CSA best film race: How the young pretenders became the contenders

Writer/director nominees for the coveted category weigh in on their process, how they pitched their film, and more.

The stage is set for the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards Best Picture prize. And a pack of award-winners on a hot streak all have their hats in the ring.

Competing for both the coveted best film award and the best director prize are: gonzo TIFF Best Canadian First Feature Film winner The Twentieth Century, Telefilm’s Oscar pick Antigone, TFCA Rogers Best Canadian Film Award-winner The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, and VFCC winners Anne at 13,000 ft and White Lie. Of note, this year’s crop of filmmakers is relatively young, with the average age of all writer/director nominees coming in at 36 years old.

Here, Playback catches up with this year’s nominees to chat about their process, budget – and the most surprising thing about their film.

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The Twentieth Century

Matthew Rankin

Up for: Eight awards, with Rankin nominated for Original Screenplay, Achievement in Direction and the John Dunning Best First Feature Film Award.

Past credits: Shorts like Où est Maurice? (2006), I Dream of Driftwood (2008), Cattle Call (2008), Hydro-Lévesque (2008), Tabula Rasa (2012), Mynarski Death Plummet (2014) and The Tesla World Light (2017), which won Best Animated Short in 2018 and received an honorable mention for TIFF’s Best Short Film prize.

Number of years from first draft to release: 37 years. (Playback note – Rankin is 39 years old.)

Using famous films – how would you describe your film?

This film is a Canadian Heritage Minute meets Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

How did you pitch your film to funders? And what was your budget?

I told the funders why and how I wanted to make a movie about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s 10th prime minister. The budget was more than $20,000.

Tell us a story or fact about your film that would surprise most people. 

One character’s head gets decapitated with an ice skate in this movie. The SFX didn’t quite work during production and I ran out of time, so I elected to reshoot this decapitation in a mock-up set in my apartment. The fake blood was made out of red-dyed corn syrup and, to get the shot right, I poured over 12 litres of this onto my living room floor. I cleaned it all up very meticulously, I assure you. But the corn syrup must have seeped between the floorboards because by springtime my apartment was overwhelmed by millions of psychotic red ants. The building has since been condemned.

And what’s next for you? What other projects do you have in the works?

Next summer I am making a film entirely in Esperanto, the artificial language of world peace.

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Antigone

Sophie Deraspe

Up for: Seven awards, with Deraspe competing for the Adapted Screenplay and Achievement in Direction awards.

Past credits: Missing Victor Pellerin (2006), Vital Signs (2009), short La part du déterminisme (2011), Les loups (2014) and the documentary A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile (2015), which won a Special Jury Prize from Hot Docs in 2015. She was also a co-director and co-writer on The Seven Last Words (2019). At TIFF this year, Antigone won the festival’s Best Canadian Feature Film prize. She is the only filmmaker to have won the WFF’s Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature twice.

Number of years from first draft to release: Seven years.

Playback: Using famous films – how would you describe your film?

A Ken Loach film, let’s say Sweet Sixteen meets the mythical Joan of Arc.

How did you pitch your film to funders? And what was your budget?

It’s the story of a 16-year-old woman who goes against the law in order to save what’s left of her family. The budget was $3.2 million.

Tell us a story or fact about your film that would surprise most people.

I did an open casting to find Antigone, her family and most of the young people we see in the film. I received more than 850 applications and saw about 300 people in auditions.

And what’s next for you? What other projects do you have in the works?

A feature film in financing with a script as tragic as it is funny – as existential and profound as it is a journey in space and culture.

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The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Up for: Six prizes, including Original Screenplay and Achievement in Direction. Tailfeathers is also nominated alongside her co-star Violet Nelson for Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. (She is the second director to be nominated for both direction and lead actress, following Madeline Piujuq Ivalu for Before Tomorrow in 2009.)

Past credits: Hepburn previously produced, directed and wrote shorts like Kettle (2007), It’s Not as If We Haven’t Been Here for a While… (2010), A Land That Forgets (2011) and Never Steady, Never Still (2015). Her feature version of Never Steady, Never Still was up for eight awards at the 2018 CSAs, including Best Motion Picture and Original Screenplay.

