Tuesday, 27 November 2012

2012 48 HOUR FLICK FEST: Interview with Jarrod Ferris

Sasha Opeiko:
We agreed to do this interview before the screenings and before the results of the 48 HOUR FLICK FEST were announced. You won "best picture", congratulations. Let's be frank for the readers. We've been friends for a number of years and once in while we return to the topic of what it means to be a creator in Windsor... what's disappointing, what works. In fact, it is during one of such conversations that I finalized my decision in beginning this blog at all.  The 48HFF is circumstantial, so is your winning the competition. We've been meaning to have a coherent discussion for a while, and here is the time.

How does this year's 48HFF compare to previous years? Have you participated every year? Why?

Jarrod Ferris:

This year's 48 Hour Flick fest was certainly the largest, in terms of participation, in its six year run.   There were a handful of very well made shorts, but also, quite a few more films from what I would imagine are younger students, maybe late high school, who are still finding their way around their gear, and their "voice".   Even these films are still interesting to me because you are seeing artists in their relative infancy.  We've all been there.  My first few short films were totally unpolished, but these types of raw, fledgling projects, can have an unconscious beauty to them, free from the strict rules and self-criticism that any art takes on once the artist becomes fully aware of their craft and how to wield it.  

About 15 years ago I was really into making music, until I actually learned what I was doing, at which point it started becoming very routine and boring.  I can still go back and hear some interesting things in the tracks when I was literally just fucking around with the synths.  So, seeing young, or first time filmmakers giving it the 48 Hour shot is still very captivating to me, especially with the intention of following their progression.  I would encourage every filmmaker who enters, to keep entering and pushing themselves each year.

23skidoo!, my filmmaking partnership with Gustave Morin, has competed in all six years, first and foremost because it is a lot of fun.  It's also a great chance to test other skills such as time management, leadership, and teamwork - skills that are incredibly valuable in the real world industry - skills that don't often get used when one is just shooting a short with some friends over the course of a few weekends.  The clock is ticking on the 48 Hour.  You either have a film at the end or you don't.  There have been a few people questioning why we continue to make films in the contest, some feeling we have outgrown the competition, or that we should step aside and let the kids battle it out, but I ask them "why?"  First of all, if we're too advanced for the contest, why has it taken us six year to win "best film"?  Secondly, what does age or experience have to do with it?  It's a film competition - come one come all.  And having some teams in the mix with more experience can only help to up the ante or competition level from the other teams.  

How does it feel to finally win "best picture"? Do you think that this award reflects on your own standards of what your good film should be?

Winning anything is always nice, especially when it is something you've worked hard on and people have responded to. But it's not the end all be all, as you know.  All art is subjective.  Sometimes what you create just happens to appear at the right time or in the right place for applause to land in its lap.  Other times, the right set of circumstances just don't happen.  Film history is peppered with great films that were either ahead of their time, fell prey to horrible marketing, or just came out at a time when people's interests were on something else.  And other times, films will win awards or be praised, but years late are almost forgotten because they were not especially great - just timely.  

Winning "best film" this year is a bit tricky because we won for a film that is vastly different from the films we usually shoot.  So the first questions are, "were we doing something wrong before?" and "should we let this positive response dictate the direction we take from here on out?"  The answer to both is no!  We have to keep doing what we do and never cater a film to what other people want to see.  Make the film you want to make, the best way you know how, set it out there, and it either sticks or it doesn't.  Having won though, there is a small part of me that wants to say "Okay, we've taken that as far as we can, let's step aside".  It would be enjoyable to preside over a flickfest, lay out the rules and stipulations. Maybe that is something I can look into should the opportunity arise. 

But overall, winning has been a bit of a moral boost.  I have three other short films, which I shot over the past year, which still sit in the editing stage on my computer.  I had been in a bit of a filmmaking glut.  But now I feel energized to not only get the other three films completed, but to move onto bigger things.  23skidoo! have been doing short films now consistently for 6 years.  It's a long-time coming, but I think it is time to see if we can muster up the financing for a feature film.  But first, we must settle on a viable and economic script!

I feel this is a good place to clarify your process.  You typically do not work with a script, and I understand that this creates a lot of tension among your crew, who await direction. The way I understand it is that it has been an organic process that takes time to reach boiling point. To some extent you have relied on accidents, but you have also been accused of neglecting to roll continuously to capture some of those accidents that cannot be recreated. Can you elaborate? Perhaps a couple of specific anecdotal examples?

My reasoning for working without a script is essentially a case of trying to get the most out of what I have access to.  Shooting in a cinema verité, improvistational style is not the ideal model for me, in terms of the kinds of films I want to be making in the future.  It is almost polar opposite to the way I would make films in the perfect scenario.  But right now I am making movies essentially with zero budget.   90% of my films so far have been done with available, diegetic lighting.  And the same thing applies to working with unprofessional actors.  If I had access to classically trained thespians, I would definitely be working from a script.  Working with non-actors, I have found that rather than torturing the audience with stilted performances, I try to cast people who are extremely engaging personalities in real life, have them be themselves, and allow that to make its own gravy.

