Canadian Filmmaking: West the Movie

West - Concept Poster

Tuesday afternoon I had the great pleasure of speaking with Eric Thiessen, Canadian filmmaker and currently director for the Saskatchewan film production West. West is currently participating in the CineCoup film accelerator competition, with the prize of “$1 million (CDN) in production financing and guaranteed release in Cineplex theatres in January 2014.” To learn more about CineCoup, go here.

I was very excited to talk with Eric, the first in what I hope to be a series of interviews about the various Canadian productions competing in CineCoup, including some follow up with West as the production moves along.

So here it is!

Blog: So tell us a little about West.

Eric: Well as you know it is being developed on the CineCoup Accelerator. The story, which is a true story, is a little unknown in Canadian culture. It takes place on the three prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s about these three young guys; there aren’t a lot of facts known about them. All that’s known is they were picked up by the police in Manitoba one night during late October, killed the two police officers and then went on the run through the prairies into the Rocky Mountains hoping to escape. There are just kind of little hints about them popping up in this town and that and then are some dramatic twists and turns when they get out to the Alberta mountains.  That’s kind of the framework that we decided to make this movie with. We thought it was a great story, a bit of a chase film and a period film which Canada doesn’t really have a lot of. One of the great things about this film is because there aren’t a lot of facts known, we can kind of fill in those gaps. Obviously we’re taking some dramatic license as the journey progresses. It’s kind of fun to float the idea that as we hit all these major factual points like they were here and they were here. But what did they do in-between that people haven’t people haven’t recorded? We’re trying to find the line between fact and fiction.

Blog: I was really glad to see some Saskatchewan productions in CineCoup. One of my friends is from Saskatchewan, so I’ve been following of course the Saskatchewan film credit mess. So I was very excited to see films from Saskatchewan in this midst of really the collapse of the film industry in that province.

Eric: That’s really one of the nice things about the CineCoup program. With the abolition of the tax credit this is one of the few avenues that keeps filmmaking open.

Blog: Now have you encountered this kind of problem, people trying to sabotage your project through CineCoup ratings?

Eric: We actually haven’t. I think when you get to a certain level of viewership, then people start trying to stick their noses in and make it a little unfair. I think in terms of this program specifically there are a lot of trailers that get below a five that definitely don’t deserve it. I think if you’ve told the story and your production quality is decent there’s no way you can get a failing grade. I’ve seen it more on other people’s trailers than our own, people trying to bomb the ratings. I believe that when CineCoup released the Top 60 they examined the anomalies in voting and took steps to remedy that and as a consequence a lot of people’s ratings went down. It’s good to know they’re looking out for that. It’s one thing you don’t like a genre but you’re there to evaluate the trailer, not review the film. The trailer allows you to gauge people’s understanding of story. If they are able to distill their story into a trailer, you don’t have to read the synopsis, you understand what the story’s about, that’s an A-team.

Blog: So what is your own background in film?

Eric: I’ve always been in interested in films and making films even when I was in elementary school with my friend Derek who is our producer; so we’ve been doing it as far back as we could hold a video camera. I got into film and television work in Saskatchewan. I worked a little bit in Regina on feature film down there. Then I went back to Saskatoon and worked with a small company there that did music videos, country music videos for CMT. I worked with a documentary television production writing and directing for science series, a rodeo show that won Gemini Awards. So I’ve been involved in all aspects of production whether it’s holding a camera or writing a script. But my interest has always been in feature films, so that’s why we kind of jumped at the chance to do this, it seemed like a great way to try and break into this market.

Blog: Can you tell us about your production team?

Eric: There’s myself, Derek [Hyland] our producer and Joel [Salt] our writer. We’re all Saskatoon guys, we all grew up with each other. Right now we’re all living in different in cities, which is one of the challenges of this project. I’m actually doing my Master’s right now conveniently on Canadian historical film in Calgary right now; but I’ll be wrapping that up in about a month and moving back to Saskatoon. Derek is in Lloydminster, a border town right between Saskatchewan and Alberta and Joel is in Saskatoon right now. So for the last few CineCoup missions it’s been tricky trying to overcome that distance.

Blog: How did you first come across the story that you’re telling in West?

