“What if you created a band with your best friends, fell in love with the lead guitarist, led the band to superstardom, and then you wrote a memoir explaining why you had to break up with them?” Producer Nicole Hilliard-Forde on WE FORGOT TO BREAK UP which screens at SxSW Film 2018. Also joining Nicole in this interview is lead Steven McCarthy & cinematographer Cabot McNenly.
Nicole, I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
I was here in 2016 with the feature film THE OTHER HALF and fell in love with the city, the people, and the vibe. And who can forget the Austin bats living under the Congress Avenue Bridge. A must-see at sundown.
So how did you all get into this business?
Steven: I’ve been acting forever but a couple of years ago I wrote, directed, produced and starred in a short film called O NEGATIVE that played at festivals all over the world. That got me some notoriety as a filmmaker and opened up some doors, including this one with WFTBU. In the last few years I’ve mostly been acting in film and television with roles in CRAWFORD, THE STEPS and a great role in MARY KILLS PEOPLE for which I’m nominated for a CSA this year.
Nicole: I have been working in casting for film and television for over 17 years now. People tend to give a nod to a film I worked on called Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle, for whatever fun reason. Funnily enough, Dov Tiefenbach, who I cast in Harold & Kumar, is in the film I am bringing to South by this year. I also produced a talent accelerator at Toronto International Film Festival called TIFF Rising Stars for many years, which promoted actors poised to break out in the industry. And now I have segued to producing, which feels natural.
How did this project come together for y’all?
Nicole: I fell in love with a novel called Heidegger Stairwell by Kayt Burgess. It’s about transformative loss, and the notion that relationships, and the very nature of Love, are tested by some form of change and evolution over time. I optioned the book and decided to produce a short adaptation of the work to test the appetite for a feature version.
I asked Chandler Levack to helm as she had a distinct, editorial voice from her music and film journalism, and had been directing cool music videos. I asked performers that I respect and admire to jump on board. Not only did they need to act but they needed to become a believable band in a short amount of time. Steven McCarthy, who plays the role of Angus, is a known theatre dramaturg, and so he naturally became a part of the writing process. Steven also had a band called The Elastocitizens, so he was a perfect fit, as well as being a filmmaker in his own right.
I had known Mark Rendall, who plays Lugh, since he was a child actor. I am always affected by Mark’s film presence and only discovered Mark’s vast musical ability in the making of this project. Grace Glowicki, who plays Coco, I met through my work as Producer of the TIFF Rising Stars programme. And she is a filmmaker in her own right. And the raddest. Cara Gee, who plays Isis, I also met through my stint at TIFF Rising Stars, and she is a radiant and strong presence on screen and the coolest woman I think I have ever met. I would cast Dov Tiefenbach in every single project I ever do if I could. I don’t think I have ever seen him hit a false note in his work. He is a talented drummer and musician, also. Sofia Banzhaf plays Allison, and she is also a filmmaker. We just wanted to work with her because she brings the perfect tone to the role of Manager of this haphazard group of humans. We found Jesse Todd through an open casting call across Canada. He had never performed before and he took a big leap jumping into this ring with all of us more experienced filmmaker-types. He warmed our hearts immediately.
Chandler wanted to work with Murray Lightburn (of The Dears fame) to compose the track for the movie. With our musical supervisor, Michael Perlmutter, we approached him and he said yes! In pre-production, Chandler advocated strongly for a rehearsal process as she was a first-time narrative director and there was a huge music component to the film. As well as composing the song in the film, Murray Lightburn assumed the role of Musical Director, and spent time with the actors imparting band life wisdom and providing coaching for their specific musical roles, to help shape the band. We set up some actor coaching for Jesse.
During the shoot, we were fortunate to film at Toronto’s historic Danforth Music Hall, to deliver the most authentic experience for the actors and the film. We worked with our talented DP, Cabot McNenly, who we had worked with before, and whose work anchored the team. We think Cabot’s work is outstanding on our film. I think his literal soul is in the piece. Our Production Designer, Elliot McCabe-Lokos, did a great job pulling everything together. As did our Wardrobe Designer, Juliann Wilding, and Make up/Hair, Christina Spina. They have great, cool taste. We had a rocking Line Producer, Kat Hidalgo, as well as our right-hand, Natalie Semotiuk. We were lucky in all aspects of production.