Tailfeathers’ past projects include: Bloodland (2011); documentary short Rebel (2014); and c’sna?m: The city before the city (2017). The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open represents her feature film directorial debut.

Number of years from first draft to release: Two years.

Using famous films – how would you describe your film?

KH: Our film could be described as Wendy and Lucy meets Frozen River.

How did you pitch your film to funders? And what was your budget?

ET: The film is inspired by a very real experience that I had in the same neighbourhood where the film was shot. We pitched the film as a timely and loving portrait of two Indigenous women grappling with the aftermath of a violent incident and also navigating through the situation as strangers. With the recent success of other Indigenous features, it’s clear that audiences are drawn to Indigenous stories and it’s critical that Indigenous voices are guiding these narratives. Our budget was roughly $1 million.

Tell us a story or fact about your film that would surprise most people.

ET: The film was shot in real-time on 16 mm. Meaning, it was filmed largely in one continuous take in a method developed by our cinematographer, Norm Li. Norm calls this method “real-time transitions,” a method that has seemingly never been done before.

How did your film catch ARRAY Releasing’s eye?

ET: Bird Runningwater, with the Sundance Institute, has championed our film since development. He worked his magic and helped get the film to Ava DuVernay.

And what’s next for you? What other projects do you have in the works?

ET: A feature-length documentary called Kiimaapipitsin. The film is four-years in the making and focuses on my community’s courageous and radical response to the ongoing opioid crisis.

KH: A hybrid mystery/coming of age teen anthology series written in collaboration with writer/director Elizabeth Cairns.

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Anne at 13,000 ft

Kazik Radwanski

Up for: Four categories, including Achievement in Direction for Radwanski, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Deragh Campbell and Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Matt Johnson.

Past credits: Tower (2012), How Heavy This Hammer (2015) and shorts like Princess Margaret Blvd. (2008), Out in That Deep Blue Sea (2009), Green Crayons (2010), Cutaway (2014) and Scaffold (2017). He also served as a director on docuseries Mister Tachyon (2018). Additionally, Anne at 13,000 ft received an honourable mention for TIFF’s platform prize and was the fourth Canadian film to ever compete for the award.

Number of years from first draft to release: Four.

Using famous films – how would you describe your film?

Our film is a combination of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner meets Frownland.

How did you pitch your film to funders? And what was your budget?

We pitched the film to the Canadian Arts Council funding bodies and had a budget of $200,000. Essentially, we argued that Anne at 13,000 ft would build off our previous work while allowing us to grow artistically.

Tell us a story or fact about your film that would surprise most people.

The first scene we shot was Deragh jumping out of a plane.

And what’s next for you?

Another project starring Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson.

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White Lie

Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis

Up for: Four awards, with both Thomas and Lewis nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Achievement in Direction.

Past credits: Together they’ve done: Amy George (2011); The Oxbow Cure (2013); and Spice It Up (2018).

Number of years from first draft to release: We began thinking about the script in the spring of 2012, but didn’t set pen to paper until the summer of 2015. We always had the basic conceit, yet there were a million and one structural angles and it took us that long to get a handle on the timeline. We wrote about 15 drafts during the development process, but really hit our stride in the third draft – most of the writing and rewriting after that was detail and character work.

Using famous films – how would you describe your film?

The Master of Disguise meets 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

How did you pitch your film to funders? And what was your budget?

For the first time, we had a story based upon a character and not the other way around. To our knowledge, no one had made a film about faking cancer for personal gain. We always envisioned it as a fast-paced procedural rather than a drama. The film cost approximately $1.4 million.

Tell us a story or fact about your film that would surprise most people.

We spent a great deal of time researching real-life cases in Canada and abroad. However, during production, Calvin was shocked to learn that he had gone to high school in Burlington, ON around the same time as a young woman who went on to carry out the very same type of deceit we had spent the last three years writing about. And hers was one of the more high-profile cases in the country. We always felt this was such a wild and rare thing to do, yet we met countless people during the course of the filmmaking process who had deep and personal connections to this type of fraud.

And what’s next?

We’re four drafts into something new. It’s a horror film.

Images courtesy of TIFF