Earlier today I got the chance to chat with Marc Almon, Canadian filmmaker and the producer of the film Blackbird. Marc and I met at the after party for Blackbird’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and since then have struck up a pretty good rapport and communication via Facebook and Twitter. Despite some technical difficulties in the middle we ended up having a great long talk about Blackbird and Canadian film in general. Without further ado, here is the interview!
Blog: Standard question I always ask at the beginning of every interview, tell us a little about Blackbird?
Marc: I see Blackbird as a film about identity and about really understanding who you are and coming to terms with that. It’s a story about a troubled teenager, this kind of punk-goth kid living in a small town, classic outsider. Because of a terrible misunderstanding because of something he writes online he gets accused of planning something really sinister: a school shooting. He gets arrested and put in prison and kind of has to fight for his redemption while trying to survive the system.
Blog: Now you and the director Jason Buxton go back together? How did you get involved with Blackbird?
Marc: We go way back. About six years ago I had been making some short films with some success, Jason had mad some short films too at this point and I really admired his work. It didn’t seem like anybody was really stepping forward to try and collaborate with Jason and help get his first feature made and I thought this was basically a terrible shame. At the time I was thinking of getting into producing because I had worked for other producers and I felt like it was something I could do well. So I was thinking about who I would want to work with in order to start producing and Jason really came to the top of my mind because I thought he was really brilliant, so I approached him and said let’s work together. So we put together a proposal for a film that was not Blackbird for Telefilm, as you know Telefilm provides development funding for filmmakers here in Canada, and they turned it down. But they said we really like you guys and we like your work, so come back with another idea and come back soon. At this point Jason knew that his daughter Sadie [who plays Lily, Sean’s young sister in Blackbird –Greg] was coming along the way soon, so he was really under the gun and he said he did have this idea that initially pursuing as a documentary and it didn’t work out because the subject of the documentary didn’t want to move forward. But this subject had gone through a bit of a similar situation as Sean [Connor Jessup], he had posted something online and gotten in trouble for it; and Jason and had his research and there are a lot of examples of kids who had done this: said something online or through social media and it came back to haunt them. So Jason said it would be really interesting if we fictionalized this and made it into a film and I totally agreed. So that was the basis of Blackbird: us desperately needing money and trying to come up with something fast and having this interesting documentary idea that fell through.
Blog: How did you guys get hooked up with Agency 71 Productions and Agency 71 Entertainment?
Marc: So Telefilm loved our idea and started giving us money, Jason started writing and I worked closely with him on the script. I went to the Canadian Film Centre about a year after that pursue some producer training. I had met David Miller [president of Agency 71 Productions] on the film festival circuit promoting one of my own short films early on, and then I got to know David further at the CFC because he and the Agency 71 guys help support CFC and come in to speak to the emerging producers and talk about their marketing services. I just started thinking that David would be a really good match for me to work with. At this point we pretty much knew Blackbird was going to go ahead, we were pretty advanced, Telefilm and other funding agencies liked the project; but it was my first feature and I really wanted to team up with a producer who had some more experience. David was kind of perfect because he didn’t have too much experience, he had only produced a couple features at this point so it wasn’t going to seem like too small a project for him; but at the same time he definitely had more experience than I did and a really good understanding of how to market films.
Blog: How involved were you with the casting process and on set?
Marc: Hugely involved. I have to give kudos to Jason; Jason is kind of like the classic director who puts an enormous amount of work into casting. He definitely abides by that old maxim that casting is 90% of directing, he put a huge amount of work into it. That being said, David and I were involved with all decisions regarding major cast, Jason wanted us weighing in on who he was casting for each role, so I like to think I had a fair amount of influence on the decision-making process.
I was either on set or at the production office. David was away for about half of the shoot because of prior engagements, so I was sort of the main producer on the ground dealing with the production itself. It was really challenging, we didn’t have a lot of money to do a project like this so we were really struggling. The first week of prep we were basically told we didn’t have enough money and each week it just worse. So there was this constant worry about whether we were going to even finish the film. There were these absurd conversations where I’m writing checks for people to get paid, just these giant checks to go to the payroll service, hundreds of thousands of dollars and I’m not getting paid anything. On top of that we were still negotiating with the bank trying to get everything lined up; so every credit card I owned, every line of credit everything I had was maxed out at one point. Because you need to keep everything going, you need to buy those props, you need to set those actors up in their hotel rooms. Some of it I got paid back, some of it I frankly didn’t because there were cost overages.
Blog: And of course people have to eat.
Marc: Yeah! It was really a weird thing where you’re signing these checks and everyone’s coming to you to cover these costs and you’re just like I’m not getting paid anything as I’m paying all you guys. It was just a really ambitious project and we had a very limited budget; it’s one of those things you learn working on your first feature. You’re so used to the short films, cobbling stuff together, but when you start working with unions you have to start taking a more systematic approach to making films and you don’t have as much flexibility in terms of how you spend your money.