In post, our editor, Bryan Atkinson, did a beautiful job of finding the emotional through line of Evan’s journey. And Allan Fung’s team oversaw the sound editing. We worked with Technicolor to output and Colorist, Zach Cox at Victory Social Club. We sought feedback from peers throughout the post production process, which was key in honing the storytelling and driving towards a non-didactic narrative form.
Steven: Motel pictures were applying for a Bravofact (rest in peace) and they knew that I was the lead singer of an actual band called the ElastoCitizens (elastocitizens.bandcamp.com) and she asked me to add my name to the application. When the money came through and I went for coffee with Chandler she asked me to be part of adapting the book into a screenplay.
Cabot: Nicole and Matt Hilliard-Forde contacted me a few months before the shoot and told me about the project. The story is so relevant to current conversations surrounding representation of people on the fringes of society and in mainstream media that it was definitely a story I felt I wanted to have a part in telling.
What keeps you guys going while making a movie? What drives you?
Steven: My belief in collaboration. What I love most about film, theatre and the performing arts is that it’s a product of collaboration, a group of people exchanging ideas, subsuming their egos to a higher purpose, a belief that telling a story can change people. That’s why I keep doing it.
Cabot: Definitely a lot of coffee but mostly passionate and like minded people that care about telling important stories no matter the budget or other constraints. This project was all about that.
Nicole: Just the adrenaline of the shoot is necessary to keep me going.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
Steven: Neither Chandler or I had written with a partner before and there were definitely times along the way when collaboration wasn’t easy. Neither of us are seasoned veterans. But when I look at the film now and I see how well the structure, location, and characters interact to tell a story about art and friendship and how those things can change I’m very proud of the film. It’s a challenge to communicate that depth of history in a short film and I think ours succeeds on that level and I’m proud to have been a part of creating that.
Cabot: The biggest challenge had to be with the films rock concert finale. Chandler is friends with a very popular Canadian band that had a three night stand at a medium size venue in Toronto called The Danforth Music Hall. We had access to this space to shoot our fictional band performing but to sell it as a big show, we brought our main actor to the real concert a month before we shot principle photography. The footage we gathered from that concert of Evan standing in a crowd would inform how we lit our fictional band performing a month later. I think it worked pretty well!
Nicole: The protagonist of the film is trans-identified and so we set about to cast a trans performer for the role. It’s hard to do. There are very few trans-identified actors in the actor’s union. There are so many economic barriers to access to training and the industry has been engaging in cis casting for trans roles forever. The Casting Society of America, of which I am a member, is at the forefront of the inclusive casting movement. I really wanted to be inclusive and we persevered until we found Jesse Todd, who holds his own among a cast of experienced actors. The most rewarding moment to date has been our acceptance at New York LGBT Film Festival which strongly embraced the film.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
Cabot: Working with Chandler was very rewarding. She was very collaborative and we really developed the visual style together by watching some of our favourite rock films. While the film ends in a big concert scene, there is a lot of drama that leads up to the ending. The main character Evan is trying to reconnect with people from their past and the reaction they get ranges from happiness, indifference, acceptance and anger. Chandler wanted to have the shooting style for each of these scenes to infer something about Evan’s emotions.
Steven: I was very glad when we got Cabot for the movie. He and I have a shorthand and a history that helped simplify a very difficult shoot.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
Nicole: The film will continue its festival run. We are going strong since our world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival 2017. The Cannes Short Film Corner is on the horizon. It will be cool to introduce the film to European audiences and elsewhere. The film will be available on Amazon later this year. And stay tuned/follow us to receive the latest and greatest about the film.
If you could show the movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
Steven: Palm Springs because I want to go back there.
What would you guys say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, even if it was a screening of this movie?
Steven: I’d say, “Hey buddy. Can you do that somewhere else? Some of us are here to watch a movie.” I’ve nearly had fistfights at movies a few times so I’m maybe not the best at polite interventions.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Steven: Garbage in garbage out. Just do it. Watch good movies and learn and then do it.
And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
Steven: I saw the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE at TIFF and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then I ran out to the washroom before the Q&A started and I saw the subjects of the movie, his mom and kids, setting up their booth to sell merch and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it was real.
Nicole: Greatest? I’ve seen too many to call just one the greatest. However, thinking of films which left an impact and indicate a definite through line to We Forgot to Break Up, I remember watching the film Ma Vie En Rose at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival and everything about the visual storytelling blew my mind at the time.
WE FORGOT TO BREAK UP is screening at SxSW 2018. For more information visit www.sxsw.com/film!
Follow the progress of this wonderful short at www.motelpictures.com!