Special Report: Toronto International Film Festival: Diary: Soft Like Me

– Director/writer/producer: Jeffrey Erbach

Late ’80s/early ’90s: Filmmaker Jeffrey Erbach surveys popular culture and the Manitoba film landscape and sees one too many great fields of wheat populated with healthy, happy, hopeful boys and girls growing up straight and strong nourished on the prairie sun and the guidance of good folk.

The sentimental coming-of-age-in-the-prairies films irk Erbach and prompt him to create a short film which removes the wheat-colored glasses and the assumption that everything will always be okay in God’s bread basket.

Fall 1994: Erbach writes Soft Like Me, a 26-minute counterpoint to the if-you-dream-it-will-happen-if you-build-it-they-will-come-if-you-believe-it-will-come-true palliatives frequently served up in mass culture in these trying times.

The film, set in a mythical time and place, takes place on a farm where adult society has enslaved a group of boys to perform manual farm labor as well as other physical tasks for their fleshy overseer. The boys cling to a myth of an angel who will deliver them from their shackles and from the hands of their overlords, but for these kids, there ain’t no Jake, nor is there a happy ending.

‘There are different elements of cannibalism, pedophilia, murder, slavery – all happening in one camp – and hope is crushed under all those things,’ explains Erbach.

While not intended to raise the core cockle temperature of the hearts of audiences, the film is created to address the issue of hope and as reaction against the McHappiness of popular culture and the pastoral puff Erbach too frequently associates with Manitoba film.

‘In the past couple of years, there’s been a sort of turn toward making these sentimental coming-of-age stories that take place on the prairies, where young boys and girls grow up on the farm,’ says Erbach. ‘I really, really dislike those kinds of films. I decided to take the archetypal farm setting and twist it into a perverse slave camp.’

Winter 1994: Erbach shows the script for Soft Like Me to friends in the Manitoba film industry and the response is favorable. ‘There are a lot of talented people here who really took to it and who were very supportive from the beginning,’ says Erbach.

Gord Wilding, George Godwin and Bruce Claydon, who will ultimately be the film’s production designer, editor and dop respectively, are all on board.

March 1995: Not fully convinced the film will ever be made due to its demanding subject matter, Erbach submits the script to the pertinent bodies for funding.

The Winnipeg Film Group contributes $900.

April 1995: The Manitoba Arts Council comes through with $12,000 of the $20,000 it will ultimately contribute and the project begins to look viable.

The film will be the third short for the Manitoba-born and raised Erbach, whose previous projects were Mr. Twenty-five Cents, completed at Confederation College Film School, and Gavin Frogboy. (After graduating from Confederation, Erbach worked as a camera assistant on independent films, commercials and music videos in Winnipeg. In addition to writing and directing, Erbach also currently produces music videos and works as the production and training co-ordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group.)

Summer 1995: The project receives another $900 from the Winnipeg Film Group in July and shooting begins in August. Principal photography takes place on a farm just south of Arborg, Man., about 45 minutes from Winnipeg.

Erbach goes through a large casting call of about 80 or 90 boys to cull four main actors and 12 extras between the ages of 10 and 15. The film’s ‘special boy,’ Linus, is played by 15-year-old Marc Ducusin, Rob Fast plays the warden and Alison Northcott portrays the doomed angel.

Erbach takes the script to the parents of the young stars to ensure they and the youngsters have a firm grasp of what will happen on set, what the filmmaker is attempting, and the symbolism behind the film’s unsettling action.

The five days of shooting provide challenges and yield ‘tons of great footage.’ The Arborg farm location is surrounded by two additional fields which lend outdoor shots the appearance of taking place in an unending sea of golden wheat. Erbach says the remote setting was a hurdle, with some production assistants charged solely with driving children to and from the Arborg location and crew camping out on site to avoid the hassles of making the trip back to the city.

The first days of outdoor shooting are scheduled to begin on a Saturday morning and go until Sunday evening and blue skies are required. Somewhat against theme, the weather, which had provided torrential rains mere hours before shooting, clears up to allow the weekend shoot and then closes in again Sunday evening.

November 1995: The project receives $8,000 from the Manitoba Arts Council and $2,600 from Manitoba Film and Sound for finishing. Together with a ‘self-generated investment’ of $8,000, the funding picture is complete at just over $34,000.

February 1996: Soft Like Me is completed.

April 1996: The film premiers at a Winnipeg Film Group shorts screening and the response is predictably varied. Erbach says critics responded favorably to the film but some members of the audience, encouraged to give feedback via written comments at the end of the screening, were not as fully appreciative of the message and the metaphor behind the film. While ‘obscene,’ ‘disgusting,’ and ‘absurd’ were popular comments, the earnest entreaty, ‘Do you not have a human soul?’ was a favorite of Erbach’s.

‘I wanted to make a complicated film that could be interpreted on many different levels,’ says Erbach. ‘I wanted to present a symbolic, metaphorical film in a standard dramatic narrative, dealing with strange material in a very straight fashion.’

Erbach says the film is not a paean to cynicism and hopelessness but is about the idea of unsubstantiated hope, especially as promulgated by mass entertainment.

‘There’s this strange idea, a sort of mantra spreading through culture like a plague, that if you wish for it or believe in it enough it will come true,’ says Erbach, pointing to McDonald’s Olympic tv campaign which insists that anything is possible if only one has a dream. ‘I think that’s a bunch of horseshit. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I tend to think there’s a lot more to it than that.’

Erbach is currently working on a script for a longer project; an hour-long or feature-length film which he ‘hopes’ to shoot in the next year and a half. The script deals with obsession, in particular that of a teenage girl fixated on a drowned boy.

September 1996: Soft Like Me screens as part of Perspective Canada at the Toronto International Film Festival and at the Vancouver International Film Festival.