WFP Column: Prairie Lights, Camera, Action
Duets: Prairie Lights, Camera, Action – Making Movie Magic in Manitoba
EVERYONE designs. From inspired entrepreneurs full to the brim with ideas for our city to the many pop-up shops that have emerged in our downtown.
From the corner coffee shop to the local body shop, design is everywhere.
Duets is an exclusive Winnipeg Free Press series that pairs design experts with local champions and innovators to brainstorm new opportunities for civic building.
The Winnipeg Film Group’s Black Lodge studio space is on the third floor of the Artspace building, looking east over the patchwork quilt of heritage buildings and new bike lanes in the Exchange District. The Toronto International Film Festival begins the same day that five people gather in this space to talk about the nature of local film- and placemaking.
Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin finished his first short film in 1986, and has since completed 12 feature films. Also an educator, having taught at the University of Manitoba, the University of Toronto and Harvard University, Maddin’s work is often reflective of his hometown. “Once I started to make movies, it became a mission of mine to try to commit to motion pictures, the mythologizing element of the 20th century, this city,” he says, “because it was so saturated in importance, right down to every little nook and cranny.”
Galen Johnson originally studied environmental design, working for several years as a graphic designer before beginning work with Maddin as a production designer. “Eventually I just took on more and more hats until I started co-directing with him and my brother,” he explains. “I also do title design and whatnot on the side; sometimes making extraordinarily arcane art films doesn’t turn out to be all that lucrative.”
Kaili Brown and Mark Bauche, both Landscape Architects with HTFC Planning & Design, went to school with Johnson. Brown’s husband also works as a screenwriter inWinnipeg. “Winnipeg has a unique history and unparalleled energy. As landscape architects, we are fortunate to participate in a creatively charged city re-discovering its confidence. We have the opportunity to help unearth the city’s identity for the 21st century.”
For 28 years, Carole Vivier has served as the CEO and FilmCommissioner for Manitoba Film and Music, a corporation that supports and stimulates the local film and music industries. “I think the depth of the industry here is phenomenal,” she says. “The richness of filmmaking and music, and the creativity in the city and province, is second-to-none in the country.”
The local film industry is growing rapidly. From indie shorts to art house pieces to major features, Manitoba has quickly become a Canadian moviemaking hub. These five experts in film and design discuss this growing industry, exploring along the way the diversity of the landscape, the local creative culture and Winnipeg’s haunted vibe.
Filmmaking in Manitoba is at a record high. From 2017-2018, the province’s film industry boasted the best numbers in its history, with a production volume of about $173 million. What could be behind this recent boom? What makes our industry different?
• Vivier: I think part of it is the maturation of the industry. From a production level here in Manitoba, the production companies have significantly increased their capacity. On top of that we have international production coming in, and I think it’s based on the depth of infrastructure being there now. I think it’s the reputation of this province and the film commission I work for, but it’s also the reputation of the production companies, the crews, actors, directors, this city, the businesses, and the welcoming environment. We even have a William F. White International equipment rental house located here. Like any other business, word-of-mouth is so important. Word-of-mouth can help you or it can kill you, and I think the fact that everybody’s experience here has always been so extremely positive is really a reflection on this community as a whole. Also,we have a very good tax credit, and that helps to offset the cost of coming to our smaller centre. But if we didn’t have the depth of crew, the production companies, infrastructure and the supports we have here, even with the tax credit, they wouldn’t come.
• Bauche: Is it the landscape of Winnipeg, too?
• Vivier: The architecture and locations, absolutely! The whole province is very diverse in its look. We have films shooting out in the Westman area. Selkirk is a really charming city and people love shooting out there. Towns all over Manitoba have seen filming. The beautiful lakes we have, such as in the Whiteshell, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba have been used. The incredible architecture in the Exchange District is definitely a draw, too. People are very surprised to find that beautiful, intact architecture here, because a lot of cities tore it down.
• Maddin: I think that, dating back to when Winnipeg winters were long and really cold and punishing, a lot of people would ask me, “Why Winnipeg? Why does Winnipeg seem to have a more vibrant arts community?” The only answer that I could think of was that we were, especially in the pre-Internet days, more genuinely isolated from other big cities, and there was a lot less to do. I remember reading that so many talented artists in bigger cities talk all their best ideas out into the café night air, and I thought, ‘No one’s talking anything into the night air for six months at a time inWinnipeg.’ Once I started working on film, I found myself working 18 hours a day for something I really loved, and there were no temptations in town. There were books to read and music to listen to and movies to watch in my home. New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London were places I’d never visited. They were just imaginary things, and I pictured a famous, post-Great War Parisian arts scene. But when I started to travel with my films, I realized that their arts communities were kind of like ours, but in a far bigger city, so more diluted and less impactful on the local scene. It really did seem likeWinnipeg did have something more concentrated and special.
Our locations seem to be very chameleonic. We can stand in for anything from quaint coastline towns to the Old West. At the same time, we have unique features that can be hard to find in other locations. How does this contribute to both the film and design industries here?
