Small town charms Bessai

When Carl Bessai and producer Jason James went looking for a place to shoot the small-town drama Cole, they wanted something 'claustrophobic with character.'

When Carl Bessai and producer Jason James in Vancouver went looking for a place to shoot the small-town drama Cole, they wanted something ‘claustrophobic with character.’

‘And we found it in Lytton,’ says James, a town with a population of 350 located three hours north of Vancouver. ‘It’s an old gold rush town with murals on the walls; it’s visually pleasing,’ he says, an actual town with no stop light and a deserted, lonely feel to it.

But it does have a house attached to a gas station, which was also key in their search.

The story is somewhat autobiographical for writer Adam Zang, a first-timer from small-town Michigan. The film follows 21-year-old Cole Chambers through his life in the sticks – rife with trailer parks and pickups – and the inner and racial conflicts that arise after he falls for an upper-middle-class black girl.

Cole isn’t Zang’s first brush with Bessai and James. He was a student at Vancouver Film School ‘when Jason and I took our films there for feedback. Zang was there when we screened cuts of Unnatural & Accidental,’ says Bessai, referring to his 2006 film.

Cole stars Vancouver native Richard de Klerk (Crossed) and Kandyse McClure (Battlestar Galactica) as Serafina. James points to their performances as breakouts. Sonja Bennett (Young People Fucking), Chad Willett (Joan of Arc) and Rebecca Jenkins (Black Harbour) are also on board.

Bessai likens Cole to a ‘revisioning’ of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Lasse Hallström’s 1993 picture with Johnny Depp. He was brought on board by James; also producing are Dylan Thomas Collingwood and Kimani Ray Smith for Titlecard Pictures and Irene Nelson of Rampart Films. It will wrap June 15 after three weeks in Lytton and Vancouver.

‘[Titlecard and Rampart] wanted to make a low-budget indie flick, so James brought it to me,’ Bessai explains. ‘It’s been a collaborative rethink ever since.’

Bessai believes in making movies that have something to say about the human condition, and was drawn to the project on ‘a philosophical level,’ he says. ‘We live in a supposed multicultural place, but still people from different places don’t always get along.’

With a budget of just under $1 million and a small crew, ‘many took on multiple roles on set,’ says James.

‘This kind of independent movie is hard to raise money for – harder now than ever before’ says Bessai. ‘We seem to be frowning on relevant materials, on dramas, and I don’t know why.’

But the small crew also means they don’t ‘take up the whole town’ when shooting in Lytton, which is one of the biggest characters in the film, they say, pleased with the sad little town, even though it turned out not to be as authentic as they thought.

It turns out the gas station was left over from a previous movie shoot. ‘It was retro, run down and beautiful,’ says James. ‘Then we found out it had been built for the Jack Nicholson movie The Pledge that filmed there in 1998. So we’re shooting on a long-forgotten Hollywood set.’

‘My idea, as an urban director guy, for the ultimate small-town gas station was actually the dream of a production designer,’ says Bessai with a laugh.

Cole is expected be cut in the fall and Bessai plans to take it on the festival circuit.

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This story has been corrected. Jason James is not part of Rampart Films, as originally reported.

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