Feature - Through Their Lens
Photo above: Lenny Epstein and Josh Lyon
It costs a lot of money to make a movie. By now, we’re practically immune to the figures that go into making a Hollywood blockbuster. Up until recently it has taken huge sums even to make very short films — or very bad ones. Filmmaking, in other words, is a risky business, especially for independent artists and producers.
But advances in technology and a growing demand for video in our increasingly wired world are changing that. The digital revolution has made cameras affordable and light enough for a single person to wield. In Kingston, filmmakers are taking notice, and taking advantage, of this paradigm shift and a vibrant filmmaking community is developing.
A filmmaker’s job is ever shifting. Depending on what phase of a project they are engaged in, you might find them brainstorming ideas, writing scripts, hustling at a fundraiser, writing a grant application, holding a boom mic, shooting a scene or engaged in quieter pursuits behind closed doors: cataloguing footage, editing or looping audio. We caught up with a group of local filmmakers at various stages of projects and various stages of their careers to discuss their work, their inspiration and what life is like as a filmmaker in Kingston.
With more than 50 credits on his resume, Clarke Mackey has done a bit of everything in his 40-year film career. His feature debut, The Only Thing You Know, released in 1971, netted him two Canadian Film Awards (now called Genies). He’s made documentaries like Dance on the Edge, which premiered at an international film festival in Figueira da Foz, Portgual, in 1996, and mastered highly structured narrative in the thriller Taking Care. His impressive list of work even includes episodes of Canadian television classic Degrassi Junior High.
Today he is a professor at Queen’s University, where he guides many students through their first filmmaking experience, teaching all aspects of video-making from scriptwriting and pre-production to camerawork, lighting and editing.
Right now he’s working on an intensely personal documentary. “It’s about my family, and a couple of years that had a big effect on all of us, 1969 to 1970. I was 18 and my mother joined a radical left-wing Maoist group. My brother and sister got interested and they also became involved,” he says. He mostly works on the film alone, using archival footage, including his own early films. “It has a real feeling of the past.”
Photo: Clarke Mackey and Eric Ferguson
Between his job at Queen’s, his role as a board member of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival and his tendency to show up at pretty much any interesting cultural event in the city, it’s no surprise that Mackey is familiar with every filmmaker included in this story.
“There is a surprising amount happening locally,” he says. “You can probably count the filmmakers on one hand, but they are here… They are finding a way to make a living in the media world in Kingston. They are the trailblazers.”
One of the local trailblazers Mackey admires is Josh Lyon. Kingston-raised, Lyon started playing with film at a young age. “My folks borrowed cameras from the Limestone District School Board. I was home-schooled and they were teachers so they brought them home and said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”
Lyon returned to video as a student at Ontario College of Art and Design. “It was art practice rather than narrative film. But there was a documentary aspect to it and that’s what I was drawn to.”
Back in Kingston, Lyon hooked up with Lenny Epstein, a local filmmaker, and together they worked on the Apple Crisp Music Video Club, a series of street corner performance videos of local musicians. Lyon made several official music videos for regional bands, two of which were featured in festivals internationally.
These days, Lyon works at the Kingston Arts Council, plays in local band The Gertrudes and has more freelance video work than he can handle. That’s partly due to the success of a 20-minute documentary that played as part of the Arts Council’s Building Arts Communities event this past February.
The 20-minute documentary took four months to create, with about 10 minutes shot for every minute of finished film. And that’s nothing, Lyon says. “Documentaries often have a 500:1 ratio once you include B-roll [supplemental footage].”
When asked of his strengths as a filmmaker, Lyon is clear. “I’ll poke my camera around until I find the meat of the story and then I’ll string that together.” He feels most at home in the editing room, piecing things together. But what he’s less sure of is what to call himself.
“Videomaker sounds awkward, but videographer sounds like you do weddings. Filmmaker sounds legit, but nobody works with film, so... documentarian? I never know what to call it. I mean, I could have 10 minutes of credits of all the things I did for this movie, but it’s easier to just say ‘Video by Josh Lyon.’”