[Right about here is my mother calls my cell phone and I had to pause the interview –Greg]
Both Jason and I are kind of waiting because there hasn’t been any money flowing from Blackbird yet. There have been sales of the film but it takes months for these things to go through and at the same time we’ve been waiting for opportunities to apply for development money to start other projects. So everything’s just been on hold, our entire lives have been on hold; we can’t buy anything.
Blog: So can you tell us about the Canadian Film Centre?
Marc: It’s sort of the equivalent of the American Film Institute. It definitely has a real sense of family which nice. They really look out for their alumni and they make a point to keep in touch with them and encourage them. It’s a two-way street; you can reach out to them and ask for their assistance and advice on certain things. I’m going up to Toronto on Friday to be on the jury for the next series of applicants; which is nice, it’s kind of my way of giving back and using my advice and expertise about what it was like to go through the Centre. The neat things is we actually did a lot of Blackbird while I was at the CFC, at that point it was a very early treatment phase; so I went to the Centre and was able to get a story editor and get feedback from my peers. The funny things is I remember pitching the story to my fellow producers and they were really lukewarm about the idea. They read the story and were saying “Sean’s a [jerk]. Who’s gonna care about what happens to this kid? They should just lock him up and throw away the key!” So that was pretty illuminating, we really had to work hard at trying to make Sean more identifiable for people. That had a big impact so that was kind of my mantra every time Jason dropped off a new draft; I would always say we have to make Sean if not more sympathetic, we need to make sure that people are really seeing the world through his perspective, trying to understand what’s happening to him.
Jason and I had big sort of talks about [the character of] Deanna. Because I always thought Deanna should be a very sympathetic character. I think Jason sort of felt that way over all too. However his choice of framing the entire narrative from Sean’s perspective is quite a bold choice; there are no scenes in the movie that don’t feature Sean and that was problematic for me because we don’t really get the chance to see more of Deanna’s life and understand a little better about her difficulties. She’s in a tough spot in this whole situation; she has parents especially a father who is very controlling and basically very suffocating. She also has friends who are pushing her to not have anything to do with Sean and to just keep on being this popular but kind of vacuous person. The fact that she does strike up a friendship with Sean and then start becoming more and more attached to him and supportive of him is kind of a triumph in a way for her character but it’s hard to see it in the film because she does not have a lot of screen time and we don’t get to see things from her perspective.
[And right here is when Marc Almon’s phone dies. We scrambled around for a few minutes trying to reestablish communication.]
Blog: Okay, where were we; something about Deanna?
Marc: Yes. There was a lot of discussion about her character. I hope she comes across as being human. People may have a little trouble connecting with her, but from my perspective it was important to try and get a sense of her world across and what it would be like for her.
Blog: So, what is your background as a filmmaker? I know you mentioned short films.
Marc: I started out writing and directing and myself. I wrote and directed a series of short films that did well in their own right, they traveled to close to 40 international film festivals and appeared on BBC, Sundance Channel and Bravo, those kinds of channels. I was having success but I had frankly a series of bad experiences where I just didn’t have very good collaboration with producers on a couple of my shorts and that had sort of a big effect on my work and how I was approaching my work. I came to the understanding that there was this need locally for a creative producer; a producer who can really understand the creative side of things and what it’s like to work with writers and a directors and encourage them to produce their best work. That was my interest as I started getting more and more into producing. I can do that organizational side of stuff so I did that for other producers but it’s not really what gets me up out of bed in the morning; it’s more the idea of telling stories.
Blog: Any good stories from the set of Blackbird?
Marc: With Blackbird we definitely had a very intense film shoot in terms of our times and locations. Right off the bat there was this worry that we were in over our heads. Jason had a very unusual approach to filming; because we had these limited resources we wanted to do something quite different with the style of the film and this is something he worked on with Stephanie our Director of Photography. They basically wanted to try to do as many scenes as one-offs as possible. There would be this elaborate thing where you get the entire scene in one shot. So there are a lot of traveling shots in the face of Connor or other characters and it almost becomes a bit of a theatrical performance, the actors have to hit their marks precisely and the camera has to hit its marks precisely; as a result it takes quite a bit of time to set up. But once you get it in the can you can go oh great we just finished a whole scene, now we can move on. But it was really freaky for the first few days for our crew because they’re used to working on things like movies of the weeks, which are very conventional in terms of coverage. All the different things likes master shots and follow up and close ups, that allow you to then piece different things together. We didn’t have that, we just had shooting this whole scene in one take and then we’re gonna move on. So from the planning standpoint it would look like we were several hours behind and then all of a sudden we’re done with that whole scene and we’re back on track. So there were concerns early on, people looking at us and wondering do these people actually know what they’re doing? People were scared that we were just totally screwing ourselves over.
I was having to deal behind the scenes with a lot of questions about whether Jason actually knew what he was doing. There is a fear that we finish the movie, we get into the editing room and then we don’t have enough stuff to actually tell the story, or there’s a bad performance and we can’t cut around it. It really requires and enormous amount of faith in your actors and your camera crew, cause if they don’t do their jobs then that’s it, you either have to cut the entire scene or live with a problematic scene for the rest of your life.
