eFilmCritic’s Jason Whyte interview with Two Indians Talking director Sara McIntyre

Original post: eFilmCritic interview by Jason Whyte

‘Two Indians Talking’ is a humorous, uncensored conversation between two First Nations men who are about to take part in their community’s roadblock.’ Director Sara McIntyre on the film ‘Two Indians Talking’ which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is the first film I’ve directed that’s screened at VIFF. I was the casting director on ‘The Delicate Art of Parking’, which is a support role, and quite different from being at the centre of the project with this film. Vancouver is my hometown and where the film was made, so it’s particularly meaningful to be a part of VIFF.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I’ve always felt I belonged in the film community, but didn’t know exactly in what capacity. Without being aware of it, I circled around directing for many years. I tried acting, producing, casting, working with writers; and the whole time I studied what other Canadian filmmakers were going through.

In 2004 I wrote a short script and spontaneously applied to the DGC director-training program called Crazy8s, which is based entirely on a verbal pitch. I was accepted, made a 10-minute film called ‘My Father’s an Actor’, and had that defining sensation where I knew I’d finally found my place. Then I sort of had to go back to the basics to learn about being a director. I’ve been a late bloomer in many respects, but I think it makes me that much more committed and conscious about what I want.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question ‘When I grow up I want to be a ‘‘ Finish this sentence, please!

That answer fluctuated a lot, but it was always within the creative realms; singer, dancer, actress, writer, designer and business owner. It turns out that following all of those interests has been very useful in developing directing and storytelling skills.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

The process has been rather fluid, I have to say. It’s taken some time between each phase to gather resources to continue on, so the pace has been quite civilized, except for a few periods of hectic sprinting. I have to remind myself of this perspective; otherwise I get impatient that it didn’t happen more quickly.

I decided I was ready to direct my first feature and started putting the word out about finding a script. Andrew Genaille, a friend of a friend, emailed me several screenplays that he’d written and this one captivated me completely. I recognized it’s an unusual topic for me, but it had all the requirements I wanted: humour, intelligence, unique perspective, social value, technical simplicity, great characters.

I put out the call for producer help and Darlene Choo, Rhonda Dent, and Carmen Moore all came forward. I hadn’t worked with any of them previously, but between the four of us we covered all our bases. When Michael De Sadeleer increased his contribution from Stills Photographer to Producer a few weeks before shooting, it let me switch brains and focus on directing. And Nancy Baye joined as Producer in late post-production to help with marketing. None of us had produced a feature before, except Darlene, so there’s been a lot of learning in the process, but we’ve made a good team.

We went about looking for crew and locations. I was working at a media arts college and wrangled the film graduates to help out. None of them had been on a real film set so they were eager for the experience. And I approached a few of the First Nation bands to find the right place to shoot.

The first actor to commit was Nathaniel Arcand, who brings a substantial reputation with him. We had a breakfast meeting and I was convinced he was the perfect person to play Nathan. He’s familiar with Andrew’s work and shared lots of personal stories about his culture that would inform the film.

Carmen Moore organized a table reading that gave me insight into how deeply the story reached people. Our readers, all First Nations actors, stayed for quite a while afterwards to share ideas and references about themes in the script. I did a lot of listening. I was connected to RCMP Constable Chase Willier, who has 30 years of experience in policing and Aboriginal culture. She shared stories about actual roadblocks and the complicated politics that surround a lot of the conflict within First Nation communities. She become a touchstone for me through the production and enlisted the Squamish Peacekeepers to participate in the final roadblock scene.

When it came time to find the cast, Carmen played a big role in making suggestions and enlisting interest from the Aboriginal acting community. The First Nation talent pool in Vancouver isn’t huge, so our auditions were fairly efficient. But the people we booked have been ideal; I certainly don’t feel we had to compromise in any way.

In fact, we originally had another actor to play Adam, someone with a career equal to Nathaniel’s, which gave star power to the two leads, but that person pulled out at the 11th hour. When I called Justin Rain, a relative newcomer, to step in, he did so with grace and complete commitment. In hindsight, I’m grateful I worked with Justin; I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the role. And it was fun to guide him through his first lead in a feature. He was working as Taylor Lautner’s stand-in on ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ shoot and took 2 weeks off to make our film.

Our shooting schedule was completely determined by Nathaniel’s schedule. He plays a regular role on the CBC series, ‘Heartland’, and was only available for 10 days. So we cut our shooting schedule from 14 days to 9, with 1 rehearsal day. Ambitious, but it supported my intention to have the technical set up be very simple and keep all energy focused on the performances.

