted to use for The Hitch-Hiker, I realised that my 1950s-60s music selection was central to the picture and I started going through it to find songs whose themes fit the movie. Then it was a matter of tracking down those artists and getting their permission to use their songs. I think most of the artists were quite surprised to get a request to use their music (that might’ve been recorded on analog equipment and aimed at a tiny specific audience) in a short film! I also managed to track down and get permission to use a couple of actual 1950s/60s-recorded songs which was quite a thrill. I gotta say that I’m very pleased with how well the music compliments the picture and I’m hoping that viewers will gain an appreciation for that sort of thing.
What kind of a budget did you have to get this thing done?
Budget? What’s that? Seriously though, the budget on this was practically ZERO. Everyone who worked on it was a volunteer. The City of Lethbridge let us shoot our driving scenes at an old unused building for free, and a Hutterite colony south of town let us shoot on their property after Paul Crown (a local butcher around those parts) vouched for us. We shot on weekends which allowed me to continue working at my full-time job to feed everybody. We did get a $2000 grant from the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (www.csif.org) which went a long way towards getting us practically all of the gear we needed, so that really helped but this was an entirely volunteer affair.
How does a low budget film-maker go about getting actors to do this movie?
There are many different ways of doing it and no single way is the best. What I wanted to do was have my script sorted out and a list of cast and crew. I was then going to take this info to help me draft a proposal for applying for arts funding. If I got funding I was going to pay my cast and crew. Of course, in my case I did everything backwards and couldn’t make the application deadline so I relied on word of mouth and personal connections to find my actors; I had met them on the set of another production that a friend of mine had done so I knew their work and was able to brainwa- convince them that The Hitch-Hiker would make them famous and fabulously rich.
How much does your other “real” job get in the way of doing a project like a movie?
Technically, since we shot on weekends my M-F 9-5 job didn’t get in the way of the project during production. The only thing that got in the way was the physical tiredness and having to drag my butt into work on Monday mornings. I think the pre-production stuff was more exhausting than anything else; I would work my M-F 9-5 full time job during the day in front of one computer, then turn around and work on my personal computer the rest of the night. It was like some of those routines of writers that I’ve read about – Kafka, T.S. Eliot. There were many days during pre-production that I sat in front of a computer for about 16 hours a day. And of course there is the whole mental stress side of things during the whole project that I don’t need to get into. Post-production could also be similar some days, although the time pressure was off so staying self-motivated was a bigger challenge.
How satisfied were you with the final product?
I don’t think any filmmaker will ever tell you that they were 100% satisfied with their film. Given the scant resources we had, the fact that I was juggling a full-time job, and trying to motivate a cast and crew of volunteers with myself and my Director of Photography doubling as producers, I’m pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish. You always wonder, however, if there was more you could’ve done, or how things would’ve turned out if you’d done this one thing differently…
Would you have liked a little more time to finish the film?
It would’ve been nice to have an extra day. Our shots on our last night were pretty rushed and we were working into the wee hours of the morning with people becoming very tired and cold. It would’ve been nice to be more methodical and less rushed with those final shots. All’s well that ends well though, and if the audience can’t tell what the ‘poor and rushed’ shots are, then I’m happy.
You are given the opportunity to work with any film maker in the business. That would be….?
I would either say Guy Maddin or David Lynch. I love Maddin’s work and think that some of his stuff is brilliant and dark, while still managing to maintain a comic edge and joie de vivre. I also love Lynch’s work, and am constantly amazed at the fact that he’s managed to make a career out of films that are dark, creepy, and surreal.
What’s the biggest challenge in doing a movie on this scale?
I think for me personally the challenge was keeping everyone motivated and on-board with the overarching vision/goal. Because it was 8 days of shooting spread over 4 weekends, there was a risk of losing people.
Your film got selected for the Calgary International Film Festival. How exciting is that?
It’s super exciting. At first I thought, “well, it’s an Alberta film fest, so my chances were probably really good,” but then I started realizing how competitive it is and how fortunate I am. They only accepted 8 submissions for the category that The Hitch-Hiker is in.
What do you hope will be the end result of being in a Film Festival like this?
I’m hoping this will bring more visibility to everyone’s talents who worked on the film. Most of the people that worked on The Hitch-Hiker were students at the University of Lethbridge; most of them will be going on to get jobs in the industry, and nothing beats one of the projects that you were worked on getting into a competitive international film fest. On a personal level I hope this will make it easier for me to attract more collaborators and get funding on future projects.
Filmmaking is such a competitive and tough business. What makes you want to do it?
Well I’m in a special situation in that I still work a full-time job while doing this on the side. So filmmaking isn’t my livelihood, which in one sense frees me from having to produce stuff that will be super popular and sell lots of copies. In that respect, every project I’ve worked on is a project that I’ve loved because it was something that I wanted to do. So for me creativity and fun are more important than financial figures, and this keeps me motivated. Just think how excited and motivated I would be if I managed to make some real money at this…!
How long do you plan to keep doing movies? When does it just become an expensive hobby?
I’ll keep doing it for as long as I’m physically capable of being on a set. And heck, maybe when I start to slow down I’ll move more into a producer’s role. I figure if I keep making short films it shouldn’t get too expensive for me because I like to make films on the cheap. I would like to do a feature sometime in the future; however, I’ll only do it if I can get some funding to pay people and get some help (Producer(s), an Assistant Director, production manager), etc.
Describe THEE movie you want to do.
A feature film based on a Thomas Ligotti story that takes place in a sort of post-industrial wasteland. The main theme of the story is the degrading and alienating effect on the protagonist of working for a mysterious all-powerful corporate entity that demands more and more of its employees and every now and then sends one of its company managers off for “training”…
Here’s comes the tough stuff: Give me your top five greatest movies of all time.
Ugh my “top X” films are probably around 50 or 100, and my favourites aren’t necessarily the ‘best’. I think if I were to look at my list of flicks that I’ve watched several times and continue to revisit again and again they are: Eraserhead, Apocalypse Now, Stalker, Blade Runner, The Thin Red Line, The Mirror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 8 ½, Citizen Kane, My Winnipeg or Heart Of The World, Once Upon A Time In The West. How many was that?
Other notables by category (if I may):
Westerns: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance
Drama: A Woman Under the Influence, Tokyo Story, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Blue Angel
Sci-Fi: Alien, The Thing, Solaris, The Empire Strikes Back
Silent stuff: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Greed, Man with a Movie Camera, Safety Last, Haxan, City Lights, The Last Laugh, Metropolis, Sunrise
Film Noir: Sunset Boulevard, Out of the Past, The Killers, Double Indemnity, Night Of The Hunter, The Asphalt Jungle, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat
Comedy: Annie Hall, American Splendor, Ghost World
Weird stuff: Mulholland Drive, anything by Deren, Bunuel, Cocteau, Jodorowsky, The Brothers Quay, Svankmajer
Top five best actors.
I’m breaking the top 5 rule again: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Edward G Robinson, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Takashi Shimura, Jimmy Stewart
Top five best actresses.
Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep, Lauren Bacall, Sigourney Weaver, Helena Bonham Carter
And of course, top 5 best directors.
Since I’ve broken the “5” rule already: Tarkovsky, Scorsese, Murnau, Lang, Fellini, Ozu, Kurosawa, Lynch, Jodorowsky, Deren, Coppola, Leone, Bergman, Truffaut
If you ever win an Academy Award, give me a taste of what your speech will be.
I better not jinx this by saying anything…
Check out the Hitch-Hiker trailer: Be afraid. Be very afraid.