Whistler Film Festival 2018 Interview – RED ROVER director Shane Belcourt

“RED ROVER is a story about a guy who feels utterly rejected by everyone on Earth and figures applying for a one-way mission to Mars is his best bet to find happiness, until he meets Phoebe, an off-beat musician as lost as he is. This is a love story about fight or flight, when do you know?” Director Shane Belcourt on RED ROVER which screens at the 2018 edition of the Whistler Film Festival.

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to the wonder that is Whistler Film Festival! So is this your first time here and are you planning to attend your show?

This will be my first WFF and I couldn’t be more excited! I’ve heard so many great things about the fest for years and I’m thrilled to be having our super low budget indie having its World Premiere there. And yeah, I’ll be there along with some cast and crew!

When was the moment you said to yourself “I want to get into the movie business” and what have you worked on in the past?

When I was in High School was when I realized “I wanna make movies”. Well, to be truthful, it started with wanting to make sketch comedy shorts, huge fan of Letterman, SNL, and Kids in the Hall. My high school friends and I made ridiculously bad short videos, pre YouTube, thank God, but it was where the itch started and questions arose like “where do we put the camera?” and later “how do we cut this with two VHS machines?”  That DIY ethic was exciting and instilled early on. And hey, the guy I made those high school projects with is the Co-Writer of RED ROVER, so, I guess we both got the itch at the same time and stuck with it.

I have worked on a variety of projects, in both fiction and non-fiction.  Recently I co-directed a CBC Firsthand documentary with Lisa Jackson. Also directed a one-hour performance arts doc for APTN, Kahwi: the Cycle of Life that won a cinematography award and CSA director nomination. My first feature, Tkaronto, was a very personal film about the Urban Indigenous experience, but this was WAY back in 2007. We’re talking pre-smart phones people.  And finally, I directed two of those short Historica Canada Minutes on Treaty and Residential School and those were a hybrid doc-drama thing that turned out well.

So how did this movie come together?

My co-writer Duane and I were fascinated with the whole Mars-One thing. This is a real-life program wherein regular people from around the world could apply to partake in a one-way mission to Mars. One of the funding elements was that the training and launch and life on Mars would be televised in a Truman Show manner and that would spark ad revenue and media deals.  And shortly after that announcement people started posting their submission videos online and, it just blew our minds. All of the stories about people wanting to go seemed crazy, but when you heard the real people explaining their reasoning it seemed like an amazing adventure dream dipped in unbearable sadness. Which, you know, seemed like a place to set a story. And very quickly we had a script together.

Wait, I do need to back up and justify the “very quickly we had a script together”.  I received a $30,000 grant to make a short film on similar themes and characters. But I only received a small portion of that ridiculously expensive short film. And the clock was ticking, either send the money back to the granting body, or see if they would allow me to adjust the high concept short into a super low budget feature. And when they said yes, that meant that we had a ticking clock to spend the money – thus we got a script together quickly.  And when we finished the script and budgeted it out, seeing that we could only get it done with $50,000 I found an angel investor and we were off to the races!

And to clarify “off to the races” it was insane. $50,000? Insane. We wrote the script to fit the locations and things we could get for free or build or buy for super cheap. Early on Duane found the metal detector online for $30 bucks and we were ecstatic!  Our good friend and Production Designer David Hannan saw the budget line item for his “department” and began dumpster diving – no joke, he’d send photos of his family on walks in alleyways trying to find props and supplies in dumpsters. So “off to the races” may conjure up an image of someone’s hair being blown back with a big smile on their face, for us it was sweaty palms and sleepless nights wondering “what the fuck are we doing? What are we asking of people?” Because that’s what a $50,000 budget is asking a LOT of people. To work for basically free. To loan and lend. And creatively, to building a shooting schedule that is, well, kinda unfair to the script! It’s just all so nuts.

What kept us going was the killer cast.  From prep through to post, the amazing cast and what they brought to bare on the project is what kept Duane and I going.  Kristian in prep went into a deep dive on the character with Duane as his acting coach which is something Duane does professionally. Cara and I started meeting up to figure out her song that she would perform. We had super quick meetings or email exchanges with the rest of the killer cast. I can tell you that, yes, Morgan is a real Aussie, and was game to laugh at this character as opposed to beat us up, for that we’re thankful.  So throughout shooting it was difficult to make the day, but every time we did a take, you know, we just marvelled at what they brought to bare. And that was the excitement that kept us all going: these guys are killer good and the script is working in their hands.

Post. My god post. 18 months. 18. months.  And you may think “yeah that’s because of all the Mars stuff”. yeah, no.  No shots on Mars man. We worked with a really generous and talented Editor, Luke Higginson, and he did a bang-up job sorting through files and takes and getting a solid rough edit together. And once we refined that and sent it to some folks we trust … well, it was harrowing but the feedback wasn’t good.  The notes were consistent about some fault lines in the story, and so we went to work man. We ripped the thing apart and made some massive cuts, and well, that updated edit was when folks started to come on board with it – thank god. And from that it was months to fix the audio. Cicadas. My god the cicadas.  But once we got the edit all polished and the audio fixed, it was fast sailing working with the composer and mixer Tony Wallace to get the sound in order.