Nathaniel’s character sings and plays guitar on screen. Dylan Baker contributed a song called ‘For Harriet’ that he’d written and recorded with his band, I’m Not Frank. It’s about Harriet Nahanee who died after protesting the sea to sky highway expansion. That song became a cornerstone of the story, and Dylan joined the crew in postproduction to edit our trailer and do a polish of the feature cut. He’s also cutting a music video for his band’s version of ‘For Harriet’ using our film footage. It’s a fun collaboration.

Chief Bill Williams of Squamish Nation, who was seen representing Squamish at the Olympics, learned about the film and welcomed us warmly. He connected us with the Chief Joe Mathias Centre and they loaned us the youth centre buildings in North Vancouver under the Lion’s Gate Bridge for our shoot.

Having the story set on an urban reservation brings an interesting tension to the story. We have visuals that look like rural reservation neighborhoods with trees and grassy yards, but the sound of air and road traffic is roaring in the background. I like showing the truth of how many reservations are boxed in by development. These environments are part of our cities.

Les Erskine, my Director of Photography also stepped in at the last minute when my previous DOP became unavailable. Les brings over 25 years of experience in the industry, and he’s also a very patient man. He did a lot of teaching to the rookie crew members. We didn’t have any prep time beforehand but he and I developed a good working system pretty quickly once we got on set together.

Our shoot happened in Aug/Sep of 2009. Then for about 7 months Elifer Santos and I edited the trailer in his little work/live apartment. We got to a point where I needed a fresh perspective so I handed it over to Frederique Remy for a month. She is from France and her European sense of pace was a good fit for this project. She didn’t try to rush the story or change the tone. Then Elifer and I kept working from her version. It was a good way to keep things fresh for all of us.

The audio clean up was done by classes of audio students led by Marc Benoit at The Art Institute of Vancouver. He oversaw their work and would assemble all the bits and pieces whenever I needed an updated output. We did a session of ADR with each of Nathaniel and Justin. Musician Tracey Draper approached us about composing music for the film. She is a First Nation artist with a diverse creative background and she wants to work on more Native projects. She brought a lot of understanding to the story and wrote subtle, but powerful themes that support the narrative. The last phase of the journey has been Goldtooth Creative taking over the cut for final audio, music mix, colour correction and a bit of compositing. They’re a fantastic studio in Railtown that usually works on video games. Tyler Weiss has been the project lead and I’m thrilled with the level of finesse and polish that they’ve contributed. It looks like a real film!

I’ve funded the project through a personal loan, and with a bit of fundraising through IndieGogo. For this last phase I’ve been able to access Telefilm Canada’s Alternative Distribution Program, which is a significant help. The money has to be stretched carefully, but I’m now able to keep submitting to film festivals, and do some marketing for the project. We don’t have a distributor or broadcaster involved at this point, but that’ll come after it gains a bit of equity on the festival circuit.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

There was a moment about 3 weeks before shooting was scheduled where it felt like everything fell apart. One of my lead actors pulled out, my DOP became unavailable, the location I’d been pursuing gave us a No, and my financial loan looked shaky. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to take a deep breath, start making calls, and ask for help.

The team that came together turned out to be even better than my original plan. I think the project had grown during our preparation and the right elements needed to be in place for the expanded vision. That shakeup was the only way to make it happen.

Besides the thrill of getting to work with such fantastic performers for 10 days straight, my favourite moment of the film shoot was on our final day with the roadblock and bonfire scenes. We didn’t know how many people were going to turn up to help stage a protest, or if the weather was going to hold.

People of all ages came out, in full beautiful outfits, with hand drums and signs. There were children, and families, and elders who have been involved in landmark demonstrations. I asked them to show me what they would actually do and we just turned the cameras on them. It was overwhelming to be so close to the pride and emotion of their songs. I had been told the Squamish have never had a demonstration on their own land, so this might have been a chance to express their feelings on home soil. And then that evening as the sun was setting, just before we started rolling on the community bonfire, the warriors gathered our crew together and blessed our production. It meant a lot to have them acknowledge our desire to tell a respectful, truthful story. It was a moving way to wrap up our work and commit to having this film shared. I think I’ll end every film shoot with a bonfire and singing under the stars.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

This script is a 90-page conversation; a big task for the actors. I wanted to use 2 cameras at all times to make our set-ups efficient and keep the performers from getting worn out. We also had to get the whole thing shot in 9 days.