• Maddin: I’ve lived in L.A. at times, and I think that Winnipeg could pass for L.A., they’re both sort of squashed down. The only difference is there are no palm trees here.
• Vivier: When you go to any of our beaches, they could be in Venice, other than the palm trees.
• Maddin: Just shoot toward the water! It’s also the Arctic in the winter.
• Vivier: Yes! It looks like they’re really far away, but they’re very close to infrastructure. It’s a great asset. In the movie K-19: The Widowmaker, there’s a scene with a submarine stuck in the ice. That was all on Lake Winnipeg just off the shore from the town of Gimli.
• Maddin: Didn’t they just shoot 100 metres offshore or something?
• Vivier: Yes. They just cut a hole in the ice and stuck the sub in.Movie magic!
• Maddin:Winnipeg has struck me as sort of haunted when I was growing up.We’re here in the Exchange District and it’s full of buildings that were built long before any of us were born. Winnipeg was a boomtown until 1912. Every now and again I get, “The Burton Cummings Theatre used to be theWalker!” There was always something in the past. There was always something that seemed to suggest a kind of a luxury. There was definitely no luxury in the Winnipeg I grew up with. There was a feeling like you were walking the decks of the Titanic all the time while walking around in the city, just knowing that it would sink over and over and over again at some point. Now there’s a sort of renaissance and all sorts of new buildings are popping up, but for the longest time it felt like this was it, and there was a past that was really intriguing to me.
• Brown: It’s interesting to hear you describe Winnipeg as haunted. It immediately made me think of the Exchange District. Not far from our office on Bannatyne Avenue, you can find the rail tracks from the old streetcars reemerging. It’s beautiful. I think it’s one of those magical things about Winnipeg, where you maybe aren’t expecting it, but all of a sudden it’s there. There is a lovely roughness that we have.
The creative community in Winnipeg is full of people wearing many different hats. What is it about Winnipeg that fosters this jack-of-all trades mentality?
• Vivier: It may have started from necessity. When you’re working in a smaller centre and growing you need or want something that’s not available, so you just learn how to do it or create it yourself — true multi-tasking.
• Johnson:You need to learn different things if you’re going to survive.
• Maddin: You can’t afford to hire people, so you just do it. Plus, you have fewer arguments with yourself, and you forgive yourself more.
• Bauche: Definitely. Sometimes, we are limited in our resources and have no choice but to venture into areas beyond our usual scope.We gain a lot of broad experience that way. And yes, having creative control is a big part of it. If you know how to do it, you do it yourself.
• Johnson: If I do the music myself, I don’t have to explain to someone what type of music I want.
• Brown: We are also lucky enough to be a smaller creative community where we can lean on each other if we need to.We have friends who possess a multitude of creative talents. It becomes less intimidating to learn new skills.
• Bauche: In the creative community, everybody knows everybody. It’s easy to go to somebody else for help to learn a new skill. And if you don’t know someone, you probably know someone who knows someone.
• Vivier: There are also times when the thing that you’re best at doesn’t provide enough work, so having other skillsets allows you to continue to work and grow in your learning as a creative person, while also bringing money in the door.
In both filmmaking and design, there are many important behind-the-scenes elements that will end up being invisible to the end user or audience. Talk a little bit about these “invisible” positions and tasks.
• Maddin: I discovered some filmmakers who seemed to be operating with the same careless glee that young children in daycares do during arts period, who just sit down with some finger paints and splash things around until they feel good and pronounce something finished. I thought, ‘That’s my only hope.’ I can’t draw, I can’t design things, I can’t plan anything, I can just work hard and put myself in a position to get lucky when the accidents start happening. I ended up fetishizing in my favourite movies made by other people the mistakes that popped up: the scratch at a certain time, or where the sound clicked out, or where they clearly had substituted a voice later, and it’s somehow like a bold brushstroke that’s slightly bigger than all the others in a very boldly, sloppily fashioned painting.
• Johnson: Most of this stuff is particular to film, like emulsion scratches. That’s not stuff that happens in digital. When we shot The Forbidden Room, it just felt like we had this entirely new medium, but this aesthetic whose idiosyncrasies belonged to another medium. While the final product may have looked the same, the process behind it was way more along the lines of, “We have to place these scratches with tweezers in the exact right spot!” It’s a completely different process, much more painstaking.
• Brown: For us, it’s not unlike moving from hand drafting to computer-aided design. Computerization allows the process to move quickly, morphing into many dimensions.However, it does not compare to the feeling of working through a design problem by hand.
• Bauche: You might have an idea in your head, but then you start sketching it and something appears that didn’t before. I think there are definitely some parallels there. Or the site tells you something that you didn’t know. You go to the site and find a surprise pipe in the middle of it.
• Brown: That is a great example. As landscape architects, we are rolling with it in the moment, which is where the serendipity you spoke of earlier happens. We build with living things. We cannot necessarily control how a tree will grow, or the way materials age in weather.
• Bauche: Those can work out as an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how it manifests itself.
• Vivier: I think something that people don’t realize is how long it takes to write a script. Or how long it took for them to get the money to make that film. Or what it took to find that location. Or how long it takes to get a scene, or even a minute of film. There are a lot of logistics, too.Where will everyone park? How will we feed everyone?