And let me say it this way, the process was less about execution and more about survival for me. With $50,000 it’s really REALLY hard to make it about executing some grand perfected vision and shot list, it’s run and gun craziness. It’s an ACTRA TIP production, actors work 4 hours, lunch, then 4 hours, then OUT!  So, you know, you just gotta survive all of that stress. And then survive all the stress of seeing the footage and trying to make sense of what you have. But honestly, everything that worked in this film is because of the cast and crew and collaboration between people that embraced the SUPER indie-ness of this film.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What is your drive?

The bleak side of what keeps me going, what drives me to make movies or art is well, I’m gonna die shouldn’t I try to do SOMETHING with my time here? The positive side of the drive to make films is that whenever I saw or see a film that truly knocks my socks off, say ROMA, I come out of that afterwards so in love with this art form and I just wanna learn more, do more, and keep trying. Great storytelling inspires me to tell my own stories.

So if you were to pick one moment that you would consider the biggest challenge of making the movie, along with the “a-ha, we GOT it” moment, what would each of those be?

The biggest challenge making RED ROVER was the limits of my own directing skills. Can we be honest like that here? This is a safe place right? Look, I mentioned it above, I had GRAND capital C Cinematic visions for this film. And when I had a budget I achieved those visions. With Red Rover, first day, hit lunch, Producers pull me aside “Dude, you’re WAY behind. You’re not going to make your day. You’re not going to get this movie in the can.” So, cut to me scratching all of that and moving into dual-camera shooting mode! Just get it in the can. BUT, honestly, we were absolutely trying to make capital C Cinema, but we had to always wrestle with that constant ticking clock. That was a really REALLY hard tightrope to walk along – make the day, just get the scene in the can, versus trying to slow the process down to allow for sublime execution.  I found that my $50,000 gumption and a dream at times would smack me hard in the face of cold reality.

The BEST moment of the film where it was “a-ha we got it” was early on when we shot our first “scene”. Our first day was meant to be easy, lone actor in situations by himself, let the crew get up to speed. Our second day had our first SCENE wherein two actors engage. And when Kristian Bruun and Meghan Heffern get into their painfully awkward argument … I had the biggest damn smile going. “Yes, we may be struggling with budget and time, but man, once you put a camera on this cast and let them perform their scenes together? That’s why we’re doing this. Them.”

Could we get technical for a second? For my tech-savvy and filmmaking readers, I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.

For the camera nerds, this film was mainly shot on the Sony Fs7 (4k, log).  Our B-cam was the Canon 1DC (4k, log). And our C-cam was the Sony As7ii (4k, log).  We shot on Canon glass on the Fs7 and 1DC – mostly the 50mm f1.2 and the 70-200 ml f 2.8. And some stuff on the 16-35mm and 28-70mm.  I can’t recall what lenses the A7s had…

Much of it was shot handheld, and after a day of wrestling with the weight of the Sony all built up, David, our production designer made a handmade custom “Easy-rig” … a camping backpack with a 2×4 sticking out of it and a dog leash as the cable. I’m not kidding, but it worked!

We hoped for everything to be lit naturally, where we had to we had an Arri tungsten kit I bought for doc projects kicking around.

The design of the shooting was originally conceived as a single camera project. Lots of blocking and choreographed moves. As noted above, that wasn’t going to work with the time we had, it was run and gun doc styles. So we had two cameras rolling almost all of the time. One would be something wide, while the other would shoot OTS on one actor, and then reverse the OTS, but have the wide there to cover it all off. Other times, we’d have both trying to get some OTS or profile singles running continuous.  And yeah, when you get into that game you have to wrestle with lighting and getting in each others shots. The rule became, “whatever the Fs7 is shooting has priority and we’ll pick up moments on other angles if that camera drifts into your shot.”

After your WFF screening, where is the movie going to go next? Theatrical? Online? Any dream screenings or exact theatre in mind?

The film has been submitted to other festivals and we’re waiting to hear back, so hopefully it enjoys a great fest run!

We do have a lot of people out there looking to be inspired and work in the industry in one way or another. What is a piece of advice that you would give to anyone looking to get into the motion picture business?

My advice to folks looking to get into the industry is, be good to the people around you right now, whatever level they are. The Canadian Film “Industry” is really a kinda small “community”. Assuming you have talent and drive, then the final kicker is making real connections to like-minded people and eventually coming up together.

And finally, what is the single greatest movie you have ever seen?

Perhaps recency bias at work here, but the greatest movie I’ve ever seen was at TIFF this past fall watching ROMA. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at WFF!

This is one of the many movies playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For more showtime information and on the festival itself, point your browser to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com!

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