Why Ingrid Veninger is helping microbudget films

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Director Ingrid Veninger of pUNK Films has launched a$1,000 feature film challenge in conjunction with the recent run of her latest film, i am a good person/i am a bad person at the Royal theatre in Toronto. The goal is to help fund at least five feature films from young filmmakers using box office receipts accumulated during the run of i am. Veninger says regardless of the box office results, she will greenlight five films by investing the $5,000 Jay Scott Prize money she received from the Toronto Film Critics Association in January, but adds that if there’s revenue generated for 20 films, they’ll make 20 films – the limit will be based on the box-office take.

Veninger spoke recently to Playback about making micro-budget films, the unheralded importance of a producer’s role, and her choice for a limited run of her latest film.

PB: Tell me about the $1,000 feature film challenge – where did the idea come from?

There was a DIY Art and Life day [in Toronto] that featured three films by Joe Swanberg, and he’s part of the mumblecore crew; his films are notoriously low budget and very personal. [The  next day] I just woke up inspired with the idea of rolling the box office of i am a good person/i am a bad person into more microbudget, very personal feature films. I spoke to Stacy Donen [director of programming] at the Royal and he thought it was a great idea and stepped right up offering each selected film a day of mix, with a mixer.

For $1,000, the [budget] limitations are so severe that maybe you can just go out and shoot something with a camera that you own and a small crew, but in post-production, to make something really pop on a big screen and sound great, that’s where you sometimes have a challenge getting big favours. The Royal stepping up with the mix was big. The response from the community was overwhelming – cinematographers, sound designers and story editors stepping up and saying [they would be] be happy to contribute [their] services to this.

When you make these microbudget films, it can be grueling and lonely. So when something like this happens that bands the community together and there are these [budget] restrictions, there’s a community building feeling that comes with that. And that the box office is generating the funding for these films to happen is very exciting.

PB: What kinds of projects are you hoping to bring in?

It’s ‘Okay, here we go, no excuses, people – let’s see if we can get some fearless, personal, raw features made and seen by the biggest possible audience. [The filmmakers] also just going with the raw, pure impulse. There’s not a lot of time to overthink the process, not a lot of time to doubt and reflect. You’re either in or you’re out.

PB: What strategy did you take with your latest film?

i am a good person/i am a bad person was made very impulsively, in a sense that [another of Veninger's films] Modra was screening at The Lightbox [as part of Canada's Top Ten], and it was watching those films, specifically seeing Denis Cote’s Curling that I just felt on fire with wanting to make another film.

I wrote it in February-March, we shot in March, edited in May, TIFF saw it in June, and by September we were having our world premiere. I’ve always put my money down for my movies; I’ve yet to be paid to direct, and I’ve yet to make a film where I didn’t invest some money, so I’ve never followed that rule about ‘Never spend your own money ever.’ It hasn’t always given back financially – but it’s given back in so many other ways. You can’t put a dollar sign on the kinds of things I’ve been able to experience because of the films existing.

And it’s good that Telefilm is recognizing festival exposure, international acclaim and awards, in terms of the evaluating what a successful film is, and not just box office. I think the myopic vision of evaluating a film on box office is going away, thankfully. And the internet has been a huge part of that.

PB: Speaking of the internet, what’s your take on VOD, digital distribution, and the challenges filmmakers face to get their projects out to the world?

I always intended [i am] to be an art proposition, and my original idea was to exclusively show it at film festivals, like a theatre piece would have a very limited run, and if you missed it, you don’t have an opportunity to see it. This film is a live event for me, where I’m not going to be showing it outside of that context where I can’t interact w the audience or my cast and crew can’t interact with the audience, so this is a film you’ll never see on television, you’ll never see online, you’ll never see on DVD.

I think when we make these personal works and we pay for them ourselves, and there’s not this kind of pressure to necessarily make your money back, and you can be making it for other reasons, it’s cool that we can position it and exhibit it however we want. I like the idea – in this day and age when we’re expected to make work available 24/7 – that we can say ‘no, it’s only available in these very limited viewings, like a performance art piece.

PB: You started in acting – what made you want to work behind the camera?

I love acting, and so much of what I do as a filmmaker, as a director and as a writer, comes from my experience as an actor. I started shifting from acting to producing because I was seeing the work [of many great actors] and I wanted to collaborate with them. The very first pivotal thing was reading Cats Eye [by Margaret Atwood] when I was 18, feeling like I had to be a part of making that into a movie, of translating that novel to the screen. It was almost an involuntary feeling; I didn’t think about it, I didn’t second guess myself. I had the money to do it, and I put it all on the line. That film didn’t end up getting made, but I learned so much and don’t regret that move for a minute.  That moved me behind the camera, and then I went to the Canadian Film Centre and [moved me] out of producing; very slowly and gradually I started working on short films, and it’s only been the last eight years that I’ve started writing and directing and producing.

PB: Of all of those roles you’ve held – writer, director, actor, producer – are you more comfortable in any one?

I love working with performers, so I do love writing and directing, but I also love making someone else’s project happen. If you asked me if I had to stop doing one of those things, which one would I stop doing? It would be really difficult because they all fit together for me, one enables the other. And I can say out of my 15 years of experience as a producer, it’s been invaluable for me as a director, because I can make my own projects happen.

When there are so many people that want to write and direct, and there’s kind of a dearth of producers because it is probably the most unglamourous position in the feature film industry, but it can be so gratifying, that process of collaboration. I’m trying to light the students [at York University, where Veninger teaches production management] up with the idea of producing and being the nuts-and-bolts person, and being the person that drives the project from the beginning to the end and into the marketplace. It’s such an important job and not necessarily valued. And projects wouldn’t happen without producers.

No one really understand s what a producer does exactly, especially creative producers that aren’t just the money people. So it’s very gratifying to produce. The more I can experience first-hand, I hope the better filmmaker I’ll be, all around.

PB: Where have you found your stories?

My kids are a huge source of inspiration. My parents who came over from Czechoslovakia and had to start their lives from scratch, that fearlessness; they’ve empowered me with a kind of adventurousness and a desire, a curiosity to experience new things. People I meet – when I’m travelling, if I meet an interesting person, it can be in every kind of context – on the train, in a park, at a bar, at a film festival, and there’s something about them that just makes me want to collaborate, or it sparks an idea in me that I can’t shake off. It comes from interactions, it comes from intimate moments and exchanges with other people.

i am a good person/i am a bad person runs through to June 24 at The Royal. For more information on the $1,000 Feature Film Challenge, click here.

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