In hindsight the 2 cameras were a fantastic decision because our performance coverage matched for editing, and we were able to move quite quickly on set. We had 2 full-time technicians downloading memory cards onto 2 sets of hard drives. Les Erskine is highly experienced as a Director of Photography. We met only briefly before getting on set together but we found a good rhythm. I wanted a frame that constantly moves subtly to give motion to the dialogue-heavy story. And I asked for naturalistic lighting to enhance the rundown, slightly claustrophobic environment. These elements also make the film feel a bit voyeuristic
We would meet on set, and have the actors walk through the upcoming scene to find their blocking. Then Les would suggest placement for both the cameras and we’d agree on the approach. The challenge he faced was lighting with relatively minimal gear, and keeping the cameras out of each other’s frames while letting the actors move around a bit.
Then I’d leave with the performers and let him direct his crew in the set up. We’d reconvene, walk through with cameras a few times, make adjustments, and then shoot. Sometimes watching two simultaneous monitors was challenging, but it was a good indicator of where the eye wanted to go.

People had been pitching me on the Red One camera, but I hadn’t heard any success stories about smooth post-production process so we decided on the Panasonic DVX cameras. We found a 200 and a 170 that were available and priced reasonably, and our vendors sourced 35mm lens kits for a film look with lots of dimension. Les was already familiar with these cameras so he put them to use quickly.

They were predominantly on tripods with movement from the tripod head or from dolly tracks. They were also easy to take outside for traveling shots in the pickup truck or for impromptu handheld footage. The footage really turned out beautifully. I think there are a lot of great cameras sitting on shelves that get overlooked in the excitement about new technology.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

We’re just starting the screening circuit so I’m looking forward to experiencing responses. People who’ve been working on the film tend to fall in love with it. They mention that the characters and performances get more and more interesting with every viewing.

A great insight came from my team of dialogue editors. I asked Marc Benoit if his audio production students could use the film for their dialogue and background clean-up assignments. When I visited the classes, I noticed that the students, who were mostly young men between 19 and 24 years old, and not Aboriginal, were completely engaged in watching the film, even after working on it for several months. I hadn’t realized it would be appealing to that demographic. I’m learning it’s a rather universal story.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

The filmmakers who inspire me are people with reputations for being responsible to their craft. Meaning they consider the material they’re working on, they treat their colleagues with respect; they stay aware of their resources and show up prepared so they’re not being wasteful of money, energy, or time. I’m also particularly interested in women who are directing because it’s still an unconventional creative path.

Hearing the stories of my writer, cast and Aboriginal contacts while I was preparing this film are what inspired me to keep moving forward and want to do well. I was very aware that it wasn’t my story being told, and it wasn’t my place to impose my opinions about the issues being discussed. It felt more like midwifery. I asked a lot of questions and then drew on the stories or perspectives that each artist gave me to guide them through the project. There are people in my personal life who have been cheering me on and that faith gives me a lot of energy.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

I earn my living as a Communications Specialist and quite enjoy that work too. It’s all storytelling. It’s learning what people want to communicate and finding the best way of reaching an audience. I think both of these paths support the other well.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Media response can have huge influence on a film’s success so I think it’s quite important. There are many films that get lots of press attention, but turn out to be unsatisfying experiences. And yet people keep buying tickets because they feel they’re missing out on a trend if they don’t.

And conversely, small films that don’t make a lot of noise can be championed by the media that sees a film’s value and helps it reach an audience. This is where social media is quite powerful and can build desire for a film before it’s even available through mainstream channels. That said, most films that are not ‘good stories, well told’ don’t seem to survive long, no matter what kind of response the media has. A filmmaker’s job is still, first and foremost, to be a good storyteller.

I think educated critique that discusses a film’s merits and weaknesses, and distinguishes these from personal opinion, is useful to a filmmaker who wants feedback during the process of building a portfolio of work. It still has a place in the culture of cinema.
It seems the best use of online ‘civilian’ discussion is to reach a specific demographic of the broader audience, or, to activate community involvement in a theme or activity related to the film. Then the discussion itself is creating another layer of media related to the film.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Honestly, having it screen in a theatre in Vancouver with a full audience is the most satisfying scenario I can think of. I’d also really like to take it on the road to small communities across Canada with high First Nation populations who don’t get to see festival films or their own stories very often. I’d be sure to have time for lots of talking afterwards.

What would you say to someone on the street so they see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

You haven’t seen this film before. We don’t often get such a raw, intimate peek into this part of our culture, and yet, it’s a story that could occur anywhere. If it were women, they guys are hotties, you’ll fall in love. But to anyone, you’ll laugh, you’ll relate, you’ll have fun. It will stay with you much longer than a predictable blockbuster will and it will be good value for your ticket price.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Show respect to the people who are helping you out. Be absolutely sure the story you’re taking on is worth all the energy it’s going to take from you. And then just jump in.

And finally’what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

If I had to pick just one, it would be ‘Amelie’. It’s a perfectly executed, beautiful story. It has whimsy; honest, urgent emotion; grittiness, unpredictable humour; endearing, complex performances; and sumptuous aesthetics. I can watch it over and over and keep appreciating each moment. A good film can be enjoyed repeatedly, just like a good music album.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to www.viff.org.