How indie film Empire of Dirt saw the light of day


Production is underway in Toronto and Keswick, Ont. on Empire of Dirt, the follow-up from director Peter Stebbings to his debut feature, Defendor.

And budget, cast and subject matter all point with Empire of Dirt to a departure for Stebbings from Defendor, a $4 million dollar superhero comedy-drama, which starred Woody Harrelson and Kat Dennings.

The lower-budget Empire of Dirt follows a single mother in a cycle of poverty, who in an attempt to save her teenage daughter from the streets, returns home and reconciles with her own mother.

The film focuses on three native female protagonists, with Jennifer Podemski (Take This Waltz), Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz, pictured left) and newcomers Cara Gee and Shahiyela Pourier-Eyre taking on lead roles.

Podemski, who also produces the film, brought the script, written by Shannon Masters, to Stebbings while he was editing Defendor.

Stebbings says he jumped on board in part because he wasn’t sure what would come his way following his first film, and in part because he was drawn to the characters in the script, which he says he found fresh and original.

“There have been many times over the course of the last three-and-a-half years this project may not have happened – financing fell through, and up until very recently we weren’t sure if we had enough money to pull it off. [With the subject matter and the financial challenges] from a certain perspective, it sounds like career suicide, yet I really wanted to embrace the challenge of doing a low-budget film, significantly lower than Defendor, and play a little small ball,” Stebbings tells Playback.

The film was originally developed at the Canadian Film Centre through its Features program, before the producers decided to seek regional financing through Telefilm’s Canada Feature Film Fund, an investment that, with tax credits and other funding assistance, could have put the budget over $1 million.

Instead, the project was redirected to the low-budget independent feature film program, and Stebbings said they found themselves with less money than if they’d just stayed on track with the original plan.

“We scrambled in various directions to make up the difference,” says Stebbings, before they decided to make the film with the limited cash they had on hand, adding that certain things were sacrificed, like his salary.

And he says with goodwill from friends and colleagues, like very good rates from Panavision and William F. White, or shooting at some locations for free (including using his producer’s aunt’s house and a friend’s restaurant and supermarket), the crew has been able to find innovative ways to do more with less.

But he says despite the challenges of getting the film made, the payoff is in the performances from his actors, particularly newcomers Gee and Pourier-Eyre, and the film’s broader thematic appeal, despite its seemingly niche story.

“I think this film continues the conversation that was started by movies like Smoke Signals and Dance Me Outside. My ambition for the film is that it will trigger familiarity and empathy not just in the native community but in everyone. Yes, my protagonists are native, and yes, that experience is wholly unique, culturally speaking. But my heroines struggle with the same [things] everyone struggles with – dealing with adolescence, harbouring resentments, not letting go of the past, repeating cycles of failures – universal themes that I hope will resonate with a wider audience,” says Stebbings.

Defendor premiered at TIFF in 2009, had a North American theatrical release and then went to DVD, and Stebbings says he hopes to sell Empire of Dirt at market, whether at the Sundance Film Festival or the Toronto International Film Festival.

Next on tap, Stebbings will switch things up again with two upcoming projects in the pipeline with his Defendor producer Nicholas Tabarrok– Torrence, about a swingers party gone bad, and Charlatan, a feature film adaptation of the book by Pope Brock, plus an original screenplay written by Stebbings, Le Boobytrap.

Empire of Dirt is produced by Jennifer Podemski, exec produced by Avi Federgreen and co-produced by Geoff Ewart and Heather K. Dahlstrom. The film is produced by RedCloud Studios and Narrow Path Productions, with assistance from Telefilm, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Mongrel Media, Cinespace Film Studios, Deluxe Toronto, William F. White, Panavision and ACTRA Toronto.

Mongrel Media is distributing Empire of Dirt, which is shooting to Oct. 5.