Like Lyon, his friend and frequent collaborator, Lenny Epstein got a first taste of filmmaking as a child. “I had a black-and-white Fisher Price video camera that recorded to audio tape,” he recalls. Similarly, he also rediscovered film as a student, while attending Queen’s. “I got cast in a short film that a student in the film department was making. I got a taste of acting on film, and really enjoyed it. I fell into it, I guess.”
For the last two years, Epstein has been working on a feature-length documentary about the closure of Kingston’s prison farms and the resulting protests. He expects to spend another year or so completing it. Clarke Mackey serves as a producer to help but Epstein says, “There’s still a lot do.” That includes cutting the 50 hours of footage down to a working length and then picking up interviews to fill out the story. “Elaine Foreman [Mackey’s partner], the editor on the project, hopes to have a solid first cut by the fall and then will have revisions to do and probably some animations to construct.”
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Epstein says documentary isn’t really his home, though like Lyon, he is a videographer for hire who does plenty of commercial work. “Most of my work before this was fiction,” Epstein explains.
“The more effort and thought you put into development and pre-production, the easier it is to make a film,” he says. “People who know me though will know that sometimes I just throw my camera over my shoulder and start shooting. If I’m lucky, I can piece something together that works in the editing room. It takes me a super long time to work that way though, and sometimes, you are left with something that doesn’t work out. I just don’t release those things.”
When I ask Leigh Ann Bellamy if there’s any chance her latest short film, Pretty Pieces, will make her some money, she’s pretty clear. “No. There’s no hope. You do it so that maybe you can make another one,” she explains.
After graduating from a one-year intensive production program at Vancouver Film School, she spent about six months in Vancouver working on film sets. “I was a production assistant once. I sat in a car for 14 hours making sure no one came through a gate. I made $50. And I thought, this is not for me.”
Broke and discouraged, she came to a simple conclusion. “I wasn’t interested in working on other people’s sets. I wanted to make my own movies. So I thought ‘I’m going to go home and figure out what my next step is.’”
Within a few months, she scored gigs filming for authors Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady, Kingston WritersFest, the Kingston Arts Council and Skeleton Park Music Festival with her one-woman production company Curious You. But she knew she wanted to get started on a narrative film project. The only problem was, she had no script.
Photo: Leigh Ann Bellamy and Michael Patrick Lilly
“I’m more into writing now but at that point, writing was the enemy. I didn’t have any ideas. I called my boyfriend and he said, ‘List the things you know, list the things you have.’ So I thought, ‘I can get a restaurant.’ And I know this fantastic older female actress, so I was like, ‘I know an old lady.’ In three hours, I had a first draft.”
The result was The Peculiar Mrs. Perkins, a nine-minute short film made by 14 dedicated volunteers with a budget of $1,600. The film was nominated for Best Local Short at the 2011 Kingston Canadian Film Festival. But Bellamy says the real point of the project was to learn enough to film Pretty Pieces.
“Pretty Pieces is based on a play by Charles Robertson, a local playwright,” she says. “He wrote it for me to act in when I was 19, and I toured it to Halifax, the Fringe Fest in Toronto, here in Kingston, and in the process we workshopped it a lot and I became quite attached to it. It wasn’t something I wanted to practice on.”
With a grant from the City of Kingston Arts Fund and some fundraising on the side, Pretty Pieces is considerably more ambitious than Bellamy’s last work. “It’s about a recluse whose only connection to the outside world comes and tells her he isn’t ever coming home again. As the truths about these characters are revealed, everything starts to break down around them. In the play, that’s conveyed by what the actors do. In the movie we are actually able to physically deteriorate the rooms, the costumes and their faces.”
A big part of Bellamy’s budget goes to post-production, including things like hiring an original composer and getting musicians to record the soundtrack, colour grading and editing. They’re not things she can do in Kingston; she goes to Toronto or Ottawa not just for the expertise there, but even for the simplest equipment. “I remember trying to find a C-stand, essentially for hanging lights and flags. It’s the most basic piece of equipment besides a sand bag. They are just not available here.”
