Thursday, August 27, 2015

Teach Grant on "Down Here"

What was your filmmaking background before making Down Here?

TEACH: I've been a working actor in Vancouver since ’96, however during this time I tried on a few different film-related hats, from various roles in art and construction departments to operating a teleprompter on a TV show.

Back in the late nineties I had directed some theatre, back when I still performed on stage -I always had plans of writing / directing in film and these service roles gave me an opportunity to get into some rooms, on scouts and surveys and see how experienced directors, writers and producers went about it, how they prepared. During that time I worked on my own micro budget shorts and spec spots until directing a rather silly and expensive short on 35mm just prior to the digital revolution. I wish I had waited, although looking back, I think I outgrew that project before I even finished it, so something else would have taken it’s place.

With that being said, these early attempts were pivotal for me as an artist, it’s where I learned to edit myself, shed preciousness and become more efficient as both writer and director. These are important learning experiences--to get to a point where you begin to understand what you don’t need to write or shoot, to let the pictures do the talking and respect the intelligence of an audience.

Those first few edits before Down Here were a real eye opener that way, not that I have learned to perfection--when I look at how much I left on the floor with Down Here, I can help but lament the time lost because I would surely have put the energy into other areas. As always in the edit, things change, you are constantly learning from the story as it seems to tell you who it wants to be right to the end, in fact it was the film itself that coached the edit, which naturally re-structured the writing and our ending.

I think that is what happens when you have a solid sense of ‘tone’ from everyone involved. Unwanted strangers in the film go ‘clunk’ and it’s easy to weed them out…Then it’s done and all you see are the mistakes you made and so you try and put that out of your head and look to use that learning experience on the next one.

How did you get connected to Dean Wray's script and what was the process for getting it ready for production? 

TEACH: Dean and I were co-starring on a TV show in northern Canada and he had a script in his back pocket called Nailer. He had me in mind for a character in it, another actor turned director was taking it on but eventually dropped out so I decided to put my hat in the ring to direct, but, before committing I wanted to take a pass on the script.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, to hand your work away and have someone re-construct it, and for this I have a great deal of respect for Dean. Most people would have been too precious to allow that to happen. Long story short, I was more interested in blending genres, not just shooting a dark cop thriller, but getting deeper into the social drama, exploring the original setting and flushing out the characters, their personal and personal issues in more depth. 

I guess he liked it or it would have ended when I came back to him with the pages, we still had the element of ‘thriller,’ but we collectively managed to bring more gravity to the film and to me, it’s that gravity that enabled me to put my heart into it. I wanted to tackle some issues and for me personally,  I have to find something about it that is important, a way to use my voice, otherwise, I don’t think I would be very effective.

I guess that’s a part of owning it, in the end, I think a good collaboration between both Dean and I and things started taking shape as we shared the pages. A few months later we had Down Here and Dean and I set foot toward Downtown East Side and started walking the streets and before we knew it we were in pre-production.  –And I had my first feature. It’s here where we began to feel the movie, where the community itself became a character in the film. This was our source material, our guide, if our story didn’t feel right in the streets, then it didn’t belong on screen, and so it morphed a little here and there, became more grounded and authentic, less and less sensationalized.

Dean and I used in the word respect a lot in those preliminary sortis and I think it was that ‘respect’ for the D.T.E.S that attracted people to us, whether it be some of our talented cast and crew, or people from the community who helped us with locations. It’s an important part of Vancouver, of Canada, there is a slice of the D.T.E.S country wide, internationally for that matter, and people were really excited to provide a forum where the D.T.E.S could play itself, share its own voice, and not be used as a dark back drop in a foreign production looking for street cred.

This is a film about missing young women and an imperfect cop who finds redemption from the very community he is trying to help, where the characters from the community play far more than one note junkies and hookers, they are the humans in our world--and in kind we were graciously embraced by everyone we met down there. And so with each trip, more re-writes, more discoveries and connections.