Eric: I first encountered it while I was looking for idea for a different grant competition. You were supposed to submit a synopsis of a film, this was last summer. I was looking for something Canadian and something kind of historical because I have an interest in history. I encountered this story that has kind of cropped up in a lot of different books and websites RCMP files. You get little snippets of it here and there so we kind of started piecing it together and figuring out who the main characters were. It just sort of naturally lent itself to drama; the whole escape and everything like that. So I was just digging up Canadian history to try and find an idea for a movie.

Blog: This is kind of a random question since I really don’t know: did Canada have that kind of lawless, western history period that the United States had?

Eric: Between Canada and the US the idea of “the West” is very different in both cultures. The US has the western genre which is so closely linked to US history: the frontier and the running into nature, civilization and nature hitting into each other and the trouble that results from that. Whereas in Canada it’s different; Canada had an established police force, by the time of our film it was the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police or “Mounties”, the Canadian national police force -Greg] who kind of settled in pockets throughout the country. So, there was an expansive “west” like in the US but not the same idea as the frontier. So it was more like you were going between communities; maybe in between it was little more lawless. But it’s definitely unique because this story is the largest RCMP killing in Canadian history until I believe the early 2000s. There was another killing in Alberta actually. And it wasn’t just the two RCMP officers, there are more killed later in our story. It sort of slipped under the rug, because Canadian history tends not to focus on stories like this; this sort of plays into a big difference between American history and Canadian history and how we treat that in terms of Canadian identity.

Americans tend to valorize their history. You guys have a country born in war, in a revolutionary war and there are large wars that kind of mark the history of that country. Whereas Canada was country formed out of an agreement, there was a confederation document that was signed and hands were shaken and no pistols drawn. Where America tends to look back and valorize and celebrate these achievements, Canada doesn’t tend to do that. If anything we criminalize our history. Like in schools here we’ll spend time learning about World War II and we’ll learn how in British Columbia the Japanese were put in internment camps. There’s more emphasis on that and on sort of atoning for our past sins than any valorizing of achievements we may have had. That’s what we’re doing in this film, not trying to glamorize criminals but celebrating our past and bring interest to it in a new way and new genre that hasn’t really been looked at before.

That’s one of the things I like about our place in this competition, there really isn’t anything else like us out there. First of all there are no other period pieces and second there’s basically nothing at all about Canadian history.

Blog: So how did you get hooked up with CineCoup?

Eric: It was quite randomly. I was online reading Playback, kind of the Variety Magazine for Canada, and I saw an ad the side for a “film accelerator” and just kind of said what is that? This was back in November and there were just kind of snippets about it and there website wasn’t really launched yet. So it seemed like this vague but oddly intriguing entity. And then they did their city tour where some of them went across the country to the major cities in Canada and gave presentations, so I attended the one here in Calgary and I thought they had a great presentation. The backing and release in Cineplex theatres to get your movie out there really helped overcome this as well, because this is a big hurdle in Canadian filmmaking at least in English Canada, cause the majority of films never even make it into the movie theatres here.

Blog: Anything you can tell us about the cast?

Eric: Well the people we’re using right now for the trailers are just our friends, not our final cast. They’re donating their time and working for free. Or working for coffee and donuts, which that I can pay. Derek our producer is actually the guy with the razorblade in the trailer. We filmed the trailer in Saskatchewan and it was -40 Celsius [-40 is the same in Fahrenheit as it is Celsius: so really frickin cold. –Greg] but it doesn’t look that cold in the trailer I don’t think. So I really tip my hat to them for going out in that cold, but that’s what good Canadians do, right?

West - Production Still

Blog: Any closing thoughts or things you want to share?

Eric: Now that we’ve made the Top 60 [on CineCoup] we’re just trying to spread the word around to other provinces and the United States. Our goal getting into the Top 60 was really about getting together our local communities, local papers and local media, friends and family. Now we’re branching out; with me being in Calgary we’re trying to get some of Alberta on our side and part of the story is set in Manitoba so we’re trying to get that as well. The more fan support we can get the better as we start to move into more marketing phase of development.

So there you have it folks! I hope you enjoyed the latest installment in coverage of Canadian film!

The trailer and CineCoup page for West can be viewed here and they also have a Twitter and Facebook pages.

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~ by The Falling Skies Blog on March 28, 2013.

One Response to “Canadian Filmmaking: West the Movie”

  1. […] is the second in my series on the CineCoup Film Accelerator. The first was my interview with Eric Thiessen, director of the film West. This article has a bit of an interesting history behind it. Well OK, I think it’s […]

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