On the other hand, the digital revolution has made a lot of other equipment incredibly accessible. “You can buy a DSLR without the lens that does HD movies for about $700 — that is cheap when you think about it. People would pay that much for a TV. These are the prices of everyday household items. The old $300,000 cameras were the price of an entire household.”
Michael Patrick Lilly came on as a co-producer of Bellamy’s film Pretty Pieces after reading about the project on her website.
Lilly’s company, Factory Film Studio, is based in Cornwall, and has distribution deals with E1 and Shoreline Entertainment. With a lengthy resume including work in New York and Toronto, the energetic Lilly thinks big picture. He’s interested in getting big-budget films to come to Kingston, where they might just bring some of the infrastructure young filmmakers need with them. But, he says, Kingston has a long way to go.
“We need a film commissioner in Kingston,” he says, describing a role that would make it easier for filmmakers to work in Kingston. “Street closure, parking, permitting, all of that,” Lilly says. “I want to shoot here but what is the legality of shooting here? Because I may love this setting, but if I can’t park my trucks and it doesn’t have the right kind of electrical, I’m out of here,” he says. A commissioner, ideally, knows all about it, and can grease wheels when needed. It’s a job that would pay for itself with a single project, says Lilly.
“I know of at least one film that has gone right through our town. They scouted Kingston as a location, and it ended up getting shipped to Australia. That’s the global reality. Good little film, two-million bucks, went to Australia.”
In a sense, any independent filmmaker is a guerilla filmmaker, using the resources they have at hand, shooting without permits or much of a budget. A few big-name Hollywood directors started out as proponents of guerilla filmmaking, like Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez and Darren Aronofsky, who’ve all gone on to enjoy bigger budgets and, one presumes, a place to park their trucks.
So now imagine making a movie with next-to-no budget, the stuff in your pockets and the camera you already own — but add to that a strict time limit and a crew of relative strangers. These are the mechanics of Kingston’s Focus Film Festival. “As far as I know, Focus is unique,” says Keldon Bester, outgoing co-director of the Focus Film Festival.
After Queen’s students return from winter holidays in January, 60 participants create a dozen or so short films in three days. “On a Thursday night, we bring everyone into a room, we put them in groups, we give them a theme, and off they go. ‘See you guys in 72 hours.’ That’s the extent of our influence on the films,” Bester explains.
The participants are recruited earlier in the school year at clubs night and events. While the majority are film students, not all have experience. Bester himself is an economics major with one film course under his belt. He doubts he’ll pursue film as a career, though he clearly loves it.
Once the films are turned in, a panel of judges from the Canadian film industry award a number of prizes, including Best Picture, which are announced at a public gala screening. Winners get bragging rights, and perhaps a film they can submit to other festivals. The Kingston Canadian Film Festival, scheduled in early March a few weeks after the Focus gala, almost always features a few. And Bester says Focus encourages the groups to get their films out to other festivals. “It’s a fun way to spend a weekend when you don’t usually have a lot of work, to make a film with a bunch of people you don’t know.”
In 2011, Eric Ferguson was one of a team of filmmakers who made a big impression at Focus. His film, Impressions, swept the podium, winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Audience Choice, and went on to win over Leigh Ann Bellamy’s film at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, taking home the Best Local Short award.
Finishing up his fourth year at Queen’s in film, Ferguson has no intention of leaving Kingston. “I’m here for a while yet,” he says. And he’s working on an idea he hopes will help him and other local filmmakers hone their craft, build skills and still have some of the guerilla fun that infuses Focus.
He calls it 26 Shorts, a group project that would create one short film a week for 26 weeks. “I feel like we all get together and talk about making films a lot in Kingston, but I want to actually make films. Even if it’s just a motion study, I want to set myself the task of having something new to post every week for six months.”
In his ideal world, anyone with an idea or a burning desire to try film could get involved — write a script, wield a boom mic or man a camera.
He’s got the website, 26shorts.com, and he’s working on funding, so there’s really only one question left on his mind. “What are 26 brilliant ideas for short films we can shoot in Kingston?”