It’s funny when I look back on it, I think it’s because we were doing something for the right reason that things kind of just fell onto our laps, even our DOP Adam Myhill came from a chance meeting in a Main St. Café, happened to overhear our conversation and before we knew it…It just kept happening like that, it was weird…or it was Dean’s big old shit eating grin…or both.

I guess my most honest preliminary draw to the project was that I liked Dean, I thought he was funny and I think it was that original connection that brought us through the finish line still in-tact. With everything that goes down from beginning to end, that’s an accomplishment. But that could only get us so far, we knew eventually our limited capacity as producers would catch up to us. In order to get legit, we had to go looking for a legitimate producer.

Dean knew Crystal Braunwarth from an earlier project and she agreed to come on board. I could creatively produce another movie, but I couldn’t produce one. That’s on Crystal, she carried the Lion’s share on the ‘producing’ end. Dean and I took orders. In many ways, the smartest things we did on Down Here was to identify our weakness, to accept what we could and could not do, and to do these little things as best we could. Not having all the bells and whistles probably saved this film. I would have way over complicated it, as Adam liked to say, ‘our limitations will set us free’, and it did -it kept me simple.

How did you cast the film and did the script change much once you had your cast in place?

TEACH: We offered out the majority of the roles to actors that we knew, journey men and women from Vancouver with the addition of Tantoo Cardinal STELLA who had moved to Toronto. I had no idea when I reached out to her agent that she had moved so that was a bit of a surprise expense, but we wanted her, the re-writes were done with her in mind and I am glad that Shawna Wray, our executive producer bit the bullet once again and gave us our first choice. Tantoo was perfect.

Some were friends we had worked with and others respected talents that we admired, and the city is full of that, lots of great actors on the periphery of the mainstream, great faces and characters, maybe not getting their licks on pretty network shows, but ‘real’ solid actors, and that’s what Down Here needed--to be as real as possible. We wanted a documentarian like narrative to unfold, less performed and more captured. I couldn’t have directed these performances to be better if I tried, we had the right people for the job and everyone felt the tone right off of the hop and that made my job really easy, especially given that it was a 13 day shoot and we had little time to waste.

What I didn’t have access to was the cast of younger females, I don’t know the next generation what so ever,  so we had friends and agents pull together a list and we found some really good up and coming young women. This is also where Dean and I took our greatest risk in casting Rebecca Campbell. It was her first audition I think and she was really nervous, but she was perfect, I knew the audience would feel what we were feeling the first time we lay eyes on her, but we weren’t sure that she was ready. We gambled and went for it and as they say, with great risks come great rewards, she was brilliant.

Another such risk was casting myself as a transgendered prostitute. It was odd, leading up to the shoot I had great confidence in everyone we hired, but for my part, I hadn’t ‘owned’ it yet, hadn’t found the trust you need to have, faith, what have you. It wasn’t until I went through the wig fitting and make up test that I found her. Yvonne needed to be done with care, if there was anywhere that we might have a misstep it was with that character, she couldn’t be a caricature and that is why I wanted to take her on…not to mention the challenge. Directing in her clothes was also challenging, but that is another story altogether.

I’m glad I did it, this film was kind of an opportunity for Dean and I to do characters we would probably get overlooked for in the real world.

The read through was humbling, as soon as it was done, I got out the black sharpie and began to eliminate everything that we had over written, it’s amazing how good the keyboard sounds in your head sometimes, not always so good coming out of a trained actors mouth, especially when they trip on your abundant use of adjectives.

And those weren’t the only changes, when you bring in actors like Tantoo Cardinal and Martin Cummins, they will have questions, suggestions, ideas, from the work that they have done on the character, the script, and from this ‘work’ were able to add another layer, clean some things up, truncate and evolve the story with things we hadn’t even considered…and it kept getting more organic.

We hadn’t written the Bible, we knew that, we were open to ‘change’ and I think that openness improved greatly upon what we had written. 

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