And there were times where I was worried, oh my God is he going too far? A perfect example is there was a scene Sean admits to perjury in the courtroom and the last half of the scene is one long shot of long slow dolly onto Sean’s face. He’s talking to the judge, you don’t see the judge; his lawyer is talking at one point and then is off the frame. At one point you see Deanna come in the door, which is to me a really important moment because it shows that Deanna’s starting to think independently and support Sean and she’s just sort of off in the background. So I was freaking out saying it’s Deanna’s big moment and you’re not getting any coverage of her! Jason and I ended up having a bit of a fight over it but he said no, this is how I want to shoot this film. So in the end he got his way and it is actually quite a powerful scene. It just shows that if you have that confidence in what you’re doing you gotta stick to your guns and not let other people convince you that you’re wrong. It’s important to take into consideration other people’s perspectives but in the end the director’s gotta make the decision.
Blog: And Kimberlee McTaggart ended up getting nominated for an Achievement in Editing Award for her work on Blackbird.
Marc: It’s amazing about her nomination. Because I would say over 40% of the film were those one offs I mentioned. The scene begins, you have on edit which carries through on one shot and cut and that’s the end of the scene. A lot of what makes that work is the timing, knowing when to come in and when to leave. Kim is really brilliant at that, she understood how to really make that work.
I do have one more funny story from the set. When I started the production it was a lot for me because it was my first feature production and it was a lot of responsibility. Jason was off on set shooting, David was away and we were facing some serious budget overages; and then these concerns were we going to have enough coverage, enough time to shoot everything. On top of that there were massive cash flow issues, every week I was wondering am I going to make payroll? There was weeks of this, it was really grueling after a while. [When do we get to the funny part? –Greg]
When we first started Blackbird and met Connor, I had met Connor before because of the auditions, but he came in and we ended up having to talk a lot about his hair because of the implications of Falling Skies. Everybody said you don’t want Steven Spielberg’s office calling you and threatening to sue. So it was pretty funny talking about what we could to Connor’s hair, pretty intense conversations. Then over the course of filming it was so stressful that literally my hair started turning white; in the space of the four or five weeks, especially on one side of my temples started turning really white. So at one point at the end of a shoot Connor came up to me and said “You should go report to hair and makeup, cause I think you need to do something about your hair.” That’s when I realized that Connor’s a sharp kid, he could see what was going on.
Blog: So Blackbird has had a great festival run, winning a lot of awards, any thoughts on that (beyond, it’s great)? Were you surprised?
Marc: I think for us we thought the film could do well. I mean you finish a film and it really is sort of finished in a bit of a vacuum. You wonder, well I think it’s good but does anybody else think it’s good? So it gets out there and people start responding to it and it is really gratifying. Every stage you’re left wondering, is this really going to find and audience? Yes, film festivals it has been doing really well but it’s going to be coming out in theatres soon in Canada and the US and France and other places hopefully and that’s going to be the big test: are people really going to embrace the film and go and see it in theatres? Are they going to be watching it online or on TV? And that’s the big remaining question for us. Everyone on the team is sort of holding their breath wondering if this film will find its audience.
Blog: Any projects you’re working on coming up that you can talk about?
Marc: I’m working on a comedy project right now called “A Good Girl”. It’s at sort of an advanced script stage right now. I’m trying to attach a director to it right now. It’s a comedy about basically a mid-30s guy who’s an inventor and he’s kind of got a bunch of these cool ideas on the go. At the same time there’s a lot of pressure for him to settle down and he’s trying to hold onto his youth. He ends up dating this much younger girl, who he discovers is 18, and she’s a real firecracker; totally inappropriate for him in some ways. As well he meets this older woman, a little older than him, sort of more sophisticated. He’s struggling to make a choice because they represent two different paths to him in his life. I think it’s a powerful metaphor for how people are struggling to settle down, taking on that responsibility of commitment and family. I have a science fiction project I’m working on.
Then I’m working on an international coproduction I’m working on with an Indian filmmaker that’s set in northern India. The project itself is being presented at Cannes Film Festival to financiers in this very select group of 15 projects selected from around the world and they match you up with distributors and financiers and hopefully we’ll put together the financing this summer and shoot it this fall.
Blog: Any final thoughts about Blackbird, or Canadian film in general?
Marc: I think there’s some big changes on the horizon. I think funding-wise things are really tough but in terms of the ability to tell stories things are really opening up. The cost of making films with high production values is decreasing the opportunity to get them seen is increasing with video on demand and online subscriptions models like Netflix and digital downloads. There’s really cool stuff happening and I think it’s important for filmmakers to embrace that and find a way to connect with their audiences. I think social media is going to be so key. As we develop projects we should be getting people involved at as early a stage as possible; give them a way in to talk about what they like about a story, a character. That can be taken too far, you certainly want to maintain a sense of your own authorship but at the same time it’s just great to look at people’s feedback and to get people excited in the early stages of what you’re working on.
There you have it folks! I hope you are all getting excited for Blackbird’s Canadian theatrical release on May 10th! Find the locations here and if you’re in Toronto for the premiere, let us know and we’ll try to say hi!