• Bauche: All those different disciplines have to come together to make a product in the end. It’s the same in both of our fields.
• Johnson:And if there’s one weak link, then the whole thing can just implode.
Do you have any examples of out-of-the-ordinary or surprising collaborations?
• Vivier: Animal wranglers are often required.
• Maddin: One of my movies had a real micro budget, but it had a scene with a chimpanzee in it. There wasn’t a chimp wrangler in town at the time, the guy had to come in from Swift Current
or something like that. He would have cost my entire budget for the film.
• Vivier: In Twilight of the Ice Nymphs you had birds.
• Maddin: We had ostriches and an ostrich wrangler. What a thankless job “ostrich wrangler” is.
• Bauche: When we designed the Aeolian Harp in Oodena at The Forks, we had to consult with a physicist on harps. It was his first one, too, so it was a collaborative experience trying to figure out how to make this thing sing in the wind. It happens all the time.
What are some suggestions on how to break into film or design in Winnipeg?
• Vivier: The Winnipeg Film Group is a fantastic co-op. A lot of filmmakers came up through there, and it’s very collaborative. You can also find out which department you like working in. There’s also Film Training Manitoba, which is another alternative: just going directly to the unions and guilds.But I think if you want to be a filmmaker, the Film Group is best. You should also join the industry association, OnScreen Manitoba, and New Media Manitoba.
• Maddin: I would agree with Carole and just say join theWinnipeg Film Group, you’ll find out if you really like filmmaking.
• Bauche: I think that’s a difference between our professions, because you can’t really just jump into design. You have to go with the education first, and it seems like in film you get the experience first, and then you get the education, and then get more experience.
• Maddin: There’s so many ways to come into filmmaking. What was Terrence Malick before he was a director?
• Johnson: A philosophy professor!
• Vivier: And there’s crossover between film and design. Many people in theArt Department start in Fine Arts. Manitoba also has a burgeoning visual effects and animation industry,which is contributing to our growth in a big way.
• Bauche: I think our education provides a good base for any of that kind of design-based film work.
What are a few hidden gem locations you’ve found through your work?
• Maddin: On Twilight of the Ice Nymphs in 1996, Shelley Duvall was in our movie, and when we wrapped, she didn’t leave town. She just loved it so much here. One day she invited me out for an afternoon drive in the country to explore. I had a family cottage that I spent summers at in Gimli, and my exploration had consisted of the one hour drive onHighway 8, so I was up for the adventure. That afternoon drive lasted four days. She just kept going. She was really friendly, and people recognized her a lot in 1996, so even in a place two hours north of Virden, someone would go, “Aren’t you Shelley Duvall?” Next thing you know we’re staying at their house. I saw a lot of places on that trip that I’m not even sure existed. She hired a pilot at one point to fly us over the Brokenhead River so she could see what it looked like from above. So “Shelley Duvall’s Manitoba,” I guess.
• Johnson: We’ve been trying to fall in love with Winnipeg Square.
• Maddin: The most recent script we were working on is about theW, which is the official brand name of the network of overpasses and tunnels and retail spaces that are all interconnected in downtown Winnipeg. We’ve done a lot of scouring in search of unlikely beauty in there, and I think we found it.
• Johnson: Weird businesses and weird places that aren’t really part of a building, but sort of are.
• Maddin: Who knows how many designers were involved, spread out over how many years. Some of the buildings that are connected are such mongrel combinations of decades and design.
• Johnson: There’s that tailor that’s at the bottom of the escalators in Winnipeg Square that’s just plopped in therewith a stone façade. It’s great!
• Vivier: Or the shoe repair place!
• Johnson: Those little classic arches, those are great.
• Brown: Actually, the shoe repair place is now relocated deeper into the W.
• Johnson: I remember noting that, thinking we could shoot in that little nook! I was there in the underground at around 9 p.m. when security was closing up, and they put these little white plastic chains across the escalators when they close them. It’s like a ceremonial thing. The guy walks around with his little box full of these white plastic chains, and it was this amazing ritual.
• Maddin: We hope to exploit the unlikely beauty and the communal design of the W. It’s like a drunk Ouija board. It has produced this odd, almost surgical exploration. Its almost like we’ve shrunk ourselves down to Fantastic Voyage scale and we’ve gone inside the president’s brain, and it’s the W. As a child, my elderly Aunt Lil would say, “In the future all of the buildings downtown will be connected.” I was like, “No way!” It’s strangely beautiful if you just go with it. I wish I could live long enough to see what happens to Winnipeg’s downtown.
• Brown: I think the recent improvements above grade to our downtown to promote cycling and pedestrianizing areas, such as John Hirsch Place, is in step with creating an equitable downtown. As Winnipeggers, we require a gentle introduction to change.
• Maddin: Winnipeg surprises me. The more I travel, the more I find that Winnipeg is special, that it’s not exactly like other cities. I expected, once I started getting out in the world, that Winnipeg would be the same, but Winnipeg’s DNA was all hardwired long before the Internet, and we’re still wired a little different.