I'm not sure I like the phrasing "rely on" in terms of happy accidents.  I never rely on them.  But I also am not afraid to include them in the final edit, because when something unexpected and magical happens how can it not be included?  I imagine there are so many accidents that happen in professional films that are left on the floor because it takes the film off script for just a few seconds, which is a shame, since so many polished films are chronically dull.  So this gets back to the power of improv.  I think there needs to a balance though, in the end. 

Shooting in the manner we have been can be a bit of a roll of the dice.  Some nights, everything clicks, the performers are sharp, witty, things become effortless.  Other times, all the ducks are lined up, all the rabbits are squared, and an all-night shoot yields nothing!  I think some people involved with our shoots were thrown off by that at first, but that's come to be the 23skidoo! recipe.  I don't want to say, "throw shit at a wall and see what sticks", because there is definitely an idea of what we are shooting.  We're not just running around with cameras being fools, but maybe close.  It all rests on the people selected to perform and how it comes together in the edit.  I almost never give myself a director credit on these films.  I use the credit of  "shot/cut by".  I'm more of a documentarian than a director on these projects.  I find the right people, pull their ripcord, and capture it on tape.

An Incident at Rose Creek from Jarrod Ferris on Vimeo.

Do you plan to feed this process into your script-writing, which is a much more solitary, contemplated, and intended procedure? 

I feel like I am a completely different artist when I am writing screenplays as opposed to what we have been doing with 23skidoo!  Our shorts are organic, instinctive, modulating creatures.  When I am writing a screenplay, I agonize over every detail.  Now I have my director's cap on.  I'm visualizing every facet because as long as it is still in the imagination, the budget is limitless.  Whenever I work on a script, I write as though budget is not a problem.   Thankfully I don't write space epics or comic book extravaganzas, so even my most ambitious screenplay would not cost an exorbitant amount of money.  My biggest fear is that when I finally get around to directing scripted material that I will be ill-prepared to deal with actors in that working model, but my hope would be that the ways in which I have been shooting will bleed over into the scripted material and lend to loose or playful performances.  

Let's talk about finances.  How have you stayed afloat all these years? Where does your creative integrity sit and are you fed up with what you've been doing? Do you see your position as a result of your own choices or of societal systems and expectations? What I'm trying to get at here is, where do you see your division of labour, as a creator (of art) and a doer (of jobs) if your real primary task in life is to be a doer of creating?

Staying afloat is always a racket.  I imagine I stay afloat the way 99% of people in my field do - shameless, thankless, corporate projects… things I would never show off or admit to shooting. Haha,  you are asking how do I separate that soul sucking work from my creative endeavours.  Well, it's fairly easy for me.  Corporate work - I am delivering a product, there is little wiggle room for creativity.  Here is what I have to shoot - shoot it.  It doesn't carry over into my personal projects at all.  However, the need to make money - as you put it, societal systems and expectations - is a bit of a different story.  THAT can come in conflict.  I have friends who have spent many thousands of dollars out-of-pocket on their labours of love.  I don't see myself in a position to do that.  I get by, but I am not running a super-lucrative production house.  Any budgeted film projects are going to have to come from development deals, investors, grants, or benefactors.

Why Windsor? 

It's where I was born.  The cost of living is cheap.  And it's where I have the most connections.  I am not one to tell you how wonderful Windsor is.  Windsor has enough cheerleaders.  But it's not horrible either.  I would say it is an extremely average Canadian city.  I would prefer to live somewhere coastal and beautiful.  I am no longer a big city guy, so Toronto is unappealing to me at this stage.  But for the time being I am anchored here for the reasons stated above.  I don't see myself here in the future though.

What is wrong in Windsor for film-makers?

Besides a lack of certain higher end infrastructure (rental houses, post-production houses, etc.) there is nothing wrong with Windsor as a home base for filmmakers.  The price is right, the weather is mild, and people are interested in helping out in any way they can.   High quality gear is extremely affordable now.   A great no-budget film can be made equally in any city.   If you want to talk about higher levels of production - union crews, name actors, etc. then Toronto and Vancouver still have the obvious advantage.  
If I have any criticism of some Windsor filmmakers, and it may be the same in the other cities too, I don't know, is that there is this sense that Hollywood is knocking.  That somehow this place is so special and unique that major motion pictures will be shooting here if only they knew what we had to offer them.  We had a film studio constructed a few years ago out near the 401.  It sat there, stagnated, and is now closed down.  I think I heard something about it being used for storage.  Windsor has a lot of talented people, and I think they collectively would be better served making Windsor its own scene, as opposed to clinging onto a dismal pipe dream that this is going to be a great production hub for the outside film industry.  That boat sailed years ago.  

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